Musical mode

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In music, a mode describes a particular diatonic scale.

They hold Greek names reflecting the cities that preferred a given mode in times past. The Greeks felt that playing music in a particular mode would incline one towards specific behavior associated with that mode. Because of this, soldiers would listen to music in dorian modes to help make them stronger, but avoid music in lydian modes, for fear of being softened.

Three of the modes are major, while four of them are minor. One of the minor modes is considered theoretical rather than practical. A mode is said to be minor if the 3rd scale degree is flattened.

  • Major Modes
    • Lydian
    • Ionian
    • Mixolydian
  • Minor Modes
    • Dorian
    • Aolian
    • Phrygian
    • Locrian (the theoretical mode)

You may work with the modes in a couple of ways.

If you're an instrumentalist, you may find the following approach useful to understanding the modal scales.

The Ionian mode is identical to the major scale we use today.

The Aolian mode is identical to the minor scale we use today. Compared to Ionian, its 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes have been flattened.

Lydian is identical to Ionian, except that the 4th note in the scale is sharpened.

Mixolydian is identical to Ionian, exception that the 7th note in the scale is flattened.

Dorian is identical to Aolian, except its 6th scale degree is sharpened.

Phrygian is identical to Aolian, except its 2nd scale degree is lowered.

Locrian, the theoretical mode, is identical to Aolian, except its 2nd and 5th scale degrees are flattened. Because its 5th scale degree is flattened, this mode sounds very unstable, and isn't generally used for melodies.

Using this technique, one may apply a simple bit of mathematics towards converting from one mode to another. First, one should memorize the number of flats and sharps for all Ionian scales (e.g. F flat ionian has 1 flat). One should also memorize how to notate the flats and sharps on a musical bar. Then, one should memorize this chart:

  • Lydian: +1
  • Ionian: 0
  • Mixolydian: -1
  • Dorian: -2
  • Aolian: -3
  • Phrygian: -4
  • Locrian: -5

If you think of flats as negative numbers and sharps as positive numbers, you may use simple mathematics to convert between modes. For example, having memorized that the C major/ionian scale has zero sharps or flats, and wanting to know what notes C phrygian should change, you would add 0 to phyrian's -4 to get -4.. meaning four flats. So C phygian has four flats, (B, E, A, and D).

Or, for a slightly more complicated example, try figuring out F locrian:

F major/ionian has 1 flat, so it's -1. Locrian has a -5, so -1 + -5 is -6. Therefore, F locrian has six flats (B, E, A, D, G, and C).

If you work with keyboard instruments, you may find the following technique more useful in working with modes.

If you're familiar with your major scales, each modal scale may be thought of as starting at a different scale degree from the major scale.

Thus, you may memorize which scale degree to start at for each mode.

  • Lydian: IV
  • Ionian: I
  • Mixolydian: V
  • Dorian: II
  • Aolian: VI
  • Phrygian: III
  • Locrian: VII

(originally written by Fleeb)