Hey all, this is Tom Colohue, here to talk about one of the most difficult to understand and virtually impossible to explain aspects of music theory: modes.
Modal theory is largely considered to be the hold grail of musical knowledge. Unfortunately, everything from harmonising the major scale to neapolitan chords is suddenly made to look simple when modes enter the field. When it comes to modes, black and white fact is so hard to come across that misinformation is now rife. What people now think a mode is is actually much closer to a scale - which is a different thing altogether. In the end though, we learn by being wrong.
Music theory, in all shapes and forms, has always been of great interest to me. When I first started to learn guitar, I sought out every morsel of theory that I could possible digest. Within the year, I had ventured into the world of modes. In no time at all, I felt that I had a firm and sturdy understanding of all things modal.
I was wrong, of course. One ego-destroying thread in the Musician Talk forum shut my mouth on the subject of modes for months.
That, more than likely, is the point at which I decided to take the concept of modes and make it my bitch. I should point out that it took a frighteningly long time, but I feel good about it all.
It wasn’t the last time I was going to be wrong about modes. They’re like the hated ex-girlfriend; they naturally make you feel idiotic no matter how hard you try. Modes take a lot of work, especially for something that is so rarely applicable.
Until you know everything behind modes, everything else has the singular purpose of overcomplicating matters to the point of impossible confusion. Most articles that concern modes only cover the superficial layer. By nature, that’s always going to bewilder. With modes, you have to dig a little deeper.
This five part series will bring this information forwards, starting with the more superficial formulaic facts before going deeper into tonal centres, note stability and pitch axis theory. There’s so many half-truths and misinformed people that I’m just going to get all of the information out there for all to peruse.
The writing plan, as it stands, is as follows:
Part One: The Backstory
- Origin Of Modes
- Are You Ready For Modes?
- Are Modes Necessary?
- What Are Modes Anyway?
- Modes Vs Scales
Part Two: The Paperwork
- Mode Names
- Modal Formulae
- The Modal Note
- Major/Minor In Modes
- The Major Scale Vs The Ionian Mode
Part Three: The Tonal Centre
- Establishing A Tonal Centre
- Note Stability
- Suggestive Play
- Teasing A Resolution
- When To Let It Go
Part Four: The Progression
- Modal Progressions
- Modal Interplay
- Teamwork In Modes
- The Vamp
- Modes In Action
Part Five: The Complex
- Switching Tonal Centre
- Switching Modes
- Pitch Axis Theory
- Further Learning
So that’s the plan and now comes the action. The modal approach begins here.
The Modal Approach by Tom Colohue
Part One: The Backstory
Origin Of Modes
Here we have a concept to start with that’s almost as complex and convoluted as modes themselves.
There are several different incarnations for modes. Some are still in use, whilst some are not. The most common and popularly recognised set of modes would be the Church Modes, and yet these are nothing like the modern series of modes, despite popular opinion. The Church Modes were also known as the Gregorian Modes, and there were eight of them rather than the seven that we know today. The eight modes could be split into four pairs and were defined by the three highest notes in their formulae. Higher notes mark the mode as Authentic, while lower notes mark the mode as Plagal. In many ways, this is similar to having something Augmented or Diminished.
Certain modes from that time do pass on. The names of the eight modes were:Dorian
It is safe to say, looking at this, that the Authentic modes from the Gregorian Modes are the ones that survived for common use.
These were not the first recognised set of modes though. Going farther back, we have the Greek modes, which were once again a very different collection to those in current use. These modes, laid out by the rulings of Pythagorean Intervals, had their own names, but also corresponded to a particular tone which modern modes do not:
High Mixolydian (E)
Low Mixolydian (Eb)
Again, there are many names that we know as the modern modes, and knowing what came next, we can see the influence of the ‘hypo’ variants. The Iastian mode, as it was then, has a similar but not exact name in modern use: Ionian. You can see that this was no longer in use by the time it came to the Gregorian Modes. The same is true of the Aeolian. At the time, modal and tonal play had become confused, and the Ionian and Aeolian modes were not deemed necessary due to their tonal representatives: the major and minor scale.
