By Stewart Hendrickson

I’ve often heard said about a traditional song or tune, “it must be modal.” What does that mean? Strictly speaking, a mode is just an ordered series of notes defined by the intervals between. In that sense there is no difference between scales and modes; a mode is simply a particular musical scale.

Music of every culture has evolved around particular scales. In our modern western culture we are used to hearing music played mostly in traditional major or minor scales. That kind of music sounds normal. Music played in other scales sounds different, and we often use the term modal to describe it. In that sense modal has come to mean something different from our usual major and minor scales.

But there are many musical scales that sound normal to other cultures, but different to our western ears. I’d like to explore some of these scales, characterize them, and discuss what makes them different.

The ancient Greeks described the physical world in terms of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Health and spiritual wellbeing was thought to depend on the balance of four bodily fluids or humors. These humors correspond to the four elements: Phlegm or Phlegmatic (water), Bile or Choleric (fire), Blood or Sanguine (air), and Black Bile or Melancholic (earth).

The Greeks used music for healing and to influence the spiritual state or soul. Certain melodies were associated with the four humors, and were used to affect the soul. Music was thought to amplify or weaken the humors. Eight modes or musical scales were used.

Dorian and Hypodorian

Dorian and Hypodorian modes correspond to the element water (cool and moist) and govern the Phlegmatic humor. These modes lead to sleepiness, lethargy, laziness, slowness, mental dullness, and forgetfulness, but also tend to calm the body and promote internal equanimity and wellbeing.

Phrygian and Hypophrygian

Phrygian and Hypophrygian modes correspond to the element fire (warm, dry) and control the Choleric humor. It is opposed to Phlegm, and promotes boldness, exuberance, and passion.  These modes lead to courage and leadership, but in excess promote pride, rashness, irritability, and violent anger.

Lydian and Hypolydian

Lydian and Hypolydian modes correspond to the element air (warm, moist) and influence the Sanguine humor, leading to good cheer, optimism, friendliness, laughter, love, and song.

Mixolydian and Hypomixolydian

Mixolydian and Hypomixolydian modes correspond to the element earth (cool, dry) and govern the Melancholic humor, the most complex humor. These modes are associated with the physical body and promote solidity, firmness, and steadfastness, but also a certain indolence and tenacity.

The basis of the ancient Greek musical scale was the tetrachord (meaning four strings). This was a four-note scale. The difference between the 1st and 4th notes was always the interval of a perfect 4th (or the 1st and 4th notes of our major scale). The intervals between the notes could be various combinations of whole tones, half tones (semitones), or even quarter tones.

The octave was recognized by the Greeks as a fundamental interval (doubling of frequency). An octave scale was made up of two tetrachords separated by a whole tone. In the ancient Greek system the notes of a scale were arranged in descending order.

Arab and Indian music divides the tetrachord differently than Greek. In Arab music ten possible intervals can be used to divide the tetrachord. The use of two tetrachords and a whole tone separating them results in a 25-tone (or quarter tone) octave scale.

The most common division of the Greek tetrachord in the diatonic group, was two whole tones and a semitone (in descending order).  This might be represented in western musical notes as E=D=C-B (a whole tone interval is noted as = , half tone as - ).  Adding a second tetrachord separated from the first by a whole tone would result in a diatonic scale (dia tonic) of one octave as  E=D=C-B=A=G=F-E (each tetrachord is underlined). This is the basis of our western diatonic scale.

Depending on which note this scale begins with (the tonic), using only the white keys of the piano (no flats or sharps), we can derive the eight ancient Greek modes, each associated with a different element and humor.

The Dorian (tonic D) and Hypodorian (tonic A) modes were associated with water and the Phlegmatic humor. The Phrygian (tonic E) and Hypophrygian (tonic B) associated with fire and the Choloric. The Lydian (tonic F) and Hypolydian (tonic C) associated with air and the Sanguine. And the Mixolydian (tonic G) and Hypermixolydian (tonic A, an octave higher than the Hypodorian A) associated with earth and the Melancholic.

The medieval (church) modes defined by Pope Gregory (c.540-604) use a slightly different nomenclature. You can think of these modes as using only the white keys of the piano (no flats or sharps). Depending on which note you start with, the eight ascending notes describe a different modal scale. These modes are shown below. Each has a distinguishing characteristic and a difference in notes, raised or lowered a half tone from our major scale (Ionian mode).

Ionian (major), all major notes - play
Dorian, lowered 3rd, lowered 7th - play
Phrygian, lowered 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th
Lydian, raised 4th
Myxolydian, lowered 7th - play
Aeolian (minor) , lowered 3rd, 6th, and 7th - play
Locrian, lowered 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th - play

The most common modes are the Ionian (same as our major scale), the Aeolian (same as our minor scale), the Dorian, and the Myxolydian. The Locrian is occasionally found in Icelandic and Greek music as well as in some music of the British Isles.

Modes can exist in different keys simply by starting on a different note, but keeping the same intervals between the notes. The intervals between the notes is the characteristic that defines the mode.

The Dorian mode sounds mostly like a minor scale, except that the 6th note is the same as in the major scale. It has a certain ancient, primitive, even Oriental feeling, and is a welcome alternative to our common minor. It is often used in European and American folk music. What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor and Scarborough Fair (Parsley Sage Rosemary and Thyme) are in the Dorian mode. It is often possible to harmonize a melody in Dorian mode by a drone of the minor I chord (for example in D Dorian by using a D minor chord), with an occasional major VII chord (for example in D Dorian by using a C major chord). The C major chord works because it shares the same notes as those in the D Dorian mode.

The Myxolydian mode sounds mostly like a major scale except at the upper portion where the 7th or leading note (leads into the final 8th note) is the same (lowered) as in the minor scale. Most jazz, Afro-Cuban music and rock-and-roll tunes use this mode. It is also used in folk music. The Beatles tune Norwegian Wood uses this mode.

There are of course, many other scales or modes. In Klezmer and eastern European gypsy music a distinctive scale is used with a wide interval of three half tones (as noted by ≡ ). This is the Freygish mode (play) in Klezmer music (D-Eb≡F#-G=A-Bb=C=D), or the Hungarian minor in gypsy music (C=D-Eb≡F#-G-Ab≡B-C). This is like a minor scale, but with a wide gap between the 2nd/3rd, or 3rd/4th  and 6th/7th notes. The Sephardic Ladino song La Rosa Enflorese (Los Bilbilicos) uses this mode. 

There are also pentatonic scales (as opposed to diatonic) with only five different notes. For example, any scale using only the black piano keys. These scales are characteristic of oriental music. Old Irish music sometimes uses a pentatonic or gapped scale in which two of the notes in the diatonic scale are omitted (such as G=A≡C=D≡F=G) - play. Listen to a trad Shetland Island tune, The Blue Reel, which uses a gapped pentatonic scale.

So when you say modal it can mean many things depending on your culture, what you are used to hearing as normal, what feeling or mood the music evokes, and where the music has come from. The more we listen to music of other cultures and understand the structure, the more enjoyment we derive.

Stewart Hendrickson. Revised from The Victory Review, Sept., 2006.