The Definitive Modal Approach. Part Two

The Paperwork. Learn facts and formulae that are necessary when preparing to go modal.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello there readers. Welcome back to The Modal Approach. I'm Tom Colohue; your host for this series. Whoever you are; you're gorgeous.

Last time, we went through the long and exceptionally long-winded back-story to modes. Sorry about that. You won't need to be quite as drunk to survive this one. It's not something that's often made note of, but music theory has been around for generations. It's earned the respect of all musicians and composers but it does tend to ramble on like grandpa's war stories.

This time, we're moving from the backstory on to the paperwork. The facts. The figures. The legends. The last article might have been a lot of talking, but it was only one layer of an incomplete foundation. The information to come is the piece of the puzzle most readily available. This is the stuff that you can find peppered all over the place, but often in incomplete or a poorly explained manner.

For example, a scale chart for F# Dorian is both wrong and completely unusable, but people often make them. The only thing that you can get from looking at that is a headache. You're just looking at E Major. Context matters.

What comes next will not be a list of practical applications for modes. I know that that's the end result everybody's craving, but we're not there yet. First, we need to make sure that the foundation is safe to build upon. Know your modes and then you can build modal compositions, experiment with suggestive play or just abandon the whole thing in favour of something more readily available.

You're the boss, jefe. It's your #Journey.

So, shall we get started?

The Modal Approach by Tom Colohue

Part Two: The Paperwork

Mode Names

Last time, we considered the past of modes, from Greek to Gregorian and back again. There were a lot of names passed around then but we're going to be abandoning a lot of them right here and right now. There will be nothing from the classifications of either High or Hypo. No one is getting high here. We're going to be dealing with the seven modern modes; established by the amalgamation of the previous modes.

The names of the modes that we will be studying are:
  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian
I'm not going to go into any depth concerning modes of harmonic minor or melodic minor. That could be something for another time but right now it doesn't add anything. There's going to be a lot of information coming at you and I don't want to add too much that will distract us.

Modal Formulae

Sadly, I'm going to have to start this one with a disclaimer. Ninety percent of all confusion concerning modes comes from the formulae section. The main reason for this is the intuitive leaps that people insist on making that turns modes into scales and turns intervals into notes. The context and the situation goes ignored and you end up just running scales.

In short, I'm not describing practical applications here and hopefully nobody will believe that I am. It's just the paperwork here.

The major scale is the big building block. Each of the seven modes can be derived from the relevant major scale once you're aware of the relative formula. While this will tell you the notes of each mode, as well as give you important information on the make-up of each mode, it's not technically usable at this point beyond theoretical use. That's not important though. Right now, the theory is the only part we're looking at.

We'll run them down in order, which starts us off with the Ionian mode. First off though, we need to set our standard, which requires us to look at the major scale a little. Remember, the whole point of this is to get you from point A - your starting point in tonal music - to point B - changing to modal.

The major scale is diatonic, meaning that it contains seven notes. Of the twelve notes available in most western music (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B), the seven notes of the major scale are established through tonal intervals of half a note (one higher) and a whole note (two higher).

Where W means Whole and H means Half, the system of intervals is:


For example, C major would be:

C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C

Where the omitted notes are italicised to show the leap made.

Since this is the most standard musical scale, the intervals are named numerically. The first note (C) becomes 1, or the root. The next note (D) becomes 2, or the second and so on. I'm sure you know all of this already, but it's relevant for setting the scene.

Knowing this, we can establish quite factually that the formula for the major scale is:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Okay? Good. All modal formulae are based on this formula. We'll stick with C as our default tonal centre. It's the easiest example to work with, if a bit unsexy.

Now, to show a change in these notes, you have two possible signs. B means flat, which tells you that the note in question is half a tone lower. # means sharp, which tells you that the note in question is half a tone higher. For example, #5 would mean a sharpened fifth. In this case, that would be G#. A number that does not contain either of these symbols is said to be natural.

