Musical modes are scales with a different order of whole tone and semi-tone steps to those found in the modern Western major scale, which makes them sound different and interesting.
The familiar Western major scale is actually one of the modes – the one which over time has ‘won out’ because the chords made from it offer the richest and most satisfying harmony to the modern ear.
Modal scales are used a lot in improvisation over modal progressions, and in jazz. The chord families derived from the modes offer interesting alternatives to conventional modern harmony and good opportunities for improvising.
This Musicarta modes module does not attempt to give a complete explanation of modes. You can explore the fascinating historical background of musical modes in the Dolmetsch music glossary (use the link) and also at Wikipedia. Link through to other useful resources resources via Musicarta's 'Sources' page.
This module’s purpose is only to explain and teach what is useful about modes to the modern popular keyboard player/songwriter/composer and present some sample modal chord sequences.
Part One of this Musicarta Modes module shows how the modes (as scales) are derived. Part Two goes on to examine the families of chords the modes produce.
As scales, modes have a different order of whole tone and semi-tone steps to those found in our regular modern major scale, which makes them sound different and interesting.
Actually, it is more true to say that the modes are made from the modern major scale tones, in their proper order, but starting and finishing on a different note. Modal scales are the major scale we know, but with another note as the tonic (home note).
As a result, all the modes can all be found using the white piano keys only – the C major scale tones. The Dorian mode, for example, can be played using the white piano keys from D to D.
Here is a table of all seven modes showing the piano keys that produce them, and a keyboard diagram showing the same information.
The important thing about any scale (including the modes) is the pattern of whole tone and semi-tone steps between the scale degrees (the notes of the scale).
Although every white piano key is the same distance from its neighbour, the notes that neighbouring keys make are not all the same distance apart.
Where there is a black key between them (at the back of the keyboard), the notes they produce are a whole tone apart.
Where there is no black key between them – between B and C, and E and F – the notes they produce are only a semi-tone apart.
Here is the previous diagram showing the whole tone (W) and semi-tone (S) steps between the next-door white keys.
Here are the seven white-key modes in music manuscript with the letters W (for whole tone) and S (for semi-tone) between the notes.
Essentially, the modes are these gaps between the tones
Without the music, the whole-tone/semi-tone patterns of the modes are:
You can read off these whole tone/semi-tone distances on the marked-up keyboard.
If you play these seven modes one after another using only the white piano keys, our modern ear hears someone playing a scale of C major starting on different notes (which is just what is happening).
To hear the true character of the modes you have to ‘transpose’ them all to the same starting note. That is, build all seven modes on the same starting note, using the whole tone/semi-tone step patterns.
You can do this using the table above, providing you know how to form whole tone and semi-tone steps on your instrument.
Here are the seven modes built on C, in manuscript:
Notice that you now have to state the name of the tonic (home note): C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc.
Building modes using key signatures
Notice in the table above the references like (= F major scale from C to C).
You can use key signatures to tell you which of the semi-tones in the octave to use to create your chosen mode.
For example, if you can play the Dorian mode from D using the scale tones of C major (a whole tone below), then you can play the Dorian mode from G using the scale tones of F major.
Likewise, if the scale tones of C major – the white piano keys – from F to F (a fourth up) give the Lydian mode, then the key signature of E major will give a Lydian mode if played from A to A.
Here is a table which shows this information – for the white keys only.
Here are the examples written out for C. Note that the accidentals are still placed in the music itself to show which notes the key signature affects. This would not normally be done.
How the modes differ from the major scale
Another helpful perspective is to consider how the modes differ from the modern major scale. You have to know your major scales, of course, and remember that in the major scale, the semi-tone steps are between the third and fourth, and seventh and eighth (octave) scale degrees.
Building modes - exercise
Building all seven modes on every possible starting note using the whole tone/semi-tone step patterns, is not necessary.
The reason is that, for all practical purposes, only three modes (apart from the Ionian/major) survive – the Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian. The other modes are too close to the modern major scale to remain distinct.
(For example, if you play B to B on the white keys – the Locrian mode – the modern ear hears the C major scale being played from the seventh degree to the seventh degree.)
You should however be able to build these three modes, not only to use as improvising scales, but in order to find the useful families of chords we explor in the next part of the Musicarta Modes module.
So, using all the resources given so far, create the following modal scales on the given tonics (home/starting notes).
First set. Only one black key (per scale) is needed.
Second set. Two black keys required.
Third set. Three black keys required.
This concludes the first part of the Musicarta Modes module. In Part Two, you will go on to explore the useful and attractive families of chords the modes generate.
In the meantime, feel free to browse the other free online piano lessons on offer at Musicarta. The
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