Modal Scales – The Forgotten Scales

Almost all of the music you are used to hearing (in our culture) is built on something called a diatonic scale, which evolved because it was easy to tune all of the notes of that scale by ear.

A scale is a set of diatonic-scale notes, starting with a given note-letter name, and going upward until the same letter-name note is reached. Since there are seven tones in a diatonic scale, there are seven possible notes you could start on (note-letter names A, B, C, D, E, F, G). Therefore, there are 7 possible scales built on a diatonic scale.

Here is a picture of a portion of a piano keyboard, showing notes of a diatonic scale, starting at a C, and going up to the next C:


There are 7 distinct notes in this scale (because when we get to the next C, it's the same note, so it's not a different letter-name note).

This particular scale, is called a major scale.

There is also a scale starting with an A, going up to the next A, again using all white keys.

This scale (A to A), is called a minor scale.

Most of the music we hear, is based on those two scales (though transposed to the other possible key-signatures).

But what about the five other possible scales? Why don't we use them just as often?

I have wondered that myself, and don't have a good answer.

As a young composer starting out, I liked the Lydian mode (scale starting on F) and Dorian mode (scale starting on D) better than major or minor, and used them a lot.

You can hear a recording of one such piece, recorded in the 1960's, by clicking on (or right-clicking on and downloading) the following link:

Aere's “Etude in the Lydian and Dorian Modes”

Is it major or minor? No, it's similar, but different.

So what are those other scales, and how do we use them?

All of the possible scales built on the diatonic-scale, are known as the modal scales. The major and minor scales we mostly use, are two of these scales, and have also have a modal scale name:

The Modal Scales (using all white keys):

Starting Note Letter

Modal Scale Name

C

Ionian Mode (major)

D

Dorian Mode

E

Phrygian Mode

F

Lydian Mode

G

Mixolydian Mode

A

Aeolian Mode (minor)

B

Locrian

To hear what the modal scales sound like, in the order above (top to bottom), click on (or right-click on and download) the following link:

Modal Scales – Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian and Locrian

If you would like to play along with the notes of the scales (learning by matching the notes), right-click on (and download) the following link. Then load it into the MIDI player/recorder from where you downloaded it to.

Modal Scales – MIDI File

The melody notes use MIDI channel 11, so make sure the MIDI channel of the performance pane you use, is set to 11.

Making Up Tunes Based On The Modal Scales

First, pick out a scale (listened-to above) that you liked the sound of. Then play that scale (using all white keys and the proper starting note, as in the table above, on a piano). Play it over and over again, until you get used to the sound of it.

Then improvise a tune using the notes of that scale – probably (but not necessarily) starting with the starting note of the scale, and also ending with it.

But what chords do you use with it?

You should definitely use the modal chords system, selected by its radio-button on the “F1 Help/Setup” pane:


In addition to that, here are the starting (root) chords for each of the modes. We are using the key of C (transpose = 0), so the chord root-notes start with C, as shown in the Chord panel:


You might think you could just translate the chord progressions you use with C major (the 1-chord, the 4-chord, the 5-chord, and back to the 1-chord) with the other modes.

To do that, say for the Dorian mode (whose root note is the 2nd tone of the diatonic scale, you would add 1 (wrapping around to 1 if you get higher than 7). So the 1-chord would actually be the 2-chord, the 4-chord would be the 5-chord, and the 5-chord would be the 6-chord.

That would make the Dorian mode 1-chord a D-minor, the Dorian 4-chord a G-major, and the Dorian 5-chord an A-minor.

You can try this method, but it probably won't sound as good as you would hope for.

Instead, we need to take a look at natural chord transitions, or transitions between chords where one or more notes are in-common between the two chords:


This chart is based on the notes of the diatonic scale, so it applies to whatever modal scale you are using.

If you start out with a D-minor chord (the root chord of the Dorian mode), you can go to the G-major chord, and come back to the D-minor. Those vertically-adjacent chord transitions (C to F, D-minor to G, and E-minor to A-minor) work very well.

The D-minor to F-major transition also works well, making the combination of the Lydian and Dorian modes something that works.

With the Phrygian mode, going from the E-minor root chord, to the A-minor chord (and back) works well, as well as going to the F-major chord and back to the A-minor.

With the Mixolydian mode, going from the G-major chord down to the D-minor chord and back is good.

The Locrian mode, whose root chord is a diminished chord, is different, in that we tend not to like ending a phrase on a diminished chord.

From the B-diminished, you can get to the F, G, D-minor, and E-minor chords (and back).

Also, if you have the “7” attribute set, you can go from the C-major-7th chord to the B-diminished-7th chord, and it will sound good. Without the 7th attribute, it's not good.

I strongly favor the vertically-adjacent two-way pairs for my chord transitions, and these often work well with the “7” (7th) attribute.

There are other, less-common chords that work well with the modal scales, as shown in the chart below:


As with all improvisation, you have to experiment with it, and find what you like.

I did that as well, in writing this article, and have included some examples, giving you a sound that might inspire you to give it a try yourself.

You can click on the two links below (or right-click and download them) to listen to them.

Improvisation in the Dorian Mode

Improvisation in the Locrian Mode

I did the improvisation in the Locrian mode because it is the most difficult to use, and I wanted to make sure I could do it.

If you would like the MIDI files of those two pieces (to learn to play them by matching the dots), you can right-click on each of the two links below, and download each file, which can then be loaded into the MIDI Player/Recorder. Both pieces use MIDI channel 11 (91-Space Voice) for the melody, and MIDI channel 1 for the chords.

Improvisation in the Dorian Mode (MIDI file)

Improvisation in the Locrian Mode (MIDI file)

Playing Modal-Scale Tunes In Other Key-Signatures

With the KeyMusician Keyboard, this is easy. Just click the “Transpose” button, and select the desired number of flats or sharps you want. The chords presented in the chords-pane will have different names, but will be in the same positions, so the fingering will be the same.

On a synthesizer or MIDI keyboard, you can use transposition as well.

But on a piano, this would be a real pain, since you would have to learn five more scales in each of the possible key-signatures. Sticking to the modes using all white keys, is easy on a piano, however.



I hope this article was interesting and informative. If you come up with some good improvisations in the various modes, we would be happy to include them here as examples, listing you as the creator, with your permission.

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