Musical mode

From New World Encyclopedia

In music, a scale is an ordered series of musical intervals, which, along with the key or tonic, define the pitches. However, mode is usually used in the sense of scale applied only to the specific diatonic scales found below. The use of more than one mode is polymodal, such as with polymodal chromaticism. While all tonal music may technically be described as modal, music that is called modal often has less diatonic functionality and changes keys less often than other music.

Greek modes

Early Greek treatises on music referred to modes, or scales, which were named after certain of the Ancient Greek subgroups (Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians), one small region in central Greece (Locris), and certain neighboring (non-Greek) peoples from Asia Minor (Lydia, Phrygia).

The Greek modes were:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian and Hypodorian
  • Phrygian and Hypophrygian
  • Lydian, Hypolydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

Plato believed that playing music in a particular mode would incline one towards specific behavior associated with that mode, and suggested that soldiers should listen to music in Dorian or Phrygian modes to help make them stronger, but avoid music in Lydian, Mixed Lydian or Ionian modes, for fear of being softened. Plato believed that a change in the musical modes of the state would cause a wide-scale social revolution.

The philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle (c. 350 B.C.E.) include sections that describe the effect of different musical modes on mood and character formation. For example, this quote from Aristotle's Politics:

The musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each. Some of them make men sad and grave, like the so called Mixolydian; others enfeeble the mind, like the relaxed modes; another, again, produces a moderate or settled temper, which appears to be the peculiar effect of the Dorian; and the Phrygian inspires enthusiasm.

Plato and Aristotle describe the modes to which a person listened as molding the person's character. The modes even made the person more or less fit for certain jobs. The effect of modes on character and mood was called the "ethos of music."

Church modes

There is a common misconception that the church modes of medieval European music were directly descended from the Greek notion of modality mentioned above. In fact, the church modes originated in the ninth century. Authors from that period misinterpreted a text by Boethius, a scholar from the sixth century who had translated the Greek musical theory into Latin. In the sixteenth century, the Swiss theorist Henricus Glareanus published Dodekachordon, in which he solidified the concept of the church modes, and added four additional modes: the Aeolian, Hypoaeolian, Ionian, and Hypoionian. Thus, the names of the modes used today do not actually reflect those used by the Greeks.

The eight church modes, or Gregorian modes, can be divided into four pairs, where each pair shares the "final" note. The pair also shares the central five notes of the scale. If the "scale" is completed by adding the three upper notes, the mode is termed authentic, while if the scale is completed by adding the three lower notes, the mode is called plagal (serious).

The pairs are organized so that the modes sharing a final note are numbered together, with the odd numbers used for the authentic modes and the even numbers for the plagal modes.

In addition, each mode has a "dominant" or "reciting tone," which is the tenor of the psalm tone. The reciting tones of all authentic modes began a fifth above the final, with those of the plagal modes a third above. However, the reciting tones of modes 3, 4, and 8 rose one step during the tenth and eleventh centuries with 3 and 8 moving from b to c (half step) and that of 4 moving from g to a (whole step) (Hoppin 1978, p.67).

Only one accidental is used commonly in Gregorian chant—si (B) may be lowered by a half-step. This usually (but not always) occurs in modes V and VI, and is optional in other modes.

Name Dorian Hypodorian Phrygian Hypophrygian Lydian Hypolydian Mixolydian Hypomixolydian
Final (note) D D E E F F G G
Final (solfege) re re mi mi fa fa sol sol
Dominant (note) A F B-C A C A D C
Dominant (solfege) la fa si-do la do la re do

Given the confusion between ancient, early, and modern terminology, "today it is more consistent and practical to use the traditional designation of the modes with numbers one to eight," (Curtis 1998) using Roman numeral (I-VIII), rather than using the pseudo-Greek naming system.

The eight musical modes. f indicates "final" (Curtis, 1998).

Use of the modes

Early music made heavy use of the Church modes. A mode indicated a primary pitch (a final); the organization of pitches in relation to the final; suggested range; melodic formulas associated with different modes; location and importance of cadences; and affect (i.e., emotional effect). As Liane Curtis (1998) explains, "Modes should not be equated with scales: principles of melodic organization, placement of cadences, and emotional affect are essential parts of modal content," in Medieval and Renaissance music.

Carl Dahlhaus (1990, p.192) lists "three factors that form the respective starting points for the modal theories of Aurelian of Réôme, Hermannus Contractus, and Guido of Arezzo:

  1. the relation of modal formulas to the comprehensive system of tonal relationships embodied in the diatonic scale;
  2. the partitioning of the octave into a modal framework; and
  3. the function of the modal final as a relational center."

The oldest medieval treatise regarding modes is Musica disciplina by Aurelian of Réôme while Hermannus Contractus was the first to define modes as partitionings of the octave (Dahlhaus, p.192-191).