The Ionian mode contains the same notes as the major scale, but it is simply used in a modal context to distinguish it. Since the tonal centre here would be the same as the major scale, this mode is extremely difficult to distinguish.

The formula is, as expected:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
There is, in fact, a distinguishing note here that separates the Ionian mode from all of the others, which can be taken advantage of in order to strengthen the modal sound. The natural seventh can be used to this end to differentiate between the Ionian mode and the Mixolydian, while the natural fourth separates Ionian from Lydian. These distinguishing notes are the ones that make something modal, not the first note that you play.

The Dorian mode differs from the major scale in two places:
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8
C D Eb F G A Bb C
While the flat third keeps the Dorian mode away from the Mixolydian mode, it is the natural sixth that truly characterises this mode. The Aeolian mode, containing the same notes as the natural minor scale, has a much stronger pull for the ears of the listener, and the sixth in Dorian is the difference between them.

The Phrygian mode contains two further flats on top of the two added by the Dorian mode:
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C
As already mentioned, the Aeolian mode has a very strong pull, and the Phrygian mode contains only one note that separates it. This would be the very distinctive flat second that can be found in only two modes. The other, Locrian, also contains a flat fifth, making the natural fifth very important to the use of the Phrygian mode.

The Lydian mode houses the highest pitched intervals:
1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8
C D E F# G A B C
Since there is no mode higher than this one, there is only one note needed to truly deviate from sharing space with any of the other modes. The Ionian mode contains only one difference in interval, which would be Lydian's sharp fourth.

The Mixolydian mode once again contains only one deviation from the Ionian mode:
1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8
C D E F G A Bb C
Apart from being the reason that the Ionian's natural seventh is so distinctive, the Mixolydian's flat seventh is also the defining note of the mode. On the lower end, the Dorian mode contains a singular difference in interval, that being a flat third, so the natural third is another defining note when it comes to the Mixolydian mode.

The Aeolian mode contains all of the same notes as the natural minor scale. However, it is once again required to be played in a modal context in order to separate it from it's peer scale:
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
The flat sixth is an important characteristic here. It is this interval that shows the difference between the Aeolian mode and the Dorian mode, which contains a natural sixth. Another interval that displays the character of the Aeolian mode is the natural second, which keeps Aeolian one half tone higher than the Phrygian mode.

Finally, the Locrian mode has the lowest collection of intervals compared to the major scale and all of the other modes:
1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8
C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C
With no modes lower, Locrian is another mode that requires only one defining interval. The tritone, or flat fifth is, by nature, the most dissonant and instable interval available for use in modern music. This is the cause of most difficulties when attempting to use the Locrian mode.

This leaves us with the following modal formulae, in descending order.

1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8 - Lydian
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 - Ionian
1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8 - Mixolydian
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8 - Dorian
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8 - Aeolian
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8 - Phrygian
1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8 - Locrian
How low can you go?

There are other methods by which you can work out your modes, without using the formulae. Unfortunately, those particular methods cause more problems than good. Personally, I prefer the formulaic approach. This is music theory after all. Nothing theoretical is all that simple.

The Modal Note

There is no singular note that defines a mode, but there are some intervals that set each mode apart from the others. When it comes to suggestive play and modal progressions, these particular notes will be not only useful but essential in forming the modal strategy behind your plan. In some cases, multiple notes are defining, but sometimes one is simply definitive.

For the Ionian mode, the modal note is the natural seventh. Also important is the natural fourth.

For the Dorian mode, the modal note is the natural sixth. Also important is the flat third.

For the Phrygian mode, the modal note is the flat second. Also important is the natural fifth.

For the Lydian mode, the modal note is the sharp fourth.

For the Mixolydian mode, the modal note is the flat seventh. Also important is the natural third.

For the Aeolian mode, the modal note is the flat sixth. Also important is the natural second.

