Modes — The Other Side of Scales
The first place to deepen our understanding of scales is right back at the major scale. As a musician, you may or may not have heard the term modes. Many classical musicians don't deal with modes early on in their study. However, jazz and rock players are aware of modes early on. There are several reasons for this musical divide, which will become clear as you learn more about modes.
The simplest definition of a mode is a displaced major scale. First, you need to examine what
Point to Consider
Ever heard the children's sing-along “What Do We Do with the Drunken Sailor”? This familiar old sea chantey (a song sung by sailors) is actually composed using a modal scale: the Dorian mode. Another famous example of modes is the theme to The Simpsons, which uses the Lydian mode for its main theme. Modes are all around us; they are often used in film and TV soundtracks as well.
Now, what if you were to use the same vocabulary, that is, use the same F–G–A–Bb–C–D–E–F pitches (the F major scale), but instead, make a different note the root? What if the scale looked like this: D–E–F–G–A–Bb–C–D? If the scale looked like that and D sounded like the root note (which is based on the context of the piece), then you have an official mode. You have a bit more than a mode, actually.
If you reread the last paragraph, you'll notice that an F scale is spelled from D. Is there a special relationship between F and D? Well, they are a sixth apart. Hmm, sixth note of a major scale, where have you heard that before? In Chapter 5, under the heading Naming Minor Keys. Remember the trick you learned there, to find the relative minor by going up six notes. Using the example above, you see that you can spell an F major scale starting from D, its sixth note, and it's called a mode! It's both the D minor scale and also a mode of F major.
So, you see that minor scales are also modes. The notes D–E–F–G–A–Bb– C–D form a D minor scale. A mode is formed when you call any other note besides the original root of the scale the root. The minor scale is just one example of a mode, one that you already know. But wait, there's more! Because a major scale has seven notes, there are seven modes.
Modes gained prominence during the golden age of Gregorian chant, circa A. D. 900, when they were used to compose the melodies of vocal plainchant. Modes stayed in use throughout medieval times with some modification. The baroque and prebaroque eras made use of major and minor scales exclusively instead of modes. For all intents and purposes, modes lay dormant throughout the baroque era, the classical era, and most (but not all) of the romantic era.
Even though impressionist composers revived modes, it wasn't until jazz musicians started using modes in improvisation and composition that modes became a useful part of music curricula. Nowadays, all music students learn about modes, but it's the rock and jazz players who tend to utilize them more frequently than anyone else in improvisation and composition.