What are modes in music

Church modes or modes rediscovered?

Jürg Hochweber

There is a lot of confusion around the designation church modes or modes (singular: mode. English: mode). In the relevant Internet forums there is a lot of questions and discussions about it, and it is almost amusing to see all the half-knowledge that is posted there. Most rock and pop courses deal with these scales, but are limited to pure scale finger training and explain little to nothing.

Even the medieval theorists mistakenly held Doric, Lydian etc. to be scales from ancient Greece, where these terms actually occur but meant something different (allegedly going back to a misunderstanding in Boethius in the 6th century). We know little about the music of the ancient Greeks, a little bit philosophical and mathematical, hardly anything from practice (see www.oeaw.ac.at/kal/agm).

Furthermore, the term 'church modes' suggests that it is a matter of keys such as G major or F major, although it actually refers to key types such as major and minor. But even that is only partially true, since the church modes in the Renaissance and earlier were more defined by range (ambitus), certain melodic turns and emotional content, and were evidently intended more as a didactic model and not as something that was in practice in a pure form happened. It's no different today: as a thorough technical training, the modes, as I prefer to call the church modes, are certainly great, but in practice there are few compositions that can be clearly assigned to a specific mode. The whole thing is and always has been poorly documented.
There is also no reason for the name Kichentonarten, these were not and are not specifically played in the church.

Strictly speaking, when speaking of Dorian, Phrygian etc., one would have to distinguish in which sense one means whether:

as an ancient Greek name

in the sense of the medieval theorists

as a didactic model to train scales

in the sense of pop, rock, jazz

I will now deal with the individual modes as they are used in popular music today, and we will see that some things can be done with them that are also interesting for teaching, for example chord progressions for improvising or just playing chords.

I mainly limit myself to the unsigned scales, of course everything can also be transposed.

The scales are quickly explained: They only differ from C major in that a different tone is perceived as the fundamental tone.

NamesSoundsBasic chordconspicuous tone
Doricde f g a h c dDmH Doric sixth
Phrygiane f g a h c d eEm, (E)f small second
Lydianf g a h c d e fF.Hexcessive quart
MixolydianG a h c d e f gGf (not leading tone f sharp)
Aeolian (= pure minor)a h c d e f g aAt theG (not leading tone G sharp)
LocrianH c d e f g a h(Hm5-)f (reduced quinte)
Ionic (= major)c d e f g a h cC. 

The chord supply in all modes also consists essentially of the basic levels C, Dm, Em. F, G, Am. So how can I turn the tone stock c d e f g a h c into about g into the root tone. The final note alone can hardly make it, no it is actually the underlying chord progressions that make the difference between the modes. Within a melody it is hardly possible to determine which mode it is in, since the keynote does not even have to be particularly emphasized. First of all, a definition of the terms:
modal - tonic.
These are both unclear terms.
But we use here tonic for everything that is reminiscent of the classical major and minor and modal for everything else that is reminiscent of modes.
(instead of 'tonical', 'tonal' is also used, but it is misleading because 'tonal' is mainly used as a counterpart to 'atonal')
Typical for tonic are dominant-tonic relationships, leading tones, seventh chords, inversions of chords, counter-clockwise chord progressions of the circle of fifths (e.g. Am - Dm - G - C).
If we modal If we want to form chord progressions, we have to avoid seventh chords and inversions and allow little leading note effects to arise. To get Mixolydian, for example, it is not enough to start and end with G, as our listening habits always tend to be based on major and minor.

Mixolydian (more precisely G-Mixolydian, since the root is g)


The difficulty is to differentiate Mixolydian from C major, the G as the root note is rather unstable. In the example above, the sequences G - Dm and Dm - Am are good to use, as they are rather rare in C major. Nowhere G could be understood as a dominant and apart from Am -Dm there are no counterclockwise progressions of the circle of fifths. The rhythmic and formal structure underlines the role of the last G major chord as a basic chord. (Parallels of fifths such as alternating G - F are quite common in today's usage).

