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Modality is the precursor to the modern musical scale; its origins can be found in ancient Greek music theory. In this lesson, we’ll explore the principle of modality in relation to musical scales and discover how scale degrees build modes.

Modality and Scales

Modality is a type of musical scale, or a group of eight successive pitches, with no pitch skipped and the first and last tone repeated.

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Each scale degree is numbered and labeled in Roman numerals on the scale, beginning with one or the first note and ending with eight or the last note. The names of the degrees are important only in how they relate to each other:

  • 1st: tonic or the home tone
  • 2nd: supertonic, which is one step above the tonic
  • 3rd: median, which is between the tonic and the dominant
  • 4th: subdominant or lower dominant
  • 5th: dominant or the primary overtone of the tonic
  • 6th: submediant, found between the tonic and the subdominant
  • 7th: subtonic or the leading tone
  • 8th: tonal center, which brings us back to where we started

Modality is built upon eight successive pitches that share the notes of the tonic scale. Each scale has a different melodic content, and each accentuates a different tonality. The origins of modern Western musical scales can be found in modality, which is based on the Greek system of musical theory. The Greeks established the 8-tone scale, with the first and last tone being an octave apart.As found in Western music, the tonic note is displaced among seven natural tones or church modes. Post-Greek music developed in the Western Catholic Church, specifically under the Gregorian monks.

One example of the Gregorian sound can be found in Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monks; it’s actually a great representation of the style! Now that we’ve reviewed scales, let’s move on to how scale degrees create modes.

Benedictine Saints, including Gregorius the Great
Benedictine Saints

Scale Degrees and Modes

Each mode has its own name, based upon one of the original Greek modes. They include: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The following mnemonic device may help you remember them: I Don’t Pheel Like Making Any Love. Now, let’s take a look at some of the major musical features unique to each of the modes.

  • Ionian: This is the basic mode, and as a major key, it has a happy sound. The Ionian scale is built upon the tonic and uses the key of the original tonic. We’ll use the C scale as our example. The C scale is built C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

    It contains no accidentals, so it’s the easiest to examine. The C Ionian scale is the C scale; of all the modes, it is the most commonly used.

  • Dorian: The symmetrical Dorian mode is frequently used in jazz and has a natural minor sound, due to its lowered 3rd scale degree.

    To make a Dorian scale, you start on the 2nd scale degree and use the notes of the original tonic scale. Using our C scale as an example, we’ll start on the 2nd scale degree: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. You’ll notice that the notes haven’t changed; they’ve just changed places, with the tonic note occupying the second scale degree.

  • Phrygian: The Phrygian mode is very closely related to the natural minor scale. It is built on the 3rd scale degree, again using the notes of the original tonic scale: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E. It is used infrequently, due to the diminished chord that naturally occurs on the dominant.
  • Lydian: The Lydian mode is similar to the Ionian scale and is built upon the 4th scale degree. It differs only in the augmented 4th scale degree, which makes for a very strange leading tone from the fourth to the 5th degree. It is spelled out as: F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F.
  • Mixolydian: The Mixolydian mode is frequently used in jazz because of the naturally occurring major-minor 7th chord on the tonic.

    It is very closely related to the major Ionian scale, differing only in the lowered 7th scale degree. It is spelled out as: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G.

  • Aeolian: The Aeolian mode is also called the natural minor scale. Its lowered 3rd and lowered 7th scale degrees are what create the sense of sadness that typifies this minor mode.

    Among the modes, Aeolian and Ionian are the most frequently seen in today’s music today. The Aeolian scale is built as: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A.

  • Locrian: Now for something totally weird, the Locrian mode doesn’t really sound like any of the modern scales. It has a lowered 3rd like Aeolian, a diminished 5th, and a lowered 7th.

    The lowered 3rd and 7th scale degrees give Locrian a vaguely minor sound, while some of its other scale degrees provide it with a non-European resonance. Either way, due to the diminished 5th scale degree, the primary tension in scale theory isn’t present. The diminished 5th acts as a leading tone to what should be the 5th scale degree, but there is no dominant present, and the leading tone is left unresolved.

Lesson Summary

Modality is a system of arranging notes into successive pitches, or scales. Each scale is made up of eight scale degrees, with the first and last scale degree being the only repeated tones.

Modes are scales that are built on scalar degrees other than the tonic.There are seven modes, which are based on the ancient Greek and Gregorian music. They include: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Of the seven modes, the Ionian and Aeolian are the most common modes, while the Dorian and Mixolydian modes are frequently found in jazz.

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