Mudcat Café message #202739 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #19748   Message #202739
Posted By: Peter T.
28-Mar-00 - 02:29 PM
Thread Name: Modes for Mudcatters: A Synthesis Primer
With some trepidation, I have put this simple synthesis together for my own purposes -- if I can explain something to myself, I can usually remember it for at least a week - and thought it might be useful to others, ranging from people interested in fiddle music to listeners to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (the famous opening piece, "So What?", is in Dorian mode). I thought it might also be an example (maybe bad!!) of other educational projects Mudcatters might generate here. As I say at the end, I happily invite corrections and complaints -- I am just getting started on this huge topic, and could have it all screwed up! It is based on the two earlier big threads on this topic, as well as the New Grove Dictionary, 5 guitar books, e-mails from kind Mudcatters, and a couple of days of head-scratching and plonking around.


(with thanks to Sorcha, M. Ted, OckiemockBird, Praise, Arkie, alison, soddy, Art Thieme, Frank Hamilton, Bruce O., and others)

This primer is designed to explain as clearly as possible the concept and role of modes in music. It assumes a very basic knowledge of the current familiar major and minor scales that are what most people work with on the piano and the guitar. The examples are based on being able to work with or vaguely envisage a piano keyboard. Art Thieme, in the recent "Tech Talk:Modes and Scales Again" thread, uses an Appalachian dulcimer (which I don't have, shame on me).

All this is really preliminary to talking about what all this means for applications to understanding folk music and folk songs, and not for theory for its own sake. So it is in two parts: 1) an introduction to modes; and 2) a much shorter section of applications to folk music, to which I am hoping the experts on this site will continue to append material and examples.

1. Modes: An Introduction

Modes are patterns that identify different scales, or clusters of melodies from which patterns can be inferred. The history and language of modes is very complicated because they come out of medieval music, church music, and are now being applied to a whole range of other less formalized music; as well as (less usefully) to non Western music, or any music that is different than the mainline system. So, as M. Ted points out, they really have three distinct and different applications:

1) Describing early church music;
2) A more recent use to analyze and describe the different types of scales that occur in folk music, and certain oriental musics;
3) The contemporary use of modal scales in performance of jazz and pop music, and in some modern classical music.

The bizarre language of modes -- Dorian, Lydian, Locrian, Mixolydian, etc., that puts people off, derives (in legend) from an early Greek attempt to identify different patterns in music -- the patterns were supposedly named after Greek islands that were part of the Greek Confederacy -- and adapted into Byzantine musical practice, Gregorian chant, etc. through the medieval period. These names were further adapted (and applied) to quite different configurations of notes later on, due to historical misunderstandings. In the 19th century, when people started looking at folk music that did not conform to what was now the mainline pattern, they used modes as a way of classifying them (controversially).

The most important single thing to keep in mind in what follows is that I am using the term mode very roughly here to signify a pattern of intervals that goes from the first note of a scale (say C) to the next C, one octave higher. This is for convenience sake.

The two modes that we are most familiar with -- and that have crowded out the others from our ears -- are the Major and Minor mode. These were originally the Ionian and the Aeolian modes (the minor is actually derived from a more complicated mix, but generally this is true). If you sit down at a piano, and start at middle C and play all the white keys till you get to the next highest C, you have played a diatonic C scale in the Major mode, which is like the Ionian, and that is a shorthand people give it today, referring to it as Ionian as well. To remind those for whom music class was a long time ago (like me!): "Diatonic" roughly means playing the right notes for a certain scale: "chromatic" means playing every note there is: on a piano that would mean adding in all the black keys as well, which would then take it out of the C scale. The C-scale on the white notes has the following structure : C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C or, looking at the intervals between each note (W=Whole step; h=Half Step): W-W-H-W-W-W-H. You may recall that in this scale, between E and F and between B and C there are the half steps (which is also related to why there are no black keys between them on the piano). The related minor scale (A minor), also stays on the white keys, but because it starts on A-B-C-D E-F-G-A, its structure looks like: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. If you do the C scale for two octaves, it goes: W-W-H-W-W-W-H-W-W-H-W-W-W-H. This is the C structure, but if this time you start on the 6th note, A and then go forward, the pattern of W's and H's change. This different pattern of whole and half steps identifies this as the Aeolian or Minor mode; but it is obviously related to the C scale in the related Major mode.

O.K. Now one way of thinking about more new modes (not the only one, but it seems to me to be convenient), is to go back to the C scale for a moment. This time, instead of going up from C to shining C on the white notes, move up one note to D and go to D on the white notes. This -- like the A-minor scale -- gives you a different pattern of whole and half steps. We move up one, so: W-H-W-W-W-H-W. This is now a Dorian pattern.

