I. Fundamentals

Introduction to Diatonic Modes and the Chromatic “Scale”

Chelsey Hamm

Key Takeaways

  • The are scale-like collections of notes with patterns of half- and whole-steps.
  • Modes can be described within a continuum of modal brightness; refers to how “bright” or “dark” a mode is. Brighter modes sound more like a major scale, while darker modes sound more like a minor scale.
  • The three bright modes, which contain mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) instead of m([latex]\downarrow\hat{3}[/latex]), are , , and .
  • The four dark modes, which contain mi ([latex]\hat{3}[/latex]) instead of m([latex]\downarrow\hat{3}[/latex]), are , , , and .
  • A , also known as the chromatic collection, consists of twelve adjacent half-steps. Chromatic scales are often (but not always) written with sharps while ascending, and with flats while descending.

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

Modes and the Parallel Relationship

The are scale-like collections of notes with different patterns of half- and whole-steps. As we have learned previously, scales that exhibit the share a tonic. In this chapter, modes are going to be described using the parallel relationship. Modes will also be described within a continuum of modal brightness; refers to how “bright” or “dark” a mode is. Brighter modes sound more like a major scale, while darker modes sound more like a minor scale. Example 1 shows a figure which ranks the seven diatonic modes in terms of relative brightness and darkness:

The modes are shown from darkest to lightest: Locrian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Mixolydian, Ionian, Lydian.
Example 1. Relative brightness and darkness of the modes.

Example 1 also summarizes which scale degrees are altered, in relation to the Ionian (major) mode (explained below).

The brightest mode is the mode. This mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is WWWHWWH. Another way to think of this mode is as a major scale but with raised [latex]\hat{4}[/latex], whose solfège is fi ([latex]\uparrow\hat{4}[/latex]). Example 2 shows C Lydian, with solfège:

Example 2. C Lydian with solfège.

The next brightest mode is the mode. This mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is the same as a major scale: WWHWWWH. Example 3 shows C Ionian, with solfège:

Example 3. C Ionian with solfège.

The next brightest mode is the mode. This mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is WWHWWHW. Another way to think of this mode is as a major scale but with lowered [latex]\hat{7}[/latex]. Example 4 shows C Mixolydian, with solfège:

Example 4. C Mixolydian with solfège.

The Lydian, Ionian, and Mixolydian modes are usually considered the brighter (or more major) modes because they contain mi instead of me (unaltered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex] instead of lowered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex]). The mode is the first darker (or more minor) mode. The Dorian mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is WHWWWHW. Another way to think of this mode is as a minor scale but with raised [latex]\hat{6}[/latex] (la). Example 5 shows C Dorian, with solfège:

Example 5. C Dorian with solfège.

The next darkest mode is the mode. The Aeolian mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is WHWWHWW, which is the same pattern as a natural minor scale. Example 6 shows C Aeolian, with solfège:

Example 6. C Aeolian with solfège.

The next darkest mode is the mode. The Phrygian mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is HWWWHWW. This is the same pattern as a natural minor scale, but with lowered [latex]\hat{2}[/latex], whose solfège is ra. Example 7 shows C Phrygian, with solfège:

Example 7. C Phrygian with solfège. 

The darkest mode is the mode. The Locrian mode consists of an ascending pattern of half- and whole-steps that is HWWHWWW. This is the same pattern as a natural minor scale, but with lowered [latex]\hat{2}[/latex] and lowered [latex]\hat{5}[/latex], whose solfège is se. Example 8 shows C Locrian, with solfège:

Example 8. C Locrian with solfège.

The Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, and Locrian modes are usually considered darker (or more minor) modes because they contain me instead of mi (lowered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex] instead of unaltered [latex]\hat{3}[/latex]).

Each mode can start on any note. For example, one could build a Mixolydian collection starting on D♭, an Aeolian collection starting on G♭, or a Lydian collection starting on F♯. When writing modal collections, be sure to think about your accidentals carefully.

Example 9 shows all of the different modes with scale degrees. They are ordered from brightest to darkest (Lydian to Locrian):

Example 9. The modes from brightest to darkest, starting on C, with scale degrees. 

Listen to Example 9 carefully, observing the difference between the modes.

Chromatic “Scales”

A consists of twelve adjacent half-steps. Because there is no distinction between half- and whole-steps, music theorists generally call the chromatic “scale” a chromatic collection; this is why the word “scale” is placed in scare quotes here. Example 10 shows two chromatic collections, the first starting on A and the second starting on E♭:

Example 10. Two chromatic collections starting on A and E♭.

As you can see in Example 10, chromatic collections are often (but not always) written with sharps while ascending, and with flats while descending. A chromatic collection that begins with a flat note (such as the second line in Example 10) is usually written with sharps while ascending, and with flats while descending. When you write chromatic collections don’t forget that there are two half-step white keys/notes: B/C and E/F.

Online Resources
Assignments from the Internet
  1. Writing Modes (.pdf, .pdf), from a Relative Conception (.pdf)
  2. Mode Identification and Accidental Error Detection (.pdf)
  3. Dorian p. 1, and Lydian p. 3 (.pdf)
  4. Mode Writing and Questions (.docx, .docx)
  5. Mode Identification (.pdf)
  6. Chromatic Scales and Modes, p. 1 (.pdf)
  7. Writing Chromatic Scales (.pdf)
Assignments
  1. Writing Modes Assignment #1 (.pdf.mscx)
  2. Writing Modes Assignment #2 (.pdf.mscx)
  3. Writing Chromatic “Scales” Assignment #1 (.pdf.mscx)
  4. Writing Chromatic “Scales” Assignment #2 (.pdf.mscx)

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