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Beyond Major and Minor: The Many Moods of the Modes

Music, as an art form, possesses an unparalleled ability to evoke emotions and stir the soul. Among the many tools in a musician's arsenal, the modes of the major scale stand out as versatile vehicles for expressing a wide range of emotions. Rooted in ancient musical traditions yet ever relevant, each mode carries its own distinct emotional character, construction, and sonic palette. In this exploration, we delve into the emotional tapestry of the modes of the major scale, unraveling their unique qualities and discovering popular songs that showcase their expressive power.




1. Ionian Mode (Major Scale):


Emotional Character: 

The Ionian mode, better known as the major scale, embodies a sense of brightness, optimism, and joy. Its uplifting character makes it a favorite for celebratory and triumphant compositions.


Construction:

The Ionian mode follows a major scale formula of whole steps and half steps: W-W-H-W-W-W-H. We use it as the basis for analyzing other modes, so it contains no altered scale tones. This leaves us with the simple number: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7.


Popular Song Examples:

Countless songs across various genres utilize the Ionian mode, including "Imagine" by John Lennon, "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey, and "Here Comes the Sun" by The Beatles. Most major key songs could be called Ionian mode.


2. Dorian Mode:


Emotional Character:

The Dorian mode carries a grounded and cool vibe, and has an uplifting quality despite being a minor mode. The dorian mode is one of the most often used in Jazz, Rock, and Pop music.


Construction:

The Dorian mode features a minor scale with a raised sixth degree, imparting a unique flavor. Its formula is W-H-W-W-W-H-W. 

It contains a flatted 3rd and 7th degree: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7. 

The natural 6th gives the dorian mode its cool character.


Popular Song Examples:

"So What" by Miles Davis and "Scarborough Fair" by Simon & Garfunkel are iconic examples of songs utilizing the Dorian mode.


3. Phrygian Mode:


Emotional Character: 

With its distinctive flattened second degree, the Phrygian mode exudes an aura of mystery, tension, and exoticism. It often evokes feelings of passion, intensity, and drama.


Construction:

The Phrygian mode is a minor mode and contains many flattened degrees. The flattened second degree in particular gives it an intense dark sound: H-W-W-W-H-W-W. 

Its scale degrees are as follows: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7.


Popular Song Examples:

"Maria Maria" by Santana featuring The Product G&B and "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains showcase the Phrygian mode's dark and enigmatic allure, adding depth to their sonic landscapes. Spanish flamenco music is known for its heavy use of the Phrygian mode.


4. Lydian Mode:


Emotional Character:

The Lydian mode radiates a sense of wonder, expansiveness, and ethereal beauty. Its raised fourth degree infuses compositions with a dreamlike quality and a feeling of soaring beyond earthly confines.


Construction:

The Lydian mode follows a formula of W-W-W-H-W-W-H, distinguished by its raised fourth degree. 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7


Popular Song Examples:

"Flying in a Blue Dream" by Joe Satriani and the iconic theme from The Simpsons are notable examples of songs that harness the otherworldly essence of the Lydian mode, transporting listeners to realms of imagination and awe.


5. Mixolydian Mode:


Emotional Character:

The Mixolydian mode exudes a laid-back, carefree vibe, tinged with a sense of adventure and exploration. Its dominant seventh degree adds a bluesy flavor, perfect for groovy, improvisational jams.


Construction:

The Mixolydian mode features a major scale with a flattened seventh degree: W-W-H-W-W-H-W.

It contains a flatted seventh degree: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7


Popular Song Examples:

"Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd and "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" by The Beatles capture the essence of the Mixolydian mode, infusing their melodies with a sense of freedom and spontaneity.


6. Aeolian Mode (Natural Minor Scale):


Emotional Character: 

The Aeolian mode, also known as the natural minor scale, embodies a mood of introspection, melancholy, and vulnerability. Its plaintive quality makes it a powerful vehicle for expressing heartache, longing, and emotional depth. It is one of the most commonly used modes next to the Ionian mode.


Construction: 

The Aeolian mode follows a minor scale formula: W-H-W-W-H-W-W.

1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7


Popular Song Examples: 

"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin and "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles are iconic examples of songs that utilize the Aeolian mode to evoke profound emotional resonance, painting vivid portraits of human experience.


7. Locrian Mode:


Emotional Character:

 The Locrian mode is the darkest and most dissonant of the modes, evoking feelings of tension, unease, and uncertainty. Its diminished fifth degree creates an unsettling atmosphere, often associated with chaos and turmoil.


Construction:

The Locrian mode features a diminished scale with a flattened second and fifth degree: H-W-W-H-W-W-W.

Its scale degrees are: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7


Popular Song Examples:

Due to its dissonant nature, the Locrian mode is less commonly employed in popular music. However, experimental and avant-garde artists may incorporate its unsettling quality to convey themes of existential angst and disarray. It is also used briefly during the minor ii V i cadence in jazz which is a very common chord progression. However, it is usually not considered a mode unless the sound is played over an extended period of time.




Use the Modes!

The modes of the major scale serve as powerful tools for musicians to convey a kaleidoscope of emotions, from jubilation to sorrow, from mystery to resolution. Understanding their unique characteristics and sonic textures allows composers and performers to craft richly nuanced musical landscapes that resonate deeply with listeners. Whether weaving tales of triumph or weaving intricate tapestries of introspection, the modes of the major scale remain indispensable vehicles for musical expression, timeless and ever-evolving.


-Ryan

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