IX. Post-tonal music

Analyzing with Modes, Scales, and Collections

Mark Gotham

In Theory

So, you’re faced with a new piece of music of music and you get the sense that it might be worth considering a modal view. It sure isn’t ‘tonal’ in the common practice sense, but neither does it seem ‘atonal’, ‘serial’, or the like. How do you go about identifying the modes used, and making analytical observations on that basis? In 20thCentury music, apart from having a wider range of modes to contend with, we also don’t usually get a key signature of any other notational shortcut to identify ‘the mode’. As such, it’s especially important to be able to identify modes from musical cues.

Firstly, let’s review some of the different considerations that can go into the definition of a mode:

  1. A collection of pitches in a particular intervallic relationship (e.g. C,D,E,F,G,A,B);
  2. ‘A tonic’ or final which acts as a primary or referential point (e.g. C);
  3. Further hierarchical levels between the pitch in the mode, and the primary, tonic pitch (e.g. G, and F).
  4. Melodic shapes and range considerations;

No.1 reminds us that modes can be transposed. While we often present the ‘early’ modes in their ‘white-note’ transposition (with Dorian on D, for instance), in 20thCentury music, you can just as easily have them on other pitches such a have Dorian on E and Phrygian on D. This leads to the frankly confusing terminology ‘D mode on G’. Don’t forget that you can also have ‘chromatic’ notes in modal music. Not every pitch used needs to be in the scale. So the question is, how many exceptions are too many?

No.2 helps to separate all the possibilities that No.1 throws into mix. If you only have white notes, which of those white notes is the modal final? All and any musical parameters might contribute to the case for one of those pitches as tonic; for a useful starting point, try the widely-applicable ‘first, last, loudest, longest’ maxim (Cohn 2012:47, after Harrison 1994:75ff.). Pitches that dominant in those ways tend to be marked for consciousness. Do phrases tend to start and / or end on a certain pitch, or emphasize that pitch in other ways, perhaps with strong metrical positions, or by reserving it for the top of the melodic contour?

No.3 also speaks to this difficulty. For instance, in tonal music you might well get more dominant notes than tonics – they fit in both the tonic and dominant chords, after all! 20thcentury modes complicate this with a more diverse set of candidates for hierarchical importance, but this can also help us to unpick the different roles. ‘First’ and ‘last’ might be your tonic; while the ‘dominant’ may be ‘loudest’ and ‘longest’. We might also use a less loaded-term than ‘dominant’ here. For instance, the early modes (discussed in the previous chapter) had a ‘tenor’ or ‘reciting tone’ in an analogous role, as shown on the table below.

Name Final Tenor Range   Name Final Tenor Range
Dorian D A D-D Hypodorian D F G-A
Phyrygian E C! E-E Hypophrygian E A! B-B
Lydian F C F-F Hypolydian F A C-C
Mixolydian G D G-G Hypomixolydian G C! D-D
Aeolian A E A-A Hypoaeolian A C E-E
Locrian B G! B-B Hypolocrian B E! (F)-G
Ionian C G C-C Hypoionian C E G-G

There are many reasons for promoting specific pitches in this way. One reason relevant to 20thcentury music is the notion of ‘characteristic notes’ as Persichetti had it, like the Lydian 4th, or the Phrygian 2nd. Without these notes, the term is unlikely to be relevant. You also need the tonic to stay put. For listeners accustomed to common practice tonality, the Lydian fourth (e.g. F# in C major) can very easily become a leading note in the dominant (G major). Otherwise tonal works written ‘in the Lydian mode’ can be highly ambiguous in this respect. Consider what you make of Beethoven’s ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ from the Op.132 quartet and Bruckner’s Os Justi (WAB30) to this effect.

The table of ‘early’ modes also flags up the role that range considerations can play. This was fundamental to the definition of early modes in terms of authentic vs plagal forms, and has been a key consideration in many other musics besides. Likewise, melodic shapes have been key considerations for the definition of modes in many and varied musical contexts.

