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Musical mode

In music, a mode is a ordered series of musical intervals, which, along with the key or tonic define the pitcheses. However, mode is usually applied only to the specific scaless found below.

Table of contents
1 History
2 The major and minor modes
3 Learning the modes
4 Further Reading


The early music of Greek antiquity referred to scales in the context of scalar modes. The modes are named after cities that preferred a given mode in times past. The Greek philosopher Plato felt that playing music in a particular mode would incline one towards specific behavior associated with that mode, and suggested that soldiers should listen to music in dorian mode to help make them stronger, but avoid music in lydian mode, for fear of being softened.

There is a common misconception that the Church modes of medieval European music were directly descended from this notion of modality. In fact, the church modes originated in the 10th century. Authors from that period misinterpreted a text by Boethius, a scholar from the 6th century who had translated the Greek musical theory into Latin. In the 16th century, the Swiss theorist Henricus Glareanus published Dodekachordon, in which he solidified the concept of the church modes, and added four additional modes: the Aeolian, Hypoaeolian, Ionian, and Hypoionian. Thus, the names of the modes used today do not actually reflect those used by the Greeks.

Early music made heavy use of the Church modes, which were later organized due to their relationship to the interval pattern of the major scale. The modern conception of modal scales describes a system where each mode is the usual diatonic scale, but with a different starting note. Modes came back into favour some time later in the development of jazz (modal jazz) and more contemporary 20th century music. Much folk music is also best analysed in terms of modes. For example, in Irish traditional music the ionian, dorian, aeolian and mixolydian modes occur (in roughly decreasing order of frequency); the phrygian mode is an important part of the flamenco sound.

The major and minor modes

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

Minor Modes

Each mode has a characteristic
scale degree and certain harmonic structures that give each its distinctive sound.

Learning the modes

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.

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 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:

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 phrygian's -4 to get -4.. meaning four flats. So C phrygian 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.

The patterns of tones (T) and semitones (S) are as follows:

TTTsTTs Lydian
TTsTTTs Ionian (modern major)
TTsTTsT Myxolydian
TsTTTsT Dorian
TsTTsTT Aeolian (modern minor)
sTTTsTT Phrygian
sTTsTTT Locrian

Note the shifts of alternate semitones from row to row.

Each of these modes has a unique scale without any sharps or flats. They are as follows:

Lydian     F
Ionian     C major
Myxolydian G
Dorian     D
Aeolian    A minor
Phrygian   E
Locrian    B

Further Reading