Musical Modes

My recent blog post on Mozart’s symphonies led me to think through the elements of musical structure. At the core of the music’s logic are the modes, the seven scales starting on the white keys of the piano. The best-known modes are the Ionian, the same as the modern major scale, and the Aeolian, the standard minor scale. Using only the white keys on a keyboard, the Ionian starts on C and progresses up to B. The Aeolian begins on A and goes up to the G above it.

But the diatonic scale (the white keys from C to B on the piano) has a total of seven modes. They are the Ionian (the standard major scale), the Dorian (from D to C on the piano using only white keys), the Phrygian (starting on E), the Lydian (starting on F), the Mixolydian (starting on G), the Aeolian (stating on A), and the Locrian (starting on B).

Classical music performed today uses almost exclusively the major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) scales. But the Phrygian appears occasionally. Johann Sebastian Bach kept the Phrygian mode of some original chorale melodies in his cantatas. Anton Bruckner was fond of the Phrygian and used it in a number of his symphonies. Most famously, Brahms started the second movement of his fourth symphony in the Phrygian mode.

The only other mode usage recognizable to modern ears is the occasional use of the original Dorian mode, identical to the minor scale except that its sixth tone is not lowered. The only music I hear nowadays in the Dorian is the folksong “Greensleeves” that originated in sixteenth century England.

The other modes are, to my knowledge, not used in modern music. More’s the pity.

More next time.

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