The Modal Approach. Part Three: The Tonal Centre

Tom Colohue's "The Modal Approach". Part 3 of 5. We're moving on to applications now, beginning with the tonal properties of modes.

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The complex and befuzzling world of modes has been waiting for you, once again. Welcome back to The Modal Approach. This is part three, and I'm Tom Colohue. By this point, we have the underlying background issues sorted. We know how to work out the notes of a particular mode around a given tonal centre. We've done it without anybody telling me that I'm spelling centre' wrong, which shows that readers now are much less anti-England than the readers of my last Fiction series. We know where modes came from, and we've dispelled plenty of the rumours and the misinformation that usually hangs around modes like a bad spell, made by the lazy to make people think they're much more capable than they are. More facts are to come in this installment. We're leaving the theory behind now, and moving into the practical side of things. Don't get me wrong, we'll be returning to theory in the next part to examine the immensely useful and somewhat complicated section on modal progressions, but we're not there yet. This time, we're going to use what we learnt about modal formulae and notes in the last article, but we're not going entirely modal yet. Today, we're looking at the quick, easy, cheating method if you will. We're going to be delving into the much less effective, but still very worthwhile, tonal applications of modes. Yes, modes differ from scales due to being modal rather than tonal. What I'm going into here is, in a way, false modes. For example, if you played C Major, but added an F# accidental into the mix, you would be adding the Lydian modal note, if it replaces the fourth, or the Locrian modal note is it replaces the fifth. However, while this choice of note would invariably affect the sound and style of the piece, you're still in C Major, you're just adding an accidental into the mix. While this is often considered the one and only way of doing modes, and most often using them as scales in the mix, that's not how it works. You're taking the major scale, adding an accidental and potentially omitting a different note. You're still in the major scale. There is a danger to it though, and this comes with note stability. There is a lot of theory behind accidentals, and certain choices of note are simply safer than others to both fit the piece and to keep dissonance to a minimum, unless you're aiming for dissonance of course. This is why note stability is also on the menu this time around. True modal play is not impossible to achieve from a singular instrument, but hopefully that's something you'll understand the reasons for when we reach the bottom of this article. Welcome to the Modal Approach.

The Modal Approach by Tom Colohue

Part Three: The Tonal Centre

Establishing A Tonal Centre This is obviously paramount to all modal and tonal play, because a tonal centre can also be a root note. Allow me to explain. A tonal centre is a singular note, around which intervals are structured, that the intervals cause the piece to resolve to. It's the resolution that's most important here. You need to ask yourself: where does this piece of music want to go?' In key-based, or tonal, music, the root note quite clearly acts as your tonal centre. For example, the major scale will always want to resolve to its root note. The minor scale is a good way to look at the differences here. If you play the minor scale, but do not focus on notes such as the third, sixth and seventh, it won't have the minor sound. This is actually an example of suggestive play, but we'll get to that in a bit. Spending time in any particular key means that the tonal centre will be established, because the notes themselves will cause the piece to resolve in a particular way. If you're in E major, and you play a few chords/notes before returning to E, your tonal centre is safely established as E. If you then make a move towards A major, through your choice of chords for example, the tonal centre will change, but there will also be a few moments when the tonal centre is neither E nor A, but in flux and undefined. As musicians, we typically strive to avoid this, but accidentals are named so because they are out of key. If you're using suggestive play, or in fact going modal, you need to be able to use notes from outside of the major scale, while still resolving to one particular tonal centre. This means that, once you're tonal centre is established, the safest way is to commit to it. After that, it's all about making your move, then returning to safety as quickly as possible by moving smoothly back into the established tonal centre. Note Stability The notes that you choose to use are entirely up to you, but some cause much greater dissonance than others, much like some actors being fun to work with and some being outright bitchy. Let's have a quick look at the basic stabilities for the twelve notes of modern western music. The root is, quite clearly, the strongest and most stable note that there is, since all music is built around it. The two strongest notes after that are the fourth and the fifth. This is why I - IV - V progressions are so very popular. The fourth and fifth are perfect intervals, being neither major nor minor. They are the least affected notes in modal formulae, and are almost always safe landing spots in solos that cause no dissonance and add no particular sound or style to the piece. After that it gets a little more complex. Being that the major scale is the basis of all music, major notes are inherently stronger than minor ones. The leading tone, or major seventh, pulls towards the root incredibly strongly, making it one of the stronger notes itself, but it does somewhat shoot itself in the foot because it does not hold stability in itself all that well due to that pull. The minor second does not succeed from the other side. It is on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely. I see a chart coming.