Various interpretations of the "character" imparted by the different modes have been suggested. Three such interpretations, from Guido D'Arezzo (995-1050), Adam of Fulda (1445-1505), and Juan de Espinoza Medrano (1632-1688), follow:

Name Mode D'Arezzo Fulda Espinoza Example chant
Dorian I serious any feeling happy, taming the passions Veni sancte spiritus (listen)
Hypodorian II sad sad serious and tearful Iesu dulcis amor meus (listen)
Phrygian III mystic vehement inciting anger Kyrie, fons bonitatis (listen)
Hypophrygian IV harmonious tender inciting delights, tempering fierceness Conditor alme siderum (listen)
Lydian V happy happy happy Salve Regina (listen)
Hypolydian VI devout pious tearful and pious Ubi caritas (listen)
Mixolydian VII angelical of youth uniting pleasure and sadness Introibo (listen)
Hypomixolydian VIII perfect of knowledge very happy Ad cenam agni providi (listen)

Most of the theoretical writings on Gregorian chant modes postdate the composition of the early Gregorian chant repertoire, which was not composed with the intention of conforming to particular modes. As a result, for these chants, the application of a mode number can be only approximate. Later chants, however, were written with a conscious eye on the eight modes.

Modern modes

The modern conception of modes describes a system where each mode encompasses the usual diatonic scale but with a different tonic or tonal center. The modes can be arranged in the following sequence, where each next mode has one more shortened interval in its scale.

mode Intervals in the modal scales
prime second third fourth fifth sixth seventh
Lydian IV perfect major major augmented perfect major major
Ionian I perfect major major perfect perfect major major
Mixolydian V perfect major major perfect perfect major minor
Dorian II perfect major minor perfect perfect major minor
Aeolian VI perfect major minor perfect perfect minor minor
Phrygian III perfect minor minor perfect perfect minor minor
Locrian VII perfect minor minor perfect diminished minor minor

The first three modes are termed major, and the remaining ones are minor. A mode is deemed major or minor by the intervallic relationship between the 1st and 3rd scale degrees. A mode is considered minor if the 1st and 3rd scale degrees form a minor 3rd (three semitones above the root). A major mode instead has a major 3rd (four semitones) from the 1st scale degree to the 3rd.

The Locrian mode is traditionally considered theoretical rather than practical because the interval between the 1st and 5th scale degrees is diminished rather than perfect, which creates difficulties in voice leading. However, Locrian is recognized in jazz theory as the preferred mode to play over a iiø7 chord in a minor iiø7-V7-i progression, where it is called a 'half-diminished' scale.

Major modes

The Ionian mode is identical to a major scale. The Lydian mode is a major scale with a raised 4th scale degree. The Mixolydian mode is a major scale with a lowered 7th scale degree.

Minor modes

The Aeolian mode is identical to a natural minor scale. The Dorian mode is a natural minor scale with a raised 6th scale degree. The Phrygian mode is a natural minor mode with a lowered 2nd scale degree. The Locrian mode is a natural minor mode with lowered 2nd and 5th scale degrees.

The relationship between the seven modern modes is discussed in more detail in the article on properties of musical modes.

Use of the modes

Modes came back into favor some time later with the developments of impressionism, jazz, (modal jazz) and more contemporary twentieth century music.

The use and conception of modes or modality today is different from their use and conception in early music. As Jim Samson (1977, p.148) explains, "Clearly any comparison of medieval and modern modality would recognize that the latter takes place against a background of some three centuries of harmonic tonality, permitting, and in the nineteenth century requiring, a dialogue between modal and diatonic procedure."

The Ionian mode is another name for the major mode, in which much Western music is composed. The Aeolian forms the base of the most common Western minor scale; however, a true Aeolian mode composition will use only the seven notes of the Aeolian scale, while nearly every minor mode composition of the common practice period will have some accidentals on the sixth and seventh scale degrees in order to facilitate the cadences of western music.

Besides the Ionian major and modern (harmonic/melodic) minor modes, the other modes have limited use in music today. Folk music is often best analyzed in terms of modes. For example, in Irish traditional music the Ionian, Dorian, Aeolian and Mixolydian modes occur (in roughly decreasing order of frequency); the Phrygian mode is an important part of the flamenco sound. The Dorian mode is also found in other folk music, particularly Latin and Laotian music, while Phrygian is found in some Central European or stylized Arab music, whether as natural Phrygian or harmonic Phrygian (Phrygian Dominant), which has a raised third (the so-called "gypsy scale"). Mixolydian mode is quite common in jazz and most other forms of popular music. Because of its dream-like sound, the Lydian mode is most often heard in soundtrack and video game music.

Some works by Beethoven contain modal inflections, and Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt made extensive use of modes. They influenced nineteenth century Russian composers, including Mussorgsky and Borodin; many twentieth century composers drew on this earlier work in their incorporation of modal elements, including Claude Debussy, Leoš Janáček, Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams and others. Zoltán Kodály, Gustav Holst, Manuel de Falla use modal elements as modifications of a diatonic background, while in the music of Debussy and Béla Bartók modality replaces diatonic tonality (Samson 1977).

