Musical mode

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Modes in music are a kind of scale.

The Ancient Greeks used several modes in their music. Medieval musicians borrowed the names of these modes to describe the scales used in their music. Today we usually use two modes: major and minor. A mode can start on any note.

Each mode has a different pattern of tones and semitones (or “half tones”) (see semitone).

  • Our major mode (major scale) starts on a starting note and goes up:

tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone.

  • Our minor mode (minor scale) does the same, except it has a different pattern of tones:

tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone.

The modes are easiest to see on a piano keyboard using the white notes only. The Greeks had the following modes:

  • Ionian (C D E F G A B C)
  • Dorian (D E F G A B C D)
  • Phrygian (E F G A B C D E)
  • Lydian (F G A B C D E F)
  • Mixolydian (G A B C D E F G)
  • Aeolian (A B C D E F G A)
  • Locrian (B C D E F G A B)

It will be seen that

  • The Ionian mode is the same as our major scale.
  • The Dorian is rather like our natural minor scale but with a raised sixth.
  • The Phrygian is like our natural minor scale but the second note of the scale is flattened.
  • The Lydian is like our major scale but the fourth note is sharpened.
  • The Mixolydian is like our major scale but the seventh note is flattened.
  • The Aeolian is the same as our minor scale.
  • The Locrian sounds rather strange, and was hardly ever used in Medieval music. It is our major scale with every note, other than the 1st and 4th, flattened.

Each mode also has a version called “hypo—“. For example: A to A is Hypodorian. It is the same as Aeolian, but the D is treated as the final note (we would say the “keynote”).

The names of the modes come from cities in Ancient Greece.

In the Middle Ages these modes were widely used in church music.

Some composers in recent centuries have enjoyed using the ancient modes from time to time in their music. Folksongs are often modal. Greensleeves is an example of a well-known tune which is modal.