Friday, August 2, 2013

Understanding Modes


Dance music theory expert Oliver Curry introduces the concept of modes and explains why they’re relevant to electronic music.
In this edition of Passing Notes, we’re looking at modes. Modes are often seen as one of the trickier musical concepts to get to grips with, but once the basic theory clicks into place you’ll see that it’s very easy to introduce them to your compositions and create distinctive melodic feels.
Here we’ll examine some of the more frequently use modes in dance music, show how they’re constructed and see what effect they have on the sound of tracks. We’ll take a look at examples from Todd Terje and Kryptic Minds to see how modes can work in practice.


Firstly, let’s define modes. Modes can be seen as scales derived from the notes of the major scale, but starting at different intervals in that scale. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry – most musicians find modes a little tricky to get their head round at first. Keep reading and things should begin to make more sense.
We’ll take the C major scale as our starting point, simply because sticking to all the white keys on our keyboard can make things a little easier to follow!
So, playing an octave of notes in the C major scale, starting and ending on C, will give you a mode known as Ionian (in the key of C). However, if we start and end our progression at different intervals of the same scale, we get the following modes, now in their respective keys:
1 – C – Ionian
2 – D – Dorian
3 – E – Phrygian
4 – F – Lydian
5 – G – Mixolydian
6 – A – Aeolian
7 – B – Locrian
So, for example, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E is a Phrygian mode in E, whereas F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F will give you a Lydian mode in F. As we’ll see shortly, these modes can then be transposed up and down to play them in different keys. So, if we transposed every note in the E Phrygian mode down four semitones, we’d have C Phrygian.
The four modes we’ll be looking at here are the most common: Ionian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Mixolydian.
You can see how each mode transposes into other keys using interactive online tools such as this one from Musicopedia.


The Ionian mode is instantly recognisable as a standard major scale.
In C, the notes of the Ionian mode are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. It sounds and looks like this:
Its ‘happy’ sound is largely characterised by its major 3rd, but the major 7th (both highlighted in red) is also important, especially in a lot of dance music where major 7 chords are frequently used.
Dance music is very rarely written in a major key. However, every major key has a relative minor(Aeolian mode) using all the same notes. This means that chord progressions in a minor key could easily have a melody in a major key over the top.
We can hear an example of this below. We’ve played a very recognisable melody in a C major key, then repeated it over a simple chord progression in C major’s relative minor key, A minor. This completely changes the context and feel of the original melody:


Probably the most commonly used mode in dance music, the Aeolian mode forms the natural minor scale. As we can see from the list above, it starts at the 6th interval of the major scale.
Played in C, the notes of the Aeolian mode are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C.
It sounds like this:
It’s largely characterised by its minor 3rd and minor 7th, in this case the Eb and Bb (highlighted in red), giving it its darker harmonic quality.


Next up, let’s look at the Phrygian scale. As we can see from the list above, we can work out the different intervals of the Phrygian mode by playing a C major scale from E to E.
We can then transpose these intervals to C to make the comparison to the other scales easier, the notes here being C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C.
Aside from the flattened 2nd, it is identical to the Aeolian mode / natural minor scale. It is this flattened 2nd, highlighted in red, which gives the Phrygian scale its distinctive ‘Eastern’ sound.


For a great example of the Phrygian mode in practice, let’s listen to the opening of ‘Organic’ by Kryptic Minds, taken from the album One Of Us. The eastern flute solo that opens the track is in a G Phrygian mode.
Along with the instrumentation and the use of reverb, the Phrygian mode helps give the intro its Eastern sound, setting the tone for the track’s dark, minor and almost sinister quality. Listen out for the Ab in particular at 0:47, which defines it as being in a Phrygian mode rather than the Aeolian mode.


The Mixolydian mode is simply a standard major scale with the major 7th flattened to a minor 7th. Being essentially a major scale, it doesn’t get too much use in dance music, but its minor 7th makes it more employable in many situations than the standard Ionian mode.
In C a Mixolydian mode is C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, and sounds like this:
On a theoretical level, one of the key factors to the sound of this mode is the tritone interval between the 3rd and the 7th (highlighted). Playing a C dominant 7 chord (C, E, G, Bb) can help us hear the effect of this interval:


For a great example of the Mixolydian mode in dance music, have a listen to Todd Terje’s track ‘Inspector Norse’:
We can hear the piece is in F Mixolydian, because of its use of the minor 7th, Eb, instead of a major 7th, E, in both the bassline and keys.
The major 3rd aspect of the Mixolydian mode here gives the track its fun, almost surreal quality, with the flattened 7th stopping it sounding too predictable.
(An interesting point worth noting is that the chord playing over the F in the bass in ‘Inspector Norse’, is made up of the notes F, A, C, D, which are the notes of a D minor 7 chord. D is the relative minor of an F major, but the F in the bass changes the context of this chord to an F major add 6, with the D now forming the 6th of F major, the other notes forming an F major triad. Because of this, the same chord fits nicely over the D in the bassline, the synth changing to an Eb major 7 over the Eb in the bass. Changing the context of chords using basslines is something we’ll be looking at in greater detail soon.)


Below is a simple 4 bar loop, duplicated in the 4 different modes. We can hear how the different modes alter the character of the loop. Played in Ionian mode, the melody is bright, happy and frankly quite cheesy. The Aeolian mode version is, as expected, less cheerful thanks to the minor 3rd and 7th.
The flattened 2nd in the Phrygian version of the loop instantly gives it a more sinister, dark tonal quality than the standard Aeolian mode/natural minor. Similarly, the use of the minor 7th, Bb, in the Mixolydian version keeps the loop from becoming as predictable and as cheery sounding as in the Ionian mode.
Here is the loop transcribed below in its Ionian/major scale form.
We’ll be referring back to the concept of modes in forthcoming Passing Notes and Breakdown articles. Keep an eye on the comments thread below for links to other articles which draw on this theory.

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