R  |- completely stable
b2 |- very unstable
2  |- stable
b3 |- unstable
3  |- stable
p4 |- extremely stable
b5 |- extremely unstable
p5 |- extremely stable
b6 |- unstable
6  |- stable
b7 |- unstable
7  |- very stable
R  |- completely stable
This is your basic chart of note stability, based on the strength of notes to the root, and also how often different notes are used in certain intervals. For example, utilising a minor third instead of a major third is common in many respects because, though it is unstable, it's not so unstable as to potential break the tonal centre. The minor scale might be starting to make sense to people now. Why does it sound minor? Suggestive play. You're using accidentals to bring in the sound of Aeolian, but you're also coming back to more stable notes such as the root, perfect fourth and perfect fifth. Suggestive Play As an example, let's use A major again.
A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A
Starting from the root, we're going to look at a simple lead line, utilising an accidental to do suggestive play to achieve a Mixolydian overtone.
e|-----------------|
B|-----------------|
G|-----------0-1-2-|
D|-----2-0-2-------|
A|-0-4-----------0-|
E|-----------------|
It's a simple line, but it contains a minor seventh, which is the Mixolydian modal note. In order to maintain the tonal centre, I've used two of the most stable notes available. The leading tone, or major seventh, and the root itself. This means that, despite the out of key note, the moment of flux is intensely short, but the choice of note does show a small Mixolydian influence. Now, in no means is this strong because, put simply, it isn't modal and is only suggestive. You're suggesting Mixolydian rather than actually playing in it, but that's what we're talking about here. Another option is the drone, or holding tone. This is a continually repeated note, to maintain the tonal centre while you work towards something else. Let's use Phrygian as the example here, since it gives more options to derive.
e|-----0-----------|
B|-----------------|
G|-2-------3---2-3-|
D|-----------------|
A|-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-|
E|-----------------|
Again, relatively simple, but there's one rather large difference here beyond your choice of modes. The minor second is much less stable a note than the minor seventh, and the drone makes it's connection to the tonal centre all the more obvious. The dissonance is quite clear. This is basically all that suggestive play is, but you become bolder and more inventive as time goes on, especially with your choice of notes and modes. The b5, for example, is present in the solo to Stairway To Heaven. As we know, the b5 is suggestive of Locrian, while also being the least stable note to land on. Teasing A Resolution In order to get the most out of your suggestive play, you have to push the boundaries a little, especially that moment of flux. This means that, if you want to strengthen the differences that particular modal notes can give you, you need to have a little fight with that tonal centre to make it stay put regardless of what you do. However, you can't just wander completely off track into a modal formula, because you're not playing modally. You have to hold that tonal centre, or you'll slide straight back into the major scale or, worse, slide through a haze of dissonance into a different key altogether. Now that you know your stabilities, you can play the field and experiment. Maybe alternate accidentals, or throw a few together before you return to safety? Maybe push a little harder and go for a flat second or diminished fifth. Personally, I quite enjoy using a whammy bar with a diminished fifth, since you can bend the note either up to a perfectly stable fifth, or down to a perfectly stable fourth. One way suggests Locrian, while the other way suggests Lydian. This is extremely dissonant, but that doesn't mean I dislike doing it. Use your suggestive play to pull away from the tonal centre ever so slightly. Then, when you come back to it, it will be all the stronger. Playing in the boundaries of the major scale is a perfectly good way to be a musician, but if you're after learning about modes, you're looking for something different. Suggestive play teaches the theory behind accidentals, using modal notes for tonal methods for a small hint at the real sound of modes. Play with the unexpected options available to you. When To Let It Go Sadly, there are many reasons that you should return to the safety of the established tonal centre. You could have strung too many accidentals together. The volatile lack of stability could have gone off on you. You could just want the piece to sound simple again. It's easy to go too far out of the major