Scale Construction 2 – A Deeper Look at Major Modes

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Last time we covered the basics of tonality and modality – I discussed what makes scales and keys sound major or minor; how to construct a major and natural minor scale using the semitone-tone interval pattern method; and how to connect those scales together, either by starting with the same root note and using different semitone-tone interval patterns or by modulating through keys but using the same mode (using the same interval pattern).

If you haven’t read the previous post, please feel free to go back and get yourself caught up here

I want to dig a little deeper in to this topic in this post, so you can understand the flexibility that we can gain by thinking about modes in a number of different ways.

Below are a few tables which explain different methods of constructing modes. Each method highlights a different focal point; I’m hoping that by showing you this way it will become clearer to you how interconnected these modes are.

Table 1 – Major modes in the key of C

Mode Notes (C root note) Home Key of mode Degrees compared to major Interval Pattern
Ionian (Major) C  D  E  F  G  A  B C TTSTTTS
Dorian D  E  F  G  A  B  C C Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Phrygian E  F  G  A  B  C  D C Flat 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th STTTSTT
Lydian F  G  A  B  C  D  E C Sharp 4th TTTSTTS
Mixolydian G  A  B  C  D  E  F C Flat 7th TTSTTST
Aeolian (natural minor) A  B  C  D  E  F  G C Flat 3rd, 6th and 7th TSTTSTT
Locrian B  C  D  E  F  G  A C Flat 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th STTSTTT

Table 2 – Dorian mode through every key

Mode Notes Home Key of Mode Degrees compared to major mode Interval Pattern
Dorian C D Eb F G A Bb Bb Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian C# D# E F# G# A# B B Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian D E F G A B C C Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db Db Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian E F# G A B C# D D Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian F G A Bb C D Eb Eb Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian F# G# A B C# D# E E Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian G A Bb C D E F F Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian G# A# B C# D# E# F# F# Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian A B C D E F# G G Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian Bb C Db Eb F G Ab Ab Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Dorian B C# D E F# G# A A Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST

Table 3 – Modes starting on note C

Mode Notes (C root note) Home key of Mode Degrees compared to major Interval Pattern
Ionian (Major) C  D  E  F  G  A  B C Ermm.. it’s the same, obviously TTSTTTS
Dorian C  D  Eb  F  G  A  Bb Bb Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Phrygian C  Db  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb Ab Flat 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th STTTSTT
Lydian C  D  E  F#  G  A  B G Sharp 4th TTTSTTS
Mixolydian C  D  E  F  G  A  Bb F Flat 7th TTSTTST
Aeolian (natural minor) C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb Eb Flat 3rd, 6th and 7th TSTTSTT
Locrian C  Db  Eb  F  Gb  Ab  Bb Db Flat 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th STTSTTT

Table 4 – Modes starting on note C, according to brightness

Mode Notes (C root note) Home key of Mode Degrees compared to major Interval Pattern
Lydian C  D  E  F#  G  A  B G Sharp 4th TTTSTTS
Ionian (Major) C  D  E  F  G  A  B C TTSTTTS
Mixolydian C  D  E  F  G  A  Bb F Flat 7th TTSTTST
Dorian C  D  Eb  F  G  A  Bb Bb Flat 3rd and 7th TSTTTST
Aeolian (natural minor) C  D  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb Eb Flat 3rd, 6th and 7th TSTTSTT
Phrygian C  Db  Eb  F  G  Ab  Bb Ab Flat 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th STTTSTT
Locrian C  Db  Eb  F  Gb  Ab  Bb Db Flat 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th STTSTTT

Table 1 shows all of the seven major modes that can be derived by using the notes of the C major scale. Notice that unlike the modes in Table 3 which are derived by starting on the note C, all of the modes in Table 1 contain the same 7 notes, but with a different starting point. Crucially, the “degrees compared to major” column does not change – this shows how each mode relates to the major scale that shares the root note of that mode. This does not change because, the intervals between the notes are what create the “sound” or mood of the mode.

For example, Dorian will always have a flat 3rd and flat 7th, Lydian will always have a sharpened 4th, and mixolydian a flattened 7th.

Table 2 shows this, by cycling through all the dorian modes of every key.

Table 3 shows us the modes when they all based on the same root note. Notice in this table and table 4, key that the mode is based in, is changing; this is because the notes within the scales are changing as the modes are being applied to the same root note. In order for the mode to have the correct interval pattern, we have to modulate it to a different major key.

In Table 4 I have arranged the modes according to their tone colours, from brightest to darkest. Lydian is said to have the brightest tone because of the sharpened 4th, and the modes become progressively “duller” because of the introduction of more and more flats each time, with Locrian at the bottom being the most sinister. This is a great thing to be aware of when writing, as it gives a really definite palette to choose from.

