I like modes. They cause trouble. Melodies using modes don't and can't work exactly the same as major or minor tunes and have been known to throw experienced musicians for a loop. They are used in traditional tunes, troubadour music, Renaissance and older music and by many current composers. This post is the first in a series about the modes.
Modes are just scales with different patterns of half and whole steps. The names of the modern modes come from the Ancient Greek modes but be warned, the scales are completely unrelated to Ancient Greek music. Once you know the pattern of whole and half steps a mode uses, you can play a mode starting on any note.
The following is a cheat sheet for working out the modes based on major or minor scale patterns. I'm going to start on C and work my way up the keyboard. That is the traditional way to work through scales in the music world. Musicians are just odd that way.
Ionian is the same as the major scale or the same as playing all the white keys from C to C. (All major scales are Ionian scales, just starting on different notes than C.)
Dorian is the same as a minor scale with a raised 6th step or the same as playing the white keys from D to D. (The key for D minor has a B flat and since B is the 6th step of the scale, we play B natural)
Phrygian is the same as a minor scale with a lowered 2nd step or the white keys from E to E. (E minor has an F sharp but since F is the 2nd step of the scale we play F natural)
Lydian is the same as a major scale with a raised 4th step or the white keys from F to F. (F major has a B flat but B is the 4th step of the scale so we play B natural)
Mixolydian is the same as a major scale with a lowered 7th step or the white keys from G to G. (G major has an F sharp but since F is the 7th step of the scale we play F natural)
Aeolian is the same as a natural minor scale or the white keys from A to A. (A minor has no sharps or flats)
Locrian is the same as a minor scale with a lowered 2nd step and a lowered 5th step or the white keys from B to B. (B minor has a C sharp and an F sharp but since C is the 2nd step and F is the 5th, both are natural)
Just like major and minor, all the scale patterns can start on any note. The notes I gave are just examples that can be picked out on a keyboard easily so you can hear what they sound like. The trick to using modes is that you may have to lead up to the final cadence or start the melody differently to keep the tonic (first and last) note sounding final. So all that voice leading music majors study in music theory starts breaking down in places. But not completely which is why people get so confused. (Some people like using modes the same way they would use major and minor and just letting them sound "unfinished" when they stop on the tonic notes but I think that is missing the point of having a different scale at work.)
You may have noticed that our major and minor scales can be found within the modes. This is where those two scales came from but they are now considered a different system than the modes. Some music books say that musicians in the Renaissance and Middle Ages used something called musica ficta to adjust the modes to something more like a major or minor scale. While that did happen (it is part of how we got to using mostly major and minor) it is a serious oversimplification of both musica ficta and the modes. Sometimes music was written to take advantage of the different intervals in the modes and sometimes modes were used because instruments couldn't always play certain notes in tune so they just worked with the notes the instruments could play. And of course the modal sound was more accepted in general. People had been hearing it all their lives; composers knew how to handle the modes and they were used to them.
Each mode was generally considered to have a different mood or color but I find that there is a wide range of moods each mode can handle. The rhythms and melody patterns have just as much to do with the character of a song as the scale it is based on. Still, different modes are especially good at different things partly because they force you to use different melody patterns so as not to lose track of the tonic note. This is one of the things I like to explore with the modes. I'll be talking about each mode in more detail in later posts.
If you are wondering what moods Renaissance theorists gave the modes, the best I can give you is a possible reconstruction based on how the modes were linked to the planets (we're heading into astrology here but it was fairly common for Ren theorists to do just that.) Here's my best guess as to what that would give you;
Dorian for the Sun-bright and happy
Phrygian for Mars-aggressive or enthusiastic
Lydian for Jupiter-expansive and powerful
Mixolydian for Saturn-melancholy or authoritative
Aeolian for the Stars or the Moon-spiritual and joyful or emotional and introspective
Locrian for Mercury-energetic, tricky or unpredictable
Ionian for Venus-loving, seductive and gentle
I based this off of a Renaissance picture called "Music of the Spheres" that was published in 1496 in Francinus Gafurius's Practica musice (for more on this picture, click here.) Finding historically accurate moods for the modes is a daunting project so be prepared for a lot of research if that is what you want to know!
Have fun with these ideas but don't let them limit you. Our tuning system is not the same as the ones (yes, there were several, all confusing) used in the Renaissance so not only are we less used to the modes but they don't even sound the same today as they once did. And in my experience, anytime someone tries to say a scale represents only one mood, it means they are ignoring how much rhythm, meter, harmony and all the other details of music work together to create the piece.