scale comfort zone. It's important that, during your experiments with suggestive play, you intentionally go too far. You want to learn where your own line is, and what would make you cross it. Most importantly though, people listening to you have their own line, and it might not be the same as yours. Dissonance sounds good to some and bad to others. Ultimately, how you use your instrument and stray from the safety of everyday music defines you as a musician, but Muse are still more popular than Symphony X. So play suggestively. See what sounds you can get out of that tiny modal flavour. A single note of difference separates the style and feel or the natural minor from the style and feel of the harmonic minor after all. The smallest change often makes the biggest difference. Everything in these columns is useless if you don't experiment on your own and know when to stop experimenting. That's it for this week. I know it's been mostly tonal applications, which aren't really modes, but the modes themselves can come through in many ways, and they're a valuable theoretical tool even outside of themselves. Next week it will be modal progressions, which is the meat of the matter. True modal playing comes from modal play, and modal progressions are a huge part of that. Over a modal progression, the tonal centre is not as much of a concern, and this makes a suggestive lead line much stronger. You'll be playing within the realms of modes in no time. Once again, thanks for reading, and I hope to see you next week. Tom Colohue 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.

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    krypticguitar87
    Lefty7Stringer wrote: I see a chart coming. R |- completely stable b2 |- very unstable 2 |- stable b3 |- unstable 3 |- stable p4 |- extremely stable b5 |- extremely unstable p5 |- extremely stable b6 |- unstable 6 |- stable b7 |- unstable 7 |- very stable R |- completely stable I am curious as to why you listed the major 7th as "very stable"
    It's very stable because it gets your ear ready to move to the root.... if you study chords progressions you'll find that the major fifth and diminished seventh chords are almost interchangable as the strongest movement toward the tonic... it's obviously not as stable as the perfect fourth or the perfect fifth, but it totally establishes the root as the tonal center... try moving from the root to each of those notes and back... you should notice a huge difference between how dissonant (or not) they sound
    AeolianWolf
    krypticguitar87 wrote: Lefty7Stringer wrote: I see a chart coming. R |- completely stable b2 |- very unstable 2 |- stable b3 |- unstable 3 |- stable p4 |- extremely stable b5 |- extremely unstable p5 |- extremely stable b6 |- unstable 6 |- stable b7 |- unstable 7 |- very stable R |- completely stable I am curious as to why you listed the major 7th as "very stable" It's very stable because it gets your ear ready to move to the root.... if you study chords progressions you'll find that the major fifth and diminished seventh chords are almost interchangable as the strongest movement toward the tonic... it's obviously not as stable as the perfect fourth or the perfect fifth, but it totally establishes the root as the tonal center... try moving from the root to each of those notes and back... you should notice a huge difference between how dissonant (or not) they sound
    so you're telling me that you think that a major seventh is stable? a major seventh is just as unstable as a minor second.
    krypticguitar87 wrote:It's very stable because it gets your ear ready to move to the root....
    that's precisely why it's UNstable. it gets your ear ready to hear the root. it is not stable. it is not a good tone to rest on unless you want to draw out the tension. and my english is good enough to know that tension is closer to instability than stability in definition. stability isn't so much about establishing the root as the tonal center. it's more about whether the tone can rest as it is or whether it's a tendency tone -- that is, one that wants to move to another tone.
    AlanHB
    hippie_guy wrote: and why exactly is 90%+ of the world's music tonal ? i mean, seriously... it's like locking yourself up inside a matchbox )
    Because you're granted a lot more freedom writing tonal music than modal. Otherwise, modes are only used in modal songs. Using modes in a tonal song would simply result in the major or minor scale with accidentals if you're considering modes simply as scales.
    Axler
    Hi Tom, thanks again for another great explanation. I am following you so far but have one question: This might be a bit naiive but do you also have a list of stable/unstable when playing in minor? BR.
