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All About Modes

WHAT IS A MODE Music based on major and minor scales came into common usage in the early 1600s, and of course we have been using them ever since. Before the 1600s, composers wrote in what were called modes. There was a resurgence of interest in modes toward the end of the 19th century, with composers like Debussy and Vaughan Williams. If you sit down at a piano keyboard and play a scale using only the white notes, and starting on middle C, what you get is the familiar C Major scale. If you do the same thing starting on the note of A, and going up to the A above, you get an A minor scale. These two scales have a distinct sound; we make different associations with them, perceiving the major scale as bright and forceful, while the minor scale is sad and reflective. Starting on one of the other white notes will give us a different scale each of which is a 'mode'. Each of them has a separate and distinctive sound, and it is possible to recognise what mode a tunes is in just as most of us can tell the difference between a tune in the familiar major or minor. HISTORY As with many things in music theory, the modes can be traced back to the Greeks. The 'in' instrument in ancient Greece was the lyre, it had eight strings, tuned so that the top and bottom notes sounded an octave apart. The tunings of the intermediate strings varied, using different combinations of large and small intervals ('tones' and 'semitones'). The most common of these tunings or 'modes' correspond to the seven scales which you get if you play only on the white notes of the piano. The early Christian church adopted this Greek leading edge music technology and developed it for their own purposes. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan was one of the church's first music experts and in the forth century he approved four modes for church use these were called the 'authentic' modes. Ambrosian Modes 1st defgabcd 2nd efgabcde 3rd fgabcdef 4th gabcdefg Some three hundred years later Pope Gregory the Great added four more, which were known as 'plagal'. Gregorian Modes 1st Authentic 2nd Plagal 3rd Authentic 4th Plagal 5th Authentic 6th Plagal 7th Authentic 8th Plagal defgabcd abcdefga efgabcde bcdefgab fgabcdef cdefgabc gabcdefg defgabcd

Every one was happy with this system and it was much used in 'Gregorian chant' and ecclesiastical music. Many centuries went by before further changes were needed (Life had a more leisurely pace in those days) and it was not till the 16th century that a Swiss monk

called Glareanas decided there should be twelve modes, and assigned Greek names to them (Names which were apparently not much connected to any system actually in use in ancient Greece.). Some were never used, and some fell into disuse, a process accelerated by the development of harmony, as some of them proved very difficult to harmonise. The distinction of plagal and authentic was also abandoned leaving us with modes as we know them today. (The terms 'authentic' and 'plagal' are still used but now to describe the relationship between the range of a song and the tonic (that is the keynote) of the scale. Tunes which range roughly from the tonic up to the octave or beyond are called 'authentic'; while those whose lowest note is half way between keynotes are called 'plagal'.) Only seven of Glareanas's original 12 modes are commonly used, these correspond to the seven different starting points on the white keys of the piano. These are their names, along with the starting note: Mode Name Ionian (Major) Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian (Minor) Locrian Starting Note C D E F G A B Notes Used cdefgab defgabc efgabcd fgabcde gabcdef abcdefg bcdefga Pattern 1 2 3-4 5 6 7 1 2-3 4 5 6-7 1-2 3 4 5-6 7 1 2 3 4-5 6 7 1 2 3-4 5 6-7 1 2-3 4 5-6 7 1-2 3 4-5 6 7

A tune could be written in each of these modes in turn and in each case, it would appear as if the tune were in C (no sharps or flats). Thus just looking at the key signature (number of sharps/flats) of a modal tune will not tell about it's mode. Each mode can be played starting on any note, but then some black notes are needed to get the combination of tones and semitones which gives the mode its distinctive sound. In fact it was probably this requirement that first led to the development of instruments with 'black notes' - to allow modes to be played in any required pitch range. For example if we put the seven modes in each case starting with C we get a variety of keys: Mode Name Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian Notes CDEFGAB C D Eb F G A Bb C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C D E F# G A B C D E F G A Bb C D Eb F G Ab Bb C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb Pattern 1234567 1 2-3 4 5 6-7 1-2 3 4 5-6 7 1 2 3 4-5 6 7 1 2 3-4 5 6-7 1 2-3 4 5-6 7 1-2 3 4-5 6 7 Key signatures No flats or sharps Bb Eb Bb Eb Ab Db F# Bb Bb Eb Ab Bb Eb Ab Db Gb