~ the ancient modes ~

A Dorian A-B-C B-
A Ionian A B-
A Phrygian A- Bb C
Lydian / Tuxy
Phrygian / St. Chick
Ionian / Hope Within
Dorian /
Locrian /
Mixolydian /
 
the natural scale
7 modes / 5 shapes
three whole tones

~ groups within a set ~

~ modal improv ~

'the ancient modes are retuned through equal temper to core our modern diatonic group of pitches ...'

 

Ancient modal coolness for today. A coolest thing we might ever get today from any sort of modal playing is how with each of these groups of pitches we can shape a simple cluster of a just couple of pitches, and just repeat the one idea progressions of diatonically chords. Our modes are a perfect basis for soloing over the changes.

Improvising artists often adhere to this repetative shaping protocol, finding resting points within a solo and to build excitement as their solo comes to a close. Surrounding ourselves with like minded co-creaters all empowered with these modal pitches, the music quickly finds a pulse, a pitch, a chord, a groove, a hook and a song :)

That these pitches go all the way back in music history time ensures that new songs that come forth each new session all will carry the original DNA of the now ancient melodies. Which when we find one usually makes the hair stand up.

Here are seven ideas, one for each mode, each a repeated pattern of a couple of notes, over a diatonic cycle of 7th chords. Thinking key of G major, over a mostly Bach styled backpedaling cycle of the changes shaped into eight bars.

groups of pitches
soloing over the changes
diatonic
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Modal ideas also make up some nice sequences too, especially when thinking from the root of each chord in the progression as attempted in this group of ideas. The roots of the chords? Example 1a.

sequence
~ A ~ D ~ G ~ C ~ F# ~ B ~ E ~

Knowing this root cycle? Are you hip to these 'Bach-ian' styles changes?

root cycle
J.S. Bach
the chord changes

Pre-nutshell. So we've always had these same pitches, sounding them out in all sorts of ways in making the melodies to capture whatever notion we've ever imagined. As guitar players, that we can bend and nuance the 'pitch' of any note (pitch) allows us to remove its tempering, to 'dig in as they say', to better be able to find ancient modal sweet spots and melodies.

the 'tampering' of pitch

This is especially true with the Americana blues style and influence through our library of music. That we can find or hear one note that makes our hair stand up or bring tears to our eyes is all the proof we might need of the ancient pitches and their original mojo and magics.

the blues mode
"I'd love to knock an audience cold with one note, but what do you do for the rest of the evening?"
wiki ~ Eric Clapton

In a nutshell. What we know and generally term today in theory as a 'mode' or even 'church mode' mostly comes to us by way of the Western ancients, those succeeding generations of Mediterranean geographic dwellers who first began to figure out and knit together, to preserve and carry forward the philosophies, mathematics and arts that in part shapes the basis of our Western Civilization.

towiki ~ Western Civilization

Modal history speaking, in between all the way back to the Greeks and today, lived the Swiss music theorist Glareanus, who in the mid 1500's knit together the modal theory and organization we mostly use today. Reconstructed here and throughout the following discussions, what Glareanus seems to have first inherited and what he eventually passed along for posterity sake are remarkably quite different.

Glareanus
Dodechacordon

For it was around this point in our now written down, Americana timeline of music theory developments, that we first hear that the regular old, run of the mill vanilla major scale of today is recognized as the most popular mode of these olden days too. And why was that? Probably because this group of pitches has been around the longest, known by generations musical artists and creating the most memorable melodies.

Americana history timeline
diatonic
around the longest
memorable melodies

And these memorable melodies backed the lyrics that told the stories that folks loved to hear, sing along with and dance around to? Just like it is today? Yep, same as nowadays. Folks still love to listen, tap a foot, maybe sing and surely dance around right? Folks do still love to dance around ? They do here in Alaska. For with this diatonic ordering of the pitches, composers have wrote and musicians play so many of the most popular songs ever written for regular folks to enjoy each day.

lyrics
sing and dance
Alaska dancers
ordering of the pitches
composing
popular songs

This 'most popular' ordering of these pitches remains true to this day in our own Americana musics too. For the rather vast majority of our musics, both past and present, is written in the diatonic relative major / minor pairing. This is surely the case in creating the chords to back the melody lines. And aren't these relative major / minor pitches and intervals the ones built right into the white keys of our pianos? Yep, they sure are. Example 1.

the piano

Look familiar? Cool. No? Then do consider learning and memorizing this sequence of the pitches that forms the basis of so much music theory, all built right into the piano keys. Or any of our keyboards for that matter; electric pianos, synths, organs, the melodica etc., for this exact sequencing of the pitches has surely been with us for a very very long time now.

