Using modes in compositionI have some fascination with composing based on modes. It can make music sound so refreshing. For the longest time i've been very confused about modes. Here's an attempt at clarifying some aspects related to modes. The explanation assumes you are already familiar with key signatures in major and minor scales (i.e. number of sharps and flats required to make a key like D major sound like D major).
A typical explanation about modes is something as follows. First you start with a C major scale
c d e f g a b cNow you play the same notes, but you start on the note "d"
d e f g a b c dand you have created a dorian mode. Similarly, starting on the note "e": "e f g a b c d e" results in a phrygian mode, starting on "f": "f g a b c d e f" results in a lydian mode, starting on "g": "g a b c d e f g" results in a mixolydian mode, starting on "a": "a b c d e f g a" results in a aeolian mode, and starting on the "b": "b c d e f g a b" creates a locrian mode.
If you're like me, immediately a few questions arise (which are never answered by most basic tutorials)
- Is "d e f g a b c d" is a dorian mode of the C major scale? or of the D major scale?
- Do different modes have a specific sound to them? some mood or character?
- How do you quickly construct a dorian mode (or any other mode) of - say - the E major scale without memorizing the notes for each possible combination of (scale, mode)?
- What difference does it make if you play "c d e f g a b c" or "d e f g a b c d", it's all the same notes anyway?
Is "d e f g a b c d" a dorian mode of the c major or of d major ?The rule is simple: if it starts on a "d" it's derived from a d-scale
What different modes exist? Do they have a specific sound to them? some mood or character?Some modes lend themselves more naturally to achieving specific moods in your music, but you can by no means generalize. Some very sad and melancholic music has been written in major keys (I'm thinking e.g. of Scriabin's prelude op 17, no 6, or the Plainte by Caix d'Hervelois) Despite all those over-generalizations, the following list seems to work well (these are all modes derived from a major scale; you could derive even more modes by starting from other scales, say a harmonic or melodic minor scale, too):
- c ionian "c d e f g a b c": happy music. This is also called the c major key.
- c dorian "c d es f g a bes c": irish folk-like
- c phrygian "c des es f g aes bes c": spanish sounding
- c lydian "c d e fis g a b c": happy, playful, somewhat comical effect, attention raising (think: the simpsons theme)
- c mixolydian "c d e f g a bes c": uniting pleasure and sadness; creating a effect of yearning for something or someone
- c aeolian "c d es f g aes bes c": sad music. This is also called the c natural minor key.
- c locrian "c des es f ges aes bes c": (this is not often used as it sounds weird to most western ears)
How do you quickly construct the dorian mode of - say - the E major scale ?This may not work for you, but it works for me. It requires that you don't have to think about key signatures for major keys (i.e. you do know those by heart), and you also don't have to think twice about the names of the simplest modes built on the major keys (i.e. ionian "c d e f g a b c", dorian "d e f g a b c d", phrygian "e f g a b c d e", lydian "f g a b c d e f", mixolydian "g a b c d e f g", aeolian "a b c d e f g a", locrian "b c d e f g a b")
- First I remember that the simplest dorian mode is "d e f g a b c d"
- Then I remember that D major really needs two sharps (fis and cis) to sound like D major.
- From those two memories I can quickly construct the following rule: "the dorian mode is like the major scale, but with two less sharps (or two extra flats, or one less sharp and one extra flat)." This rule can be applied to any scale.
- Example: E major requires four sharps. If I want to have the dorian mode I just need to drop two of those sharps, so I end up with "e fis g a b cis d e". Second example: now I want the E lydian mode. Simplest lydian mode is "f g a b c d e f". Compared to F major, this has one less flat (bes became b), or equivalently: one extra sharp. E lydian therefore requires 5 sharps instead of 4, i.e. fis, cis, gis, dis, ais.
What difference does it make if you play c ionian "c d e f g a b c" or d dorian "d e f g a b c d", it's all the same notes anyway?
- One difference is in which notes you emphasize on the strong beats (typically first, third, fifth notes of the mode) also the notes you chose to return to at the end of a musical fragment (often something like the first note of the mode).
- If you're writing a melody in a mode, you will want to use the notes that make it sound different from a major scale more prominently to emphasize that you're not working in a major/minor scale. So a melody in G mixolydian should feature the natural f, and a melody in d dorian should feature the natural f and the natural c. It's exactly those altered notes (compared to the major scale) that lend your melody its extra qualities/mood.