The best way to understand how the modes are constructed in table 1 is to notice how the notes rotate as you progress through the modes from Ionian to Locrian.

C Ionian : C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C             D Dorian:  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D           E Phrygian:  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E

                      T  T  S  T   T   T  S                                     T  S  T   T   T  S  T                                        S  T   T   T  S  T  T

When moving from C Ionian to D Dorian, we can see that the notes stay the same, but the note C is put to the back of the queue. What we are doing is essentially just calling D the root note rather than C. We are in the same key, but a different mode, and by doing this through all seven of those modes, we have got such a huge choice of tonal possibilities with barely any work at all! What we have got here is a gem for inspiration; a 7 for the price of 1 deal.

I have explained the three best ways that I know of to build modes when writing – they all work equally well in simple construction of the scales, but they all also have real life applications in music as an harmonic device when modulating through keys. This is a great musical idea when you want to bring some interest in your tunes, maybe when you move to a new section, or bring back an existing theme.

Method 1: Pick a major key, and work out what modes are available by rotating through the positions of that key as in Table 1. E.g. In A major, and I want to use the mixolydian mode (fifth mode), I count through the positions of the scale – when I land on the fifth note, E, I know that a scale starting on E and using the notes of the A major scale will be E mixolydian. This is known as relative modulation or modal modulation, as the home major key remains the same, but the tonality changes. 

Method 2: Pick a mode, and work out which key you want to use by moving the whole collection together until you have the correct starting note. This is sometimes called parallel modulation, where the tonality remains the same but the key changes, as is shown in Table 2. 

Method 3: Choose a starting note, build the major scale for it, pick a mode and tweak the scale by applying the mode’s signature of sharps or flats as in Table 3. E.g. Choose the note G, build a major scale/Ionian mode for it, then sharpen the 4th for G Lydian, or flatten the 7th for G Mixolydian. This is a great technique for really accomplished sounding modulation as we change key and tonality smoothly without jumping to a new root note. 

Whichever of these three methods you prefer, I want to emphasise here that the aim is allow the theory just be a tool, try not to get too bogged down; so while being able to build a mode in isolation is great, the real power of this music theory is when you can start to realise that all keys and all modes are really very interconnected, and start to incorporate that in to your music.

Let’s take for example a ii-V-I progression in F major.

fmaj7

Instead of thinking of the whole progression as being in F major (or since we are in modal land, F Ionian) lets break it down a bit more. For each chord we can use a different mode – G Dorian for Gmin7, C Mixolydian for C7 and F Ionian for the Fmaj7. This works because we are only using modal modulation, so the notes are staying the same but the tonality is changing.

At this simple level, this is mainly academic as it may not change the sound of the music. What it will do however is make you change the way that you are thinking about the harmony. To take this up a notch what we can do, and something that is very common in jazz, is to applying really colourful modulations to the harmony by using this modal thinking.

For example, looking at this example again, V7 chords are often substituted with chords that are very dissonant so that the release of returning the tonic chord of Fmaj7 is all the more effective.

modaliivisub

This is a mode that we haven’t covered yet, but essentially what is happening is we are modulating out to F harmonic minor for one chord and then coming back to F major (C Phrygian Dominant) for the Fmaj7 chord at the end. We can do this because we have broken each bar or phrase in to much smaller chunks with a deep focus on the harmonic changes.

A good real life example of modal modulation is in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which keeps with the Dorian mode and modulates up a tone. This way the modality of the song stays the same but some harmonic variation is brought in to the piece.

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue – 1959 (Complete Album)

http://youtu.be/kbxtYqA6ypM Discography (with links to each song’s starting point): 1. So What – 00m00s 2. Freddie Freeloader – 9m26s 3. Blue in Green – 19m19s 4. All Blues – 24m47s 5. Flamenco Sketches 36m23s 6. Flamenco Sketches (Alternate Take) 45m51s Album Description: Kind of Blue is a studio album by American jazz musician Miles Davis, released on August 17, 1959, by Columbia Records.

Some other great examples of more modal playing are:

Steve Vai’s “Feather”, which uses the Lydian mode

Steve Vai – Feathers

no description 😛

John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” which makes use of modal modulation similar in theory to the Miles Davis piece above, but with a much more dynamic style

John Coltrane – Giant Steps

music by John Coltrane. Animation by Michal Levy. see a WAY better quality version of it here: http://www.michalevy.com/gs_download.html

Bjork’s “Army Of Me” for great use of the Locrian mode.

Björk – Army of Me

From the album “Post”. Written by Björk, Graham Massey. ® 1995 One Little Indian Records Ltd.

I hope this quick whisk through has acquainted your ear to some of these modes and explained in a bit more detail the relationships between them. I find that having that understanding on a lower level than just the major and minor key keeps options open and lets me have more fun and freedom when playing with harmony.

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