The Meaning of Modes



On this page:
Church Modes
Additional modes in the Renaissance Period
Modern Modes
Major and Minor Scales
Other Modes


Modes throughout history

A mode is the tonal space from which the notes of a melody are taken. 

Modes as we know them today take their names from ancient Greek modes, but they are not the same. Greek modes were based on a different tuning system, which included quarter tones, and Greek modes organised tonal space in units of four and six notes (after tetrachords and hexachords). 

Church Modes/Gregorian Modes

Plainchant began to be sung in churches in the form we know it around the early sixth century. By the late eighth century, a system of eight modal categories came to be associated with the repertory of Gregorian Chant. It is thought that these categories were imposed on the existing repertory in order to aid memorisation, and in an attempt to standardise worship across the Carolingian territories via the music. The eight church modes used up until around 1547 are below. They are organised around a final tone (f), a reciting tone, and a characteristic intonation. There are four finals, D,E,F, and G, and eight modes, since each mode has an 'authentic' and a  'plagal' (beginning with 'hypo') version. In modes 1, 2, 5 and 6, the 'B' is flattened under some conditions.

Watch the videos below to hear the modes and to hear examples of chants in those modes.

1.Dorian


The following example is in the Dorian Mode in Eb, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb) 


2.Hypodorian


3.Phrygian


The following example is in the Phrygian Mode in F, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F)       


4.Hypophrygian


The following example is in the Hypophrygian Mode in D with a final G, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb, D)


5.Lydian


The following example is in the Lydian Mode in Eb and the fourth note is flattened, so you might want to play this scale  before listening to the piece. (Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb)


6.Hypolydian


The following example is in the Hypolydian Mode in Eb with a final Ab and the seventh note is flattened, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb)


7.Mixolydian


The following example is in the Mixolydian Mode in Eb, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb)


8.Hypomixolydian


The following example is in the Hypomixolydian Mode in C with a final G, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C)

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Additional Modes in the Renaissance Period

The next four modes were added in 1547 by Glareanus in his extremely influential book on music theory, Dodecachordon. The book studies Boethius's theories on music in the sixth century, the use of the musical modes in Gregorian Chant, and the use of modes in polyphony. He proposed that there were actually twelve modes, not eight, and that the Ionian mode was the one most frequently used by composers in his day. Most of the changes involved the modes that included a flattened 'B', and signified the move into 'major' and 'minor' keys.

9.Aeolian


The following example is n the Aeolian Mode in D, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D)


10.Hypoaeolian


The following example is in the Hypoaeolian Mode in A with a final D, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (A, Bb,C, D, E, F, G A)


11.Ionian


12.Hypoionian


The following example is in the Hypoionian Mode in C with a final F, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece.
(C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C)

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Modern ideas on modes

Modern theorists are no longer so interested in the authentic and plagal forms of the modes, and now just talk about the six modes below:

Ionian Mode

This is the same collection of notes as you get in the major scale. The easiest way to find it is to begin on C and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next C. The resulting pattern of intervals (T,T,St,T,T,T,St) creates the Ionian Mode.


Dorian Mode

Begin on D and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next D. The resulting pattern of intervals (T,St,T,T,T,St,T) creates the Dorian Mode.


The following example is in the Dorian Mode in E, so you might want to play this scale beginning on that note before listening to the piece. (E, F sharp, G, A, B, C sharp, D, E)


The following example is in the Dorian Mode in C, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. (C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C)


Phrygian Mode

Begin on E and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next E. The resulting pattern of intervals (St,T,T,T,St,T,T) creates the Phrygian Mode.


The following example is in the Phrygian Mode in B, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. 
(B, C, D, E, F sharp, G, A, B)


Lydian Mode

Begin on F and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next F. The resulting pattern of intervals (T,T,T,St,T,T, St) creates the Lydian Mode.


The following example is in the Lydian Mode in D, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. 
(D, E, F sharp, G sharp, A, B, C sharp, D)


Mixolydian

Begin on G and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next G. The resulting pattern of intervals (T,T,St,T,T, St,T) creates the Mixolydian Mode.


The following example is in the Mixolydian Mode in D, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. 
(D, E, F sharp, G sharp, A, B, C, D)


Aeolian

Begin on A and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next A. The resulting pattern of intervals (T,St,T,T, St,T,T) creates the Aeolian Mode. This is also the Natural Minor Scale, and the descending version of the Melodic Minor Scale.


The following example is in the Aeolian Mode in E, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. 
(E, F sharp G, A, B, C, D, E)


Locrian

Begin on B and play all the white notes on the piano until you get to the next B. The resulting pattern of intervals (St,T,T, St,T,T,T) creates the Lochrian Mode.


The following example is in the Locrian Mode in C, so you might want to play this scale before listening to the piece. 
(C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C)

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Major and Minor Scales


The major and minor scales we learn today are closely linked to the modes above.
The Major Scale is the same as the Ionian Mode.
The Natural Minor Scale is the same as the Aeolian Mode.
The descending version of the Melodic Minor Scale is also the same as the Aeolian Mode.
Read more about Major and Minor Scales here.

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Other Modes

Pentatonic

Begin on C♯ and play all the black notes on the piano until you get to the next C♯. The resulting pattern of intervals (T,min 3rd,T,T,min 3rd) creates the Pentatonic Mode.

Whole Tone

A scale with all notes a tone apart, for example: C,D,E,F♯,G♯,A♯,C

Octatonic

A scale with alternating Tones and Semitones, for example:
C,C♯,D♯,E,F♯,G,A,A♯,C

Blues Scale

This can vary, but one example is:
C,Eb,F,F♯G,BbC


There are many more modes to explore, including Indian Ragas and Middle Eastern Scales. We will cover those soon!

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