Snow White and the Seven Modes

In modern Western music, a mode is a specific scale that uses the same set of notes as the major scale, in the same order, but starting from one of its different scale degrees. Each root note of the different modes acts as the tonic, and therefore each mode contains a different sequence of whole and half steps.
 
The classification of this modern system of modes, also called the church modes, was born in Gregorian chant by ca.1000. Each mode’s name can be traced back to the literary work of Guido of Arezzo. In his writings Dialogus de musica and the Micrologus, eight modes are defined, each according to three elements: The final (the pitch on which melodies in that mode end), the intervallic relationship of other pitches to the final (the scale type), and the ambitus (the range of pitches available from that scale type).

Just like the Seven Dwarfs, each mode presents a contrasting mood and spirit. 


 
Let’s dive into the modes by examining its final (root) note, the mode’s scale and its sequence of intervals, and the seventh chord that is derived from each mode.
 
Ionian
 
Designated as the first mode, the Ionian mode is the modern major scale. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on C, and is also known as the C major scale.
 
Its step sequence is: WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE – WHOLE - half
 
Ex. 1


 

Dorian
 
Dorian is the second mode. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on D. The Dorian mode is nearly identical to the natural minor scale (see Aeolian). The only difference with respect to the natural minor scale is the sixth scale degree, which is the interval of a major sixth (M6) above the tonic, rather than a minor sixth (m6).
 
Its step sequence is: WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE – WHOLE – half - WHOLE
 
Ex. 2
 
 
 
 
Phrygian
 
Phrygian is the third mode. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on E. The Phrygian mode is very similar to the natural minor scale. However, the difference lies in the second scale degree, which is a minor second (m2) above the tonic, rather than a major second (M2).
 
Its step sequence is half – WHOLE – WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE
 
Ex. 3
 

 
Lydian
 
Lydian is the fourth mode. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on F. This mode is nearly identical to the Ionian mode (major scale), with the main differentiation being the fourth scale degree, which is an augmented fourth (A4 or +4) above the tonic note F, rather than a perfect fourth (P4).
 
Its step sequence is WHOLE – WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE - half
 
Ex. 4
 

 
Mixolydian
 
Mixolydian is the fifth mode. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on G. The sole tone that differentiates this mode from the Ionian mode (major scale) is its seventh scale degree. In the Mixolydian mode, the seventh scale degree is a minor seventh (m7) above the tonic note G, rather than a major seventh (M7).
 
Its step sequence is WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE – half - WHOLE
 
Ex. 5
 

 
 
 
Aeolian
 
Aeolian is the sixth mode, and is also called the natural minor scale. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on A. It is also called the A minor scale.
 
Its step sequence is WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE - WHOLE
 
Ex. 6

 
 
 
 
Locrian
 
Locrian is the seventh and final mode. In the key of C major, it is comprised of all natural notes beginning on B.  Its signature scale degree is the diminished fifth (d5). This interval makes the triad diminished, and so it is the only chord and scale in which the tonic to dominant relationship is a diminished fifth (d5) rather than a perfect fifth (P5).
 
Its step sequence is half – WHOLE – WHOLE – half – WHOLE – WHOLE - WHOLE
 
Ex. 7
 


 
Work on locking into the sequence of steps and intervals from one note to another in each mode. You most likely already have a grasp on singing the major scale (Ionian mode), so all you have to do now is sing that same scale starting on the seven different notes. Internalize the sonic qualities and unique characteristics of each mode.
 
Sing/play through this next exercise, performing each mode's scale and then the corresponding seventh chord outline.
 
 
 Ex. 8
Now it's time to put your practice to use on a new song. This chart is a rock ballad containing elements of all seven of the modes that appear in modern Western music.
 
Using your knowledge base that you acquired from this post, identify and label each mode that you come across throughout the chart. This is always a good thing to do before performing any piece of music; analyze the song and mentally prepare yourself for the task at hand.
 
You may want to fill out the numbers of each note, if needed.
 
Ex. 9

“Fall Into My Arms”
Anthony Viscounte
 
 

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