To get the most from this article, please see my first post on Modes  (“Demystifying Modes”, published on this site on 5/30/2012),  in which I presented the basic concepts of modes in an easy-to-understand format.

When a folk or traditional musician sits down with a group to play a tune, the usual question is, “What key is it in?” When someone asks this question, we sometimes find, upon starting to play, that it’s really not in the stated key; it may have a minor chord where a major would be, or a flat where a natural should be. This isn’t a trick on the newcomer; usually the person who told you doesn’t know their modes.

Just because a tune uses a certain chord as its tonic doesn’t mean that’s the key. You might, for instance, begin and end on an A chord, when the actual key is G (that would be Dorian mode.) For those playing instruments with chromatic capability, this is not a big deal. That’s probably why many folks don’t realize that if there’s an anomaly (other than an occasional accidental) in the scale, it’s not a straight major or minor scale.

For someone with a non-chromatic instrument, it can be more challenging when someone tells you they’re in a certain key that turns out to actually be a mode instead. A harpist may end up wildly flipping levers in the middle of a tune, or a pennywhistle player might have to switch whistles, and so on. Of course they discover the problem only after they’ve played a chord or note that should have been in the key they were given but which has turned out to be wrong. This makes the hapless victim look like a dunce.

If using notation, the best way to determine the actual mode is to look at the ending melody note. If, for instance, the key signature indicates key of C and the ending note is C, then you’re in the key of C; but if you’re in the key of C but the ending note is D (the 2 note of the key of C) you’re in Dorian mode. If it’s G (the 5 note of the key of C), you’re in Mixolydian. And so on. (If the previous sentence made your brain freeze, my first article on modes explains how to easily determine each mode and how the modes can be played in any key.)

Just for fun, let’s diverge a bit for a moment. Two common questions about modes are, “What do their names mean?” and “Where did they come from?” Ask any five people these questions and you’ll get five different answers; it seems there is no consensus. My friend Lorna Govier, a wonderful harpist and teacher living in Tucson, sent me some fascinating information to share with you:

Modes have been defined and redefined many times throughout history in a rather convoluted way. This is one of the reasons the subject can be so confusing. The original mode names refer to Greek scales (not modes) which sound quite odd. Some of these names refer to the group of people who supposedly used them (i.e. “Phrygians” and “Lydians”); however, such assignments were probably wild guesses. There were also eight church modes (called “Gregorian modes”), which used the old Greek scale names but sounded quite different. And in 1547, Swiss theorist Henricus Glareanus added four more modes to make twelve. To make matters more confusing, the mode names were switched in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and it was decided to go back to only eight modes. But that didn’t stick either; now the modern system employs seven modes with Greek names that are different (again!) from the Gregorian modes. Interestingly, Akkadian texts (which predate Greek texts) define seven modes which are the same as the modern modes, but not with Greek names. And to confuse the matter a bit more, since the end of the eighteenth century, the term “mode” has also been applied to some non-European musical scales.

When I Googled “Ancient Greek Modes”, everything I found was about the modes that are, given the above information, actually the modern ones, so apparently most folks are under the impression that the modern modes are ancient and Greek. (“Ancient” and “modern” may be relative terms, as we’ve been using these modes since the Middle Ages. But that’s more modern than ancient Greek culture.) But their designation as Greek is at least partially erroneous; even though they’ve been given Greek names, some of these modes were commonly used in Europe, and still are; that’s why I used Dorian and Mixolydian as examples above  –  they are very common, for instance, in Celtic music.

