The Definitive Modal Approach. Part One

The Backstory - 2009's Modal Approach articles have been revised, simplified and expanding. Part one covers the history of modes and what to think about before you go modal.

The Definitive Modal Approach. Part One
Modes! You're about to learn them. I'm Tom Colohue and I'm back.

The first release of The Modal Approach opened a whole generation of eyes to what modes are and what they could be. Now I'm doing it all over again, but better. There'll be more and better examples, less rambling conversation and less semantics. I'm trimming it down, making it smarter and sexier but without losing any of that all important factor: the facts.

This is The Modal Approach - The Definitive Edition

Here we go again.

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 often in high regard. It is also very easy to misunderstand. When it comes to modes, black and white fact is so hard to come across that misinformation is rife. You'll find a lot of articles on UG which are "intros to modes" or "modes made easy." Modes are not easy, and intros rarely contain anything you can use that is truly modal.

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. 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. There's a big picture that you have to see. Start from the end and you'll go far.

This series aims to make modes achievable. I won't break them down into easy tips. Instead I'll look at the many layers of modes, both large and small. There's so many half-truths and so much misinformation that I'm just going to get all of the information out there for all to peruse in a smooth, easy to digest way.

The modal approach begins here.

The Modal Approach by Tom Colohue

Part One: The Backstory

Origin Of Modes

There are several different incarnations for modes. The most commonly used set of modes would be the Church Modes, and yet these are nothing like the modern series of modes. The Church Modes were also known as the Gregorian Modes. 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
  • Hypodorian
  • Phrygian
  • Hypophrygian
  • Lydian
  • Hypolydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Hypomixolydian
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:
  • Hypermixolydian (F)
  • High Mixolydian (E)
  • Low Mixolydian (Eb)
  • Lydian (D)
  • Aeolian (Db)
  • Phrygian (C)
  • Iastian (B)
  • Dorian (Bb)
  • Hypolydian (A)
  • Hypoaeolian (Ab)
  • Hypophrygian (G)
  • Hypoiastian (Gb)
  • Hypodorian (F)
Again, there are many names that we know as the modern modes. The Iastian mode 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:
  • Mixolydian
  • Lydian
  • Phrygian
  • Dorian
  • Hypolydian
  • Hypophrygian
  • Hypodorian
Again, the building blocks of future modes are present here. 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. 'Measure' can also be a word you'd find in a thesaurus if you looked up 'scale'.

Over time, it developed more towards a definition of pitch wavelength, and then, somehow, it became the name for it's current uses. I won't be going into pitch wavelength here. It's very scientific and not at all useful.

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:
  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian
Are You Ready For Modes?

The major scale is easily recognisable as the single most important musical practice that there is. A lot of music theory is based on using the major scale to full advantage. There is an exception and that is modes. Modal theory relies on using the major scale to subvert it. You need to know what the rules are in order to reliably bend them. The major scale will still be your starting point with modes.

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. We'll be adding plenty of 7ths to our chords at the very least as we wander in but knowing chord extensions in general is very useful. A sus2 chord is very useful when playing Phrygian, for example.

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 sometimes 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.

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. 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 some of the works of Dream Theater? Alternatively, would you rather play something more mainstream like Greenday or Disturbed?

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.

Nevertheless, modes have somehow amassed a reputation that blows them out of proportion. Modes have became a status symbol amongst musicians - a benchmark by which theoretical talent is measured. They're glorified like a "see what AMAZING thing happened NEXT" video on Facebook.

Modes will sound good to other musicians. They will add flair and intrigue because they're a different option 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, 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 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. Tune in next week for the second revised article and don't forget to subscribe to my channels for further writing.