    Divinephyton
    oh yea and sorry for the double post(nowadays people usually just seem to criticize and forget to mention the stuff they liked!) I liked the rest! It's great!
    hippie_guy
    and why exactly is 90%+ of the world's music tonal ? i mean, seriously... it's like locking yourself up inside a matchbox )
    M.B.MetalTabber
    Axler wrote: Hi Tom, thanks again for another great explanation. I am following you so far but have one question: This might be a bit naiive but do you also have a list of stable/unstable when playing in minor? BR.
    The list is for all notes, not specifically major or minor. It's about the intervals. All theory relates back to the major scale, this chart shows all intervals, within which are the major scale intervals (all the stable ones). Great lesson again btw!
    Lefty7Stringer
    AeolianWolf wrote: krypticguitar87 wrote: Lefty7Stringer wrote: I see a chart coming. R |- completely stable b2 |- very unstable 2 |- stable b3 |- unstable 3 |- stable p4 |- extremely stable b5 |- extremely unstable p5 |- extremely stable b6 |- unstable 6 |- stable b7 |- unstable 7 |- very stable R |- completely stable I am curious as to why you listed the major 7th as "very stable" It's very stable because it gets your ear ready to move to the root.... if you study chords progressions you'll find that the major fifth and diminished seventh chords are almost interchangable as the strongest movement toward the tonic... it's obviously not as stable as the perfect fourth or the perfect fifth, but it totally establishes the root as the tonal center... try moving from the root to each of those notes and back... you should notice a huge difference between how dissonant (or not) they sound so you're telling me that you think that a major seventh is stable? a major seventh is just as unstable as a minor second. krypticguitar87 wrote:It's very stable because it gets your ear ready to move to the root.... that's precisely why it's UNstable. it gets your ear ready to hear the root. it is not stable. it is not a good tone to rest on unless you want to draw out the tension. and my english is good enough to know that tension is closer to instability than stability in definition. stability isn't so much about establishing the root as the tonal center. it's more about whether the tone can rest as it is or whether it's a tendency tone -- that is, one that wants to move to another tone.
    Thank you! @krypticguitar87: Yes I understand the functionality of both intervals and chords in western tonal music (I'm a music theory major) but I am sorry to say you are dead wrong. Perhaps the author of this article simply made a mistake in dictation, or he is just wrong.
    slowlybilly
    geeze critics on here....great lesson...I did this and did not understand why exactly until now. Suggestive play huh? 10
    dogmax
    I just wanted to say that your lessons really help me understand the modes ! Please don't stop writing the series, Tom. Btw here is a tip if people want to download a pdf of the lessons. http://www.web2pdfconvert.com/ (this isn't meant to be an advertisement, but a tip. Apologies if its against the rules)
    Pudel
    But it just freaks me out! It means that while using that basic heavy VI VII i progression i risk losin' my tonal centre (minor sixth, minor seventh, ya know... marked "unstable")! And... That's kinda not true, ya know. I just can't get it.
    Axler
    M.B.MetalTabber, thanks for your response. Just for my understanding, does this mean that a Major scale is basically a stable scale due to having all stable notes whereas a minor scale is a bit unstable due to having b3, b6 & b7?
    Divinephyton
    tbh sometimes you mention stuff but not dive into it, even though the reader might wonder about that particular thing; this might seem logical and it is in order to not stray off course and stick to the point, but it leaves the reader frustrated as to that particular item. (Usually it is resolved by anticipating these questions and mentioning the problem but adding a footnote or something to an explanation in another work) just saying if you really wanna be a good writer/teacher). I'll give an example of what I'm saying. You mention that the minor scale suggests the aeolian through it's use of the b3 and b6 and b7; suppose this is totally confusing for me, because as a player I heavily depend on the minor scale and wish to use this lesson in my playing and add accidentals whilst playing in minor. But then how does the chart work? What implication does this have for the strenght of notes and keeping the tonal centre? [(I never had musical training but've started recently) But I believe that it's just basically more accidentals and you should just compensate with the stronger notes whilst maintaining the minor feel by b3 or b6 or b7 also going for, right? ] Other readers have also sort of requested this, but worded differently "what will happen when you in fact *do* mess up your tonal centre and sorta go AWOLL, why and how did it happen"
    Pudel
    Nice work, but I've got a few questions: First of all, could you give me an example of a line, that's losing it's tonal centre towards other one, preferabnly the major scale? In fact, I couldn't come with an example on my own, and i would really like to know the consequences of doing something wrong. And actually, hear, how doing it wrong feels. Nextly, you assume that "my line", and line of the people that i play for, derives from the major scale. So, your very concept of stability doesn't work for a lot of hard rock and especially heavy metal musicians. What happens, if I find playing stuff in major tonations hard and dumb? Is my minor playing suggestive, and using chords built on b6 puts me in danger of losing tonal centre? And the fact, that I still don't know, what modal playing really is, and you refer to this term in each of lessons really pisses me off. Maybe I'm just to closeminded to understand it, but i don't like to trust divine knowlege only because someone who knows more about the topic says it. Really great series, but for a curious person, they seem to be insufficient.
