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What Are Music Modes?

September 17, 2023 
BY DAN SPENCER
Last Updated on September 17, 2023

Music, in all its ethereal beauty and complexity, is underpinned by foundational structures that dictate its flow, mood, and harmony. One such foundational element, often overlooked but profoundly impactful, is the concept of 'music modes'.

At first glance, the term might seem esoteric, reserved for the conservatory classrooms or the discussions of seasoned musicians. But delve a bit deeper, and you'll discover that modes have influenced everything from ancient Gregorian chants to today’s chart-topping hits.

In this article, we will take an exploration into music modes to shed light on the melodic and harmonic choices that shape our favorite songs. As we embark on this journey together, the secrets behind each mode and its unique sonic signature will unravel.

What Are Music Modes?

At the core of Western music lies the diatonic scale, a series of seven unique notes that come full circle at the octave. Think of the familiar Do-Re-Mi sequence, and you're already on the right track. However, what if we started this sequence on a different note, say Mi or La, but kept the same series of intervals? Suddenly, the mood, the tonal center, and the harmonic tendencies shift. These different starting points, these varied pathways through the same set of notes, are what we refer to as 'modes'.

Historically, modes were the primary scales used in Western music, long before the major and minor scales took dominance. Each mode has its distinct flavor, stemming from its unique pattern of intervals — the spaces between notes. Some modes sound joyful and bright, others sad and contemplative, and some even carry an air of mystery. This diversity in character is what makes modes so versatile and relevant, even in contemporary music.

From the standpoint of music theory, there are seven different modes, each named after ancient Greek tribes and regions. These are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. While these names might sound foreign, their sonic characteristics might be more familiar than you think, as they are embedded in many of the songs and compositions we love.

The 7 Modes In Music

In music you will find seven musical modes, each with its own unique mood, structure, and backstory. From the uplifting vibes of the Ionian mode to the mysterious depths of the Locrian, each offers a fresh palette of emotions and sounds. In this section, we'll explore each of these seven modes, highlighting their defining characteristics and their influence on the world of music. Prepare to embark on a melodious voyage through the rich tapestry of musical modes.

1. Ionian Mode

Ear buds, cassette tapes, and text saying pop music representing the Ionian mode in music.

Often synonymous with what most of us recognize as the major scale, the Ionian mode is the cornerstone of Western music theory, characterized by its unmistakably bright and joyful sound. Beginning on the first note of the diatonic scale, the Ionian mode is the sequence that starts our familiar Do-Re-Mi progression.

In terms of its interval structure, the Ionian mode consists of whole and half steps in the pattern: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half. This arrangement gives it a sense of completeness, resolution, and positivity.

Historically, the Ionian mode has played a pivotal role in various musical traditions, especially in classical compositions where major key signatures dominate. In modern music, from pop to rock to jazz, the characteristics of the Ionian mode persist, underscoring uplifting and triumphant passages.

Whether it's the exuberant chorus of a pop anthem or the soaring theme of a classical symphony, the presence of the Ionian mode is ubiquitous, setting the tonal groundwork for many melodies that have become deeply ingrained in our musical psyche.

2. Dorian Mode

A warehouse with a sign that says Jazz on it representing the Dorian mode in music.

Stepping away from the resounding brightness of the Ionian, we arrive at the Dorian mode, which is rooted in a more jazzy, bluesy, and sometimes even folkish realm. It's the second mode of the diatonic scale, starting on the note 'Re' if one were to use solfege terminology.

The interval structure of the Dorian scale is: Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole. This particular sequence introduces a minor quality to the mode due to its lowered third, but with a major sixth that distinguishes it from the traditional natural minor scale. This results in a sound that is both soulful and slightly upbeat, making it popular in jazz improvisation and certain rock genres.

Historically, the Dorian mode was commonly used in medieval and Renaissance music. Its unique blend of minor and major qualities gave rise to melodies that were melancholic yet not overly somber. In contemporary times, the mode's versatile sound can be heard in numerous genres; from the improvisational solos in jazz to the iconic riffs in classic rock songs.

The Dorian mode offers a blend of moods, striking a balance between the major brightness of the Ionian and the deeper, darker qualities of other minor modes. Its distinct character has made it a favorite among composers and musicians looking for that sweet spot of emotional depth.

3. Phrygian Mode

Flamenco dancers and musicians representing the  Phrygian mode in music.

Venture further into the world of diatonic modes and you'll stumble upon the exotic and mysterious Phrygian mode. Originating as the third mode of the diatonic scale, it begins on the note 'Mi' in solfege.

The Phrygian scale interval structure unfolds as: Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole. A defining characteristic of this mode is its lowered second, which immediately introduces an Eastern or Middle Eastern flavor to the music. This "flattened" second gives the Phrygian mode an exotic and sometimes suspenseful sound, often used to evoke distant lands or ancient tales.

Historically rooted in ancient cultures, Phrygian mode's presence can be felt in the music of regions like Spain, especially in flamenco, where its dark and passionate undertones come to the forefront. In modern music, Phrygian has found a place in progressive rock, heavy metal, and cinematic scores where its distinctiveness creates atmospheres of tension and intrigue.

