VIII. 20th- and 21st-Century Techniques

Diatonic Modes

Mark Gotham and Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • Church modes originated in the medieval era, and are classified by their use of the diatonic collection, their final, the relationships of other pitches to that final, and their range.
  • In the 20th and 21st centuries, diatonic modes are also understood as rotations of the major scale, without range requirements, but with the concept of a pitch-class center or tonic.
  • Non-Western musical cultures have their own methods of organizing pitch into modes. These “modes” are usually more than simple pitch collections and can include characteristic gestures, embellishments, and protocols for use. Examples include Indian raga, Arabic maqam, Balinese pelog and slendro, Jewish prayer modes, Persian dastgah, and Japanese scales.
  • Modes, conceived in terms of parallel relationships, with an emphasis on the color notes of each mode:
    • Ionian: Identical to major
    • Mixolydian: Like major with a [latex]\downarrow\hat{7}[/latex]
    • Lydian: Like major with a [latex]\uparrow\hat{4}[/latex]
    • Aeolian: Identical to natural minor; no raised leading tone
    • Dorian: Like natural minor with a [latex]\uparrow\hat{6}[/latex]
    • Phrygian: Like natural minor with a [latex]\downarrow\hat{2}[/latex]
  • Modes, conceived in terms of relative relationships:
    • Ionian: White notes starting on C
    • Dorian: White notes starting on D
    • Phrygian: …starting on E
    • Lydian: …starting on F
    • Mixolydian: …starting on G
    • Aeolian: …starting on A

This book covers modes from many different angles. For more information on modes, check Introduction to Diatonic Modes (general), Chord-Scale Theory (jazz), Modal Schemas (pop), and Analyzing with Modes, Scales, and Collections (20th-/21st-c.).

At the turn of the 20th century, many composers were rethinking the materials of music. This is one reason the term “common practice” is used to distinguish the major-minor music that dominated Western classical music for the 200 years or so prior—something changed around 1900. You’ll also hear talk of the “emancipation of the dissonance” connected to this, and the emergence of atonality out of ever-more-radical chromatic maneuvers. The history of music is much more complex than this simple take, but there is some truth to it: a lot of composers were interested in reinventing what and how they composed, similar to the emergence of abstract art around the same time.

The use of modes has a place in all of this, encapsulating many of the ways in which one can broaden the compositional palette. In this chapter, we’ll go through some of the most interesting, famous, and significant options, starting, as many composers did, by looking back to what came before.

Church Modes

The dominance of major and minor in Western classical music emerged out of an earlier practice centered on the use of modes. This collection of modes is often called church, white-note, or Gregorian modes. These modes correspond to rotations of the C major scale, using the same collection of pitches but a different tonic (more properly referred to as a final in this context).

This already introduces us to a fundamental tenet of what a mode generally comprises: both a diatonic collection of pitches and a final. These are the first two items on the list below, followed by two other particularly useful concepts for understanding church modes:

  1. The diatonic collection and the intervallic relationships between those pitches
  2. The final, which acts as a referential point
  3. Further hierarchical levels between the pitch in the mode and its final
  4. Melodic shapes and range

1–3 will be familiar from tonal music, but 4 may not be. Range is a defining characteristic of the church modes, as each mode has an authentic and a plagal version.

Example 1 summarizes the modes by their final, their tenor, and their range. Authentic modes are on the left, while plagal modes (those beginning with “hypo-“) are on the right. Tenors are usually a fifth above the final in authentic modes and a third above the final in plagal modes (except where noted with an exclamation point). Example 2 provides the same summary, but in notation.

Authentic mode Final Tenor Range Plagal mode Final Tenor Range
Dorian D A D–D Hypodorian D F G–A
Phrygian 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
Ionian C G C–C Hypoionian C E G–G

Example 1. The historical church modes summarized.

Example 2. The historical church modes summarized in notation.

Diatonic Modes in the 20th and 21st centuries

Another summary of diatonic modes (and assignments on them) can be found in Introduction to Diatonic Modes and the Chromatic “Scale.”

When modes were revisited as a compositional concept in the 20th century, many concepts from church modes were maintained, while other distinctions were erased. The notion of authentic/plagal modes (“hypo-” modes) was dropped, as the range of many pieces spans more than one octave. Additionally, Glarean’s later modes, aeolian and ionian, were just as important as the original authentic church modes.

Color notes

As a listener, you may experience modes as sounding similar to major or minor, but with certain inflected notes—color notes.[1] Modes will sound major-ish or minor-ish based on the quality of the third above the tonic. The major-ish modes are mixolydian and lydian; the minor-ish modes are aeolian, dorian, and phrygian.

Example 3 lists each mode, the quality of the third above the tonic, its color note that distinguishes it from major/natural minor, and its pitches parallel and relative to C major.