These though, were still not the first modes, but only those that fit the Pythagorean Intervals. The earliest modes, recognised because they were named after places and people, followed the Aristoxenian tradition. Aristoxenus was a Greek philosopher, and studied under the more acclaimed Aristotle.
Those modes, as they were laid out, were not attached to any particular original tone. They were named as follows:
Again, the building blocks of future modes are present here. In fact, all of the modern modes are represented but for three. Those that have the tonal representatives, the Ionian mode and the Aeolian mode, are not present. Also, the Locrian mode is not present in any of these musical philosophies. It simply did not exist until it was in use in it’s modern context. Where did that come from? Nobody has a damned clue.
The word mode itself also has had its meaning changed over the years. Originally, it was derived from the latin word ‘modus’, meaning ‘standard’ or ‘measure’. You can see how this could develop into the meaning that the word ‘mode’ had during the medieval period, which was ‘interval’. Intervals are, at their simplest, the measure between two things. As musicians, we know intervals as the measure between notes.
Over time, it developed more towards a definition of pitch wavelength, and then, somehow, it became the name for it’s current uses.
See what I mean when I say that modes are confusing?
The modern modes, and the ones that I will be covering, are named as follows:
While all of this history stuff is handy to know, it’s rare to find a true application for it. I won’t be delving too deeply back in time during this particular series.
Are You Ready For Modes?
Things will get tricky when we get to modal notes and progressions, no matter how much you know about the building blocks that make up the theory behind it. It’s not easy stuff to learn, but there are some particular aspects of music theory that provide helpful context for the facts to come.
The major scale is easily recognisable as the single most important musical practice that there is. All modal theory and formulae is based on subverting the major scale. You need to know what the rules are in order to reliably bend them without shattering them completely.
It’s also important to have a strong grasp on chord composition, including chord extensions. Modal chord progressions are one of the most effective methods for establishing a tonal centre, and, once it’s established, the next challenge is to maintain it. You need to really know your stuff if you intend to go beyond the examples that I offer in this series.
You don’t need to know the background. You don’t need to know anything about modes themselves. In fact, it’s better overall if you know as little as possible, considering the amount of misinformation that’s out there about them. Coming into this with an open mind, a clean sheet and a willingness to be wrong about something as complex as modes will go a long way in helping you to understand their intricacies.
Another important piece of the puzzle is intervals. I don’t mean the notes here, I mean the sound of each note relative to the tonal centre. You have to be able to hear the differences between each mode, and it’s the intervals that tell you what you’re listening to.
With that, you have the basic foundations that you need to start learning modes. All you need now is the drive.
Got it? Good. You’re ready for modes.
Are Modes Necessary?
The short and simple answer is no. Modes, and modal theory in general, are in no way necessary for any musician or composer. They are difficult to establish, difficult to maintain and their attempted use often proves little more than an annoyance.
However, as a musician, or a composer, there is something much more important to consider. There are hundreds of thousands of instrumentalists out there, and you, as a fellow instrumentalist, have to compete with every single one of them to be heard. This means that you have to go beyond the mundane, everyday theoretical talents of your typical musician. You don’t need to know the pentatonic scale, but it adds options that weren’t there before.
There are no truly necessary aspects of music theory, and that’s a fact that’s easy to overlook. You don’t need to know anything about music to play an instrument. It’s only when you start to create music that it helps to know what you’re doing. The important question is more relative to you; the artist. Why do you want to learn modes?
Does the music that you wish to make require modes, like the works of Dream Theater? Alternatively, would you rather play something along the more simplistic lines, like Greenday or Disturbed?
The result of the answer you give will tell you whether or not modes are necessary for you.
What Are Modes Anyway?
