Posted by: laurie689 | May 30, 2012

Demystifying Modes

His post is twofold: It contains today’s new subject (Modes), followed by photos of some things I’m selling – to see those please scroll down to the end of the post.

When I was a kid learning clawhammer-style banjo, my teacher referred to one of the common tunings as “G Modal”. I had no idea what he meant, and just learned the tuning by ear. Many years later, with some music theory under my belt, I realized it was actually C Myxolydian, and it was no big mystery.

I’m no smarter than the average person, so please don’t think that because I understand modes I’m some kind of genius. Modes are incredibly simple to grasp when presented logically; the problem most people have in learning about them is that they’re usually taught in the most confusing way! You can learn about modes in ten minutes.

OK, let’s get started. Don’t just read about it – that makes it seem difficult and too esoteric. If you do it as you read about it, you’ll see how amazingly simple it is. Go to a keyboard or a harp (I’m sorry I can’t write this article with an explanation for every kind of instrument, since they all have different scale set-ups. That’s why in music schools the piano is used; it is visually simple so theory can easily be understood. The harp is even simpler visually, so theory is easily learned on a harp as well. If you use a harp, it should be tuned to a C scale for this.) If you learn to understand the concepts on a piano or harp, you can transfer the knowledge to whatever instrument you play.

Now find Middle C. Let’s start from there. C and then seven ascending notes on the white keys. Or on a harp, just play the seven consecutive strings going upward from C. (The harp strings are tuned like the white keys of the piano, when you’re in the key of C.) That is called a diatonic scale and you’ll recognize it as Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti. The octave note (eighth one up from the tonic, or “Do”) starts the scale in the next octave. We all knew that just from listening to the song “Doe, a Deer”, even if we didn’t know any technical terminology.

The diatonic scale contains all the notes of the modes you’re about to learn. A mode is a scale based on the diatonic scale, but which begins on a note other than the tonic (lowest note). You’ll find that if you start on a note other than the tonic and play just white keys (or on the harp, don’t engage any new levers), the new scale will have some notes that don’t fit in the do-re-mi scheme. The unusual scales you get this way are modes. (And actually, the diatonic scale is also a mode: it’s called Ionian.)

Here’s what makes them easy to learn: do it by their numbers, as follows:

Ionian – the 1 mode – goes from the tonic (1) note up seven successive notes plus one more to its octave, or, to put it very simply, from 1 to 8. Try saying the number of the note as you play it, “1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8”. (If you say the name of the note, as in C,D,E, etc. you will confuse yourself because the principle of modes is not dependent on the note names, but on their relative positions, or numbers.)

Dorian – the 2 mode – goes from the second note (2) up to its octave (from 2 to 2). Start on the 2 note (i.e. D) and say the note names as you play them, “2,3,4,5,6,7,1,2”

Phrygian – the 3 mode – goes from the third note (3) up to its octave, or from 3 to 3. Start on the 3 note (i.e. E) and say the note names as you play them, “3,4,5,6,7,1,2,3”

…and so on with each mode:

Lydian – the 4 mode
Mixolydian – the 5 mode
Aeolean – the 6 mode
Locrian – the 7 mode

In any key there are seven modes, as named above. The modes retain their numbers/names regardless of key. When you play modes in a key other than C, you have to use the notes that are sharped or flatted in that key. But no mode requires that you sharp or flat any note other than the ones already in the diatonic scale of that key. A mode always has 7 tones (notes).

There are other kinds of scales, such as various pentatonic, Arabic and Oriental scales, but these may have fewer or more notes than modal scales, or they may contain sharps or flats that do not appear in a diatonic scale. Therefore, not all unusual-sounding scales are modes.

I’m often asked why some music is called “modal” to distinguish it as being different from the diatonic scale, when the diatonic scale is also a mode (Ionian). Well, in common terminology the term “modal music” is inaccurately used for music in a mode other than diatonic. More accurately, “modal” should mean a scale other than chromatic*.

Below is a chart to help you see and understand the modes clearly. The top line of the chart shows the position of whole steps and half steps on a piano or harp. You don’t have to do anything special to get the whole steps or half steps; they are inherent in the tuning of the instrument and will automatically occur on the white keys of the piano or the strings of the harp tuned to C.

Notice that the numbers of the notes go from 1 to 7 and then repeat in the next octave, and that the number 8 is in parentheses because it is also 1 of the next octave. (In other words, in the exercise described above, middle C is 1, and the C an octave higher is 8, but 8 is also the starting note of the next octave, so it is also 1.)

You can click on the chart to enlarge it.

*Chromatic: a chromatic scale is a 12-tone scale containing all the sharps, whereas a diatonic scale is 7-tone. You can get a chromatic scale by playing all the keys in one octave of a piano – i.e. C to C including all the black keys. On a harp, start with all your levers down and play the ascending notes from the tonic of whatever you’re tuned to (Eb, Bb or C), raising each lever after you play the natural note so you’re plucking the string twice. (You’ll notice the third and seventh levers will give you the same note as the next position – for now just ignore that. I’ll write about it in a future blog.)


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