For the Locrian mode, the modal note is the flat fifth.

Major/Minor In Modes

One common misconception is that modes can be major or minor. While not completely untrue it can often be an oversimplification that leaves things half learned. It's a lot like people are often classified into stereotypes. Unfortunately, modes don't fit these characteristics. They don't fit the rational tonal structure because they're modal - they're something completely different.

The intervals of some modes are higher than the others, and some modes contain the notes of the major and minor scale, but that does not make them major or minor because major and minor is tonal. Playing the notes of C Dorian over C minor does not mean that you're playing in C Dorian. You're just playing the notes of C Dorian over C minor. If you play well and harness the modal notes, you can do suggestive play, which will be covered next week, but you're still tonal. In order to play modally, you have to dedicate the attempt.

A quick taster of this though, before we move on. Let's look at the most basic bit of suggestive play - a riff with an accidental.
e |---------|---------|
B |---------|---------|
G |---2-0---|---------|
D |---------|---3-2---|
A |-3-------|-3-------|
E |---------|---------|
What you're looking at is a simple riff in the major scale with no accidentals. It can be broken down into the following intervals:
1 - 6 - 5 | 1 - 4 - 3
Knowing this, we can then add some accidentals based on the modal notes that we know. Want to add an accidental with a Lydian taste? Let's # the 4th.
e |---------|---------|
B |---------|---------|
G |---2-0---|---------|
D |---------|---4-2---|
A |-3-------|-3-------|
E |---------|---------|
Dorian? Let's b the 6th and the 3rd.
e |---------|---------|
B |---------|---------|
G |---1-0---|---------|
D |---------|---3-1---|
A |-3-------|-3-------|
E |---------|---------|
We'll have a lot more meat on that subject next time, and this is about the thinnest use of modes available but it does give you a chance to use what you've learned and see what you can make. Try it at home with the rest of the modes and see what you get.

The Major Scale Vs The Ionian Mode

This is an area where a lot of studies into modes become unstuck. How does the Ionian mode differ from the major scale when they contain the same notes and they are also constructed around the exact same tonal centre. The answer, once again, comes back to tonal vs. Modal.

With the Ionian mode in particular, modal play can be difficult to establish, and even more so to maintain. It is not, however, impossible. If you use the strength of notes such as the natural seventh and the natural fourth in your progressions, the existing difference does begin to make itself known.

Remember though, context is important so you will first need to establish what isn't modal before establishing what is.

Unfortunately, the ears of the listener will also be drawn towards the major scale, simply because they've heard it much more often. Sometimes, you just have to let it go.

Other times, it's really worth the effort.

I know that, this time, it's been mostly formulae, specific notes and little focus on actually using the information, but I assure you that all of this is necessary facts needed to bring your knowledge of modes together in preparation for what comes next. Next week, it will be all about suggestive play, note stability and the potential for modes to be used in a tonal capacity. Though difficult, weak and flighty, there are always options available.

A lot of articles on modes stop here and call their work done. You can find them all over UG. Mine don't. I'll see you next week.

For this week though, we're all about wrapped up with the paperwork. For homework, it might be worth using the formulae that we've learned today to work out the modes of other tonal centres. For example, what are the notes of Gb Lydian, or A# Locrian? What is the modal note of E Aeolian? There is plenty of extra study that you can do to develop your understanding of the facts before you.

For me though, I must bid you a fond goodbye. Later, peeps!

Part 1
Part 3

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

    I was just working out the modal notes and the important notes on a numeric scale/mode chart from my guitar grimoire and found that the modal notes and the important notes of each mode are a b5 from each other. The b5 also cuts the 12 tones within an octave neatly in half. This also suggests Locrian and Lydian would have an important tone on the 1. Or somehow different
    Those modal formulas are a great idea for going through modes and internalizing them by feeling. I am glad that you also listed the key intervals that give each mode it's own sound. Awesome lesson.