December 29, 2013

Eerie and Twisty Phrygian

This post is part of a series about the modes.

You can hear a Phrygian scale by playing the white keys from E to E. To start this mode on another note, play a minor scale with a lowered 2nd step. Example; E minor has one sharp, F. Since F is the 2nd step of the scale we play F natural when we start this scale on E.

Jazz and Classical music make use of Phrygian sometimes as do some stylized Central European, Persian and Spanish based tunes. It often is associated with "dark" or "mysterious" music. Phrygian can be a little tricky to get used to. If you aren't careful, the lowered 2nd can throw off the sound of the tonic which makes your tune sound simply wrong. But it also can create a nice bend to the melody line. I started out using it for moody or spooky tunes but I have gotten quite fond of using it with lively dance tunes. It makes them twist and slither about in fun ways. I like avoiding the lowered 2nd until the very end of a melody line and then letting that lowered note drag the tune down to the tonic.
One year, I was working on an energetic tune in Phrygian. Every time I played it, at least two bees began to fly around me (making the performances active indeed.) I eventually took the hint and named the song "Dancing with Bees." This appears to have appeased the honey makers. Seems to fit my view of this mode nicely too; cheerfully wild, unexpectedly mobile and with lots of ducking and weaving!

December 1, 2013

Dorian Jigs, Laments and Shifting Moods

This post is part of a series on the modes.

You can hear a Dorian mode by playing the white keys from D to D. To play a Dorian scale starting on another note, use a minor scale with a raised 6th step. Ex; the key D minor has a B flat. Since B is the 6th step of the scale, we play B natural when starting on D.

Dorian is one of the modes that turns up in Celtic tunes fairly often. Morrison's Jig is fine example. It is a bright and shiny little tune that hurtles along and does a beautiful job of using its mode to add a bit of spice to the jig style. It is often played at Ren Faires but not everyone realizes it is a modal tune. Once, a guitarist who didn't know the tune was told to just play in E minor but, since she has a very good ear, she kept getting frustrated over the chords that didn't fit. When I told her to add a C sharp (C is the 6th step in an E minor scale), her face lit up as all the odd chords suddenly made sense.
Some of my favorite troubadour tunes use Dorian (well, not exactly but close enough for our ears). Comtessa de Dia's song "Chantar m'er" caught my ear the first time I heard it in a rather dull music history class. The raised 6th pops out and creates a longing sound in the middle of the tune that complements the falling melody. But when this song is taken at a faster tempo with some triplet rhythms added in, the raised 6th transforms into the brightest, cheeriest sound you could want.
This is the first verse only and one of the (slightly) simpler versions of the melody. The last note is sometimes shown as an E (when planning to play another verse) but D was likely the note played on the final verse.
Dorian can be a tragic sounding scale or one of the happiest. But my favorite way to use it is for sad songs with a hopeful twist hidden within them. Dorian is one of the easier modes to learn how to play since the note that is different (the 6th) is not a standard part of the final cadence progression. But that raised 6th adds a wonderful pull up to the tonic or a surprise uplifting sound to a line descending through the 5th once you get the hang of using it.