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Hearing and Understanding Musical Modes

By Edited Jun 15, 2016 0 1

The musical modes are somewhat of a mystery for many musicians, and there seems to be a great deal of confusion surrounding them. I believe it is important to not only have a theoretical understanding of modes, but also to be able to appreciate their special characteristics from an "ear-based" perspective. In this article I would like to discuss some basic music theory relating to the modes, and how to really hear and internalize them. I will focus exclusively on the modes of the major scale. I will relate all the examples to the "parent" scale of C major for the sake of simplicity and clarity. Your goal should be to understand and hear these relationships in all 12 keys.

So, what are the modes called and how are they made?

Lets talk about the major scale. In the key of "C" the major scale is composed of the notes C,D,E,F,G,A,B and C an octave higher than our starting note. The major scale is our first mode. We call it the "Ionian" mode. All of the modes have names derived from the ancient Greek tribes. The major scale, or Ionian mode has seven scale degrees, and we can  number them 1,2,3,4,5,6, and 7. Each number corresponds with a scale degree, so C=1, D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, and B=7.  It would be helpful to sing and then play the major scale, from C to C, on your instrument (or just sing each note if your voice is your instrument). Singing the notes is an important part of internalizing the sound of all the modes. What kind of "flavor" does this mode have? Most people would agree that the general sound of the Ionian mode is a "happy" one. The melodies of many nursery rhymes and countless other songs are constructed from the Ionian mode. This should sound very familiar!

To build the next mode, we would start on the note "D" and play D,E,F,G,A,B,C, and D an octave higher than our starting note. Note that we are playing the same notes as we played in the Ionian mode, but that we are starting on the note "D" instead. This is the Dorian mode. Notice the minor coloration of this mode. It has a very interesting sound, especially with the note "B," which is the natural 6th scale degree. The melody of "Greensleeves" is a perfect example of the Dorian mode in practice. Again, sing the notes of the mode and play them on your instrument. 

Using the same pitches but starting and ending on the note "E," we get the Phrygian mode. This mode tends to have a slightly exotic sound compared to the Ionian and Dorian modes- a sound that many people associate with traditional Spanish music. This mode has a definite minor sound, and the minor 2nd interval between the notes E and F creates a kind of tension that gives the Phrygian mode its unique flavor. Sing and play this mode. Be sure to practice all the modes slowly. The goal is to really hear how each of them are unique and special.

The final mode we will discuss in part one of the article will be the Lydian mode. This mode is constructed by starting and ending on the note "F." As always, slowly sing and play each note of the mode. The Lydian mode has a major sound, but is especially "bright" due to the flatted fifth (the note "B") scale degree. I feel that the Lydian mode can evoke a sense of awe and mystery and is indeed very beautiful.  The flatted fifth scale degree can take some time to get used to, but I think your ear will eventually appreciate the unique character of this intervallic relationship.

In part two, we will continue our exploration of the modes of the major scale, moving on through the Mixolydian mode, the  Aeolian mode, and concluding with the Locrian mode.  I hope this article has begun to take some of the confusion out of this subject, and I look forward to more musical exploring!



Jun 18, 2013 3:08am
Just what I need. Encouragement to feel, yet understand music. I was guilty of playing the piano piece perfectly for my music teacher as a child. But she got upset because I did not turn over the pages of the mucic book. I battled to sight read. My elder sister had perfect pitch and hated to hear me practise. That left me in a difficult space for the next 40 years. So now I want to start all over again.
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