In Practice

So far, so investigatory; what about the really analytical? Well, all of this difficulty (or otherwise) in coming up with a modal reading is part of the analytical process. It’ll all depend on the work in question, of course, but here are some starting points for pivoting from one to the other:

  • Firstly, how easy was it to come up with a tonal reading? Is this a piece with its structure on display or deeply hidden? What might that say about the emotion valence of the work?
  • Can you characterize the mode in general and it’s use this piece. Is the raised Lydian 4th ‘exciting’ or even ‘aspirational’, is the Phrygian second perhaps lamenting?
  • How clearly and separately are these modes set out. When we move from one mode to another, are there common tones, or even a common final? Just like in tonality, ‘modulations’ among modes can be regarded are close or remote, partly on this basis.
  • How are the properties and distribution of modes related to wider considerations? Do mode changes align with moments that seem like section boundaries for other reasons?

Consider the three moments below which come from Bartók’s From the Island of Bali. Is the same mode in operation throughout or does it change? What pitches are in / out of the mode(s)? Does a modal final present itself? Are there any moments where two modes are combined? Some suggestions follow the images, so decide on what you think before scrolling down to compare notes.

Bartók’s From the Island of Bali: Extract 1
Bartók’s From the Island of Bali: Extract 2
Bartók’s From the Island of Bali: Extract 3

I think of first case as being wonderfully ambiguous in relation to both mode and final. If you put the hands together, the pitches constitute a neat octatonic mode, but if you keep them apart then it’s the 1:5 distance model mode often associated with Bartók, or might even be best described by the pitch class set [0167]. There’s good Bartókian symmetry in all of this, and very little sense of a single modal final emerging.

In the latter two cases, I hear a strong sense of tonic arrival on the first downbeat, suggesting Gb and Eb and the respective tonics for these sections. So far, so different, but notice how closely the pitches relate to the opening. First we have [B,C,F,Gb], which were the exact pitches of the RH at the start. (Do you spot the one ‘chromatic’ note in this reading? I hear the one Abb as a chromatic upper neighbour note that doesn’t really ‘fit’ the mode).

Later we have [A,Bb,D,Eb] which are a close variant on those of the LH. I see this change as indicating a move from that opening ambiguity to a passage quite neatly redolent of Eb major which is swifty undone as the piece goes back to the technical and emotional place where it started.

So we have a balance between unity and variety, as well as trajectory for the piece overall, and that’s without even getting into the ‘East meets West’ implication of the title …

Modes, Collections and Musical Meaning

All of these modes come with extra-musical, interpretive associations.

For instance, we started with the emergence of modal writing after tonality, but qualified this half-truth. One of the many facts belied by that idea is that modes were used well with the tonal period. This often comes with associations back to the pre-tonal music from which those modes came. Note Beethoven’s use in the Missa Solemnis and Bruckner’s in Locus Iste, for instance.

Having looked back, we also looked out. Many composers have deliberately invoked, folk and or foreign musics in the concert hall by the use of their mode. As always, this can be indicative of cultural appreciation, or appropriation. The mania for the exotic, Hispano-Arabic topic in the belle epoque (rarely more sophisticated than the use of the phrygian ♭2) errs on the side of the latter. Likewise there has been a lot of explicitly, nominally Hungarian music from composers variously looking at that cultural from without (Brahms), from within (in quotes: Lizst, keen to emphasise his own Hungarian roots as part of his brand) and from within (Ligeti).

Specific modes also attract meanings from their inherent properties. We have seen already the whole tone modes un-rootedness, which lends itself most naturally to certain extra-musical associations such as (very famously) Debussy’s Voiles. Likewise the octatonic is often invoked some kind of exotic, timeless, magical topic. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherezade is an iconic example.
Finally, and as always with meaning, apart from the materials itself, and the composers’ intentions, it ultimately comes down to your associations and inferences, dear listener …

Media Attributions

  • Bartok1
  • Bartok2
  • Bartok3


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Open Music Theory by Mark Gotham is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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