Understanding Modes

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Dance music theory expert Oliver Curry introduces the concept of modes and explains why they’re relevant to electronic music.

In this edition of Passing Notes, we’re looking at modes. Modes are often seen as one of the trickier musical concepts to get to grips with, but once the basic theory clicks into place you’ll see that it’s very easy to introduce them to your compositions and create distinctive melodic feels.

Here we’ll examine some of the more frequently use modes in dance music, show how they’re constructed and see what effect they have on the sound of tracks. We’ll take a look at examples from Todd Terje and Kryptic Minds to see how modes can work in practice.

What is a mode?

Firstly, let’s define modes. Modes can be seen as scales derived from the notes of the major scale, but starting at different intervals in that scale. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry – most musicians find modes a little tricky to get their head round at first. Keep reading and things should begin to make more sense.

We’ll take the C major scale as our starting point, simply because sticking to all the white keys on our keyboard can make things a little easier to follow!

So, playing an octave of notes in the C major scale, starting and ending on C, will give you a mode known as Ionian (in the key of C). However, if we start and end our progression at different intervals of the same scale, we get the following modes, now in their respective keys:

1 – C – Ionian
2 – D – Dorian
3 – E – Phrygian
4 – F – Lydian
5 – G – Mixolydian
6 – A – Aeolian
7 – B – Locrian

So, for example, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E is a Phrygian mode in E, whereas F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F will give you a Lydian mode in F. As we’ll see shortly, these modes can then be transposed up and down to play them in different keys. So, if we transposed every note in the E Phrygian mode down four semitones, we’d have C Phrygian.

The four modes we’ll be looking at here are the most common: Ionian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Mixolydian.

You can see how each mode transposes into other keys using interactive online tools such as this one from Musicopedia.

Ionian Mode

The Ionian mode is instantly recognisable as a standard major scale.

In C, the notes of the Ionian mode are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. It sounds and looks like this:

Its ‘happy’ sound is largely characterised by its major 3rd, but the major 7th (both highlighted in red) is also important, especially in a lot of dance music where major 7 chords are frequently used.

Dance music is very rarely written in a major key. However, every major key has a relative minor (Aeolian mode) using all the same notes. This means that chord progressions in a minor key could easily have a melody in a major key over the top.

We can hear an example of this below. We’ve played a very recognisable melody in a C major key, then repeated it over a simple chord progression in C major’s relative minor key, A minor. This completely changes the context and feel of the original melody:

Aeolian Mode

Probably the most commonly used mode in dance music, the Aeolian mode forms the natural minor scale. As we can see from the list above, it starts at the 6th interval of the major scale.

Played in C, the notes of the Aeolian mode are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C.

It sounds like this:

It’s largely characterised by its minor 3rd and minor 7th, in this case the Eb and Bb (highlighted in red), giving it its darker harmonic quality.

Phrygian Mode

Next up, let’s look at the Phrygian scale. As we can see from the list above, we can work out the different intervals of the Phrygian mode by playing a C major scale from E to E.

We can then transpose these intervals to C to make the comparison to the other scales easier, the notes here being C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C.

Aside from the flattened 2nd, it is identical to the Aeolian mode / natural minor scale. It is this flattened 2nd, highlighted in red, which gives the Phrygian scale its distinctive ‘Eastern’ sound.

Phrygian Mode Case Study: Kryptic Minds – ‘Organic’

For a great example of the Phrygian mode in practice, let’s listen to the opening of ‘Organic’ by Kryptic Minds, taken from the album One Of Us. The eastern flute solo that opens the track is in a G Phrygian mode.

Along with the instrumentation and the use of reverb, the Phrygian mode helps give the intro its Eastern sound, setting the tone for the track’s dark, minor and almost sinister quality. Listen out for the Ab in particular at 0:47, which defines it as being in a Phrygian mode rather than the Aeolian mode.

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  • Date: 20th November 2012
  • Adam Wrote:

    Another awesome column!

  • Mathieu Wrote:

    Thank you so much for this article !

  • Oliver Wrote:

    I’m so glad I found this site. Thanks again for another interesting article!

  • Julian T Wrote:

    those this modes had thier own harmony progressions, or i can use them over any minor or major “functional” harmony??
    thanks for this column, its great to discuss on this matter and the magazine is great. thanks!!

  • Oliver Curry Wrote:

    Hey Julian,

    Yes, the modes will have slightly different chord progressions depending on any flattened / sharpened notes in the mode.

    For instance, if we’re using a Phrygian mode in A, the 2nd interval of the scale will be Bb, rather than the B we have as the 2nd interval of the natural minor scale.

    This means that the 2nd triad chord we can make from an A Phrygian mode will be a Bb major triad (Bb, D, F) rather than the B diminished triad (B, D, F) that we’d get from the natural minor scale.
    Hope this helps!
    Cheers,

    Oliver

  • GMANUK Wrote:

    Great site. please keep up the good work!

  • Julian T Wrote:

    thanks for the response oliver. it did helps a lot.
    cheers.

  • Willie Stroker Wrote:

    This tutorial is a real gem. Amazing.

  • bkwsk Wrote:

    This is the best explanation of modes I’ve ever read.

  • Alex Wrote:

    All your music theory explanations (not just this one) are so helpful and well done! It confirms a lot of stuff I have been doing intuitively by trial and error, but it also gives me inspiration for composing new and better music! So thanks!

  • Steve Wrote:

    I really like your explanations on theory but just wished they go a bit further. Its just a bit brief and at a basic level generally available…I dont mean to be strongly critical but just that it seems like you guys have the understanding to discuss a lot more and Id love to read more…

  • Attack Wrote:

    Steve – thanks for the feedback. There’s obviously a fine line between something which is too basic to be useful and something which is too advanced for some people to understand. We know that a lot of dance producers don’t have any background in theory so we want to make sure we don’t turn anybody off by jumping straight in at the deep end. As we continue with this series we’ll certainly be looking at some more advanced theory and getting deeper into some of the ideas we’ve already discussed. We hope you’ll stick with us.

  • Ben Harris Wrote:

    I have been trawling the web for some good dance music production help for a while now but yours is by far the best. Clear and concise, gets the point across exactly how it should be done. Thank you very much.

    I would like to echo that i want to see more advanced stuff having a strong background in music theory being classically trained. I have just found it very hard making the jump into making dance music. Whilst i have been an avid listener for many years now i have never known where to start. But so many of your tutorials are so helpful and i can’t wait to see more. Keep it up!

  • Xelnov Wrote:

    Clear and simple, perfect for begginers!

    Greetings from Spain!

  • Ray Wrote:

    Great article, I think its the best break down I read so far.

    Keep it up

  • Kaak Wrote:

    Thank you very much for this, this is very useful for me. What a great site, so much inspiring articles. Im a beginner and this anwsers allot of questions for me.

    Thanks!

    Greetings from Holland

  • Joan Wrote:

    Best site ever

  • blueNan Wrote:

    I experimented myself one month ago improvising with modes over a constant drone bass note, and found that in that context, mixolydian sounded very much like celtic music, phrygian was more like arab / sinister thing, dorian sounded like in your face rock solos… i think it was a very nice exercise to do, i recommend everybody to do it!

    Your article is very good and gave me another great take on the subject, thank you very much!

  • oscarsix Wrote:

    Amazing side and tutorials. Big thx !!

  • agpvera Wrote:

    thanxs! this was inspiring!