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 EditionHere 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 BackstoryOrigin 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:
- 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)
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:
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:
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.
By Tom Colohue
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