A Critique on Modality


by Joshua Taipale


    In my experience studying music and music theory, I have, on numerous occasions, encountered a particularly disappointing doctrine on the subject of modes; one that defies logic and sensibility. While I would like to believe that this teaching is not a commonly-held one, I happen upon it often enough to feel it worth the time to dispose of properly, as I have seen it create nothing but confusion and distress for many a music student. This doctrine — held by teachers and theorists both professional and amateur — states that modes and scales exist independently of one another, and are not to be equated. This, however, is a false statement, which may be proven very quickly.

    In music, a “scale” may be defined as any sequence of notes, ordered by pitch. Examples include the major scale, the blues scale, and the melodic minor scale. As all those things referred to as “modes” (e.g., Dorian, Mixolydian, Phrygian Dominant, etc.) are in fact sequences of notes, ordered by pitch, they are thus scales by definition.

    This fact may be admitted by some who hold the doctrine previously mentioned, but they go on to state that modes, while scales, are in fact a particular subset of scales, whose distinction lies not in structure, but in practise. They state that when a scale is applied in a particular manner (such as in the use of melody types, drones, or non-functional harmony), it takes on the title of “mode” rather than that of “scale.” However, as the application of such practises is in fact optional (which should be self-evident; there exists no invisible hand forcing the composer to apply any of these practises when utilising any particular scale), this turns this “subset” of scales into a conditional one, active only at certain times. This absurdity is perhaps displayed most clearly when musicians debate whether to call a particular sequence of notes the “major scale” or the “Ionian mode,” when these are really the same thing. It is both unnecessarily confusing and fairly pointless; the qualities of a piece of music are far better identified by naming the qualities themselves, or the genre of music, or the period from which it comes, etc., rather than renaming the components which make it up (especially if those components, being abstract ideas, may serve all purposes in all songs past, present, and future simultaneously).

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    We have now established that the mode exists neither independently from the scale, nor as a subset of scales. One definition of “mode” remains, which I believe to be the only meaningful one.

    Throughout the Middle Ages (and a little after — roughly between the ninth and sixteenth centuries), the “mode” was the order in which the notes in the octave were sequenced. Since only seven notes were formally recognised (natural notes A through G, with B-flat as a temporary alteration), all resulting scales (collectively, the "Gregorian modes") were related to one another “modally,” as “rotations” or “inversions” of each other; so no other term was necessary for their description. However, as theorists began to recognise the existence of more notes canonically, and thus new sequences of notes not related modally, “mode” could no longer be used clearly as a standalone term, and the broader term “scale” took its place. Nonetheless, in modern times, this definition of “mode” (with some qualifications) still has much value.

    First, to dispel any concerns: I wish to propose nothing new. It is not in my interest to revolutionise any area of music theory without reason to do so. I intend only to purify modality of everything redundant or otherwise incoherent, leaving behind the tiny fragment of sensibility it still has intact, so that it may be incorporated into the rest of music theory fairly effortlessly. Taking all of the above into consideration, I suggest this definition:

    mode: a member of a group of scales containing the same set of notes (ex. “sixth mode of harmonic minor”); colloquially, “relative scale”

    The use of the term “mode” to refer to any particular scale inherently implies a relationship to another, much like the terms “cousin” or “sibling” do when referring to people. This relationship must be qualified in order for the term to be used (either directly, or implied via context), in one of at least three ways:

  1. comparing two or more scales that are related in this manner. For example, Dorian may be called a “mode” of Ionian (as each may be formed through the rotation of the other); but neither may be considered a mode of melodic minor, as no arrangement of its notes will produce these scales.
  2. referring to a “modal genus” (the collection of modes which a particular scale spawns), e.g., the “modes of the major scale.” When speaking of modal genera as a whole, we may refer to them somewhat arbitrarily by whichever of its modes is most popular (as most scales do not have named “parents,” the diatonic scale being a rare exception). For instance, “modes of harmonic minor” is more likely to be said than “modes of Phrygian Dominant,” due to the former’s prevalence. Any scale may have as many modes as there are notes within it (barring symmetrical scales such as the chromatic or whole-tone scales). As an example, the major pentatonic scale has five modes, while the Phrygian scale has seven, etc.
  3. using it as an historical term, such as in reference to the eight Gregorian (twelve Glarean) modes.