There are a couple of important things here. The first is that in the history of modes, the most important concern was that the first note of the scale (or, to be historically more accurate, the last note, which is the same) sets up a tonal centre of its own. That is, starting on D and going to D creates its own musical universe. For a moment, forget you have ever heard of a C scale, C major, or anything like it. You are just going from D to D on the white keys. D- Dorian.

Now, suppose that you return to the Major scale. That is, you are now going to go from D to D in the same Major mode of the C scale you started with. To make D to D work in the same pattern that made C work, and still remaining in that Major mode, you have to add two sharps (#). That is: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D. This then gives you the original W-W-H-W-W-W-H Major pattern we started with in C (adjusting the step from E-F and B-C, as well, of course, as the step from F-G and C-D). This gives you a D scale -- and the key of D -- in D Major.

The difference between D-major and D-Dorian is that in order to get D-Dorian (remember that on the piano it would be all white keys starting on D), you have to flatten those two sharps that you have in the Major to get a Dorian pattern. All Dorians, whatever note they start on, can be characterised by those two flats -- on the 3rd and the 7th -- applied to the related major scale.

Let us try this with the C-scale we started out with. Remember, this is all clean of sharps or flats, C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. To get C-Dorian now, you flat the 3rd and the 7th. C-D-Eb-F-G-A Bb-C. If you know some music theory, you will know that a key in Major mode that has two flats is B. So if you start with B-Ionian, the closely related Dorian is C.

So this sets up the easy rule to memorize for starting in modes. Take a scale, like C, move up one note, preparing for a new octave , change the pattern, and you get a D Dorian. This is true for any scale in Major mode: A-Dorian is thus related to G major; G-Dorian to F major, and so on. Using a C-scale, and checking out the other modes, we would then have the following list, moving up a note each time, changing the octave span, and changing the pattern differently each time:

C-Ionian (our major scale)
A-Aeolian (our minor scale)

Each of the modes can be thought of this way for useful purposes. So, as related to a Major (Ionian) scale (sometimes called "natural modes"):

Ionian goes: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (all natural)
Dorian goes: W-H-W-W-W-H-W (b3, b7)
Phrygian goes: H-W-W-W-H-W-W (b2, b3, b6, b7)
Lydian goes: W-W-W-H-W-W-H (#4)
Mixolydian goes: W-W-H-W-W-H-W (b7)
Aeolian goes: W-H-W-W-H-W-W (b3, b6, b7)
Locrian goes: H-W-W-H-W-W-W (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7)

Keeping these interval patterns correct, you can start on any note you want, anywhere. Using the Ionian scale is just for comparative convenience, just as using the C-scale with its white notes makes it clearer when things like flats and sharps get added. You can start anywhere -- though traditionally the modes were associated with those special final/tonal notes such as D (Dorian).

One last piece of pure theory before getting to work. Because of the changes in the flats and the sharps in these patterns, when the notes of these new scales are put into stacked chords, the dynamic relationships change. The standard Major scale dynamic is a I(tonic)-IV (Subdominant)-V7(Dominant)-I chord structure, with the Dominant (with the 7th to give it extra pull) seeking to resolve to the I (tonic). In these new modes, however, for example, the Mixolydian with its flatted 7th; the VII (subtonic) chord which is usually weak in a Major scale, becomes quite strong, and can act as an alternative dominant. That is part of what gives these new modes their characteristic "flavour".

Frank Hamilton and others put the stress on listening. For example, if you have a tune that seems to be strongly in a standard G scale -- maybe it starts on a G and ends on a G -- but has no F#, then a trained ear would opt for a Mixolydian mode. More on this in a second.

2. Putting Modes to Work

To continue on this more practical line, and still speaking of chords, soddy notes as follows:

The most frequently used modes in fiddle music are the Aeolian, the Dorian, and the Mixolydian.... In the Dorian mode, the I chord is minor (unlike the standard D chord in the D major scale), the IV chord is major, and the V7 chord is minor, although more often the VII chord is used, which is major. In the Mixolydian mode, the I chord is major, the IV chord is Major, and the V chord is minor. Usually (again) the VII chord is substituted for a V chord. "Old Joe Clark" is a Mixolydian tune.

Frank Hamilton speaks about this in a related way, bringing in the idea of chords whose use imply the mode they are creating. That is, if you play the important chords in these modes, the rest of the mode is implied. You can then use the scale of that mode to improvise with. He says (I have moved his remarks around and added to them):

" An A minor chord and a G major chord (or E minor) define an A-Aeolian mode (or one might say, we hear that we are now in a minor key). A C minor chord and an F major chord define a C-Dorian mode. A G-major chord and an F-major chord define a G-Mixolydian mode. A C-major and a D-major chord define a C-Lydian mode. E-major or E-minor chord and an F-major chord define an E-Phrygian mode. The Locrian mode is not really found in the folk music tradition."

