Have you ever felt confused by musical modes? In this episode, we discuss how you can understand these fascinating scales through active listening and a simple yet eye-opening exercise.

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Christopher: On our recent episode with Marshall McDonald we were talking a little bit about jazz and improvisation. And one topic that comes up almost immediately when you mention jazz improvisation is the idea of modes in music, and so I wanted to pick up on that in this episode and talk a little bit about modes and maybe give a new way of looking at them for anyone who has previously encountered them in a thick music theory textbook, and been a bit baffled or overwhelmed. This is one of our duo episodes. I’m joined today by Anastasia Voitinskaia from the Musical U Team who recently put together a fantastic tutorial on modes for our website, and I wanted her to come in and share a bit about how she presented them in that article, ’cause I thought it was particularly good. Say hi Anastasia.

Anastasia: Hi Anastasia. Just kidding. Hi. It’s nice to be back on here, thank you for having me.

Christopher: So, what I particularly liked about the article and I think I can be fairly complimentary ’cause I wasn’t involved in this one at all, so it’s a musical article, but I did not write it. And what I particularly liked was it was all about the moods of modes and modes are often taught purely in music theory way or in a very kind of logical improvisation context and the article really covered the theory, but really focused on what makes the character of each mode and why we should be interested in modes in the first place. So, we’re not going to be talking in this episode about the in depth nuts and bolts of each mode. You’ll find all of the stuff about intervals and about sharp and flat scale degrees and all of that in the article. And we’ll have a direct link to that in the show notes for this episode, but we will be talking about a couple of the modes and what makes them sound interesting musically. So, I’ll kick off with the simple question, Anastasia, what are modes?

Anastasia: So, to put it simply, a mode is simply a scale that’s derived from the major scale that we already know, but we essentially change what notes play what roles – more on that the musical modes article – and so the sounds and the tone and the mood of the scale changes.

Christopher: Gotcha. And I think back when I was first taught modes, in a way it was really simple, because my teacher just said, “It’s the major scale, but you start on a different note.”

Anastasia: Yes.

Christopher: And when you’re trying to learn the clarinet fingering, that sounds great, but it meant that I was faced immediately with I guess seven new scales, because I could start the major scale from any note instead of just the first one, and I think that’s probably why I never really got a handle on modes. I felt like I had these seven random scales with weird names thrown at me and although the concept of them was simple, I’d never really got a handle on why I should care.

Anastasia: Totally.

Christopher: Or what the musical point of them was. So, maybe you could explain a bit, an easier way for musicians to get their head around the modes. Are there any that are particularly easy to understand or be familiar with?

Anastasia: Well, there is a way of understanding them as you play the major scale, but you simply start on a different note than you usually would. But again, as you said, that just leaves you with seven scales with very funny sounding Greek names. Some of them sound vaguely sinister. Some of them sound happier. Is there a way to really internalize them and make them mean something in your head is kind of just to listen to the sound of each one, because all modes are, are really variations on major and minor scales, but the cool thing about them is they convey moods beyond just happy, bright, major and sort of wistful, melancholy, minor. They can be mysterious. They can be floaty or calm or sinister, foreboding, or even some of them kind of sound rebellious like the Mixolydian scale.

So, really the way to internalize them and the way to make them mean something is to listen to the sound of each one. How does it make you feel? Play the scale. Play the scale ascending and descending. Do a little improv containing just the notes keeping that first note that you play as the tonic and see what it sounds like to you.

Christopher: And I really like that way of looking at it, not just because it’s ear based and we talk a lot on this show about your ear and the important of understanding what’s going on in music by ear and developing that instinct, but because I think it cuts to the heart of why modes are powerful, but also can be confusing, which is that they’re not a strict thing. You know, you talked there about how the mood can be sinister, when ultimately we’re talking about the same notes as the major scale, right? Like if we’re talking about a C major scale, all of the modes derived from that are just going to use the white keys on the piano, and so in a sense, you kind of wonder, well is the mode fundamentally different? Why would it be different? Why would it sound different? And I think you kinda cut to it there. It’s about how those notes are used, so in the same way a melody using just the white notes of the piano could be written to have a sinister feel to it, if we use a collection of notes in a certain way that can be a mode and that can be a sinister character mode.

Anastasia: Exactly.

Christopher: So, let’s get a little bit more specific. We already talked about the major scale as our starting point, and that is one of the modes, right?

Anastasia: It is. It’s called the Ionian mode in fact, but no one really calls it that, because it’s simply the major scale, but it is one of the seven modes.

Christopher: Yeah, if you wanna sound fancy or impress your friends you can refer to all of the Ionian scales you’ve been playing lately.

Anastasia: Yeah.