The basic evolutions. The historical evolution of the seven core modes of today comes to us as the combined package of two historical periods. The earlier, from the ancient Greeks, brings us four modes; Dorian, Phyrgian Lydian and Mixolydian. The more recent addition of two modes by Swiss theorist Galreanus gives us the Ionian and Aeolian modes. These we commonly know of today as the diatonic relative major and minor scales. So that makes a total of six modes.

four modes
two modes

The seventh mode is possibly still a bit of a mystery in its historial origins. Regardless, commonly known today as the Locrian mode, its diminished 5th interval has long inhibited its abilities in composition as a modal key center. Diminished 5th as in tritone 'catalyst?' The V7 chord and blues music essential? Exactly, the 'diablo' de musica! Seven is also the leading tone. Aurally examine the seven modes. Example 2.

Seven
Ionian
from Glareanus
Dorian
ancient Greeks
Phrygian
ancient Greeks
Lydian
ancient Greeks
Mixolydian
ancient Greeks
Aeolian
Glareanus
Locrian
???

Hearing hints of motifs and 'ethnic' flavored melodies from these modal ideas? Cool. Just some very basic modal magic. For these modes were the 'earlier' theory system used in creating the horizontal, more linear shaped music of earlier European cultures, up to the early 1600's or so. Is this the style of composition before we moved into a more vertical approach that comes with harmony and chords? Yep. We often call it 'plainsong.'

motifs
plainsong

Our musics went from one melody line, to many melody lines together and then back to one melody line, now supported by vertical stacks of pitches or chords. By the time we got back to one melody line, the pitches that had been our modes had evolved through a refinement of tuning to become scales.

evolution of composition
refinement of tuning

What's in a name? Is our modern 'scale' different than an ancient 'mode?' Yes it is. For while they do share identical theories of pitches and intervals, they do not share of the same system of tuning thus have fairly distinct abilities. In theory, a 'scale' is associated with the modern idea as being within an equal temper tuned diatonic key center for composition. As such, it is capable of the full range of harmony and modulation.

key center
harmony
modulation

An ancient 'mode' is a stand alone group or ordering of pitches that creates its own complete compositional resource with just its seven pitches, no functional harmony or range of modulation is available.

functional harmony

The basic theory. In today's terms, basic modal theory follows perfectly with our other main resources when filtered through the diatonic scheme of scales, arpeggios and chords. The basic breakdown follows the same pathway mantra; that in a lot of our Americana music we're either finding our way to Four, or from Four, finding our way back to One.

scale/arpeggio/chord
motion to Four

That we get all three of the One / Four and Five triads of both the major and minor tonalities within the same diatonic scale is built right in. The modes as outlined by Glareanus and equal temper tuned, slip into this scheme perfectly. Examine a chart of this very essential theory; C Ionian / A Aeolian pitches. Example 3.

triads
major / minor
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
Ionian
arpeggio
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
C
One / C major
C
E
G
.
.
.
.
.
Ionian
Four / F major
.
.
.
.
.
F
A
C
Lydian
Five / G major
.
.
G
B
D
.
.
.
Mixolydian
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
A minor
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
A
Aeolian
arpeggio
A
C
E
G
B
D
F
A
One / A minor
A
C
E
.
.
.
.
.
Aeolian
Four / D minor
.
.
.
.
.
D
F
A
Dorian
Five / E minor
.
.
E
G
B
.
.
.
Phrygian
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
Seven / Two
.
.
.
.
B
D
F
.
Locrian

Cool and consistent. From the major scale we get the One / Four and Five triads and their corresponding major modes; Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Same for minor; three minor triads and corresponding minor modes. Seven / Locrian also minor, is the pivot between them.

Seven
pivot (chord)

Groups within a group. In today's terms and surely here in Essentials, the quick take on understanding modal theory is based on creating seven unique groups of pitches from the basis of the diatonic major and relative minor scale. In doing so we learn the same rules that allow us to project the same theory from each of our 12 pitches and create the 12 paired key centers.