Part 2
Part 3

By Tom Colohue
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5 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    "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. " Major and minor scales were derived from the modes, not the other way around. In the late 16th century people had started altering the modes so much that so many different mode names weren't needed any more. What used to be Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian simply became minor and what used to be Mixolydian, Lydian and Ionian simply became major (this is a simplification). There was basically no tonal music before the 17th century - music was modal back then (again, a simplification). The most important thing about modal vs tonal is functional harmony. Modal music evolved into tonal music. Before tonal music was "invented", harmonic functions were pretty much non-existent. It was more about a change in thinking, though - you can find some "three chord" songs from the 16th century too, and a lot of pieces have cadences in them (that we would today analyze as V-I if we were talking about chord functions). But the main point was, they didn't think in chord functions, and the change in thinking was what made modal music evolve into tonal music. Aeolian and Ionian modes were added a bit later (during the renaissance period) to the mode system. So back then there were 12 different modes - a mode for every "white key" (except for B - Locrian was added even later) and their plagal versions (i.e. Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, etc), which were basically the same mode with a different range - back then range was important because a lot of music was vocal music, so it made a difference whether you wrote a piece in Dorian or Hypodorian. Both have the same tonic (or "finalis" as it was called back then) but a different range. The range of Dorian was from D to D an octave higher and the range of Hypodorian was from A to A an octave higher (so basically, the range of an authentic mode was from the tonic to the tonic an octave higher and the range of a plagal mode was from the dominant to the dominant an octave higher). Also, I wouldn't call modes difficult. They are actually quite simple - I would say they are more simple than keys because with modes there are no harmonic functions that you need to worry about (then again, sometimes that's the difficult part of modes - our ears are used to hearing harmonic functions and understanding everything "tonally"). What makes them difficult is the misinformation that is spread in the internet, and also the fact that some people treat them as the "Holy Grail" of music and introduce them to people way too early, and that just confuses them.
    Thank you for explaining the difference between an authentic and a plagal mode. I disagree however in the aspect that modes have less harmonic function. True V-I becomes less prominent but I beleive that the "sound" of modes is largely unexplored in terms of modern music education. Schools will talk all day about the feel of secondary and tertiary dominant passages and augmented VI chords but they don't really move past Phrygian in terms of modal chord functionality.
    Modal music by definition has no functional harmony. This doesn't mean there is no harmony, but the harmony kind of lacks a clear pull in a certain direction. For example if there are dominant chords, they don't really function as dominants - there are no V-I relationships. We call this non-functional harmony. Functional harmony = tonal harmony, and it's mainly based on tonic, sub-dominant and dominant functions. When functional harmony was "invented" (17th century), music became tonal and stopped being modal (simplification), at least for a while. In the late 19th/early 20th century people started experimenting with new sounds and this meant some of them abandoned traditional harmonic functions. Why a lot of music schools don't talk much about modal harmony is because if we are talking about old music, harmonic functions weren't really invented yet and the composers didn't really think in terms of chords or chord functions. Analyzing it in chord functions just doesn't make much sense. Modes are taught and people learn to sing them and also analyze music that uses modes. But the approach is a bit different - paying attention to harmonic functions is a bit counterproductive/misleading because that just isn't the point of the music. Yes, you could find some harmonic functions in the music, but the way the harmonies were written back then was based on writing melodies that sounded good together. The harmonies were a result of that. (After people started thinking in harmonic functions, the melodies also needed to have some kind of a sense of harmonic progression. Counterpoint was still basically the same but you also had to take the chord functions into account - and this is the difference between modal and tonal counterpoint.) It makes a lot more sense to study counterpoint than to analyze harmonic functions when it comes to old (pre-17th century) music. When it comes to more modern music, the composers decided to abandon chord functions, and again, a functional analysis wouldn't make that much sense because the chords don't have functions in the traditional sense. Yes, it would be great if people focused a bit more on modern music, but the thing is, people need to get the basics down first. Understanding tonal harmony is more important than understanding anything about modes. I'm studying music theory pedagogy at the moment and people are taught the sounds of modes. But how much time you can spend on that is another thing. Most music people play will be tonal so for most people modes don't have much of an application to actual music. The class I'm teaching right now focuses on pre-baroque music and modes are an important part of it. So it's not like no time is spent on modes. It's most likely just the fact that for most people modes are something distant and it's hard to memorize them, unless you play/listen to a lot of music that uses modes. And at least when it comes to classical music schools, most music people play will be from the 17th-19th century.
    The best advice I could ever give to someone learning the modes is this: Modes aren't something we play; they're something we hear. A melody that goes A C G E doesn't imply C major any more than it does F# super locrian if the context doesn't support it. You could write an entire piece consisting of standard cadences, but if for whatever reason, you hear some bizarre note as the tonal centre, the note that sounds like home, then that is literally all the justification you need; if your ears gravitate towards Bb but you're in the key of Ab, then that's all the reason you need to say you're in Bb Dorian. So modes aren't really something you "learn" or "practice", they're always there, whether you hear them or not, and if you can wrap your head around this then it's just a matter of bringing out the flavours of those modes. Much like a V7 - I sounds very ionian; i - bII - I is very Phrygian, IV7 - i is very Dorian etc.
    This is my favourite idea about music theory. You can intellectually twist something around until you literally hear the notes in a new way. I think that music lovers who disregard musical education for whatever reason are really missing out here. What we should practice with modes is what each mode sounds like so you can take that musical mood and place it where you need it in the context of a composition.