    I believe this definition is most suitable for modern use. Since it is a definition that we in fact already use (only clarified to remove any ties to extraneous ideas), it should not be difficult to apply to music theory today.

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    Now that we have defined “mode,” we must turn our attention to the subject of modal music. It is often claimed that modal music, particularly “modal jazz,” is a form of music that employs certain characteristics; namely, the use of scales outside the traditional major and minor, in addition the use of non-functional harmony. A term may well be invented for such music, but I believe “modal” is too murky a descriptor. In a modern sense, if “mode” describes a particular relationship one scale may have with another, then only one sensible definition of “modal music” must exist (though it has relatively little utility):

    modal music: music which prominently utilises two or more scales that are related modally

    It is perhaps best if this definition is limited to only relative modulations (and perhaps parallel modulations within the same modal genus); or else it may be used to describe nearly all music that modulates. For example, a song which utilises the Ionian scale on C, and in a later section, the Aeolian scale on A, may be deemed “modal,” as these scales are modal both intervallically and in pitch set. In contrast, one which utilises the Lydian scale on E, and in a later section, the Aeolian on A, may not be described in this manner; since while the scales are intervallically modal, their pitch sets differ. Parallel modulations within the same modal genus (such as F Phrygian Dominant to F harmonic minor, both intervallic modes of one another, but based on the same tonic) may potentially be included in this definition, as the word “parallel” is already commonly used to describe such modulations; but this may be too broad.

    I feel it is also worth discussing modal music’s relationship with tonal and atonal music. If tonal music is music which has a tonal centre, or a note to which all others are compared and organised; and atonal music is music which lacks this; then modal music must be a subset of tonal music, as the only way to distinguish a scale from its modes is through the perceived tonal centre. I recognise, of course, that tonality exists to some extent on a sort of spectrum, and that the degree to which a particular note may be tonicised varies with implementation; however, it should be fairly self-evident that modal music can only exist in the tonal realm.

    Overall, though: I don't think that "modal music" is really a term with enough utility to be worth espousing at all.

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    Lastly, I feel I must address the manner in which this form of modality may be taught. Students are typically introduced to the modes of the diatonic scale and the concept of modality simultaneously. This is a natural inclination, but one that may result in more confusion than necessary (especially if the terms are poorly defined to begin with), as the student may be lead to believe that a scale’s modal relationships are important to the way it is used independently, when in fact they are entirely irrelevant. As such, I feel it would be better to teach students how to use the scales on their own before introducing them to modality. This may be done by comparing scales to ones the student should already be familiar with: Dorian may be taught as the natural minor (Aeolian) scale with a raised sixth; Mixolydian as the major scale (Ionian) with a lowered seventh, etc. This will make such scales far more approachable, as the student will generally only need to learn how one or two new notes interact with the rest of the ones they are more familiar with — a difficult task, but far easier than trying to do this while also juggling the concept of modality. Once the student appears to have a proper understanding of basic scales and how to apply them independently, they may be introduced to modality. I recommend doing so within the context of prepared modulation, which is where the concept will get much of its mileage, although it will of course also be useful to allow the student to explore the modes of scales they already know.

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    I have done my best to illustrate everything in this critique as clearly and concisely as possible; removing any notes, arguments, or information that I didn’t feel was absolutely necessary to making my case. Perhaps I am preaching to the choir, and the beliefs I outlined initially are not as widespread as I thought. Regardless, I hope this critique has managed to be of some use. If you have any questions or feedback, you may email me at joshuataipalemusic@gmail.com.

Joshua Taipale