12 pitches
12 key centers

So along these lines we initially can think of the modes as just different start and end points of the diatonic major / relative minor scale. In this next idea we use the pitches of the tonal center of C major to spell out our seven modes of today's modern palette. Seriously consider rote learning this chart. Example 4.

perfect closure
palette
numerical scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
C major scale / Ionian
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
D Dorian
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
D
E Phrygian
E
F
G
A
B
C
D
E
F Lydian
F
G
A
B
C
D
E
F
G Mixolydian
G
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
A natural minor / Aeolian
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
A
B Locrian
B
C
D
E
F
G
A
B

Seven loops within a group. That the pitches of the C major scale from B to B in theory and practice today make the Locrian mode, is the initial way of thinking to get a sense of the deal here. D to D is Dorian, F Lydian is F to F and so forth. These seven form the core . That we can project this same theory equally from each of the 12 pitches of our equal temper tuned chromatic scale is the music and pitch theories built into the piano.

loops of pitches

The piano embodies this 'anything from anywhere'; any scale, mode, arpeggio, chord, lick, riff, line or ditty from any of the 12 pitches all in tune with themselves and in relation to one another. Mighty big resource. And are there other modes created in a similar manner from our other melodic resources? Yep, exact same process with any group of pitches really.

anything from anywhere
groups of pitches

For the guitar, we build this modal theory of looping pitches within loops into the learning method, becoming the pathway to developing the 'anything from anywhere' chops a jazz leaning guitar player might aspire to acquire.

learning method

For there's a true relationship between modes and styles, between modes and the songs of distinct nationalities, often a forever or historical relationship joining a mode championed in the music created by a unique group of people. Along these lines, if you're in a Klezmer band, you'll probably know the various modes of the harmonic minor grouping of pitches better than most. Backing up Flamenco dancers? The Phrygian mode in E is the core.

Klezmer / Israel
Phrygian / Spanish

When we hear a melody with certain twists, we almost intuitively know its cultural origins. Whether we should thank Hollywood for these musical images or not, its basis in modal history should not be denied. For it opens us up to a whole world of musics already potentially right under our fingertips :) And once we know it's there, we can search. So within each of the seven groups, what theory component helps determines its unique sound?

Hollywood
search

Location of the half steps. Does the location of the half steps within each mode have the greatest effect on its overall color and emotional quality? That could very well be the case, as the half steps help determine the main attributes; what quality of third for major or minor. What quality of perfect fifth interval, the historically dominant interval of our AmerEuro music. And the seventh; a major 7th leading tone or blue minor 7th? Which when paired with the third determines chord type, a theory way to categorize chords by the sense of direction they create and our artistic sense of 'arrival', depending on the setting and style of music we're in.

quality of the 3rd
AmerEuro
leading tone
blue 7th
chord type

Artistically of course, it might all just boil down to what we each hear, how these sounds resonate on our internal muse, and what inspiration it conjures in our work. The following chart is simply organized to see the gradually shifting half steps of our core diatonic major scale formula as we navigate through the whole steps and half steps of our seven distinct diatonic modes. Example 5.

~ new patterns emerge ~

Ionian mode formula
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1
1 / 2
Dorian mode formula
1
1 / 2
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
Phyrgian mode formula
1 / 2
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
Locrian mode formula
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
Mixolydian mode formula
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
1

Aeolian mode formula

1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
Locrian mode formula
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1
Ionian mode formula
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1
1 / 2

Pretty clear migration of the 1/2 step as we descend through the chart. That by simply changing the starting point of the same sequence of whole steps and half steps, our modal groups evolve. Principly based on the half step location, each grouping retains its own unique ancient sound and character potentials.

The following discussions examine each group by using the just white keys on the piano to create melody lines that capture each color simply by emphasizing the natural half steps within each group created from within same exact loop of pitches.

Ionian mode / major scale / diatonic scale. From the above discussions or these links we can choose to research and believe that this grouping has really been at the center of the local melodic universe for an awfully long long long time. Three longs? Yep, long time back to the caves of Central Europe.

