IX. 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 collection, their , the relationships of other pitches to that final, and their range.
  • In the 20th-/21st-c., diatonic modes are also understood as rotations of the major scale, without range requirements, but with the concept of a centric pitch or .
  • Western composers in the 20th century were also interested in composing with the pentatonic scale and other non-traditional and/or non-Western modes.
  • Modes, conceived in terms of relationships, with an emphasis on the of each mode:
    • Ionian: Identical to C major
    • Mixolydian: Like C major with a \flat\hat{7}
    • Lydian: Like C major with a \sharp\hat{4}
    • Aeolian: Identical to C natural minor; no raised leading tone
    • Dorian: Like C natural minor with a \sharp\hat{6}
    • Phrygian: Like C natural minor with a \flat\hat{2}
  • Modes, conceived in terms of 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

At the turn of the 20th century, many composers were re-thinking the materials of music. It’s partly for this reason that you’ll sometime hear the term “common practice” 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 compose in just that same way that many painters and other artists of the time did with the emergence of abstract art.

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 (more properly referred to as a in this context).

This already introduces us to a fundamental tenet of what a mode generally comprises: both a of pitches, and a ; these are represented as components #1 and #2 below, respectively. There are 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 and a 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. Example 2 provides the same summary, but in notation.

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

Example 1. The historical church modes summarized.

Example 2. The historical church modes summarized in notation.

Diatonic modes in the 20th-/21st-c.

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 / 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 notes—. Modes will sound major-ish or minor-ish based on the quality of the third above the tonic. The major-ish modes are and ; the minor-ish modes are , , and .

Example 3 lists each mode, its color note that distinguishes it from major/natural minor, and its white-note mode.

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 ♯6 C D E♭ F G A B♭ C D E F G A B C D
Phrygian Minor ♭2 C D♭ E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C E F G A B C D E
Lydian Major ♯4 C D E F♯ G A B C F G A B C D E F
Mixolydian Major ♭7 C D E F G A B♭ C G A B C D E F G
Aeolian (natural minor) Minor ♭7 (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 using notation. Modes are grouped together into modes with a major tonic vs. modes with a minor tonic, which helps with aural identification of modal passages (as discussed further below). Example 4 also illustrates what differentiates certain modes from major or minor. Each mode has one pitch shown in a lighter color; this pitch is when compared to major/minor. These special pitches are referred to as the of each mode. These relationships are shown with the dotted slurs.

Example 4. The top line shows modes whose \hat{3} is a major 3rd above tonic: major, mixolydian, and lydian. The top line shows modes whose \hat{3} is a minor 3rd above tonic: aeolian, dorian, and phrygian. Dotted slurs connect the distinctive color pitch of each mode with its major/minor counterpart.

Hearing modal tonics

Because many listeners are so enculturated to hear all music as being major or minor, 20th-/21st-c. 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 by ear. Here is a step-by-step process for aurally 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 \hat{\mathsf{7}}.

Compare the \hat{7} to the leading tone a half-step below tonic that we typically hear in minor and major songs. If \hat{7} is a whole step below tonic, then it’s lowered, which means that the song is (at least temporarily) in a mode.

If you chose a major tonic, and \hat{7} is lowered, then you are in mixolydian. 

If you chose a minor tonic and \hat{7} is raised, then you are in minor. 

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

3. Listen and look for other raised color notes—\hat{\mathsf{4}} in major, and \hat{\mathsf{6}} in minor.

\hat{7} did not identify the mode for you.

But if \hat{4} is raised in a major-tonic mode, you are in lydian. If it is not, you are in major. 

If \hat{2} is lowered in a minor-tonic mode, you are in phrygian. If \hat{6} is raised in a minor-tonic mode, you are in dorian. If neither \hat{7}, \hat6, nor \hat{2} is altered, not, you are in aeolian. 

Modes in a Global Context

Almost all cultures everywhere and “everywhen” have/had music, and the vast majority of those cultures have organized pitch into something that traditional Western music theory would consider to be sorts 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 borrowed from music of the African diaspora (which would come to exert a huge influence over all forms of music making in the 20th century), to the ancient ragas of India, to 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, who 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.

  • Identifying modes (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to identify 20th-c. 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

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

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