Footnote: Modes

What are Modes of a Scale?

A modal melody is one that is not in a "key" of the major or minor sort common in music of the Western world in the past 300 to 400 years. Instead, its scale may be comprised of almost any set of tones, not only those that imply 3-part harmony. In fact, generally it should not imply 3-part harmony and a bass line. Many of the modal melodies I like best are virtually impervious to triadic harmonization.

There are two common types of modal scales: pentatonic and heptatonic, meaning 5-tone and 7-tone, respectively. Folk music from many parts of the world, including Celtic, American, African, and Chinese, often use modes of pentatonic scales.

Listen to a MIDI file of two pentatonic modes:

Because they can be perceived as "folksy" or "primitive," pentatonic modes may be a good choice for music that purports to be written by hobbits.

Major and "natural" minor scales are two of a special (but common) kind of heptatonic scale known as diatonic. They may be produced by playing the white keys of a piano from C to C or from A to A, respectively. Similarly, the other most common types of 7-tone modes may be produced by playing the other sets of successive white keys. These are the modes of the diatonic scale. Beginning with C to C, and progressing upward to B-to-B, they are called

  1. Ionian ("Major")
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aolean ("Natural minor")
  7. Locrian

Note that this scale, and thus each of its modes, has two half-step intervals placed an interval of a fourth from each other. It is possible to produce some more exotic scales and modes by doing one or more of the following:

  1. moving the two half-step intervals closer to each other
  2. using 3 or more half-step intervals in the scale
  3. making 6-, 8-, or 9-note scales
  4. scaling some interval other than the octave
Fewer than 5 notes per octave don't tend to feel like a full scale, and going beyond 9 notes is not usually a good idea because it tends to be confusing to the listener. Humans in all places and periods of history have tended to divide spectra into 5 to 9 segments. It might be argued that Elves or Dwarves could be different in this regard. But remember that your audience is human. :-)

Remember that for any scale you choose, there is a mode beginning on each scale degree. For many scales, each of its modes is unique. It's productive to explore each mode of a scale to discover its unique features, strengths, and weaknesses.

"The Answer is Dark" is an example of one of those more exotic modes. It's in a mode of a scale that uses 3 half-step intervals, causing one interval to be an augmented second. In the chart below, the bottom line designates the type of interval between each member of the scale where:

h = half step
a = augmented whole step
w = whole step

G# A B# C# D# E# F# G#
 h  a h w w h w 

Listen to a MIDI file of the scale mode:

It would be in G# Mixolydian except that the A# has been lowered to A. This is sometimes called a "mixed mode" because it has characteristics of two diatonic modes.

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Written by David J. Finnamore
Orlando, FL, USA

Page last updated October 18, 1999