Here are the intervals and pitches with C as our root pitch. This C Ionian / major scale becomes what we term our parent scale for the ideas which follow. If necessary, please memorize this interval formula. Example 6.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Ionian mode / major scale formula
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1
1 / 2
letter name pitches
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
C

Ionian character. Clearly we have the major third E above the root creating the major tonality. The half step ascending to Four creates the lovely uplifting motion of spirit we often associate with Americana gospel flavor, providing an identical secondary resting point as the tonic / One within a key center. The three successive whole steps of the second tetrachord boldly stepping upwards towards our upper tonic with a half step motion to cap its arrival, resolving any doubt of where we were going and how we got there.

thirds
aural predictability

Of course the reverse of this description is also true, that a scaler descending major scale line is just as directional and confidently resolving. Here are both. Remember, do try and sing or hum along with the pitches in all of the examples. Sing and play is the Americana way. Follow along the notation for reading too. Example 6a.

thirds
sing the line / play the line
Americana
reading music

Easy to sing? Cool. These pitches can go pretty deep.

A question. Are we as American musicians so steeped in the sounds of the major scale that even just scale-wise motion up and down resolves? Pretty mch. The diatonic major scale descending line, with various rhythmic nuances, becomes the hook or riff often used in the folk, bluegrass and gospel styles.

This major scale grouping and its relative natural minor, has proven itself worthy as the group of pitches for all the composer kings over the last 1000 years or so. At least since notation came around. But is it time to let the tritone within go? Even for just a hundred years or so?

This next line created from the pitches of the Ionian mode / major scale has a bit of a nursery rhyme, children's song sort of feel, in 3. Example 7b.

Right up the triad with some sequence in the second half. Lots and lots more of old time fun Ionian lines included to rote learn in a couple of keys, at least :)

Ionian melodies

Dorian mode. This early grouping passed along from our theory Ancients is a very powerful representation of the minor tonality. We can find shades of Dorian somewhere in all of the American styles. The minor third above the root sets the overall tonality of the mode. The major 6th above the root, is a far stronger lean towards the major tonality than the minor 6th of natural minor grouping. This is the one key distinction between the Dorian and natural minor groups.

footnote / original mode

In improvisation, Dorian is of course a key player over the Two minor 7th chord as we find it on the second scale degree of our system. Dorian is a very common melodic substitution color with any unaltered V7 chord. In composition, the Dorian mode played a pivotal role in the evolution of American jazz during the later 1950's and forward, setting the stage for the final steps up to the 12 tone free jazz of the later 1960's. Examine the pitches and D Dorian scale formula. Example 7.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Dorian mode formula
1
1/2
1
1
1
1/2
1
letter pitches
D
E
F
G
A
B
C
D

Dorian character. The minor third F above the root creates Dorian's overall minor tonality. That we don't diatonically get a minor Four chord in Dorian creates some interesting compositional possibilities. Perhaps this is the first real step in seeing how Two came to sub for Four in the major key. The sleeker D-7 chord handling the brighter tempos as the music evolved over the early decades of the last century.

The Dorian mode also plays a core role in what could become a new futuristic tonal organization of our equal tempered pitches based on the #15 interval. For now just purely modal ancient. Example 7a.

Descending Dorian sounds. Even without supporting changes, the powerful, minor character of the line emerges. This has a very rock / fusionesque character, or could with the right gear. A bluer start reaching up to A, then a quick leap to the B natural where the minor 6/9 chord is struck. A repeated descending eighth note pattern encapsulates the minor triad and sets up the motion to our solid minor triad resolution.

evo gear

Dorian songs. Into the wayback to find the elegant "Scarborough Fair", which went to # 1 in the 1500's Elizabethan England. For jazz players, John Coltrane's "Impressions" and Miles Davis' "So What" are two popular jazz songs creating the Dorian environment for jazz styled improvisations.

Phrygian mode. One of the Greek originals, the Phrygian (pr. Frid-gean) mode just might carry the strongest ethnic or national character of the ancient world into our present day lives. The opening half step interval can be an absolute giveaway to the overall color and emotional character of the line which often follows.

With a thanks to Hollywood, we Americans often associate the Phrygian mode with the sounds of the Spanish; migrating with guitars from Spain over to their new world in Mexico and then to destination points north. This color is very much the core of flamenco guitar (in E) and dancing, where thunderous flourishes accentuate delicate passages of the Phrygian mysteries. Examine its pitches. Example 8.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Phrygian mode formula
1/2
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
letter pitches
E
F
G
A
B
C
D
E

Phrygian character. The initial half step between the first and second scale degree is most essential to capturing the quality of the color. We see the second half step between the dominant B and C. We guitarist love to create all manner of nuance on these half step groupings of pitches. While our diatonic One chord is of course minor, it is not uncommon to see its third raised to create our core open E chord. When used with the diatonic Two and Three major triads, we create the classic Phrygian lick and when fanned, the motion becomes a core flamenco motor for the dancers. Example 8a.