Modes are an option - an additional armament in the arsenal of composition. They are not the holy grail of music theory; or at least they shouldn’t be. They are not the utter pinnacle of musical knowledge either. They’re just bloody hard. There’s nothing special about them, and nothing makes them more important than anything else. They are an additional option for a musician to add to their portfolio.
Nevertheless, modes have somehow amassed a particular reputation amongst musicians that blows them out of proportion. In a way, this is a bad thing because of how desperately some people try to master the knowledge because of how renowned modes are. In another way, it’s a very good thing. Have you ever told somebody that you’re just playing around in the Phrygian Scale? They tend to be impressed, even if the phrase “Phrygian Scale” is oxymoronic, nonsensical bollocks.
Modes have became a status symbol amongst musicians - a benchmark by which theoretical talent is measured. This is likely why people have attempted to simplify the concept so far that current common opinion places modes and scales as the same thing. This is completely wrong. Like young men brag about sexual conquests, musicians started to brag about their command over modes. Lies began to strangle the facts and clear waters started to get murky.
So what are modes? They’re more than people are told they are. They’re just complex enough that people give up halfway through, then try to make sense of the scattered pieces that they’ve clung on to. This stuff takes patience and respect, and not enough people have a clear grasp of that.
Modes will sound good to other musicians, but they won’t make you play, or write, any better than you already can. If you want to understand modes, I’ll do everything I can, in these articles, to help, but you need to understand what modes are first. Before anything else, all of the false information built around modes has to be torn apart. We need to get through all of that in order to get to the simple reality.
Forget what you think - hold on to what you know.
Modes Vs Scales
The primary lie and misinterpretation when it comes to modes is a simple one: modes and scales are virtually identical. Wrong. A mode can be played over a major scale. Wrong. If you play the notes of C major, but start on D, you’re playing D Dorian. Wrong. There are tiny little grains of truth floating in all of this, but it’s all clouded behind the crap other people have offloaded on to it. Modes are not scales, and here comes a beautiful and defining fact as to why: scales are tonal - modes are modal. Modes are scales are practically from opposing street gangs in a state of organised warfare.
In order to use modes, you have to know enough about tonal music to safely get out of it and into modal music. There is a big difference, which will become apparent as we move on. Tonal music depends on the root and the well practiced, developed ears of the listener to pick out exactly what they expect to hear from years of hearing your typical cadences. Modal music is unpredictable, difficult to control and built around the modes themselves, which are, themselves, build around a tonal centre. With modes, you use the tone and expand on it. With tonal music, you choose your tone and then work with the limitations that gives you.
Modes are confining in their own way, but while you can throw together anything from five to all twelve notes and call it a scale, it’s how you play modes that make it modal. It’s all about subverting the rules of tonality and going modal on their arses. That’s why modes are such an effective tool for a musician or a composer. The world is so used to tonal music that modal music truly is a breath of fresh air.
Hopefully, by this point, you’re feeling a little more enlightened concerning modes. I know I haven’t even come close to the meat of the theory behind them yet, but I think it’s important that you know what there is behind modes before you start jumping into them. This article covers an important step that is far too often missed altogether. In the next article we’ll learn more about the modes themselves, including the formulae of their make-up, what separates them from the other modes and the differences between the major scale and the Ionian mode. However, we still won’t be going into using modes just yet.
All of this information is important, and I’d just like to say thank you for reading. If you want to truly know everything that there is to know about modes, you have to start all the way back at the beginning.
Thanks for reading.
Tom Colohue is a writer from Blackpool, England. Though he specialises in Fiction, he also writes music theory articles, and new media articles based primarily on the internet. On occasion, these also intermingle. He is well recognised by numerous critics and analysts for his integrative descriptive work and his cynical textual mannerisms. For more information, Tom Colohue keeps a Facebook Fan Page, which contains updates from new articles and his personal blog, Mental Streaming. This page can be found via this link.