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An Introduction to Modes

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The standard major and minor scales have been the source of millions of beautiful melodies, and will continue to be so for millions more. But after years of listening to music based on the same old scales, how can you break away from convention but still keep your music grounded on planet Earth? A great way to start exploring interesting and new sounding melodies and harmonies is to use modes. Modes are scales that use the same pitches of the standard major scale but in new and different ways. Because of one or two discrepancies from the typical major or minor scale, a mode can sound fresh, intriguing, and grab your listener's attention as something new.

As we'll see in the examples throughout, the seven basic modes can be used in countless different styles for many wonderful effects. Where else will you possibly find a tutorial in which you learn something from Miles Davis, The Beatles, Ravel, Metallica, and Shostakovich all in the same lesson?


How to Derive the Modes

If you use the major scale as a starting point, each mode is derived by starting on a different pitch of the major scale. For example the dorian mode starts and stops on the second pitch of the major scale (starting on D, we get D E F G A B C D). In my first harmony tutorial I discussed the concept of the tonic. Basically what a mode does is makes a note other than than 1 the tonic pitch of the scale. This will make more sense as we listen to some actual examples further into the tutorial.

The 7 basic modes are:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian are major modes because they have a major 3rd. Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian are minor modes because they have a minor 3rd.

Each mode has a characteristic pitch that makes it unique and useful in different ways. Let's go through each mode one at a time, figure out how we come up with it and discuss it's characteristic notes. We'll then listen to a few examples of each mode being used in real music.


Ionian

Ionian is the modal name for the common Major Scale. No doubt you are very familiar with this one! The characteristic pitch of the Ionian mode is the natural 4.


I'm not going to bore you with example of Ionian. Go listen to 90% of what's on pop radio and I'm sure you'll hear a major scale.


Dorian

The Dorian mode starts on the 2nd degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Dorian mode is the natural 6, unlike the typical minor scale which has a b6. This pitch gives the Dorian mode a certain brightness that is unusual for a minor scale.



A famous example of the Dorian mode comes from Miles Davis' brilliant album Kind of Blue, the opening track "So What". The form of the piece is extremely simple, A A B A, where the A section is a D minor Chord and the B section an Eb minor chord. Over the A everyone takes a solo in D dorian, over the B everyone solos in Eb dorian. Listen to the recording (and if you don't already own it, you must buy this album!), and notice how much "cooler" and "smoother" it feels than a typical song in a minor key. This fresh feel is a result of the natural 6.

Dorian is also very characteristic of Irish music. Again that natural 6th degree is responsible for making the music sound a little warmer and brighter than the usual "sad" minor scale. Check out this clip of Irish folk music and listen for the natural 6. If you aren't sure you're hearing it, go to the piano first and play a D minor scale. If you play that scale over this piece, you'll notice that the Bb sounds completely wrong, but if you raise it to a B natural it feels right.


Phrygian

The Phrygian mode starts on the 3rd degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Phrygian mode is the flat 2, which gives the mode a much darker flavor than the typical minor scale.



Phrygian is one of the less commonly used modes, partly because the b2 can feel so unfamiliar and "wrong". One place where it is especially useful is in film music, when you are trying to create a feeling of dread, dark mystery or evil. The following example, however, uses Phrygian in a mysterious but warm way.

A beautiful piece that uses aspects of the Phrygian mode is in Ralph Vaughan-Williams' "Tallis Fantasia". Listening to the piece you can instantly feel how fresh and interesting it sounds. The uncertainty of the mode ("Is it major? No, it doesn't feel quite like major... Minor? Not really..") creates an ambiguity that is refreshing and exciting to listen to.

What's important to note is that this example is not pure Phrygian; he's using the major third. But his melody uses the characteristic aspects of Phrygian (b2 and b7). Here is an excerpt of the melody around 1:14. Notice how he uses a major chord moving in parallel motion, using the b7 and b2 to pivot around the tonic.


To make it more clear, here is what is happening just around the tonic pitch D:



Lydian

The Lydian mode starts on the 4th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Lydian mode is the sharp 4, causing the scale to feel brighter than the major scale. Because the sharp 4 has such a natural tendency towards the 5, extra care has to be taken so that if you are in the Lydian mode it doesn’t sound like you are actually in the related major key. For example if you are writing in F Lydian, be careful that it doesn't just sound like C major.



Lydian can be very useful if you want to write in a major key but are looking for something a little different. The tritone created by the root and raised 4th creates a very bright and forward moving sound. Some of the best examples of Lydian come from film and TV music, so let's look at a few examples.

The Jetsons Theme Song is a classic example of Lydian being used as a "futuristic" and forward thinking major mode. On the first line "Meet George Jetson", notice how the #4 pitch on "Jet-" really pulls into "-son". Play this same melody on the piano with a natural 4 instead and it feels dull and soft.

Another classic TV theme song that uses Lydian is The Simpsons. Very much like The Jetsons, on the very opening words the syllable "Simp-" really pulls into "-sons" (notice any similarities here?). The Simpsons are quirky and crazy, and using a typical major scale for their theme just wouldn't do them justice.

Elmer Bernstein used Lydian in the main theme from To Kill a Mockingbird. Listen for it at about 1:03, on the flute melody. The brightness of Lydian helps convey the childlike quality of the characters and perspective of the story (as well as the images of toys that are on the screen when this music is playing). This is an example where it can be hard to tell if we are in Lydian or major, so take special care to continuously establish your tonic as "home".


Mixolydian

The Mixolydian mode starts on the 5th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Mixolydian mode is the flat 7, which gives the mode a smooth and sometimes bluesy flavor.



