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Best way to learn modes?

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(@greybeard)
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Joined: 19 years ago
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I was listening to some musical genius kid on a vid on a different site.....The first thing he wanted to straighten out was modes were not scales......
Not much of a genius, if he reckons that modes are not scales.

One of the first things that you learn is the chord sequence Maj, min, min, Maj, Maj, min, Dim - the harmonised chords of a major scale.

The first "Maj" is clear, but where does the "min", after it, come from? Look at the Dorian scale and you'll see. The next "min" comes from the Phrygian (there's a table here).

They are all the root chords, taken from the modes. This was, actually, how I came to find modes, in the first place. I was looking into how the Maj, min, min..... sequence came to be.

So, for me, modes are nothing but harmonised scales - but they are, quite clearly, scales.

I started with nothing - and I've still got most of it left.
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(@wattsiepoops)
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So, for me, modes are nothing but harmonised scales - but they are, quite clearly, scales.

Again, something my girlfriends dad told me. The Modes were around well before scales were, so they could maybe be called the pre-cursor's to scales.

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(@noteboat)
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The Modes were around well before scales were, so they could maybe be called the pre-cursor's to scales.

I guess your girlfriend's father hasn't kept up with things.

When I was in college, we were taught that major and minor scales developed in the early Renaissance or late medieval period. The early music that we knew of at that time (I was in college in the 70s) was the result of censorship - we knew about church music before 1200 or so, but there was no known record of secular music. The reality is that the only literate people were religious clerics, and they only wrote down religious music. The conclusion was that since we had a record of the church modes back to about 600, and they had these nifty Greek names, the modes must have developed from the earlier Greek music, and everything else sprang from that.

There was only one problem with that theory: it was wrong. In fact, while I was being taught that in music history class, ancient tablets were being deciphered that disproved a whole bunch of what I was being told. We're now pretty sure that the major scale dates to roughly 1200 BC, or about 500 years before classical Greek civilization. The same researcher who provided the evidence - Dr. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer of UC Berkeley - also discovered fragments that place major scales even earlier, back to around 2000 BC. There's even a bit of hotly disputed evidence that major scales may have been around since the Neanderthals, more than 40,000 years ago.

On the other hand, we're certain the church modes were around from roughly 600AD, and there's evidence they go back to the second century BC. There's also some evidence that the Greeks had microtones - notes between our half steps - so there's some chance we're misinterpreting their notation to equate church modes with Greek modes, and the Greeks almost certainly had other music that didn't fit our modern ideas of their modes. Perhaps ongoing research will fill in the blanks.

But in any case, it's pretty simple to see that modes are scales. When you call something a scale that's just a label, and doesn't change its nature. A scale is a set of tones, bounded by an octave, that can be played in one direction: play CDEFGABC or CBAGFEDC and you get a major scale. Modes fit that definition.

The idea that modes are "related" didn't come up until 1547. So they were used as sets of tones - or scales - for about a thousand years before anybody thought they were anything BUT scales.

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(@slejhamer)
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If all modes are scales, are all scales modes? What about harmonic and melodic minor scales, are they "modes" or is it appropriate to think of the modes as only the Greeks, with other scales not being thought of as modal? Just curious.

Also, how/when/why did the two scales we think of as the major and minor scales (aka the ionian and aeolian modes), become THE major and minor scales?

Last, with respect to the original post and "learning the modes", one thing I've noticed is that many teachers (three out of the three that I've had!) teach the "modes OF the major scale", for example in C:

Ionian: C · D · E · F · G · A · B · C
Dorian: D · E · F · G · A · B · C · D
Phrygian: E · F · G · A · B · C · D · E
Lydian: F · G · A · B · C · D · E · F
Mixolydian: G · A · B · C · D · E · F · G
Aeolian: A · B · C · D · E · F · G · A
Locrian: B · C · D · E · F · G · A · B

and then go on to have the student (me) play each "mode" over the corresponding chord in a diatonic progression, so C Ionian over Cmaj7, D Dorian over Dm7, E Phrygian over Em7, etc.

As far as learning the basics of mode construction, what are the shortcomings of this approach? Am I just learning mode patterns, and not playing "in" a particular mode?

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(@fretsource)
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The Modes were around well before scales were, so they could maybe be called the pre-cursor's to scales.

I guess your girlfriend's father hasn't kept up with things.

To be fair to Wattsiepoops, girlfriend's dad, when he says that the major and minor scales developed after the modes, he's right in the sense that they were the building blocks of the new major - minor key system that came about when tonal music arose and gradually replaced modal music. When we talk about the major scale, we generally mean that set of notes used in a tonal context, with a key note (tonic), a leading note, a dominant, etc.
To that extent, the major scale isn't the same as the pre-tonal Ionian mode. It has the same notes and in the same order, but in concept it's different. So giving it a new name "major scale" made sense, and thinking of it as a new scale also made sense.
I think most schools and colleges still teach that the major and minor scales date back to the rise of tonality and the birth of the major-minor key system. The fact that identical sounding scales existed long before that is mostly ignored, as they were functionally different and not part of the later major-minor key system taught in schools today.


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(@noteboat)
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Fretsource, that might change in the next few decades. We already know that harmony in thirds existed over 3000 years ago - when I was in school that was considered a fairly recent development. It's possible that harmony in chords is quite ancient, and was never actually abandoned... it just fell out of favor for a while (or it's even possible that it never did, at least in some places, but we don't have a record of it)

Slej, all scales aren't modes in the sense that they don't have identical spacing that's "displaced". But it's pretty common to see non-modal contexts of scales referred to as modes, especially in theory books of the late 1800s through about the 1950s - these texts refer to concepts like "harmonizing the major mode" with no mention at all of the church modes.

It's very common to see the modes taught as related scales. In fact, that's how I was taught them in college. But the big downside to that method is that you'll understand the modality by reference. By that, I mean to play in D Dorian, you'll first think in C major - and D Dorian is a D scale, not a C one. As a result, you're pretty likely to be led astray as your ears pursue a C tonality. That's the problem I had with using modes until a jazz improv teacher showed me the modes as parallel scales - then everything clicked.

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(@fretsource)
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This idea that the modes are "modes of the major scale" is a modern re-interpretation of the modes that, modally speaking, completely misses the point of them.

Originally, they were scales, (called modes at that time) that had nothing to do with each other. When Mr Glarean, as mentioned above by NoteBoat, realised that they could be seen as the same scale starting on different notes, he didn't think of them as belonging to the major scale, or Ionian mode as it was then. He realised they were just the natural diatonic note set, starting from different notes.
It's not surprising that he could see this relationship as all the modes were composed of 7 natural notes, and there's only so many ways that you can arrange 7 notes in order of pitch... 7 ways, in fact, hence 7 modes.

What's important is that he didn't choose one of those modes as the main one and then define all the others in relation to it as being 'modes' of that mode.

Nowadays with the major scale being the predominant scale of Western pop and rock music, Glarean's discovery has been unofficially re-interpreted by some people (mostly guitarists) to mean the major scale starting from different notes, and to compound the confusion, they've re-interpreted the word MODE to describe it.


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