Understanding modes is all about perspective

As a music theory teacher I rarely come across a pupil who understands modes. Usually they have been vaguely introduced to the topic by a school teacher who has presented the topic to them by explaining that it was a technique used in the days before the tempered scale and that the modes were created by playing from different degrees of the major scale like so:

 
modes-wrong

Although these are correct examples for modes and one way they could be worked out, the point of reference for describing how they are created is completely wrong. If you were to ask someone who thinks in this way how to play a Lydian mode on F then their answer would be “that’s a C major scale”, which it is not. The correct answer should be “that’s an F major scale with a sharpened 4th degree/note”. In fact George Russell and Mile Davis would argue that a Lydian mode is the true starting point for any key, and that we achieve the Major scale or Ionian mode by flattening the 4th. In the following explanation, therefore, I shall do exactly that and you will see why.

The important thing to recognise is that, in modern music at least, each mode has a melodic function. It’s not just that we may choose to compose a melody using a particular mode so that it has a folk sound or creates a particular mood. For each chord we may choose to put into a sequence there is a mode that accompanies it that sounds good and enables us to move and resolve smoothly on to the next chord.

So here’s how it works: There are a couple rules to know and a couple of scales that are not modes of the major scale that you need to be shown. Having these extra couple scales helps you to understand the melodic function of the others.

There are two functions of a scale – tonic and dominant. A tonic scale goes nicely with our home chord.
So a C (maj7) chord, which includes the notes C E G (+ B). You play the major scale or lydian mode over this chord.

Flattening the 7th degree of a scale gives it dominant function.  Here’s an example:

 

perfect-cadence_trimmedThe extra scales you need to know about to aid understanding are the Lydian Dominant (Major scale with a sharpened 4th and flattened 7th). This is actually a mode of the Jazz minor scale (Like a major scale with a flattened 3rd and also known as the ascending half of a Melodic Minor scale). Knowing about the existence of these two scales just helps to fill in all the gaps when defining the function of the rest.

Here are the modes presented starting on the same note:

Modes

The vitally important thing to notice here (which is why the Lydian belongs at the top) is that every time you move from one mode to the next; Lydian – Ionian – Mixolydian – Dorian – Aeolian – Phrygian – Locrian; the note that you are flattening is a 5th lower than the last one you flattened; 4th, 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd, 5th, 1st; which means what? – It follows the circle of 5ths!
The circle of fifths is present in all aspects of western music.

Above each scale is a definition of it’s musical function – if it says “dominant” then the sound created will resolve nicely to one of the tonic modes. The Dorian mode is most commonly used over chord ii7 in a ii7-V7-I cadence. The half-diminished scale is the equivalent in a minor key – ii7b5, V7b9, i.
Also worth noticing is that the Dorian mode relates to the Jazz Minor in the same way as the Mixolydian mode relates to the Major scale (and that is the same as the relationship between the Lydian mode and the Lydian Dominant).

Please leave comments if you would like further explanation.

Major Scales – How I teach them and why I use this method

At the age of twenty four I had been playing the cornet/trumpet for thirteen years. I had achieved my A-level music at Wells Cathedral School and I had a Bachelor’s Degree in classical music performance on the trumpet from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Having studied for six years with the top players and teachers and received masterclasses with some of the best players in the world I had never, at this point, had anyone explain the details of scales and modes to me, how they spell out the relationships between the twelve major keys and how ridiculously easy they would have been to learn if I’d only understood a few simple facts. Frankly I find this ridiculous and I can only speculate that the reason I had never been taught these simple facts is because the people who had taught me didn’t know them either. This is not in any way a criticism of my teachers; it is, however, a criticism of the way that music and music theory are taught in this part of the world.

When a pupil of mine has been playing for a couple of years, and is hopefully around what we may refer to as a “Grade 3” Standard I will start to teach them precisely how easy it is to learn all of the major scales just by understanding the way that they relate to each other. On the ABRSM Grade 3 trumpet syllabus is the scale of E major so I will begin by asking them to play that scale to me. I then explain that if we were to change one note (flatten the seventh) then it makes a different kind of scale, called a mixolydian scale. At this point it is usually within most people’s capacity to play a scale with one different note. I will then demonstrate that if you were to play the ascending part of this E mixolydian scale but on the way back down only play as far as the A it actually sounds more finished than if I were to carry on to the E I started on. This is a golden moment in aural training where the pupil can hear the function of V7-I in melodic form. This is very important in any genre of western music. This is a lesson that I was never taught. Provided the pupil can then play E mixolydian and finish on the A then I tell them that in fact they’ve just been playing the notes of A major, but starting on the dominant (fifth degree of the scale). So we follow on by playing the A major scale. To date I’ve never had a pupil who, using this method, cannot (without the music) then be guided to play around the circle of fifths all of the way from E major (four sharps) to A-flat major (four flats). Over time all that is then required is that we fill in the remaining three scales and the circle is complete.

By learning about the theoretical function of the mixolydian scale and its practical application a fairly inexperienced pupil can soon lose all fear of playing music in any major key. On top of this there is the advantage of repeatedly hearing the V7-I movement around the circle of fifths and learning how each key naturally guides you into the next.

The information in this post has been written out in full to make up part of my book A Practical 21st Century Approach to Learning Scales FAST! which you can purchase directly from my website using the following link: [purchase_link id=”1088″ style=”button” color=”green” text=”Purchase” direct=”true”]