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Michael's Music Tip of the Month

Jazz players improvise with 'em, choristers intone 'em and songwriters just like 'em-- but what, really, are "modes"?
Despite all the mystery, modes are just scales -- scales that share a common musical "system".

The "modes" we use most are the "church modes", named after the Roman Catholic Church, which borrowed them from ancient Greece, re-categorized and then used them for at least 1500 years! Ignoring historical usage, there are seven church modes, named "Ionian", "Dorian", "Phrygian", "Lydian", "Mixolydian", "Aeolian" and "Locrian". They're called "modes" because they're all derived from one musical "system" -- a system which consists, quite simply, of the notes C, D, E, F, G, A and B -- with no sharps or flats. Beginning with each of these notes, in turn, as a "tonic" (the most important note of the scale, around which all the other notes are organized), we can produce the seven "church modes", as follows:


Ionian: C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C;

Mixolydian: G - A - B - C - D - E - F - G;

Dorian: D - E - F - G - A - B - C - D;

Aeolian: A - B - C - D - E - F - G - A;

Phrygian: E - F - G - A - B - C - D - E;

Locrian: B - C - D - E - F - G - A - B.

Lydian: F - G - A - B - C - D - E - F;

Although all the church modes share the same notes and intervals, each uses them in a different order, and it's this that creates the distinctive character by which each is known. (These days, we can transpose the modes, too, by preserving their orders of intervals and beginning on a different "tonic".)

The church modes gave way to the "major-minor" system, which in turn dominated European art-music until the beginning of our own century. The modes then reappeared, this time serving as a basis of harmony as well as melody. European folk music never abandoned its modal heritage, and the modes are now an essential element of contemporary North American songwriting.


The Dorian Mode

Pattern of intervals: Tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone, tone.

Distinctive characteristic: It's "raised" 6th note, which distinguishes it from "minor".

Illustrations: Bruce Cockburn's Get Up Jonah (verse, and last half of chorus); Debussy's Des Pas Sur La Neige" (mm. 5 - 8); and the following Irish tune (Isteach Is Amach Sa Chuan) in "A dorian":


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