MODES – The Mystery, The Myth, Part I – The Mystery

[Following is a guest post by Dallas area music teacher, perfomer and theory method author, Mike Ellis. He takes a closer look at modes and provides a different perspective for understanding their construction. Enjoy reading his Tale of Two Greek Boys to help unlock some of the mystery of the musical modes!]


MODES – The Mystery, The Myth, Part I – The Mystery

© Mike Ellis . February 28, 2006

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

Today, you will see the unraveling of the mystery of musical modes. Today, in one day, you will see the myth dispelled, once and for all. But first, we need to know what modes are. There is a little fictional story that may make it understandable, a bit humorous, and totally non-mysterious.

But to tell this story and make it truly understandable, you must know at least something about music. You must know the major scale. You remember. It’s the old “do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” sounds that you sang as a small child. Those are the notes of a major scale. What’s a major scale? It’s those notes, those sounds. If you look at the C major scale on the piano, it is simply the white keys from C to C. (Do you know where C is on the piano?)

Okay, let’s not assume that you know where C is. There are white notes and black notes on the piano. The white notes reach all the way out to the ends of the piano keys, but the black notes are shorter and therefore harder to play. They are what are known as the sharps and flats. The black notes move in groups of two then three then two then three. The C note is the first white note to the left of any set of two black notes. But the C major scale is just the white notes and only the C major scale has no sharps or flats in it. Now that you know where C is, you can play from C to C on just the white notes and you will get the familiar sound. Now, let’s go on with our story.

A Tale of Two Greek Boys (the mode names are Greek-related names)

Once upon a time, Andropolous (whom we will just call Andy) and Alexander (we’ll call him Alex) were both at Andy’s house. Andy was an accomplished pianist and Alex knew this. This day, Andy was working on a composition and was experimenting with a set of chords (which you don’t need to know about at this time). He asked Alex to improvise some melody notes on top of his chords.

Well, Alex flatly refused saying, “Andy, I know nothing of how to play the piano. I can’t improvise anything.” Andy replied, “It’s very easy. You just play the white notes, only,” and Andy showed Alex the white notes A-B-C-D-E-F-G, and showed him how they repeated all the way up and down the keyboard.

“So how does that tell me how to improvise melody?” asked Alex.

“Easy,” Andy answered. “On my first chord, you just tinkle only the white keys from C to C and back in any order you want. Just try to keep the same beat you hear me playing.”

“Okay,” Alex said, a bit confused, but willing to try.

Andy played the first chord with a bit of a lilting rhythm to it. Alex began to doodle around from C to C and back and it actually sounded pretty neat!

Andy stopped and said, “That’s great! That was the C major scale you were playing. Now, when you hear me change to the second chord, you just tinkle around on just the white keys, but go from the D to the D and back.”

Andy played the first chord and Alex doodled around from C to C and then Andy changed to the second chord. When Alex doodled around from D to D it sounded perfect, but it had a sadder sound to it, almost an Oriental sound.

This startled Alex and he stopped and said, “Wow, Andy! What is that?”

Andy replied, “That’s the C major scale!”

“No, it can’t be,” insisted Alex. “It sounded so different.”

“Well, it is the C major scale but when I played a C major chord it had one sound, and then when I went to a D minor chord and you played from D to D it sounded different, but was the same scale, just with a different starting and ending point. I call that the tonal center.”

“Wow!” exclaimed Alex. “We need to give it another name to show the difference.”

After some time and arguing, the name Dorian Mode of the C major scale was the name they chose.

“So you changed chords, but I played the same scale on both chords?” asked Alex.

“Yes, we were playing in the Key of C so you used the C major scale both times. But we can call it the Dorian mode when you go from D to D in the C major scale if you want.”

“Yeah, that will give me an idea which chord I’m playing with, the D minor chord.” Alex said.

“Well, get a load of this,” Andy said (in Greek of course). “I’ll play C major and you go from C to C and back, then I’ll play D minor and you play the C major scale from D to D and back, then I’ll play an E minor chord and all you have to do is stay on the C major scale again, only the white keys, but go from E to E and back.”

“No way!” Alex exclaimed (also in Greek… “No way” was common slang even back in those days.)

“Yep, let’s try it.”

They played and the improvised melodies fit perfectly through all three chords!

“Okay,” Alex blurted out. We’re calling this one the Phrygian Mode, after my aunt Phrygia. She loved music, but I thought I could never play.”

“Okay,” Andy said, “but what about the first one. If the others have mode names, the regular C major scale from C to C should have one, too. How about Ionian?”

“Ionian?” asked Alex, “From what?”

“I don’t know. It sounds Greek enough.”

“Okay, fine. So the Ionian mode is from C to C on the white keys, the Dorian mode is from D to D on the white keys, and the Phrygian mode is from E to E on the white keys. Are there more?” asked Alex.

They went through the chords C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G dominant seventh, A minor, B diminished and back to C major. The improvised melodies always fit like a glove and the respective names were Ionian mode (C to C), Dorian mode (D to D), Phrygian mode (E to E), Lydian mode (F to F), Mixolydian mode (wow, what a name, G to G), Aeloian mode (A to A), Locrian mode (B to B) and back to Ionian mode (C to C). They all sounded perfect with each of the respective chords.

“So I can play piano now in the key of C and all I have to know is the name of the chord you’re playing so I can go from the note that is the name of the chord up and down to it,” Alex said in amazement.

“That’s right. See how easy and fun music can be?”

So there you have it. The mystery of modes is finally unraveled. You just play the scale of the key in which the song is being played (in the story it was the key of C) and stop on the appropriate note. The whole point was to make playing EASY, not more complicated. Alex didn’t need to learn a new scale or set of fingering each time the chord changed. He just had to stay in the key of C, but create a “tonal center” for each chord by starting and stopping on the note that was the letter name of the chord. He didn’t have to worry about minor, dominant seventh, or diminished. It was all taken into account by staying in the major scale of the key of the song. The mystery of what modes are is now solved.

Now for the myth…to be continued in the next post!

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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