The Definitive Modal Approach. Part Three

The Tonal Centre. Learn about suggestive modal play and how to use modes in riffs and solos.

Ultimate Guitar
The Definitive Modal Approach. Part Three
The complex and befuddling world of modes has been waiting to embrace you like a high walrus with weight issues. 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 know where modes came from, and we've dispelled plenty of the rumours and the misinformation that usually hangs around modes like a bad smell. More facts are to come in this installment. That’s right folks - this is where modes start to get sexy.

We're leaving the theory behind now. I can already hear the cheers of relief. Don’t you feel better already? Sad fact; we'll be returning to theory in the next part to examine the immensely useful and somewhat complicated section on modal progressions. Sorry, but at least you kind of get this one off.

This time, we're going to use what we learned about modal formulae and notes in the last article. Today, we're looking at the quick, easy, cheating method if you will. It's an under the table fumble. It's a cliché reach around during a movie. It's an uncomfortable jab in the crotch that gives you a lovely burning sensation. I could go all day with this, but I won't. But I could.

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, 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. 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? Take your time, lead the music and let the music lead you.

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 the tonal centre will change, but there will also be a few moments when the tonal centre is neither E nor A - 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 your 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. If that's a point that you want to argue then music really isn't for you.

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. It's boring but it's safe.

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 incredibly weak and lacking in overall definition but a powerful tool when used correctly. The minor second does not succeed from the other side. It is on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely and yet works in exactly the same way. The root note dominates those closest to it.

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 unstable
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 potentially 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.
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.
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 its 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. It ain’t easy.

Let's go a bit crazy and have one more example, shall we? We'll add a bit of flair to this one.

As with last week, we replace the 4 with a #4 and maintain the 5. This time we’re putting more focus on the modal note. Can you hear it? Keep experimenting.

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. But then, I’m clearly a loose cannon. 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.

So play suggestively. See what sounds you can get out of that tiny modal flavour. 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 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. 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.

Part 1
Part 2

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

    Seeing the ratings on this I think it would be best you took a different approach. Clearly the readers of these articles are not picking up what you are trying to explain.
    Actually once you track the names of the people rating, it's mostly people who have written other mode articles that are mostly formula and "play C Major from D and you're in Dorian." Not really worried about it, but I appreciate the sentiment.
    So you are saying a min 3rd is unstable? Surely it is only as stable or unstable as the harmony it is presented over. So if it is over a minor chord it is incredibly stable and in fact the "stable" maj3rd will be unstable. It's more about context. I'm intrigued but not convinced by your explainations. But well done for doing it
    Since we've established the major scale as our platform for learning, everything is based on that. This includes the stabilities. You're right about context though, and that's am important distinction in modes. You'll probably do well with these.
    I don't understand why you're getting any bad ratings. These are some of the most thorough explanations of modes I have ever seen! Thank you so much.