Mode name Major tonic or minor tonic? Color note Mode, parallel to C major Mode, relative to C major
Ionian (major) Major n/a C D E F G A B C C D E F G A B C
Dorian Minor la [latex](\uparrow\hat6)[/latex] C D E♭ F G A B♭ C D E F G A B C D
Phrygian Minor ra [latex](\downarrow\hat2)[/latex] C D♭ E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C E F G A B C D E
Lydian Major fi [latex](\uparrow\hat4)[/latex] C D E F♯ G A B C F G A B C D E F
Mixolydian Major te [latex](\downarrow\hat7)[/latex] C D E F G A B♭ C G A B C D E F G
Aeolian (natural minor) Minor te [latex](\downarrow\hat7)[/latex]—no raised leading tone C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C A B C D E F G A

Example 3. Important characteristics of each mode.

Example 4 provides a brief summary of this information. The modes are grouped by whether the tonic chord is major or minor, which helps with aural identification of modal passages (as discussed further below). The top line shows modes whose [latex]\hat3[/latex] is a major third above tonic (do–mi): major, mixolydian, and lydian. The bottom line shows modes whose [latex]\hat3[/latex] is a minor third above tonic (do–me): aeolian, dorian, and phrygian. The dotted slurs connect the distinctive color note of each mode with its major/minor counterpart.

Example 4. Modes grouped by major vs. minor tonic, with color notes shown in blue.

Hearing modal tonics

Because many listeners are so enculturated to hear all music as being major or minor, 20th and 21st century composers who wish to create a modal sound will often spend extra energy on emphasizing the tonic pitch of their chosen mode. (Note that this may or may not involve emphasizing a tonic chord!) Following are several ways in which composers may create a sense of tonic in modal music.

  • repeating the tonic pitch
  • agogic accents (using longer note values) on the tonic pitch, including using a drone of the tonic pitch
  • metrical accents on the tonic pitch
  • using the tonic pitch as the lowest pitch
  • cadencing on the tonic pitch

Identifying modes

If you are not used to playing in and listening to modes, it can be daunting to identify and distinguish modes. Here is a step-by-step process for distinguishing all the modes discussed here, illustrated as a flowchart in Example 5.

Example 5. Flowchart illustrating the process of identifying modes.

1. Identify the quality of tonic.

Listen for the tonic pitch. Then, listen for the whole tonic chord. Is the third of that chord major or minor? This distinguishes the major-ish modes (major, mixolydian, lydian) from the minor-ish modes (minor, aeolian, dorian).

2. Listen and look for [latex]\hat{\mathsf{7}}[/latex] (ti or te).

Compare the [latex]\hat{7}[/latex] to the leading tone (ti) a half step below tonic that we typically hear in minor and major pieces. If [latex]\hat{7}[/latex] is a whole step below tonic (te), then it’s lowered, which means that the piece is (at least temporarily) in a mode.

If you heard a major tonic and [latex]\hat{7}[/latex] is lowered (te), then you are in mixolydian. 

If you heard a minor tonic and [latex]\hat{7}[/latex] is raised (ti), then you are in minor. 

If your mode is not already identified, proceed to step 3.

3. Listen and look for other color notes— fi ([latex]\uparrow\hat{\mathsf{4}}[/latex]) in major, la ([latex]\uparrow\hat{\mathsf{6}}[/latex]) in minor, or ra [latex](\downarrow\hat2)[/latex] in minor.

If [latex]\hat{7}[/latex] did not identify the mode for you, listen and look for other raised color notes.

If [latex]\hat{4}[/latex] is raised (fi) in a major-tonic mode, you are in lydian. If it is not, you are in major. 

If [latex]\hat{2}[/latex] is lowered (ra) in a minor-tonic mode, you are in phrygian. If [latex]\hat{6}[/latex] is raised (la) in a minor-tonic mode, you are in dorian. If neither [latex]\hat{7}, \hat6,[/latex] nor [latex]\hat{2}[/latex] is altered (te, le, re), you are in aeolian. 

Modes in a Global Context

Almost all cultures in any place and time have had music, and the vast majority of them have organized pitch into what Western music theory considers types of modes. So, as you might imagine, there are a lot of options for composers prepared to look out beyond the Western tradition to explore. Around 1900, composers in Europe and North America began to do just that. Composers drew on music of the African diaspora (which would come to exert a huge influence over all forms of music making in the 20th century), the ancient ragas of India, China, the Balkans, and many more besides. Clearly, there’s no way we can do justice to such a huge topic here—nor indeed could 20th-century Western classical music, which often flattened out nuances of these complex systems. Following is an incomplete list of non-European sources of mode-like pitch collections:

  • Indian raga
  • Arabic maqam and Turkish makam
  • Balinese pelog and slendro
  • Jewish prayer modes
  • Persian dastgah
  • Japanese scales

Each of these systems of pitch organization is related to the concept of mode discussed here, but each has nuances and practices that distinguish them from the diatonic modes, even if the pitches are identical.

Further Reading
  • Persichetti, Vincent. 1961. Twentieth-Century Harmony. New York: W. W. Norton.
  1. Identifying modes (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify 20th-century modes versus major/minor, circle inflected pitches, and explain how a pitch center is articulated. Music examples are transcribed from the TV show Great British Bake Off (music by Tom Howe, © Accorder Music Publishing, used with permission). Worksheet playlist
  2. Additional beginner’s worksheets can be found in Introduction to Diatonic Modes and the Chromatic “Scale.”

Media Attributions

  1. Vincent Persichetti (1961) referred to these notes as "characteristic notes."


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