They have also been used in popular music, especially in rock music. Some notable examples of songs using modality include Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair (although the ballad was not composed by the group, Simon and Garfunkel popularized it, and will be considered as a modal song in this article), which uses the Dorian mode, and many of the jam-songs of The Grateful Dead.

While remaining relatively uncommon in modern (Western) popular music, the darker tones implied by the flatted 2nd and/or 5th degrees of (respectively) the Phrygian and Locrian modes are evident in diatonic chord progressions and melodies of many guitar-oriented rock bands, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as evidenced on albums such as Metallica's "Ride The Lightning" and "Master of Puppets," among others.

Chords with the modes

In jazz, the modes correspond to and are played over particular chords. The chord examples below are shown for the modes of the key of C. For example, over an Fmaj7♯11 chord, musicians typically play notes from the F Lydian mode.

Mode Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian
Chord Cmaj7 Dm7 Esus♭9 Fmaj7♯11 G7 Am7 Bø (Bm7♭5)

Although both Dorian and Aeolian can be played over a minor seventh (m7) chord, the Dorian mode is most commonly used in straight-ahead jazz because Dorian's 6th scale degree is major in relation both to the first and fifth scale degrees, leaving the interval of a major 2nd (two semitones) between the 5th and 6th scale degrees. In contrast, the 6th scale degree in Aeolian (the "natural minor") is minor in relation both to the 1st and 5th scale degrees, leaving a jarring minor 2nd between the 5th and sixth scale degrees.

Similarly, instead of Locrian, many jazz musicians play the 6th mode of the melodic minor over a half-diminished (ø or m7♭5) chord, because the natural 9th in that mode (e.g. C♯ over Bø) is more consonant with the m7♭5 chord than the ♭9 in Locrian (e.g. C over Bø). The "sus♭9" chord is also often played using the 2nd mode of melodic minor instead of Phrygian because of the natural 6th.

Other types of modes

In modern music theory, scales other than the major scale sometimes have the term "modes" applied to the scales which begin with their degrees. This is seen, for example, in "melodic minor" scale harmony (see Minor scale for a brief description of the melodic minor), which is based on the seven modes of the melodic minor scale, yielding some interesting scales as shown below. The "Chord" row lists chords that can be built from the given mode.

Name minor-major Dorian ♭2 Lydian augmented Lydian dominant Mixolydian ♭6 or "Hindu" half-diminished (or) Locrian ♯2 altered (or) diminished whole-tone (or) Super Locrian
Chord C-maj7 Dsus♭9 E♭maj♯5 F7♯11 G7♭6 Aø (or) A-7♭5 B7alt

Most of these chords and modes are commonly used in jazz; the min/maj chord, 7♯11 and alt were in common use in the bebop era (indeed, the Lydian dominant scale and 7♯11 chord practically defined the bebop sound), while Coltrane-era and later jazz made extensive use of sus♭9 chords. Maj♯5 is less common, but appears in Wayne Shorter's compositions. The ♭6♭7 is rarely seen as such.

Though the term "mode" is still used in this case (and is useful in recognizing that these scales all have a common root, that is the melodic minor scale); it is more common for musicians to understand the term "mode" to refer to Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, or Locrian scales. In everyday speech, this is the most common understanding.

However, strictly speaking, for any possible scale, the number of possible melodic modes is dictated by the number of notes in the scale. 6-note scales have 6 modes, 5-note scales have 5 modes, etc. While most scales (a defined number of notes occurring in defined intervals) have commonly accepted names, most of the modal variations of the more obscure scales do not, and are instead referred to as "3rd mode of [your-scale-name-here]," etc.

Analogues in different musical traditions

  • Echos
  • Makam
  • Maqam
  • Pentatonic scale
  • Raga
  • Thaat

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Apel, Willi. Harvard Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1968. ISBN 978-0674375017
  • Curtis, Liane. "Mode". In Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. ISBN 0520210816
  • Dahlhaus, Carl, and Robert O. Gjerdingen (trans.). Studies in the Origin of Harmonic Tonality. Princeton University Press, 1990. ISBN 0691091358
  • Grout, Donald, Claude Palisca, and Peter J. Burkholder. 2006. A History of Western Music, 7th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. ISBN 0393979911
  • Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978. ISBN 0393090906
  • Judd, Cristle Collins (ed.). 1998. Tonal Structures of Early Music. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0815323883
  • Levine, Mark. The Jazz Piano Book. Petaluma, CA: Sher Music Co., 1989. ISBN 0961470151
  • Meier, Bertrand. The Modes of Classical Vocal Polyphony, Described According to the Sources. translated from the German by Ellen S. Beebe, with revisions by the author. New York: Broude Brothers, 1988. ISBN 978-0845070253
  • Miller, Ron. Modal Jazz Composition and Harmony, Vol. 1. Rottenburg, Germany: Advance Music, 1996.
  • Powers, Harold S. "Mode," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. Grove's Dictionaries of Music Inc., 1995. ISBN 978-1561591749
  • Samson, Jim. Music in transition: A study of tonal expansion and atonality, 1900-1920. Norton, 1977. ISBN 978-0393021936


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