So… back to the seven “modern” modes I’d been discussing:

Each mode has a characteristic harmonic structure that gives it a distinctive sound. In my first article on modes I offered the easiest and most obvious way to understand them. For the left-brained among us, there are many ways of describing them, some more complex than others, though they all say the same thing in the end. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia: “The Ionian mode is the only mode whose dominant seventh chord type occurs naturally on the fifth scale degree, as V7…”

No wonder so many folks run screaming when they hear the word “modes”. But for those who do want a little more detail as a next step from my first article, here’s a good way to understand what gives each mode its characteristic sound:

First, there are four basic principles you have to know:

1. The Do-Re-Mi scale consists of half steps and whole steps as follows: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half (1,1, ½, 1,1,1, ½.)  (Why, you might ask, is a scale not all whole steps? For now, suffice it to say that it would sound really weird if it were. In the future I’ll do an article on that. Right now, for the sake of staying on subject, just take my word for it.)

2. There are no sharps or flats in any of the seven modes when you’re in the Key of C, and when in other keys, no sharps or flats are added to the existing ones to create any mode. All the modes contain only the notes in the diatonic scale  –  no more and no less.

3. Each mode simply starts in a different position.

4. When you start a scale on a note other than the tonic (note 1) of the key, the positions of the half steps are automatically shifted because you’ve started on a note other than 1.

Now let’s look at each mode:

The Ionian or “1” mode is the normal scale that we call “diatonic” or “major”. It goes from the tonic (1) note (of any key) up seven successive notes plus one more to its octave, or, to put it very simply, from 1 to 8 (in the key of C it is: C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C). As described in the previous paragraph, the half steps in this scale are between notes 3 and 4 and between notes 7 and 8.  Therefore the positions of whole steps and half steps in Ionian are: 1,1, ½, 1,1,1, ½

The Dorian, or “2” mode goes from the second note (2) up to its octave (from 2 to 2). Therefore, the half steps are automatically shifted down one position, thusly: whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole (1, ½, 1,1,1, ½, 1).

The Phrygian, or “3” mode, starts one note higher than the Dorian, going from the third note (3) up to its octave, or from 3 to 3. Therefore, the half steps automatically shift down one more position, thusly: ½, 1,1,1, ½, 1, 1.

…and so on with each mode:

Lydian (4 mode):  1,1,1, ½, 1, 1, ½

Mixolydian  (5 mode):  1,1, ½, 1, 1, ½, 1

Aeolean ( 6 mode):  1, ½, 1, 1, ½, 1,1

Locrian  (7 mode):  ½, 1, 1, ½, 1,1,1

I suppose the big question is, “So what?” For those who are simply playing tunes learned because we like them, whether by ear of from notation, you may never be affected by the fact that some of the tunes are in one mode or another. You can just play them without ever having to think about that. But for those who compose music, understanding modes can help you in creating specific moods in your music. And for those studying with a therapeutic music training program, understanding modes may be part of your training, as each mode’s characteristic “feel” can affect listeners’ emotions (and, some say, their physical state as well), so knowing how to use modes is considered important. And for all of us, understanding why a piece sounds as it does (“Oh, it’s eerie because it’s in Locrian mode!”) is just plain interesting.

One more thing to know: if you hear someone say “D Dorian”, it means Dorian starting from D, not Dorian in the key of D.  D Dorian is in the key of C; it starts on the 2 note (D) of the C scale. Likewise, D Mixolydian would start on the D (5) note of the G scale. The best way to figure what key a mode is in when someone says something like, “We’re in D Mixolydian”, is to know your mode numbers. For instance, Mixolydian is the 5 mode. So if someone says “D Mixolydian”, count down five notes from and including D – that would be D, C, B, A, G – and you arrive on G, which is the key.

By the way, some will argue that a mode is not a scale. Any grouping of successive notes can be called a scale (for example, a “pentatonic scale” is only five notes, but it’s still a scale). Wikipedia says a scale is “a series of notes differing in pitch according to a specific scheme…” I would add that the notes are in an ascending order (a scale doesn’t change directions).

If all this has made your eyes glaze over, don’t worry about it. What I wrote in my first article on modes will get you started.

Don’t think you can’t play music if you’re not up on your modes. Knowing your modes and other theory makes us better musicians, but we all have a right to play for fun and entertainment.

Next week: Practicing Effectively