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.


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