The allure of the Phrygian mode lies in its capacity to transport listeners, to whisk them away to foreign lands, or immerse them in stories of old. Its blend of mystery and drama has captivated musicians across genres and epochs, solidifying its place in the rich tapestry of musical modes.

4. Lydian Mode

A women conducting a cinematic score with neon instruments representing the Lydian mode in music.

Elevating us to bright, dreamy, and ethereal soundscapes is the Lydian mode. As the fourth mode of the diatonic scale, it commences on the note 'Fa' in solfege.

The Lydian scale follows this sequence of intervals: Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half. The distinct characteristic of Lydian is its raised fourth note, which sets it apart from the conventional major scale. This augmented fourth gives the mode an airy, celestial quality, often evoking a sense of wonder or otherworldliness.

Historically, the Lydian mode was used in certain classical compositions, though it wasn't as prominent as some other modes. Fast forward to modern times, and it has found a beloved home in film scores, capturing moments of magic, discovery, or celestial beauty. Beyond the silver screen, the Lydian mode is a favorite in jazz for its sophisticated and uplifting sound and has been used by several rock musicians seeking a fresh, dreamy twist on major tonality.

In essence, the Lydian mode offers a sonic escape, a brief flight into a world where everything feels a touch more magical, expansive, and boundless. Its special character has made it a go-to for moments of revelation and wonder in music across genres.

5. Mixolydian Mode

An artistic print of the word "Blues" representing the Mixolydian mode in music.

Wading into the waters of bluesy, groovy, and often nostalgic feelings, we encounter the Mixolydian mode. Representing the fifth mode of the diatonic scale, it springs to life on the note 'Sol' in solfege.

The interval structure of the Mixolydian mode is characterized by: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole. A standout feature of this mode is its flattened seventh, which, while maintaining a major tonality from its root, introduces a laid-back, blues-infused flavor. This combination results in a sound that's both uplifting yet imbued with a touch of wistfulness.

Historically, the Mixolydian mode resonated with Celtic folk music traditions, where its bright, yet poignant character painted landscapes of rolling hills and lively folk dances. In modern contexts, Mixolydian has been embraced by rock 'n' roll legends and blues musicians, giving rise to iconic riffs and solos that are both jubilant and tinged with longing.

With its unique blend of major brightness and bluesy undertones, the Mixolydian mode captivates listeners, drawing them into stories of celebration and nostalgia. This dual quality is its strength, making it a favored choice for musicians looking to strike a balance between joy and depth.

6. Aeolian Mode

Sheet music pieces by Mozart and Beethoven representing the Aeolian mode in music.

Venturing into the realm of deeper emotions and introspective melodies, we are introduced to the Aeolian mode. This sixth mode of the diatonic scale starts on the note 'La' in solfege, and many recognize it more commonly as the natural minor scale.

The Aeolian mode weaves its pattern through the intervals: Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole. Its inherent minor tonality — marked by a lowered third, sixth, and seventh — imparts a sense of melancholy, introspection, and sometimes even sorrow. It's this very quality that lends the Aeolian mode its rich emotional depth.

Throughout music history, the Aeolian mode has been a cornerstone of music, reflecting life's more somber moments, tales of lost love, or the changing seasons. Classical compositions have often turned to this mode for its emotive potency. In contemporary music, from pop ballads to intense rock anthems, the Aeolian's evocative nature is evident, resonating with listeners' deepest emotions.

The Aeolian mode, with its haunting beauty and poignant depth, has the power to touch the soul, inviting listeners into a world of reflection, yearning, and profound emotion. It stands as a testament to music's capacity to echo the full spectrum of human experience.

7. Locrian Mode

An artistic piece showcasing the devil representing the Locrian mode in music.

In the vast spectrum of musical modes, the Locrian stands apart as the most enigmatic and unconventional. Representing the seventh mode of the diatonic scale, it begins on the note 'Ti' in solfege.

The Locrian scale progresses with the intervals: Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole. What truly distinguishes the Locrian is its diminished fifth, often termed the "tritone" or "devil's interval." This, combined with its lowered second and third, gives the mode a dissonant, unstable quality, making it less commonly used in traditional Western music where consonance and resolution are often sought.

Historically, the Locrian mode has remained largely on the fringes, its unsettling nature proving a challenge for many composers. However, in the realms of jazz, experimental, and certain genres of metal, the Locrian has found its niche. Musicians in these domains often harness its tension and lack of resolution to evoke atmospheres of unease, suspense, or even chaos.

The Locrian mode, while less familiar to many ears, holds a unique position in the world of music. It challenges conventions, pushing boundaries and evoking a raw, edgy sound. For those daring to venture into its domain, the Locrian offers a sonic experience that defies expectations and reshapes musical norms.