Descending Phrygian sounds. Classic becomes cliche here in my overly simple idea to get the color across. Using the open pedal E is cool and common with Phrygian. The idea of using the entire range of the instrument might be new but can create some very exciting lines. We theorists could 'legally' call the G# in the last bar a Picardy third.

A borrowed pitch? We just borrowed a pitch right? To make the E major triad? That G# is not diatonic to Phrygian as built from the pitch E natural. 'Darn the diatonic and theory rules', sometimes ya just gotta do what ya just gotta to work the magic :)

borrowing pitches

Phrygian melody. Drawing a blank here sorry.

improv melody

Lydian mode. One of the four original modes that we inherit from the ancient Greeks, the Lydian color has found a secure place on the modern American jazz compositional and improvisational palette. Basically a major scale with an augmented fourth, we get a bit of whole tone color out front with its three whole steps followed by a more traditional diatonic finish. Examine the pitches. Example 9.

footnote / original mode
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Lydian mode formula
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
letter pitches
F
G
A
B
C
D
E
F

Ascending Lydian character. The major third A above the root creates the major tonality and the initial three whole steps of this grouping provides that wisp of whole tone color. So very often we'll find this B natural up an octave as the #11th colortone of the arpeggio. The #11 eases including the major 3rd in the chord triad basis; (major 3rd 'A' and #11 'A#' in the same chord). Ex. 9a.

Lydian sounds. There is a poignancy of boldness in the Lydian color that can create a sense of confidence. The whole tone quality does suspend things a wee bit in terms of tonal direction, adding another component to our compositional tools to shape aural predictability and its musical tension and release. Those in the know probably caught the open D major triad shape in the chord voicing in this last idea. Stacking major triads atop one another potentially opens up the polytonal world.

A one pitch shift to new coolness. A fairly common variation of this diatonic derived Lydian group is to lower its 7th by half step, to create a group often termed 'Lydian b7.' In this evolved grouping we lower the leading tone 7th by half step, creating a tritone interval between the major 3rd and minor 7th, moving us into dominant type colors and all of their possible machinations. So a dominant color with a bit of built in Lydian whole tone? Yep, pretty much. Examine the evolution of these pitches and their sound. Example 9b.

leading tone 7th
minor 7th
2 pitch tritone
3rd and 7th
dominant
evolutions of pitch / style
scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Lydian mode formula
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
letter pitches
F
G
A
B
C
D
E
F
Lydian b7 mode formula
1
1
1
1 / 2
1
1 / 2
1
letter pitches
F
G
A
B
C
D
Eb
F

Compare the sounds of these two groups. Example 9c.

 

Lydian b7 dominant mode. As we've created our modes from different starting points within one defined set or loop of pitches, turns out that we've the common melodic minor scale starting from Five of Lydian b7. Examine the pitches. Example 9d.

a set
loop of pitches
melodic minor scale
Lydian b7 mode letter pitches
F
G
A
B
C
D
Eb
F
melodic minor from V
C
D
Eb
F
G
A
B
C

Mixolydian mode. Historically the last of our original groupings of pitches from the ancient Greeks, we can find the Mixolydian melodic color within any of the music and styles that we can trace back to the ancient Celts of Britain. The Appalachian folk song "Old Joe Clarke" is an early American classic based on the Mixolydian group of pitches. Improvising musicians often associate Mixolydian sounds with dominant harmony, as both hold the major 3rd / flat 7th tritone and are built from the 5th degree of the diatonic major scale. Examine the pitches and location of the Mixolydian mode's half steps. Example 11.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8

Mixolydian mode formula

1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
1
letter pitches
G
A
B
C
D
E
F
G

Gradually descending Mixolydian character. The major third B above the root of course creates the major tonality. Interesting perhaps is that as the pitches descend from Four towards the root, we get a similar motion and sense of resolution as that of the Ionian / major scale group. Ascending melodic motion bumps into the dominant, flat or blue 7th, that changes the dynamic of this resolution. Thus the essential of the Mixolydian spice. Here's a nip of the 'Old Joe' in eight notes. Example 11a.

Mixolydian sounds. That blue 7th hight point in the line surely creates a lovely sense of the rub. The line seems to charge up to the F, then repeats. There are words for this melody of course which all combined tells the character in the story. These modal pitches, with additional blue notes peppered in, becomes a core color for jazz players. For in the blues, so often the tonic chord is a dominant chord type, and the major 3rd above the root figures in a lot.