Also, as Okiemockbird points out, none of this is hard and fast: he speaks of a compositon of his that wanders between C-major (no sharps), and G-major (one sharp). He thinks the work is vaguely Mixolydian. Why? To repeat what was said earlier, because although the piece is structured around a G scale (G is the note upon which the piece ends, so it is for the moment assumed to be the tonal centre) the piece has no sharps. What this means is that he is thinking of the piece as being in G, which would usually mean G major, but now with the usual one sharp (F#) flattened out of existence, so it follows the Mixolydian pattern (a flattened 7th).

Sorcha says a similar thing about "Old Joe Clark" :

"It is usually in A, but it is an A without the last G#; if you play the G# is will sound O.K., but without it there is a more "minory" or Appalachian feel to the tune. A lot of Scottish tunes are also in A without the G#, as you can get a more bag-pipey feel to the sound."

Okiemockbird gives another example of what to do, and what to avoid: just to get a better feel for this. In E-Dorian -- E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D-E - he would use E-minor, B minor, G-major, A-major, D-Major, and other chords containing these notes, but stay away from A-minor, which would be normal in an E-minor piece.

On a related matter, thinking about improvising, suppose you are playing music in a major key -- say C -- and the music is sitting on a dominant 7th (V7), which would be a G7 chord. You can use that G7 as the tonal centre around which you can play the G-Mixolydian scale over that chord until the day happens that you want to go back to C again. (Sailors!) Similarly, with a IIminor 7th (like Dminor 7 in a song in C), you can play a D-Dorian scale (and others -- one book says that E -Phrygian scales work well over Dminor 7ths). This is part of what Miles Davis and Bill Evans are doing in jazz albums like Kind of Blue -- they slow the music down to the point where the standard "dominant chord tension" is replaced by a more meditative, repetitive music based on modal scales being played over chords that have temporarily lost their Major home -- this is why these songs sound as if they could go on forever -- they are not being pulled hard towards a standard tonic. This is why composers at the turn of the 20th century looking for sounds outside of the main system turned to folk songs and non-standard modes.

A few extra notes from the earlier threads:
It was noted by several people that the only new modes over and above Major and Minor that one usually runs across are the Dorian and the Mixolydian.

A small practical trick noted by Okiemockbird is that if you raise the 6th note in a standard Aeolion minor scale, you get a Dorian mode. So, in Aminor, if you sharp the 6th, you get: A B-C-D-E-F#-A, which is A-Dorian. When you are working in chords in A minor, this means that two of the important chords -- the II and the IV -- are changed in useful ways. The II, which was a diminished chord, becomes a minor; and the IV becomes a major triad (adding a 7th to that makes the chord into an alternative dominant).

Lastly it is worth repeating that modes are not necessarily clean and neat: the tone of any song or songs may not be immediately fittable into one of the "official" modes. Bruce O. notes that he has over 160 modes in his data base. There is a complex history concerning the application of modes to folk music, most famously in the modal scheme (originating with Gilchrist) adapted by Sharp in English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917), and differing descendants (Bertrand Bronson is mentioned in the threads). Some theorists concentrate on clusters of tunes, not modes. Contributors to other threads also noted that the idea of "final tones" in modal schemes is complicated when you have "circular" forms where there is no strong end to the song.

The relationship of modes to other folk musics in other cultures, with their special microtones and structures, seems to be very controversial, and of diminishing usefulness the farther away you get from the West.

To conclude: the general advice is, of course, to listen and play, to familiarize oneself with modes, either comparing them as they differ from the standard Major/minor modes, or as they are in themselves. To this end, here are a number of songs suggested by Mudcatters:

Songs/Music in each mode:

Dorian: Garry Owen, Cuckoos Nest, 17 Come Sunday, Lisdoonvarna, Cold Frosty Morning

Mixolydian: John Hardy, Tom Joad, Paddy O'Rafferty, Three Sheepskins, Jolly Beggarman, Morisco, Old Joe Clark

Phrygian: White Cockade, Campbells are Coming, Bessie Bell & Mary Gray

Lydian:Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus. 132.

Locrian: Couldn't find any.

Thanks again to all. I would obviously appreciate corrections and complaints that I have got something wrong (there will be some, I am sure), and additions to the practical side, songs, etc., for everyone's benefit. A second edition would correct (or replace) this first. I have had a whole new world of music opened to me in working on getting this clear(ish) in my own mind. I appreciate the help I have got over the last week.

Yours, Peter T. P.S. A new Mudcat mode: Maxolydian.