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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.
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:
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.
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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