I. Fundamentals

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • The diatonic modes are scale-like collections of notes with patterns of half and whole steps.
  • Modes can be described within a continuum of : brighter modes sound more like a major scale, while darker modes sound more like a minor scale.
  • The three bright modes, which contain mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) instead of m([latex]\downarrow\hat{3}[/latex]), are , , and .
  • The four dark modes, which contain m([latex]\downarrow\hat{3}[/latex]) instead of mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) are , , , and .
  • A , also known as the chromatic collection, consists of twelve adjacent half steps. Chromatic scales are often (but not always) written with sharps while ascending and with flats while descending.

This book covers modes from many different angles. For more information on modes, check Chord-Scale Theory (jazz), Modal Schemas (pop), Diatonic Modes (20th/21st-c.), and Analyzing with Modes, Scales, and Collections (20th-/21st-c.).

Modes and the Parallel Relationship

The diatonic modes are scale-like collections of notes with different patterns of half and whole steps. As we have learned previously, scales that share a tonic have a . In this chapter, modes are going to be described using the parallel relationship. Modes will also be described within a continuum of modal brightness; : brighter modes sound more like a major scale, while darker modes sound more like a minor scale.

Example 1 ranks the seven diatonic modes in terms of relative brightness and darkness. It also summarizes which scale degrees are altered in relation to the ionian (major) mode, which will be explained in more detail below.

A double-headed arrow points from "Darkest" to "Brightest"; modes are listed below: locrian, phrygian, aeolian, dorian, mixolydian, ionian, lydian. Altered scale-degrees are listed below each.
Example 1. Relative darkness and brightness of modes.

The brightest mode is the mode. The ascending pattern of half and whole steps in this mode is W‑W‑W‑H‑W‑W‑H. Another way to think of this mode is as a major scale but with raised [latex]\hat{4}[/latex], whose solfège is fi [latex](\uparrow\hat{4})[/latex]. Example 2 shows C lydian with solfège.

Example 2. C lydian with solfège.

The next brightest mode is the mode. This mode consists of an ascending pattern of half and whole steps that is the same as a major scale: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. Example 3 shows C ionian with solfège.

Example 3. C ionian with solfège.

The next brightest mode is the mode, with W-W-H-W-W-H-W as the ascending pattern of half and whole steps. Another way to think of this mode is as a major scale but with lowered [latex]\hat{7}[/latex]. Example 4 shows C mixolydian with solfège.

Example 4. C mixolydian with solfège.

The lydian, ionian, and mixolydian modes are usually considered the brighter (or more major) modes because they contain mi instead of me (unaltered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex] instead of lowered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex]). The dorian, aeolian, phrygian, and locrian modes are usually considered darker (or more minor) modes because they contain me instead of mi ([latex]\downarrow\hat{3}[/latex] instead of unaltered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex]).

The mode is the first darker (or more minor) mode. This mode’s ascending pattern of half and whole steps is W-H-W-W-W-H-W. Another way to think of this mode is as a minor scale but with raised [latex]\hat{6}[/latex] (la). Example 5 shows C dorian with solfège:

Example 5. C dorian with solfège.

The next darkest mode is the mode. The aeolian mode’s ascending pattern of half and whole steps is the same as a natural minor scale: W-H-W-W-H-W-W. Example 6 shows C aeolian with solfège.

Example 6. C aeolian with solfège.

The next darkest mode is the mode. The ascending pattern of half and whole steps in the phrygian mode is H-W-W-W-H-W-W. This is the same pattern as a natural minor scale, but with lowered [latex]\hat{2}[/latex], whose solfège is ra. Example 7 shows C phrygian with solfège:

Example 7. C phrygian with solfège. 

The darkest mode is the mode. The locrian mode’s ascending pattern of half and whole steps is H-W-W-H-W-W-W. This is the same pattern as a natural minor scale, but with lowered [latex]\hat{2}[/latex] (ra) and lowered [latex]\hat{5}[/latex], whose solfège is se. Example 8 shows C locrian with solfège:

Example 8. C locrian with solfège.

Each mode can start on any note. For example, one could build a mixolydian collection starting on D♭, an aeolian collection starting on G♭, or a lydian collection starting on F♯. When writing modal collections, be sure to think about your accidentals carefully.

Example 9 shows all of the different modes with scale degrees and solfège, ordered from brightest to darkest (lydian to locrian):

Example 9. The modes from brightest to darkest, starting on C, with scale degrees. 

Listen to Example 9 carefully, observing the difference between the modes.

Chromatic “Scales”

A consists of twelve adjacent half steps. Because it lacks a pattern of half and whole steps, music theorists generally refer to it as a chromatic collection, which is why “scale” is in scare quotes here. Example 10 shows two chromatic collections, the first starting on A and the second starting on E♭:

Example 10. Two chromatic collections starting on A and E♭.

As you can see in Example 10, chromatic collections are often (but not always) written with sharps while ascending and with flats while descending; the first line of this example demonstrates this. A chromatic collection that begins with a flat note (such as the second line in Example 10) is usually written with naturals while ascending and with flats while descending. When you write chromatic collections, don’t forget that two pairs of white keys on the keyboard are half steps: B/C and E/F.

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Writing Modes (.pdf, .pdf), from a Relative Conception (.pdf)
  2. Mode Identification and Accidental Error Detection (.pdf)
  3. Dorian p. 1, and lydian p. 3 (.pdf)
  4. Mode Writing and Questions (.docx, .docx)
  5. Mode Identification (.pdf)
  6. Chromatic Scales and Modes, p. 1 (.pdf)
  7. Writing Chromatic Scales (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Writing Modes Assignment #1 (.pdf.mscx)
  2. Writing Modes Assignment #2 (.pdf.mscx)
  3. Writing Chromatic “Scales” Assignment #1 (.pdf.mscx)
  4. Writing Chromatic “Scales” Assignment #2 (.pdf.mscx)

Media Attributions

  • Brightness and Darkness of Modes

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OPEN MUSIC THEORY by Chelsey Hamm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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