Why Modes?

Why Care About Modes?

Sound and Color

If we think of music as a matter of painting with sound, the familiar distinction between major and minor scales—the former often described as “brighter” and the latter as “darker”—provides us a very basic palette of musical “colors.”

However, we can greatly expand the range of available colors by adding to our musical palette the lesser known modes of the scales common to Western music. (ModeWheel was designed specifically to simplify this task.)

More on this in a moment.

Key and Color

At one time the key in which a classical composition was written was believed to provide some clue as to the mood or emotion it was meant to convey.

It is not possible to divide the natural octave—the interval between one tone and another that vibrates at precisely twice its frequency (a ratio of 2:1)—into a 12-tone chromatic scale in which every interval also represents a perfect ratio.

So when tuning a keyboard instrument (or designing a fretted instrument) it is necessary to adjust each interval within the octave by some amount in order to minimize those imperfections. Most tuning systems favored preserving certain intervals—e.g., fifths or fourths—at the expense of others. In turn, this contributed to the unique “color” of a composition played in a given key.

However, the adoption of the equal temperament scale in the mid-1850s—which simply divided the octave into 12 equal segments—eliminated the association between key and color: No matter in what key a composition is played, any given interval is “out of tune” by precisely the same amount.

Equal temperament tuning is now so familiar that most of us never even notice this. But it does suggest that we must look elsewhere for ways to alter the color or mood of our compositions and improvisations.

This brings us back to the modes.

Mode and Color

Whereas the chromatic scale consists of 12 equally-spaced notes (semitones), each family of seven-note scales in Western music is defined by the unique pattern of intervals that it employs. Consider, for example, the familiar Major scale—also known as the Ionian mode of the Major scale—illustrated here with C as the tonic note:

Ionian mode in C on treble clef

This pattern—which in the key of C corresponds to the white notes of the keyboard—is defined by a specific series of whole steps and half steps
(W = two semitones and H = one semitone).
Here the pattern is W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

The remaining modes of the Major scale are derived by beginning on each next successive note of the scale. Musician Oliver Prehn—whose YouTube lessons inspired the design of ModeWheel—demonstrates in an easy to understand lesson how these are constructed and how they differ in color from “brighter” to “darker”: The Church Modes

As a simple demonstration of these differences in color, here are the seven Major (Church) modes transposed to the key of C. Under each mode, the first audio player will sound the ascending notes of the scale. The second plays a simple rendition of the familiar “Happy Birthday” song in that mode:

Ionian mode in C on treble clef
Dorian mode in C on treble clef
Phrygian mode in C on treble clef
Lydian mode in C on treble clef
Mixolydian mode in C on treble clef
Aeolian mode in C on treble clef
Locrian mode in C on treble clef

YouTube author Andrey Stolyarov provides a much nicer arrangement of the “Birthday Song” in all seven modes: Birthday Song

The YouTube channel Mostly Ear Training features the tune “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in all seven modes: Twinkle Twinkle

On the website Musical U, Anastasia Voitinskaia has a wonderful discussion of differences in mood or color associated with each Major mode: The Many Moods of Musical Modes

The author of the YouTube channel Signals Music Studio demonstrates these modes on guitar and points out the value of emphasizing the particular notes that evoke the mood associated with that particular mode: Demonstrating the 7 Modes in Parallel

A surprising number of classical compositions and popular songs employ—in whole or in part—one of these alternative modes. An internet search of “songs in ___ mode” will reveal numerous examples of their use.

Beyond the Major Modes

Most websites and YouTube videos devoted to the issue of musical modes address the modes of the Major scale.

However, with the exception of the chromatic scale (which by definition includes every semitone of the octave) and the whole-tone scale (which is constructed solely of whole steps)—the most familiar scales employed in Western music include two or more distinct modes.

Using circular patterns of intervals to illustrate the underlying principle, Oliver Prehn describes seven “families” of scales. Each family is defined by a particular pattern or series of whole steps and half steps. In turn, each member of that family—in other words, each mode—is built upon a successive degree of that scale: All About Musical Scales

ModeWheel is based upon this circular pattern of intervals and currently displays in any key the modes of the first four families of scales—Major, Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor, and Harmonic Major—each having its own character.

One interesting application of the modes is to enrich a progression of seventh chords in a composition or improvisation. Of course, such a progression can be played simply by sounding the notes of each chord as an arpeggio, but non-chord tones that add color (and occasionally surprise) to a progression by can be found by employing a mode that includes the chord tones.

ModeWheel identifies the seventh chord that is built from the tonic of any mode in any key, and displays on the keyboard a simple 2-5-1 progression. 

Again, Oliver Prehn demonstrates the principle and practice of this approach in detail (using as a guide the original cardboard version of the tool upon which ModeWheel is based): Let’s Play 2-5-1 in Major

Although Oliver provides much more insight into the technique, the following graphic illustrates some of the options available when building a simple progression. (Here the notes in black identify the chord, the notes in green are those that belong to the mode, and the notes in red highlight those that add the distinct color to the mode.) Any mode from the first column may be combined with any mode from the second and third columns, although with experiment and practice you may discover which combinations sound best to your ear.

Modes that fit the 2-5-1 chord progression

Of course there is much more to learn about the modes. The point here is simply to demonstrate how the modes can restore some of the color that was lost when keyboard and fretted instruments were standardized on the equal-temperament scale.

Enjoy exploring the modes! ModeWheel makes it simple to display in any key the notes that comprise a chosen mode, to hear how it sounds, and to identify its associated seventh chord.