The Six Classic (and modern) Modes

In the previous chapter, we derived the circle of fifths from the standpoint of the major scale. We noticed that key signatures define a key by providing the accidentals necessary to produce the major scale that begins on the tonic note of that key. The result is 12 major keys, along with their 12 relative minor keys.

In this chapter, we'll look at the major scale within a larger context, seeing it as one of actually 6 possible scales that have traditionally been used in the creation of Western music. The major scale that instrumenatalists are univerally taught to first learn on their instrument is a subset of the 6 modes, and it is to these modes that we now turn our attention.

Are Modes and Scales different?

There is not a crystal clear delineation between "scale" and "mode." However, in common usage, we can think of the difference as follows:

Definition of SCALE

A scale is an ordered set of intervals that derives its name from a starting note and its quality by the number of discreet notes within the octave. So a pentatonic scale has a five notes, a heptatonic scale has six, a septatonic scale, such as the major scale, has seven, and the octatonic scale has eight.

There is a sense, though, that a scale is affectively neutral. It simply provides a pitch set from which to compose music. True, the major scale is deemed to be "happier," and the minor scale is deemed to be "sadder," but it is certainly possible to make sad music in a major key and happy, dance-like music in a minor key.

Scale, then is simply the ordered set of pitches employed for musical purposes.

Definition of MODE

In contrast, "mode" has a more affective, emotional quality to it. A piece is said to have "a Dorian feel," or a "Lydian flavor." When we say a certain pop song uses the Mixolydian mode, musicians have a sense of it being somewhat spacious and relaxed. (A lot of Irish music and folk music is in the Mixolydian mode, for example).

The idea of "mode" as corresponding to "mood", is very ancient, going all the way back to early Greek music (the music at the time of Plato). In other cultures, as for example traditional Arabic music and traditional Indian classical music, this is still the case. The mode ("raga" in Indian music) that a piece of music is in has much to do with what it is trying to convey, emotionally.

So how is a mode different from a scale? A scale is a collection of pitches; a mode is a collection of pitches that carry also an emotional or expressive quality. And since, as we will see, the major scale is also a mode, the major scale gets to have it both ways!

The Six Ancient/Modern Modes of Western Music

I call these the ancient/modern modes because these six modes formed the backbone of the earliest centuries of composed music in the Western world (from Gregorian chant through to the high Renaissance), became reduced to the major-minor modes during the common practice period of European music, but returned in the music of Debussy and then were commonly employed by jazz musicians and well as folk and rock musicians in the 20th and 21st centuries.

So I feel it is essential information to learn the six modes, to be able to recognize them through hearing, and most importantly, to be able to compose music using them.

It is rare for these modes to be introduced at the beginning of one's study of music. You could go find 20 textbooks on music theory and not see these in the opening chapters. But I personally believe that learning them at the outset helps open your ears to the sonic possibilites of modal composition.

The modes on the natural notes

There are two ways to think of the modes. Traditionally, and originally, they contained only the natural notes, and were differentiated by each other based on which note was conceived as the tonic, or starting pitch. Thus, using only the natural notes, (the white notes of the piano), we can think of the modes as follows:

You will notice that the mode beginning on B has been skipped. This is because this mode, the Locrian:

has a tritone between the root and the fifth (B to F, as is now very familiar to you). So central is the solidity of the perfect fifth between the root and fifth of any mode, that a scale lacking this becomes difficult to ground in a harmonic context. So for now, we will ignore this mode.

Categorizing the Modes

Modes can be organized based on their major or minor quality. This is defined specifically according to whether the third of the scale is a major or minor third above the tonic or starting note. Thus, we can think of the modes as

In addition, it can be helpful to think of the modes in relationship to the scale that we are all most used to, the major scale. Thus:

Lydian is like a major scale with a sharp fourth degree.

Ionian is the major scale itself.

Mixolydian is a major scale with a lowered seventh, or a major scale without the leading tone.

Dorian is a minor scale, but with a major sixth.

Aeolian is our natural minor scale, the relative minor scale of the major scale.

Phrygian is the least used scale in the Western system, but very common in certain Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. It is heard by us to be a natural minor scale with a lowered second degree.

The modes starting on the same pitch

We can also view these same modes from the context of them all starting on the same pitch. Let's look at them all starting on C. This allows to more easily view their differences in terms of half-steps and whole steps, and how they contrast with the Ionian mode, the standard major scale.

Oops, this player doesn't have the mixolydian mode. Will change later!

The player above will play through these. Play it many times, maybe even sing along, until the sound and "flavor" of these modes is clear to your ear.

You see here that I've made an attempt to suggest each mode's affective quality. This is of course purely subjective; the modes can't be simpified in this way, but does suggest something about their affective difference.

Topics for this chapter

Assignments for this chapter

Musical Terms