In part one of "Hearing and Understanding Musical Modes," we began to explore the modes derived from the major scale. We talked about approaches to learning, internalizing, and singing each mode, and covered the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian modes. All examples were given relating to a C major "parent scale." Ultimately, we want to be able to hear, sing, and understand the modes in every key. Let's continue our exploration of the modes...
The fifth mode of the major scale is the Mixolydian. If we play the notes of the C major scale from G to the G an octave higher, we have the Mixolydian mode. Play and sing each scale degree slowly and deliberately, absorbing the sound and unique characteristics of the mode. It sounds major, but is lacking the natural seventh scale degree (the "leading tone" in classical nomenclature). What we find instead is a flatted seventh degree (the note "F"). The flatted seventh degree suggests a dominant seventh chord. G Mixolydian is easy to relate to a G dominant 7th chord, both theoretically and aurally. I find that the Mixolydian always reminds me of the melody of the Beatles' "Within You Without You," from "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band."
If we play the notes of our C major "parent scale" from A to the A an octave above, we discover the Aeolian mode. This mode is also known as the "natural minor scale" and has been used extensively in both classical and folk music. Sing and play the Aeolian mode slowly, focusing on the sound of each scale degree and how they relate to one another. The "A" Aeolian mode strongly suggests an A minor chord, which is a frequently used chord in the key of C major, and is C major's relative minor. Notice also how the Aeolian differs from the Dorian mode. Both are minor, but the sixth degree creates the unique flavor of each of these modes. The Aeolian features a flatted sixth degree, and the Dorian features a natural sixth degree. I find it interesting that the difference of a half-step creates such a striking change in color.
Playing our C major "parent scale" from B to the B an octave above yields the Locrian mode. To me this mode is perhaps the strangest sounding mode we can derive from the major scale. It is a minor scale with a flatted fifth degree, and evokes the sound of the B half-diminished chord. Sing each scale degree slowly and try to internalize the unique sound of the Locrian mode. This mode may take extra time to really hear, because we generally do not often encounter this sound, except for in jazz.
I am hoping that this two-part article has been helpful in simplifying and clarifying the subject of learning and hearing modes. By starting on different scale degrees of a "parent" major scale, we can discover many interesting musical possibilities, and hopefully eventually incorporate these possibilities into our improvising and composing. Once you have the unique sounds of the modes strongly in your ear, you can learn to identify them in the music that surrounds you.