Christopher: But one of them might see through your clever ruse, if they’ve studied modes. And there’s one of them that’s quick and easy if you’ve been studying major and minor scales. What’s that?

Anastasia: That’s the Aeolian mode. So, if you go on your keyboard and you play starting from your A note an octave all the way up to the next A using only white keys, like so,

you’ll hear that it sounds just like the natural minor scale, and that is the Aeolian mode, because if we think about scales as being derived from playing white key to white key starting on C, then starting on D, and so on and so forth, then the one starting and ending on A, becomes the Aeolian mode, also known as the natural minor, so in fact before you start learning modes, you already know two of them. And that should make you feel a lot better, because that means that the other ones are cake, you can just move up and down your little piano keyboard on the white keys and derive the rest of them without too much difficulty.

Christopher: Exactly. And I should make clear, you know, we’re talking about piano and piano keyboard, but the reason is just that the piano keyboard’s quite a clear visual way to look at pattern of intervals in music, and so if you’re playing saxophone for example, you might find it easier to think in terms of the intervals or in terms of the key signature, and you’ll find much more info about that in the full article on the Musical U website. So, that’s Ionian and Aeolian. We can take the first or the second note of the major scale and play the major scales starting from there. What about others? Can you give a couple of examples, Anastasia, of interesting or different modes that listeners might be interested to get to know?

Anastasia: Absolutely. Yeah. I’ll give my two favorites of the seven, and these two are quite different, so I think they’ll make a nice contrast. So, first of all, let’s talk about the Dorian mode. This one’s a cool one because it starts on D and ends on D if you’re looking at your piano again. I’m referring to the piano, because this is something that you can easily visualize. I’ll include a link in the show notes to a virtual keyboard so you can maybe try these modes out on your own.

So, looking at the keyboard, if you start on the D note and end on the D note playing an ascending scale, it sounds like this.

So, it’s different than the major scale, right? It shifted to something that kind of sounds more serious, so the Dorian mode is in fact considered a minor mode, ’cause there’s that minor third interval between the first and the third degree of the scale. So, rather than sounding happy and upbeat like the major scale, it now kinda sounds more bittersweet, a little bit sad, but still optimistic. So, actually a lot of songs written in Dorian mode kind of sing of unrequited love or lost love for good reason. So, I think this is a really cool one, because it kind of straddles the line between major and minor and you know, basically conveys a human emotion other than just happy or sad, but you know just real emotion and I think that’s really the beauty of modes and the Dorian mode illustrates that really, really well.

Christopher: Nice, and the Dorian mode is a good one too, because if you have come across the analysis of modes in terms of raising and lowering scales degrees based on the major scale, the Dorian is a nice case study, because as Anastasia said there, it’s about a minor third interval rather than a major third. That’s what gives it it’s minory feel, but it also has a raised sixth, so that makes it relatively bright and happy compared to it’s natural minor scale. And so just two simple kind of music theory explanations of why the Dorian ends up with this kind of bittersweet feeling to it.

Anastasia: Uh-huh. (affirmative)

Christopher: Cool, so that’s the Dorian mode. And that’s a popular one to improvise with particularly on guitar and you can play around with that if you click through to the article and the web synthesizer Anastasia mentioned there. That’s a fun one to play around with. Give us another. You said you had two favorites. What’s the other?

Anastasia: Yeah, so that’s the Dorian mode. That’s a really great one. It appears a lot, it’s in Jazz and Blues and Pop music. It’s kind of everywhere. So, it’s nice popular one and it conveys a specific mood that I think we can all relate to, which I think is part of its popularity. The other one I’m gonna talk about is way, way, way less popular. In fact, this is maybe like the weird boogeyman of the modal family. This one’s called the Locrian mode. So, if you start on your B note on the piano and play an ascending scale only on the white keys and stopping on the next B, it sounds like this.

So, some words I would use to describe this personally are creepy, unsettling, and just plain odd. Something seems wrong. Something is not resolving, and it just, it doesn’t seem like it’s even a scale. It seems like an odd, scary collection of notes. This scale’s interesting because there’s no perfect fifth, which is kind of like the interval that makes things sound warm, stable, and happy. So, this particular mode is perfect if you’re looking to write horror soundtrack or if you’re a heavy metal guitarist looking to write a really punishing solo.
So, if we want to do a little bit of an improv with the Locrian mode, it’ll sound like this.

So, yeah it’s unsettling. It’s unpleasant. It’s scary and it keeps you on edge, but if that’s the mood you’re going for, it’s really great and I think that’s what I like about it. It definitely adds an element of interest to whatever music it gets used in, and it’s not used in very much music. So, it is rare to hear it, but when you do, I think it really stands out and makes an impact.