Many essential blues melodies follow the alternating tonic major 3rd / minor 3rd switch as our chords move from One to Four. Slice in the blue 3rd, and fill the whole between between the 4th and 5th scale degrees with a blue tritone and we got solid group of pitches to create our jazz / blues style melodies. Example 11b.

Aeolian mode / natural minor / relative minor. This ancient grouping of pitches is really at the center of the local American melodic universe. Folk, blues, rock and jazzer's all need this color's pitches to work the magic. For even though nowadays the major scale reigns, I bet if we to take the wayback machine all the way back, that along with its Ionian partner, this group would be ancient king of melody makers.

As modern theorists we usually just call it the natural minor scale. Paired with the Ionian / major scale, this combined grouping of pitches has created the bulk of our melodies. Examine the intervals and pitches of the Aeolian / natural minor group projected from our root pitch A. Example 12.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Aeolian mode formula
1
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
letter pitches
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
A

Aeolian character. Of course the minor 3rd interval from the root (A to C) creates the overall minor tonality. The minor or blue 7th at the close (G to A) evoking its character so evident in the blues and rock influences in the American sounds. The unique, artistic poignancy of the minor 6th interval (A to F), is crucial to the mode. We also need this F natural to create our minor Four chord, a key motion in all of the American styles, in both our major and minor key schemes. This next idea is the B section of an Alaska themed original composition of mine, "Voices From The River." Example 12a.

Aeolian sounds. Clearly an earthy sort of minor color, Aeolian mode can be somewhat somber yet loving, with a reverence and compassion unmatched by any other grouping. The F natural in the first bar really sets the tone of the line. As this is the second melody of the tune, the penultimate note B at the close sets up the repeat of the line. As time permits, do check out George Gershwin's classic line in "Summertime" for its deep Aeolian character and well crafted qualities.

Locrian mode. Our final core mode is built upon the seventh scale degree and has the singular distinction of not having the stabilizing influence of having an interval of a perfect 5th above its root. Out of all seven groups just this one? Yep. Locrian diatonically creates the half diminished colors, an essential pivot chord or portal between the major minor Yin Yang of it all. Locrian is also the parent scale for improvisation over these half diminished harmonies. Examine two common half diminished voicings linking the diatonic major and relative minor. Example 13.

Locrian also doesn't really have a definitive historical start point. It somehow got wiggled in during the 1700's, completing the modern modal theory of seven we've enjoyed since. As mentioned just above, the fifth of Locrian is diminished. So a diminished fifth in its triad ? Yep. This one property alone can minimize this group's role as a primary or secondary key center in composing. Examine the two fifth's from the root pitch B. Ex. 13a.

Isn't that diminished fifth a tritone? Sure is. So a diminished triad? Yep. And we diatonically just don't have an F# in C major do we? Or C minor for that matter? Nope. So how did we create a B minor triad from the pitches of C major / A minor? In pure theory? We have to borrow it from another key. Examine the Locrian pitches and formula as created from B, the leading tone, seventh degree of the C major group. Example 13b.

scale degrees
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
Locrian mode formula
1 / 2
1
1
1 / 2
1
1
1
letter pitches
B
C
D
E
F
G
A
B

Locrian character. The initial half step and minor 3rd clearly define the minor tonality. The root B to F natural creates the said dissonant tritone / diminished 5th interval, thought to detract from the overall stability of this group. Thus, perhaps the Locrian scale or chord are not as clearly major or minor as compared to our other six groupings. Is it this unique quality of somewhat tonal ambiguity that gives Locrian its character ability to smoothly morph our compositions between our major and minor tonal environments? Could be.

Richard Wagner's "Tristan" chord has fascinated theorists for centuries. From a jazz perspective of today the 'Tristan' chord can be viewed simply as a half diminished seventh chord. In its own day it was a revolutionary color to be used as the lead character's 'theme.' Jazz players love this color, commonly termed 'half diminished seventh' or numerically represented as the minor seven flat five (-7b5) chord, as it provides a diatonic choice of a rather complex color that is not quite fully diminished. A Locrian line. Ex.13a.

Locrian sounds. The above idea focuses in on the pitches and intervals that help make Locrian unique. Thus the motion to the F natural on beat three of measure two. The whole step cadential motion at the close of the line helps to bring out Locrian's more bluesier, Mixolydian character for which this group is so often associated with in the more theoretically developed American styles.

