An Introduction to Modes: Part 1

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The term modal is often thrown around when talking about Celtic music. If you are wondering what exactly this term means and what it has to do with the tunes you are playing, I hope to clarify that with these next few posts. In some of my lessons I cover tunes in modal keys. In the videos, I briefly describe what the term modal means, but I did not want to bog down the online lesson with music theory. I thought the blog would be a better forum to elaborate a bit more on what ‘modal’ means. In part one of this post, I will describe what the modes are. In part two, I’ll discuss how modes relate to Celtic music.

What are modes?
Modes are simply just scales. There are seven modes that derive from the major scale. When we think of a scale, for example, the G major scale, we think of a specific territory: we are in the realm of G. A major scale is a pattern of intervals, more specially a specific pattern of whole steps and half steps. When the notes are played from G to G, this pattern produces a certain sound that we associate with a major ‘sound’. The major scale is actually the first of the seven modes. It’s called the Ionian mode.

G (1) A (2) B (3) C (4) D (5) E (6) F# (7) G

So what would happen if in the G major scale we didn’t play from G to G but instead, we played the same exact notes, starting from the second note of the scale, and ventured from A to A?

A B C D E F# G A

The sound is completely different. Instead of sounding major, it sounds more minor. This is the scale of A Dorian. Dorian is the second mode because it is derived from the second note of the major scale. Now that we are in the territory of A instead of G, we think of it as a new scale beginning on A – A Dorian.

Let’s compare this to the A major scale.
A B C# D E F# G# A

In A Dorian, the C (third note of the scale) and G (seventh note) are natural, compared to C# and G# in A major. Because they are a half step down from where they would be in the normal scale, we refer to these notes as a flat 3 and flat 7.

We can do this with all of the notes from the G major scale. If we start on the third note, the B, we get the third mode, called the Phrygian mode.

B Phrygian:
B C D E F# G A B
Compared to the B major scale
Flat 2,3,5,6,7

Starting on the fourth note of the scale, we get a very bright sounding mode called Lydian.

C Lydian:
C D E F# G A B C
Compared to C major, the F is raised by a half step. This is called a sharp four. (F is the fourth note of the C major).

The fifth mode, staring on D, is called Mixolydian

D Mixolydian:
D E F# G A B C D
Compared to D Major scale
Flat 7

The sixth mode is called Aeolian. Starting on the sixth note of the G major scale we get E Aeolian. This is also called the natural minor scale. Because it shares the same key signature as the parent major scale, it is called the relative minor.

E Aeolian:
E F# G A B C D E
Compared to E major
Flat 3,6,7

The seventh and last mode is the darkest sounding mode. It’s called the Locrian mode.

F# Locrian:
F# G A B C D E F#
compared to F# major scale
Flat 2,3,5,6,7

You may be wondering why I am comparing all of these modes to the major scale. If I know how each mode differs from the major scale, then I can find any specific mode without having to refer to its parent scale. For example, if I wanted to know the scale of A Mixolydian, I don’t have to go through the steps finding it as the fifth mode of D major. All I need to know is the key signature of A major and know that compared to the major scale, the Mixolydian mode has a flat 7.

A Major:
A B C# D E F# G# A
Lower the seventh note by a half step: G# becomes G natural, and I am left with:
A Mixolydian
A B C# D E F# G A

I hope this post has been helpful in getting to know the modes. Play through each of these modes and listen to how the different scales sound. Which ones sound major? Which ones sound minor? In my next post, I will explain which of these modes relates to Celtic music and other relevant information.

Fiddle Foot Work

by adminKFS on · 2 comments

This post was inspired by a reader’s question. It’s actually something that students ask me about in workshops and I do like to discuss it.

Foot tapping is an integral part of Cape Breton fiddle playing. No one that I know was taught to tap their foot to the music.  It’s not something they consciously think about. The main function of Cape Breton fiddle music is for dancing. Taping the foot is a natural response for fiddlers to keep time. For me, it is a natural response of my body to the music that I am playing. It is not only about the action of keeping time, but also about the sound of the foot. So, I when I play, I  prefer to play on a hard wood surface and wear hard soled shoes so I can hear my foot. I feel like I put much more effort into playing when I can’t hear my foot. In fact, I know fiddlers who have specific shoes they wear just for this purpose.  Others travel with a piece of plywood. I even toured with a fiddler that inspected various parts of stages and recording studios to get the best foot sound.

It is generally the strong beats or pulses of tunes that are tapped out. So, for a jig (6/8), it is the pulse on the first and fourth beat, in a strathspey (4/4), each of the four beats is tapped out.  Some fiddlers use the heel of their foot, and some lift the leg to put their whole foot on the ground – or a combination of both.  For reels (4/4), many fiddlers tap out the strong beats on one and three with the heel and the off beats of two and four with the toe.  I like to do this because putting the toe down helps me feel a lift.  Most fiddlers I see use one foot. Some tap out these rhythms with both feet in unison, or use the other foot to help tap out more intricate rhythms.

Do you feel a natural response to tap your foot when you play? Not everyone does and not everyone feels natural to tap on the strong beats. Some musicians I know feel more natural to tap on the off beat. This takes a lot of concentration for me!

How does your body feel the rhythm when you play?

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