Christopher: Very cool and yeah, if you’re a songwriter, feeling like all of the notes of the C major scale have been used to death, maybe a Locrian mode is a new angle on it that could lead to some distinctive tracks. You found a really interesting Bjork one for the article.

Anastasia: I did, yeah. Bjork has a Pop song called “Army of Me”, and we know that Bjork likes writing weird stuff, but she was perhaps one of the only people maybe even the first person to really write Pop song in Locrian mode, and the song “Army of Me” actually charted, so people did like it, but when I listened to it, I’m like, oh, this is unsettling. I’m amazed that people liked it as much as they did, but I guess that’s the magic of Bjork.

Christopher: Very cool. So, if someone’s listening and thinking, “Oh, these modes things sound interesting. Maybe I’ll go and play around.” Do you have any tips for getting started with that beyond just sitting down and plunking through the scale top to bottom or bottom to top?

Anastasia: Absolutely, yeah. Although it definitely helps to play the scales ascending and descending and then get faster so you can kind of sauce out the tone of it. There’s a really great exercise that Andrew, also here at Musical U, came up with, and it’s called the Crazy, Easy Modal Trick. I’ll include a link to that in the show notes. To summarize the exercise briefly, sit down at a piano or grab an instrument. Piano obviously works very well for the reasons Christopher discussed, everything’s kind of laid out for you. Guitar works well as well, and obviously go to the virtual piano if you don’t have access to a piano at home.

So with your left hand, you wanna hold down just one not sharp, not flat note, it’s gonna be a white key on the piano. Hold it down so that it’s a sustained sound. You can use the middle pedal on your piano if you have one to do this. For example if you’re trying to do this in Dorian mode, which is a good place to start, it’ll sound nice and pleasant. Hold down the D with your left hand. Now with your right hand, you want to improvise over top of the drone that you’re playing with your left hand, but again using only the white keys, because then you’re playing modal.

So, what’s happening here is basically your left hand is kind of establishing the tonic and the note that you’re holding down, the note that kind of is sustained is kind of where your tonic lies. It’s the gravity of your improvisation. Meanwhile all the notes that you play with your right hand, your brain is understanding in relation to that drone played with your left hand. So, if you want to modal improvise and experiment with different modes, all you really need to do is play different white keys with your left hand. Change the drone note and continue just improvising with your right hand over top with white keys and see how the sound changes. See how the mood changes from perhaps calm and floaty to darker and sinister to upbeat and energetic, something reminiscent of flamenco music. It’s really cool. It’s a really simple exercise, but you can achieve a lot and learn so much even if you just sit down at the piano for 20 minutes and try this out. It’s great.

Christopher: Fantastic. That’s a great exercise to try out, and it just comes back again to this point that modes are clearly defined and in another sense, kinda fuzzy. I think what’s great about this exercise is it sidesteps the question of how do we know what the tonic is, and yeah I think that’s probably a conversation for a whole other podcast topic. The next episode is finding the tonic by ear, but you know, obviously when the mode only differs from the major scales based on what we perceive as the tonic, that could be a question of well you know if I’m wondering around these keys how does someone know if it’s C major or Aeolian or whatever the case may be.
This exercise is great, because you’re just kinda hammering away that tonic note. You’re leaving the listener in no doubt as to what is your intended tonic and that gives your mode a very clear definition, so it’s a great way to kind of force the ear to perceive it as the mode it is rather than leaving this ambiguity that can make it harder to really get your ear into the mood and the character of the mode.

Anastasia: Definitely and that definition is really, really important because again, you could argue that you know, all seven modes use the same white keys, so what is the difference? Well the difference in the most basic sense is which notes are emphasized and how do they related to the other notes. So, the left hand drone, right hand improv exercise is the perfect way to understand that better.

Christopher: Yeah, and this is why you’ll find endless guitar forum debates and flame wars online arguing over Malmsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Steve Vai and what mode they’ve written this solo in.

Anastasia: Yes.

Christopher: The answer is often, you know, it depends on how you listen to it.

Anastasia: Definitely, your ear kind of plays tricks on itself after a while.

Christopher: For sure. So, I think we’ve kind of cut to the heart of it and hopefully given everyone a taste of why modes are interesting and how simple, but how interesting they can be.

And I think all that remains is to remind you that if you want much more info on this, do check out the full article. You’ll find a link in the show notes and kudos to Anastasia for putting that together. I think it’s a really great all in one guide. We also have I think in depth ones on the Dorian and the Lydian mode, which will link up to in the show notes. So, a big thank you Anastasia for joining me today. This was a lot of fun, and yeah, everyone listening go out there and try the Crazy, Easy Weird Modal Improv Trick and drone away with different notes and see what you can come up with.

Anastasia: Yeah, have fun!

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