MODES – The Mystery, The Myth, Part II – The Myth

[Be sure you read Part I – The Mystery of this helpful article by Mike Ellis, Dallas area music teacher, perfomer and theory method author. His perspective on modes is very enlightening!]

MODES – The Mystery, The Myth, Part II  – The Myth
© Mike Ellis . 9/17/2006

Aeolian Mode, Dorian Mode, Mixolydian Mode!! Oh my! The fear! The horror! What does it all mean???

I hope you enjoyed part I. Now for Part II, the Myth Part

So, if the Dorian mode is from D to D, or the second scale note to the second scale note, now the steps are: Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole. You should memorize this (or maybe not, actually, you are playing the same C scale, just starting on the second scale note).

And if the Phrygian mode is from E to E, or the third scale note to the third scale note, now the steps are: Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole. You should memorize this (or maybe not, actually, you are playing the same C scale again, just starting on the third scale note).

And if the Lydian mode is from F to F, or the fourth scale note to the fourth scale note, now the steps are: Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half. You should memorize this (or maybe not, actually, you are playing the same C scale again, just starting on the fourth scale note).

Do I really need to go further? The myth is that many books say that you should memorize these steps, above, and their new orders, but if you know the steps in the major scale, you just pick different starting points, not memorize new sets of steps.

MORE MYTH

They say that if you play from D to D using the steps Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole (the C major scale steps from 2nd to 2nd), that you are playing D Dorian. You’re not. You’re playing the C major scale, Dorian mode. So it should really be called C Dorian. But if you call it D Dorian, you have to memorize the new set of steps, which can keep you in class longer and fill your head with more sets of steps and confuse you so you have to really work hard to get a good grade, and you may never get to see how easy and how much fun music is.

Somehow, the mode names have come to mean different sets of whole and half steps, rather than signifying the tonal center note from the scale of the key of the song. Ionian is 1st to 1st, Dorian is 2nd to 2nd, Phrygian is 3rd to 3rd, Lydian is 4th to 4th, Mixolydian is 5th to 5th, Aeolian is 6th to 6th, Locrian is 7th to 7th. And of course you could do Ionian again to complete the octave.

Below you will see the results of a search on www.dictionary.com for the word “mode”. Notice that the numeric “1” has no text on the same line. That’s because it is the common, most often accepted meaning for the word. Each following numbered definition is a derived meaning, which can also be considered, but it is not the “root” meaning of the word.
1.
a. A manner, way, or method of doing or acting: modern modes of travel. See Synonyms at method.
b. A particular form, variety, or manner: a mode of expression.
c. A given condition of functioning; a status: The spacecraft was in its recovery mode.
2. The current or customary fashion or style. See Synonyms at fashion.
3. Music.
a. Any of certain fixed arrangements of the diatonic tones of an octave, as the major and minor scales of Western music.
b. A patterned arrangement, as the one characteristic of the music of classical Greece or the medieval Christian Church.

Now the first definition, the “real” definition, suggests that a mode of the C major scale would be a manner of doing (playing) the C major scale. This fits our little story in Part I, precisely. Alex was to stay in the major scale of the key of the song, namely the key of C, and play that scale different ways. He was playing different forms or manners of the C major scale. He was not playing different scales. Therefore, the name of the Dorian mode that he played should have been C Dorian, because it was the Dorian “way” of playing the C major scale.

If you look at the third definition, labeled “Music” you will see that a mode is a certain fixed arrangement of diatonic tones (major scale notes). In this currently accepted definition, you now have to accept each of the modes as new arrangements of the notes, and you must now memorize all the new sets of whole and half steps, and you must now call these arrangements of notes by “false” names.

Ask any music graduate what the notes are in D Dorian. He will assuredly say, “D, E, F, G, A, B, C, and D.” According to the third definition above, this is true. But those are the notes in the C major scale. Why isn’t it called C Dorian? It’s a different way of playing the C major scale. By that third definition, we must call it D Dorian, which is confusing, if not misleading. This is because it’s the C major scale and not the D major scale. The notes in the major scale are called “Root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and Root” again. By the third definition… the “Music” definition… the notes in D Dorian as related to the normal D major scale would be, “Root, 2nd, flatted 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, flatted 7th, and Root.” Then you are told that you should memorize which notes are flatted in the Dorian mode. The C major scale has no flats or sharps. Therefore the Dorian mode (method of the playing) of the C major scale has no flats or sharps. Dorian mode doesn’t mean a new set of notes for the scale. It means a new way to play an old familiar scale in a way that fits the music.

If you ask a music scholar to tell you the notes in G Dorian, they will say, “G, A, B flat, C, D, E, F, and G.” Those are the notes in the F major scale! That should be called F Dorian so that we know we’re using the F major scale.

Let’s see, can it be even more confusing? Ask the notes in A Aeolian. You will hear, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and A.” Wait…. That’s the C major scale! Of course it is. The Aeolian mode of the C major scale is the way of playing the C major scale from A to A, or with its sixth scale note as the tonal center. If it is called C Aeolian, and not A Aeolian, you won’t need to learn a new set of steps for the Aeolian mode. Just play the C major scale that you already know, but start on the sixth note.