A somewhat contemporary example of the Mixolydian mode is used in Coldplay's song "Clocks". The song begins on an Eb major chord, but the second chord is Bb minor. The key of Eb has a natural D (and hence a Bb major chord), so where does this Db come from? The Mixolydian mode of course.

Another popular song using Mixolydian is The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood". This is another example where we can recognize the mode by the harmony being used. The song is in the key of E, and on the line "she once had me" we move to a B minor. Again this is a V minor chord which derives from the Mixolydian mode (the key of E major has a D#, not the D natural of a B minor chord). Pay attention to how that line, "she once had me", stands out as sounding a bit unusual. What you're hearing as different is the b7.

Yet another Mixolydian example is Sweet Home Alabama, which benefits from that upbeat major feel but using the b7 for a touch of blues.


Aeolian

The Aeolian mode starts on the 5th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Aeolian mode is the flat 6. You may notice that the Aeolian mode is just a fancy name for the common natural minor scale. What makes the Aeolian mode different from a minor scale is that the 6th and 7th degrees are never raised for the sake of harmonic progression (i.e. often in A minor, you will still find an E major chord with a G#. Not in Aeolian, that E chord is an Em, keeping the G natural).



Ravel uses the Aeolian mode in the first movement of his "Mother Goose" sweet. The movement, based on Sleeping Beauty and called "Pavane for the Sleeping Princess in the Woods", is meant to evoke a sweet but slightly sad fantasy land era. By using Aeolian, with it's lack of the raised 6 and 7 in minor that became common in tonal music since the Baroque era, we get a feeling more akin to Renaissance music. Listen to the piece for how it is both very sad and somber, while also very open and widely space. Much of this space comes from the whole steps between b6 b7 and 1.

Aeolian is often used in rock music, as it is a natural extension from the common minor pentatonic scale that most rock guitarists learn at an early stage. A lot of minor key music from bands like AC-DC and Led Zeppelin is in the Aeolian mode, again distinguishing itself by keeping the 6th and 7th tones of the scale flatted, as opposed to raising them, such as in the guitar solo from this Led Zeppelin song:


Locrian

The Locrian mode starts on the 7th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Locrian mode is the flat 5, which makes Locrian the darkest of the minor scales.



Locrian is probably the least common of all the modes, mostly because the b5 is such a jarring and unusual pitch. So much of western music relies on the relationship between V and I. If the V is diminished that whole structure breaks down, making the Locrian mode difficult to use.

Examples in are hard to come by, but some exist.

Here we have a march by Shostakovich from his "Three Fantastic Dances". The main march aspect of the piece (which can best be heard around :34) feels dark and somehow foreign.

A perhaps more accessible example comes from Metallica's "Ride the Lightning". Listen at around :14 and you'll hear the driving progression alternates between E and Bb (the b5). Locrian is a fitting choice for metal, because of that dark b5 pitch that just makes everything that much more sinister.


Borrowing Elements from the Modes

As we saw in the Ralph Vaughan-Williams example, often a composer will not base a piece entirely on a single mode, but will "borrow" the characteristic aspects of that mode. John Williams is especially fond of using these "temporary" modes for color and interest, as we'll see in the next two examples.

The sweeping and grand theme from Jurassic Park is almost completely in a major key, but there is one particular moment that stems from a mode. At around 1:34, while in the key of Bb major, Williams makes a leap of a seventh up from Bb. But he doesn't land on an A natural that is the diatonic 7 in the key of Bb major. Instead he leaps up to an Ab, the b7 of the key.

As we saw earlier, the major mode with a b7 is Mixolydian. For this one brief moment Williams goes beyond the confines of the major scale and the effect is brilliant. The b7 is both striking and powerful, while also one of the most memorable moments of the entire theme. And it came from a mode.

Another John Williams example is the love them from Superman. For the first phrase of the melody (:13), a basic outline of the chords of each bar are G - A7/G - Am7 - G.

So where did that A7 come from? If you think about the notes that make up an A7 chord, you'll notice that C# is the pitch that doesn't belong in the key of G. And now that you're an expert on modes, you'll notice that this C# belongs to the mode of G Lydian, which means this chord is borrowed from that mode. Why do we say it's borrowed, and not that the piece is in G Lydian? Because the very next chord is right back into a diatonic G major setting, Am7. The raised 4 in the A7 is only temporary, but it helps to "lift" us up (remember, this theme is about flying!),

This I to II major idea actually occurs many times when John Williams is trying to convey flight. Check out the flying theme from E.T. as just one example.

How about the next phrase at :26? G - A7/G - Cm7 - D7.

So we've figured out the A7, but now what about the Cm7? Again, borrowed from a mode. Looking at the foreign notes in a Cm7 we find Eb and Bb. The modes that conform to this (b3 and b6) are Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian. Since we're not hearing the unusual b2 or b5 from Phrygian or Locrian, respectively, it is safest to assume that we are borrowing from Aeolian. So this Cm7 chord that is so foreign and unusual to the key of G is actually just being borrowed temporarily from Aeolian. A pretty simple substitution, but a beautiful harmonic effect.


Conclusion

Certain modes may lend themselves better to certain styles (such as Locrian for heavy metal, or Aeolian for somber fairy tale music), but there are no rules and no limitations.

Have you been writing a fun upbeat song but wish that you could give it a touch of bluesy smoothness? Try changing from major to Mixolydian and see what the b7 does for you. Or if you're writing a film cue and you just can't seem to evoke that malevolent horror necessary for the antagonist's theme, what happens if you flatten the 2 and try it out in Phrygian?

Consider modes as a new way to expand your melodic and harmonic vocabulary. And if you're just looking to add a little spice, you could do worse than to learn from John Williams' example and "borrow" elements from modes only when necessary.

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