    stokcton
    wait was he saying that Muse doesnt use accidentals? they use tons of em
    Dream Floyd
    Michael Romeo is a modal GOD. He can use a billion accidentals and still have the same tonal center down pat.
    DrButterfunk
    Pudel wrote: Nice work, but I've got a few questions: First of all, could you give me an example of a line, that's losing it's tonal centre towards other one, preferabnly the major scale? In fact, I couldn't come with an example on my own, and i would really like to know the consequences of doing something wrong. And actually, hear, how doing it wrong feels. Nextly, you assume that "my line", and line of the people that i play for, derives from the major scale. So, your very concept of stability doesn't work for a lot of hard rock and especially heavy metal musicians. What happens, if I find playing stuff in major tonations hard and dumb? Is my minor playing suggestive, and using chords built on b6 puts me in danger of losing tonal centre? And the fact, that I still don't know, what modal playing really is, and you refer to this term in each of lessons really pisses me off. Maybe I'm just to closeminded to understand it, but i don't like to trust divine knowlege only because someone who knows more about the topic says it. Really great series, but for a curious person, they seem to be insufficient.
    I would also like an example of a line leaving the tonal center and it's consequences. Also, I don't think I totally understand what the total center is, either. I have a question, though. I play for a few cover bands and I heavily rely on my knowledge of modes when covering songs (like forming solos). I know all 7 modes on the fretboard and I tend to use them in literally every situation. You said that modes can only be used when the song is modal, but how do I know if its not modal? Maybe, every situation I've come across so far has been modal, but I doubt it. I feel like I've been frequently using modes in the wrong applications, how do I know when I'm allowed to use modes even though most of the time utilizing modes sounds good?
    speeddemon93
    Am I slightly confused? Yes. I'm learning, 'tis to be expected. Am I freaking excited to learn even a little about modes, and do I finally feel like somebody is explaining them to me in a comprehensible way? HECK yes. Thank you sir. I eagerly look forward to your next article.
    Dream Floyd
    Lefty7Stringer wrote: stokcton wrote: wait was he saying that Muse doesnt use accidentals? they use tons of em Yeah I'm not really sure where he was going with that either.
    They use them, but musically interesting ones. God forbid you find a tritone in one of their songs. Basically the take the easy accidentals.
    Lefty7Stringer
    stokcton wrote: wait was he saying that Muse doesnt use accidentals? they use tons of em
    Yeah I'm not really sure where he was going with that either.
    Lefty7Stringer
    I see a chart coming. R |- completely stable b2 |- very unstable 2 |- stable b3 |- unstable 3 |- stable p4 |- extremely stable b5 |- extremely unstable p5 |- extremely stable b6 |- unstable 6 |- stable b7 |- unstable 7 |- very stable R |- completely stable
    I am curious as to why you listed the major 7th as "very stable"
    ExOblivione
    This makes that whole Pitch Axis Theory lesson from a while back make a lot more sense. Can't wait for next week.
    JesusIsAwesome
    Really been looking forward to this lesson after your first and second of the series. Absolutely brilliant, man. Thanks for the good lesson. Really helped me get it. Looking even more forward to number 4 now