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Learning Musical Modes - Rod's Rough Guide

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WHAT IS A MODE

Music based on major and minor scales came into common usage in the early 1600s, and of course we have been using them ever since. Before the 1600s, composers wrote in what were called modes. There was a resurgence of interest in modes toward the end of the 19th century, with composers like Debussy and Vaughan Williams. If you sit down at a piano keyboard and play a scale using only
the white notes, and starting on middle C, what you get is the familiar C Major scale. If you do the same thing starting on the note of A, and going up to the A above, you get an A minor scale. These two scales have a distinct sound; we make different associations with them, perceiving the major scale as bright and forceful, while the minor scale is sad and reflective. Starting on one of the other white notes will give us a different scale each of which is a 'mode'. Each of them has a separate and distinctive sound, and it is possible to recognise what mode a tunes is in just as most of us can tell the difference between a tune in the familiar major or minor.

HISTORY

As with many things in music theory, the modes can be traced back to the Greeks. The 'in' instrument in ancient Greece was the lyre, it had eight strings, tuned so that the top and bottom notes sounded an octave apart. The tunings of the intermediate strings varied, using different combinations of large and small intervals ('tones' and 'semitones'). The most common of these tunings or 'modes' correspond to the seven scales which you get if you play only on the white notes of the piano. The early Christian church adopted this Greek leading edge music technology and developed it for their own purposes.  Ambrose, Bishop of Milan was one of the church's first music experts and in the forth century he approved four modes for church use these were called the 'authentic' modes.

Ambrosian Modes
1st  d e f g a b c d
2nd e f g a b c d e
3rd f g a b c d e f
4th  g a b c d e f g

Some three hundred years later Pope Gregory the Great added four more, which were known as 'plagal'.

 

Gregorian Modes 
1st  Authentic d e f g a b c d
2nd  Plagal a b c d e f g a
3rd  Authentic e f g a b c d e
4th  Plagal b c d e f g a b
5th  Authentic f g a b c d e f
6th  Plagal c d e f g a b c
7th  Authentic g a b c d e f g
8th  Plagal d e f g a b c d

Every one was happy with this system and it was much used in 'Gregorian chant' and ecclesiastical music. Many centuries went by before further changes were needed (Life had a more leisurely pace in those days) and it was not till the 16th century that a Swiss monk called Glareanas decided there should be twelve modes, and assigned Greek names to them (Names which were apparently not much connected to any system actually in use in ancient Greece.). Some were never used, and some fell into disuse, a process accelerated by the development of harmony, as some of them proved very difficult to harmonise.  The distinction of plagal and authentic was also abandoned leaving us with modes as we know them today. (The terms 'authentic' and 'plagal' are still used but now to describe the relationship between the range of a song and the tonic (that is the keynote) of the scale. Tunes which range roughly from the tonic up to the octave or beyond are called 'authentic'; while those whose lowest note is half way between keynotes are called 'plagal'.) Only seven of Glareanas's original 12 modes are commonly used, these  correspond to the seven different starting points on the white keys of the piano. These are their names, along with the starting note:
  

Mode Name

Starting Note 

Notes Used

Pattern

 Ionian (Major) 

 C

c d e f g a b

1 2 3-4 5 6 7

 Dorian 

 D

d e f g a b c

1 2-3 4 5 6-7

 Phrygian 

 E

e f g a b c d

1-2 3 4 5-6 7

 Lydian 

 F

f g a b c d e

1 2 3 4-5 6 7

 Mixolydian 

 G

g a b c d e f

1 2 3-4 5 6-7

 Aeolian (Minor) 

 A

a b c d e f g

1 2-3 4 5-6 7

 Locrian 

 B

b c d e f g a

1-2 3 4-5 6 7

A tune could be written in each of these modes in turn and in each case, it would appear as if the tune were in C (no sharps or flats). Thus just looking at the key signature (number of sharps/flats) of a modal tune will not tell about it's mode.

Each mode can be played starting on any note, but then some black notes are needed to get the combination of tones and semitones which gives the mode its distinctive sound.  In fact it was probably this requirement that first led to the development of instruments with 'black notes' - to allow modes to be played in any required pitch range. For example if we put the seven modes in each case starting with C we get a variety of keys: 

Mode Name

Notes

Pattern

Key signatures

Ionian

C D E F G A B

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

No flats or sharps

Dorian

C D Eb F G A Bb

1 2-3 4 5 6-7

Bb Eb

Phrygian

C Db Eb F G Ab Bb

1-2 3 4 5-6 7

Bb Eb Ab Db

Lydian

C D E F# G A B

1 2 3 4-5 6 7

F#

Mixolydian

C D E F G A Bb

1 2 3-4 5 6-7

Bb

Aeolian

C D Eb F G Ab Bb

1 2-3 4 5-6 7

Bb Eb Ab

Locrian

C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb

1-2 3 4-5 6 7

Bb Eb Ab Db Gb

 

We can also look below at the modes generated for each key.

Modes For Each Key

Key Sig

Major

Minor

Mix

Dor

Phr

Lyd

Loc

(Ionian)

(Aeolian)

7 sharps:

C#

A#m

G#Mix

D#Dor

E#Phr

F#Lyd

B#Loc

6 sharps:

F#

D#m

C#Mix

G#Dor

A#Phr

BLyd

E#Loc

5 sharps:

B

G#m

F#Mix

C#Dor

D#Phr

ELyd

A#Loc

4 sharps:

E

C#m

BMix

F#Dor

G#Phr

ALyd

D#Loc

3 sharps:

A

F#m

EMix

BDor

C#Phr

DLyd

G#Loc

2 sharps:

D

Bm

AMix

EDor

F#Phr

GLyd

C#Loc

1 sharp:

G

Em

DMix

ADor

BPhr

CLyd

F#Loc

0 sharps:

C

Am

GMix

DDor

EPhr

FLyd

BLoc

1 flat:

F

Dm

CMix

GDor

APhr

BbLyd

ELoc

2 flats:

Bb

Gm

FMix

CDor

DPhr

EbLyd

ALoc

3 flats:

Eb

Cm

BbMix

FDor

GPhr

AbLyd

DLoc

4 flats:

Ab

Fm

EbMix

BbDor

CPhr

DbLyd

GLoc

5 flats:

Db

Bbm

AbMix

EbDor

FPhr

GbLyd

CLoc

6 flats:

Gb

Ebm

DbMix

AbDor

BbPhr

CbLyd

FLoc

7 flats:

Cb

Abm

GbMix

DbDor

EbPhr

FbLyd

BbLoc

Today only two modes (major and minor) are in common use in mainstream music. Traditional and folk mostly originates from people who were not 'taught' music, and so may not have been aware of the 'rules' of classical harmony. Hence use of a wider selection of scales and ancient modes survive in this type of music. The most common modes, in folk and traditional music are: Ionian, Dorian, Mixolydian and Aeolian. The remaining three are known as the rare modes, and are almost never used.
 
 

(C)1999 Rod Smith All rights reserved