Music Modes: How to Enrich Your Music with Modal Color

music modes

Why make the effort to study music modes? Even if you’re certain that you’ll be able to apply the theory to your work, the prospect of knuckling down to learn scales by rote isn’t most people’s idea of free-flowing creativity. This is why theory remains such a common hurdle amongst self-taught producers and musicians. However, if you’re looking for a more expanded tonal palette, the good news is all that’s needed is a little practical comprehension of music modes. Should you feel at a creative standstill, music modes provide the most intuitive alternative to whatever run of the mill major scale you’ve been sticking with.

Music Modes: What are They?

Musical modes constitute a form of scale complete with their own distinctive melodic traits. The seven modes have their roots in some of western music’s oldest forms. Before the mathematics for splitting the octave down to twelve equal tones was discovered, an ad hoc understanding had to be devised, which took the form of modes. In place of a single universal scale with the ability to be transposed into various keys, seven modes were developed that all possessed their own unique structure. Among early forms of music, modes were employed in a similar way to how keys are used today.

How Modes Assist with Songwriting

When most of your songwriting has been employing basic minor and major scales, your work in future can reap benefits from the use of modal colour. Every mode possesses its own particularly unique mood and flavour. The different melodic signatures each mode contains can bring extra emotion and novelty to your personal sound. Luckily, modes aren’t that difficult to get the hang of. Once you begin getting to grips with them, you’ll soon see the new horizons they can open up for your songwriting.

How to Construct the Modes

A particular sound of a mode comes from the uniqueness of its construction. They have their own order, as follows:

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian
  7. Locrian

Let’s go through each mode understanding from the scale of C major and look at examples in popular music to showcase how these modes can be deployed to great effect. Since in this explanation our key signature won’t alter when discussing each mode, you can play each one from the C major scale formula.

Ionian Mode

modal color

We’ll begin with the major scale, the first mode’s equivalent: Ionian. Here in C major, Ionian mode has no flats or sharps, so only the white keys: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C.

Dorian Mode

modal color

With Dorian Mode, write using the scale of C major, but rather than coming to a halt at the C octave, write the sequential scales like you were going on up the D octave. If we remove the C that we began with, then we’ve now got an eight note scale running from D1 to D2, i.e. the second mode: Dorian. It shares a lot with the scale of D minor, but there are some crucial differences: the sixth degree is neutral, but the seventh degree is flattened. This sets the Dorian mode apart from the usual minor scales in sound and feel. This Simon & Garfunkel song uses the Dorian mode in its construction. Pay special attention to the natural sixth in the vocal melody and guitar figures of the opening.

Phrygian Mode

modal color

Write the following note in the scale and remove the D to leave you with another eight note scale going from E1 to E2. This third mode is the E Phrygian. Again, this mode functions like a minor, however, the flattened second scale differentiates it right away. The typical minor second interval possesses a distinct sound. At the start of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” the second chord of the opening is constructed around the Phrygian flattened second.

Lydian Mode

modal color

Writing the following note along the scale gives you the fourth mode, F Lydian. The verse guitar melody of Sonic Youth’s “Bull in the Heather” features a strong raised fourth scale degree.

Mixolydian Mode

modal color

Continuing to write the following scale and erasing the first one brings you to the 5th mode, G Mixolydian. This mode’s flattened seventh gives it some shared characteristics with the “blues scale”. Listen to its use in the vocal and sitar melody of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”.

Aeolian Mode

modal color

Moving up along the scale brings you to the sixth mode, A Aeolian. It’s sometimes referred to as natural minor because for the most part it is a scale in minor minus the raised sixth and seventh degrees or harmonic or melodic minor. It’s the most popular minor sound in pop music, and can be heard everywhere throughout music history. A song like “Losing my Religion” by R.E.M. is an easy example. Because we’re so bombarded with natural minor, sometimes it can be trickier to discern the modal intervals, but with this song, listen out for a V (five) chord, and when it’s in minor it’s the Aeolian mode.

Locrian Mode

modal color

The final mode, B Locrian is used much less frequently than the rest of the modes. It has less applications in most songwriting situations than the others, but you’re welcome to explore it using our scale technique.

The Parent Scale

The descriptions of the modes above describe them in the parent scale technique, and now you should be able to construct any mode just so long as you’re aware of its place in the order. All you need do is count backwards to the major parent scale to figure out the mode’s structure. E Aeolian, for example, is the sixth mode. Now, E is the sixth degree of the major scale G. Therefore, E Aeolian is just the eight note scale that begins and ends on E with the same formula as G in major scale. Once you grasp the parent scale, you’ll start picking up on the patterns of the modes. However, that’s not the only method of remembering modes.

Scale Formulas

By this point you’ve probably noticed that modes have a lot in common with a minor or major scale. To understand whether a mode is generally minor or major, all you have to do is recall which tones from the template are altered. This is the basis of using scale formula. Here are formulas to the corresponding modes:

  • Ionian: major (unaltered notes)
  • Dorian: minor, raised sixth, lowered seventh
  • Phrygian: minor, lowered second, lowered sixth, lowered seventh
  • Lydian: major, raised fourth
  • Mixolydian: major, lowered seventh
  • Aeolian: minor, lowered sixth, lowered seventh.

By way of example, let’s look at if we wanted to write A Lydian. See that Lydian sits amongst the modes in major, so apply the A major scale formula: sharped F, C, G. Lydian has a raised fourth, so all we need to do is add D# to the key signature and we’re left with the mode. On first impression you may feel that this scale formula is the quicker and easier way. However, parent scale technique can also come in useful when you’re working with modes at a more advanced level.

How to Create Modal Music Yourself

Once you’ve gotten to know the modes by playing through them, you’re going to start getting a natural sense for each one and can start thinking about where you want to apply them in your songwriting. As a general rule, modes with a greater number of lowered scales feel darker, whereas modes featuring more raised scales make for brighter sounds. It’s a simple way to discern which modes will be the most useful for whatever you’re currently working on. However, there’s no single wrong or right way to incorporate a mode into a song, and you can interpret each one as you see fit. Also, as you start picking up on the use of modes in other music, you might notice that in some songs the mode interval characteristics are expressed through melody, where other songs employ the changes in harmony.

A Mode for all Occasions

Getting the hang of modes can have a real impact on your songwriting. Once you pick up their patterns, you’ll start discovering that they run through many of your favourite pieces of music. They also function as a stepping stone to other more advanced music composition techniques, and can open your ears permanently to new moods and colours. Give them a try sometime, as there’s no such thing as too many songwriting tools.

About Rachel Burns

Rachel Burns is an animal lover and journalist based in Dallas. She's currently an editor of AllPetsExpert.com, a website that helps pet owners learn more about animal behaviors, their training, health, food, etc. Read and take over her useful insights!

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