Looking deeper into these church modes. Just as we've done in the above examples, where we took one group of pitches and examined each grouping within by making each pitch in turn our tonic pitch, we can also look into each of these modes and follow similar pathways. And while this might sound redundant, there are some cool things that shake loose to consider.

 

Our written history tells us that in the beginning days of our music theory, the original Greek modes of Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian were the four melodic resource for composers. Formed into melodies within an octave span, when their work needed a contrasting section, they created a 'mode within a mode' grouping to achieve a diversity of color (sound familiar ...).

modal theory / Harvard footnote

Early evolution of the resource. These new modes are termed a plagal or hypo mode, and spans the octave from a fourth below our tonic to the fifth above. This secondary group created a different set of intervals from which to create contrasting themes, encouraging musical composition to grow and thus evolve our musical forms. This simple process doubled our ancient resource from four to eight. Example 14.

Easy enough yes? And isn't Five the dominant in today's lingo? Yep it sure is. So even with the later addition of the three 'modern' modes of Aeolian, Ionian and Locrian to the core four, and the even later advent of equal temper tuning, that the same technique to create new 'groups from an existing group' is still a core spoke of the theory / composition wheel. Furthermore, that we can project each and any of these musical configurations equally from each of the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale becomes the whole theory tamale n'est-ce pas?

Bring forth the ancient melodies. Might we modernists, when we compose modern modal pieces, be going back to when the hands of time pointed to a world lit only by fire? And can we recreate with this modal magic the vibe of those now ancient days? Surely we can try, for the ancient memories just might still be within each of us. I think this is why 'once a musician, always a musician' rings true for so many of us. For we are searchers on an endless quest of artistic and intellectual coolness of an artform that surely has a past, present and future to explore :)

Our musical past is re-conjurable, the present is of course a gift, and the future what we try to make right with our music. As if any of us need a reason to be musicians, sorry. So regardless of the outcome of these unanswerable hypothetical questions and philosophical musings, we'll see the above process of finding 'modes within a mode', a re-arranging of the pieces of our musical and artistic puzzles, at least a few more times here and elsewhere before we complete our studies. Now back to the theory.

 

Modal improv. In pursuing various theory pathways for the improvising artist, does coming up with 'something in C' or any key center for that matter, also include all of the diatonic modes created from the same pitches? For many it does and they create their own shortcuts within their thought process based on how they know and process the theory. There's a ton of tricks for sure and if we cal always think from the root of the chord we might never get lost ... wouldn't that be nice !

improv

"If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Sir Isaac Newton
Footnotes:
Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music, p. 180. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960.

 

(1) Ottman, Robert. Elementary Harmony, First Edition, p. 4. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

(2) Isacoff, Stuart. Temperament ... The Idea That Solved Music's Greatest Riddle. U.S.A. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 2001. The theme of this wonderful book explores the historical struggle to conquer the process and implementation of equal temper tuning within European society. For those that need to get to the historical core of the evolution of our tuning, "Temperament" weaves a fun, fascinating and researched historical perspective.

(1) Appel, Willie and Ralph T. Daniel. The Harvard Brief Dictionary Of Music, p. 221. New York: Pocket Books, a Simon and Schuster Division of Gulf and Western, 1960.

Aebersold, James and Slone, Ken. Charlie Parker Omnibook. New York: Atlantic Music Corp., 1978. I know this is a troubling stand to take but I felt I had to and as jazz player, I based it on Charlie Parker's compositions in the Omnibook. Find a copy, count the number of tunes, then compare the number of major key to minor key songs. Any real book of popular American song, by a mix of composers, will follow along similar lines in this regard.

Aebersold, James and Slone, Ken. Charlie Parker Omnibook. New York: Atlantic Music Corp., 1978. I know this is a troubling stand to take but I felt I had to and as jazz player, I based it on Charlie Parker's compositions in the Omnibook. Find a copy, count the number of tunes, then compare the number of major key to minor key songs. Any real book of popular American song, by a mix of composers, will probably follow along similar lines in this regard.

Florentine films, copyright 2000 The jazz film project, inc..

 

(1)Burns, Ken. (Producer) (1990) Jazz [DVD], PBS Home Video, vol.1, Gumbo @ 10 minutes. United States: www.pbs.org