Standard theory books want you to know:

D Dorian is the D major scale with the flatted 3rd and flatted 7th notes.
E Phrygian is the E major scale with the flatted 2nd, flatted 3rd, flatted 6th, and flatted 7th notes.
F Lydian is the F major scale with the sharped 4th note. (Wait, this one is sharped!!)
G Mixolydian is the G major scale with the flatted 7th note.
A Aeolian is the A major scale with the flatted 3rd, flatted 6th, and flatted 7th notes.
B Locrian is the B major scale with the flatted 2nd, flatted 3rd, flatted 5th, flatted 6th, and flatted 7th notes.

ALL OF THE ABOVE ARE SIMPLY THE C MAJOR SCALE WHICH HAS NO SHARPED OR FLATTED NOTES. WHY MAKE IT SO HARD?

Add to that the fact that some methods teach that A Aeolian really is the C major scale, these books want you to memorize all the altered notes, above, and to know things like D Aeolian is the B major scale, but D Phrygian is the B flat major scale, E Mixolydian is the A major scale. STOP.

If you used the first definition of the word “mode,” then D Mixolydian would mean you are playing the Mixolydian method of the D major scale. D Phrygian would still be the D major scale, the Phrygian way, and D Aeolian would also be the D major scale, but the Aeolian way. The modes were to originally intended to help make playing easier for Alex. Can you imagine what Alex would have said or done if Andy had put him through all the complication shown above? He would have said, “No thanks,” and walked away, never knowing the ease and joy of playing music. How sad that would have been.

Well, good luck, then, students. If you must go through traditional music training, just remember that once you have learned your major scales, the modes are just different methods of playing them. The following might help:

Ionian means start on the 1st scale note – this fits the 1st scale note’s major chord.
Dorian means start on the 2nd scale note – this fits the 2nd scale note’s minor chord.
Phrygian means start on the 3rd scale note – this fits the 3rd scale note’s minor chord.
Lydian means start on the 4th scale note – this fits the 4th scale note’s major chord.
Mixolydian means start on the 5th scale note – this fits the 5th scale note’s dominant seventh chord.
Aeolian means start on the 6th scale note – this fits the 6th scale note’s minor chord.
Locrian means start on the 7th scale note – this fits the 7th scale note’s diminished chord.

Now, the traditional way, you’ll have to figure out the real major scale from the mode name. For example, with the traditional way, if the books say E Phrygian, you’ve got to think that Phrygian really means start on the third scale note. So, the actual major scale you’ll be playing will be the scale you get when E is the third scale note. In this case, it is the C major scale. If you look up E Phrygian in the current books, you’ll see that the notes are E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E, the C major scale. That’s the way traditional music theory does it. I like this way better.

ONCE AGAIN, GOOD LUCK!

P.S. One must, at some point, ask how or why all the confusing stuff happened? Well, from one point of view (not necessarily factual), there is the idea that in the days when minstrels played their lutes and told their stories for free, there were a select few composers who wrote music for the emperors and/or kings. These composers made their livelihood from these writings and maybe, just maybe, they did not want competition. To prevent the average man from becoming a composer (let’s not forget the Beatles… common people who became the most successful composers of the twentieth century and maybe of all time), just maybe these highly paid composers introduced false complexities and wild abstractions merely to protect their own incomes. If you can find a better answer, please let me know.

About the Author
Mike Ellis is currently teaching in the Dallas area and has thirty-four years of music instruction experience. Mike had the great fortune of being apprentice to one of the great teachers of our time, Mr. Terrill Gardner. Terrill taught Mike HOW to teach. Many musicians wish to “share” their knowledge, but have no training in the art of teaching.

Mike has been in bands since he was thirteen and has played with all kinds of folks, even academy award winner Robert Duvall. He’s recorded on multiple albums and in several studios in Dallas over the years. Not only is he a teacher, he’s a performer as well.

But Mike’s greatest rewards come from teaching. Mike has three children, all grown now, and loves to see growth of all kinds, but especially musical growth.

While at McCord Music Company, Mike was not only tutored by Terrill Gardner, but worked side-by-side with musical greats like Chuck Rainey (recorded with Aretha Franklin, Ricki Lee Jones, and a host of others), Greg Bissonett (UNT drummer who went on to play with David Lee Roth and many more), Mac Dougherty (jazz guitar teacher at Berklee College in Boston), and Christopher McGuire (classical guitarist extrodinaire who auditioned for Andres Segovia in Spain).

Mike completed “Modern Method for Guitar” books I, II, and III from Berklee college, attended the Johnny Smith Seminar in Dallas, authored two chord theory online courses (guitar and keyboard), and is featured in an interview on www.radicalguitarmethod.com.

Visit Mike’s studio website at www.ellismusiclessons.com.

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