Can you bring other chords besides the basic levels? In fact, the options are limited. Intermediate dominants such as in major and minor are out of the question, as they would immediately be perceived as tonic. Chords like Bb and Eb are conceivable:

After the Mixolydian mode has been consolidated in the first two bars, the third chord, Bb, which is not part of the ladder and which is reminiscent of the blue notes, can come in. Here, too, the form clearly defines that G and not C or F is the boss.


The typical chord here is G or, more precisely, the note B, which separates Dorian from D minor (there would be Gm). Overall, Dorian is more stable than Mixolydian, also because we are familiar with the sixth b of melodic D minor.
Note in the example that in bars 5 and 7 the Dm is in the fifth position.



Lydian is the problem child from the modern point of view. Which chords could occur? F should be a basic chord. But the note h just can't be brought down in one chord. A chord that contains B inevitably leads to C major.

And at the beginning of the melody below, the h is not a real scale tone, but just an alternating note:

Above it is an ordinary F major, in the continuation a b would inevitably appear.

Even the medieval, allegedly Lydian melodies would be called F major today, they contain a b, not an b. Since there was hardly any transposition at the time, the name had a certain justification.

So in the modern sense there is no Lydian, except in more artificial constructs such as:

That sounds very nice, but chord progressions are hardly possible because then F would no longer be perceived as a basic chord. Only the constant repetition of the bass note f (or the chord F) ensures the Lydian character.





As in harmonic A minor, in Phrygian the g can be raised to g sharp, but g and g sharp are usually not directly next to each other.

While the other church modes almost merge with major or minor, Phrygian has more independence. The distinctive semitone step f - e to the root is probably responsible for this. Sometimes the d is raised to d flat as a leading tone to e. In contrast to the other modes, the conspicuous leading tone does not lose the modal character. This scale sounds oriental and flamenco-like and is also very popular in pop music. The basic chord can be Em or E, E major is probably more common. Actually, you could think of them as two different modes.



This mode is taught more to complete the system.

The Locrian scale is only of theoretical importance; in practice it has no independence. The diminished triad b-d-f belongs to the root note b, but it is certainly never perceived as a base chord. So you would have to increase the f to f sharp. But that's H-Phrygian again.

At best, one could describe structures that are built on a more or less constant keynote such as:

That would be Locrian. But the keynote h is very unstable and would actually like to switch to e (=> Phrygian) or c (=> major) at the next available opportunity. Only constant repetition allows it to remain the keynote.


What about Ionic, which actually corresponds to our major?

If we apply the same principles as before, a certain ionic character can be created that stands out from the normal major:


It is typical of the modal character that G is not followed by C or Am.


The same applies to Aeolian, which corresponds to the pure minor. The minor dominant Em is typical, although it is better not to say 'dominant' in modal music.


It is interesting that of all things Ionic and Aeolian, i.e. more or less our major and minor, were not known in the Middle Ages, or at least were not named. I don't know why. Only the Swiss theorist Glarean added these two modes to the (theoretical) system in the 16th century.

Heinrich Glarean, the "Glarner", was a musician, music theorist, poet, teacher, philologist, historian, geographer and mathematician.

* 1488 in Mollis, Canton Glarus;
† 1563 in Freiburg im Breisgau

Plagal modes

In the Middle Ages, the range of melodies sung was little more than an octave. If the melody reached more or less from the root to an octave above, it was called authentic Modes, these are Doric, Phrygian, Lydian etc.
If the keynote was roughly in the middle of the melody range, one spoke of plagale Modes, these are hypodoric, hypophrygic, hypolydic etc. In today's usage, this distinction is no longer useful, as the scope is usually much larger.

So we have seen that the modes are fragile structures and one could well live without them, since all elements in the broadest sense could also be explained in major and minor. It was not for nothing that the modes were abandoned around the 17th century or, better said, swallowed up by the major-minor system. As far as I know, the Berkeley School of Music revived the terms in a new sense in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, with today's rhythmic and tonal means, the modes form something of their own and, surprisingly, many students are interested in these topics. Therefore it is not right for us as teachers to deal with it.

Jürg Hochweber, August 2007

Article appeared in EGTA-CH Bulletin August 07