The Sounds of Music Modes

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In my last article we looked at Modes and how they are worked out.

Each mode has a certain ‘flavour’ or ‘sound’. By practicing the modes you can start to get the sound in your head, but there are several ways of thinking about them, and one or two of these might resonate with you and aid you.

Modes can be thought of being ranked from ‘brightest/happiest’ to ‘darkest/saddest.’

When we rank them this way you can see that as you move down the table the differences are minimal, 1 extra note is flattened each time. This has the effect of making the scale sound ‘darker/sadder’ than the preceding scale. The order of these scales follow the Circle of 5ths, and I will come to this concept in a future article.

I’ve also heard a few stories about Modes along the way, I’m not sure of the source or the truth of them, but they have made me smile and have stayed in my head, and they may help you too.

In medieval times, the Court Jester was a joker and musician, and had to entertain the King/Queen and associated members of the household. One method they had of explaining modes was to have everyone start the game seated on a chair. With everyone seated, and happy to be on a seat, this represented the Mode of Lydian. As the Jester then moved on to the Major scale, he would ask the person on the fourth chair to sit on the floor (representing the act of lowering the #4 to a 4th). This person would now be unhappy about being on the floor, but 6 people were still happy, so the overall balance would of happiness.

As he went through the modes, he would then ask the appropriate chair number to sit on the floor (being flattened), each time this happened the balance would become more and more unhappy. Eventually, when he got to Locrian, only the person in position 1 would be left on a chair. If the Jester was clever and had thought it through properly, the King (or highest ranking person there) would be left on a chair, with the least important person having sat down first! The consequences of getting it wrong could be quite dire for the Jester!

The next explanation isn’t true, as modes names and uses have changed throughout time, but I still think it is quite helpful and gives a ‘life’ to a Mode.

The modes are named after various regions and tribes of Greece and surrounding areas. The sound of the Mode represents the main characteristic of the people in the region.

The Lydians - incredibly happy, peaceful and fun loving.
The Ionians - also very happy but maybe not quite as ‘hippyish’ as the Lydians.
The Mixolydians - being slightly more relaxed and chilled.
The Dorians- more serious and thoughtful.
The Aeolians - really quite sad, moody people.
The Phrygians - more aggressive, moody and up for a fight.
The Locrians - unstable, war faring - if it moves, hit it!

Hopefully some of these thoughts and stories will help you capture the sound of each scale. Although, there is still no substitute for practicing and playing them!!

Until next time, practice those modes!!

-Duncan Richardson - MU Columnist

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