Related Article: What Is The Circle Of 5ths? Music Theory Fundamentals


Scale Degrees

In music theory, understanding scale degrees is paramount to grasping the structure and relationship of notes within scales and modes. Scale degrees provide a framework, helping us pinpoint the position and role of each note, and they are essential when discussing the intricacies of various musical modes.

What Are Scale Degrees?

A scale degree refers to the position of notes within a given scale, starting from the root note, which is the first note. Each position, or degree, has a specific name, often derived from classical Latin terms. These terms not only indicate the note's position but also often hint at its function or importance within the scale.

The Names And Numbers

  1. Tonic (1st) - This is the first and foundational note of a scale. It provides the "home base" around which other notes revolve.

  2. Supertonic (2nd) - One step above the tonic.

  3. Mediant (3rd) - Positioned halfway between the tonic and dominant.

  4. Subdominant (4th) - One note below the dominant or the fifth note.

  5. Dominant (5th) - The second most important note after the tonic, often leading back to the tonic.

  6. Submediant (6th) - Positioned halfway between the subdominant and the leading tone.

  7. Leading Tone (7th) - The note that leads resolution to the tonic in major scales or raised minor scales. In natural minor scales, this is called the "subtonic" as it's a whole step below the tonic.

Importance In Modes

Understanding scale degrees becomes especially valuable when exploring modes. For instance, recognizing that the Dorian mode has a natural sixth (or submediant) can help differentiate it from the Aeolian mode. Similarly, knowing the flattened second (or supertonic) in the Phrygian mode gives it its distinctive sound.

Wrapping It Up

While scale degrees might initially seem like mere numerical positions or labels, they offer invaluable insights into the structure and behavior of scales and modes. Whether you're composing, analyzing, or simply listening, a grasp of scale degrees enriches your musical experience, illuminating the intricate dance of notes in any given piece.

Benefits Of Using Music Modes In Songwriting

Music modes in songwriting offer several advantages that can enhance the composition process. These benefits include bringing diversity to music, creating unique moods and emotions, and expanding melodic and harmonic possibilities.

  • Diversity: Using music modes introduces a wide range of tonalities and scales, allowing songwriters to explore different musical sounds and styles. This diversity can bring freshness and originality to compositions, making them stand out from the crowd.

  • Mood and Emotion: Each music mode has its distinct character and emotional quality. By selecting the appropriate mode, songwriters can effectively convey specific moods and evoke particular emotions in their music. This adds depth and richness to the overall musical experience.

  • Expanded Possibilities: Music modes open up new melodic and harmonic possibilities by altering the traditional major and minor scales. They introduce unique intervals and relationships between notes, enabling songwriters to create complex and unconventional melodies and chord progressions, resulting in innovative compositions.

In addition to these benefits, using music modes in songwriting helps to establish a distinct and recognizable musical identity. It provides a platform for experimentation and encourages songwriters to think outside the box when crafting melodies and harmonies. By embracing music modes, songwriters can tap into an array of creative possibilities and enhance their songwriting skills.


Related Article: Mastering Pop Songwriting Structure: A Guide


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Why should you learn music modes?

Learning music modes can help expand your tonal palette and add a unique color to your songs. They provide a creative alternative to the traditional major and minor scales, bringing freshness and drama to your sound.

What's the relationship between modes and keys?

A key in music refers to the tonic note and its quality (major or minor). Modes, on the other hand, determine the specific sequence of intervals from the tonic. In essence, a mode can dictate the key but can also function within established keys.

How can I identify the mode of a particular song?

Identifying a mode requires understanding the sequence of whole and half steps in a song's main scale, as well as recognizing its tonal center or "home" note. Listening for mood and tonal nuances, along with some theoretical knowledge, can help pinpoint the mode.

Can one song transition between different modes?

Absolutely. Many songs modulate or shift between different modes, either subtly or more overtly, to introduce variety, tension, or resolution.

Do other musical traditions outside of Western music have modes?

Yes, many musical traditions around the world have their own modal music systems, like the raga system in Indian classical music or the maqam in Middle Eastern music. These systems, while different in structure and theory, serve similar purposes in creating mood and melodic structure.

Final Thoughts

The vast landscape of music is punctuated by its modes, each one offering a unique palette of sounds and emotions. From the uplifting strides of the Ionian to the melancholic depths of the Aeolian, and the intriguing shades in between, music modes provide a rich tapestry for both the creator and the listener.

As we've journeyed through these modes, it becomes evident that understanding them is not just a scholarly endeavor but a gateway to deeper musical expression and appreciation. Whether you're a musician seeking new avenues of creativity or a passionate listener wanting to understand the nuances of your favorite tunes, the world of modes offers endless avenues of exploration.

So the next time you hear a piece of music, let your ears wander and wonder: which mode might be playing a part in this melodic tale? Dive deep, explore, and let the modes be your guide in the ever-evolving journey of musical discovery.

"Some of the links within this article are affiliate links. These links are from various companies such as Amazon. This means if you click on any of these links and purchase the item or service, I will receive an affiliate commission. This is at no cost to you and the money gets invested back into Audio Sorcerer LLC."

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