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I just don't get it.... help

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Honorable Member
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i agree with NoteBoat's post but..
You can change the mood of a melody by changing the harmonization, but that doesn't change the melody into a mode.

C major scale melody and C major scale harmony, if you play Dm, you are changing the 'tonal center' and changing the mood (in the harmony).. but i thought this would change the melody to Dorian modal.

Or does this only count if it didnt originate in Ionian...

if it was Dm chord's played all the way through a piece with a melody in C major, then it would be modal..

but Dm chords after C major is just a change of mood.

I can see arguements for both sides, starting it off with a certain chord and a melody can be normal and ...wait

C major melody over C major chords for 2 mins...

then Em chords are played for 5 mins.. (with a C major melody)

The tonal center will be changed when all the E minor chords are played and the melody which has continually been based around C, will sound different..

Therefore a melody can be changed into a mode by changing the chords played underneath..


(Dont worry i know im probably wrong)

But that is how i see things know? am i right or am i wrong..

im here to learn.

Illustrious Member
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Posts: 4921

This is why people get so confused about modes!

You can change one element of a piece of music, and you change the sound of the piece.  The goal of theory is to break the music down analytically and determine what has changed.

If you play a piece in 4/4, and then play the same notes and chords in 3/4, it will sound different.  Since the only thing that has changed is the placement of the accents, the change is a rhythmic one, and we'll look at differences in the rhythm to explain the sound.

If you play a C chord, and play C-D-E-F over it, and then play it again using C-D-E-F#, it will sound different.  Because the rhythm and the chords have remained the same, we can deduce that the change in sound is because we've changed the melody, and we'll look at differences in the melody to explain the sound.

If you play C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C over a C chord, and then play the same notes over an Em chord, the music will sound different.  Since the rhythm and melody remained the same, we must look to harmony to explain the difference.

As I said earlier in this thread, modes are a MELODIC construct.  A melody has a tonal center, and analyzing the melody in isolation will allow you to determine if it is modal.

Changing the chord that's played against this melody will NOT change the tonal center of the melody.  The harmonization will change the sound, but not because it's changed the melody into a mode.

I think the basic problem here is in understanding tonal center.  This may take a bit to explain, so I'll post it in the next message.

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Tonal center... to quote from Piston's "Harmony":

Tonality is the organized relationship of tones in music.... Modality refers to the choice of the tones between which this relationship exists.  Tonality is synonymous with key, modality with scale.

Let's look closely at Alex's last example: C major melody.  We look at it in isolation, and see that C major is the tonal center.  We're clearly in the key of C (tonality) and Ionan mode (modality) without considering the chords.

Now we play that melody over Em.  It sounds different.  The question is why?

Ignoring the melody for the moment, we need to determine what key (tonality) we're in with that Em chord.  The choices for Em are:

the ii in D major
the iii in C major
the vi in G major
the i in E minor
the iv in B minor
the v in A minor

We've got six choices for key - three major and three minor.  Back to the melody, comparing only the notes (not the melodic pattern) to each key:

If we're in D, we're lowering the 3rd and 7th tones (D dorian).

If we're in C, we're in C Ionian

If we're in G, we've lowered the 7th (G mixolydian)

If we're in Em, we've lowered the 2nd (E phrygian)

If we're in Bm, we've lowered the 2nd and 5th.  Since the 5th is fundamental to establishing Bm as a key, we can throw this one out... this melody just wouldn't happen (as a mode, anyway) in Bm.

If we're in Am, we're in A Aeolian.

Now we need to narrow down the choices by returning to the pattern of the melody.  If you look at the melody in isolation, we've already determined that it's centered around C.

Let's say at this point we sneak a peek at the key signature, and see one sharp... and we take a look at the chord progression, and we see a bunch of B7s in there... so we're certain that the key is really Em.  What does that do to our melody, which centers on C?

In Em, we've got three possibilities for the scale:

Natural (E-F#-G-A-B-C-D-E)
Harmonic (E-F#-G-A-B-C-D#-E)
Melodic (E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D#-E)

A melody in Em starting on C will use one of these patterns:


The last two we have to toss out... if it's using E harmonic minor, we have too big a jump between C and D# to be a mode; if it's using E melodic minor, there's no C at all!

We're left with the first pattern, which is C lydian.

But we're not playing in lydian, because of the F natural in the melody.  And if we take that C lydian fourth and lower it, we're in (drum roll, please):

C Ionian.


Even if we change the tonality of a piece because of the harmonic elements, we're not changing the modality of the relationships in the C melody we began with.

If you feel like it, you can repeat this exercise with the other possible keys containing Em.  You'll end up with the same result.  A melody that centers on C will be a melody in C 'something' in modal terms, and the 'something' is determined by the melodic steps following C.  If you're not changing the melody notes from C, you're not playing in a different mode.

One last stab at this, from the opposite point of attack:  If you play a C chord, and play a C melody over it, but you sharp every F, would you say you're in C Ionian?  No, you'd argue for C lydian, because of the F#.  Proof positive that changing the melody changes the mode, and changing the harmony does not.

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Haha i was listening to Beethoven's 9th and i saw your "Drum Roll" please, and then like 5 seconds after the Timpani did its little thing, made me laugh.

NoteBoat, that was VERY well explained, i will re-read but you did get the point over very well.

I see where you are coming from..

i just thought you could estabalish a tonal center through harmony but seeing as Modes are a melodic thing, its not counted as that.

Also when i hear modal music and some have like drones at the back of a melody, and that helps keep the tonal center, and i just thought there was no difference if a chord was played and repeated..

If you would noteboat can you like give examples like i did, and let me try and work out what it is, by the way that you did it in your post??

And just to clear up...

From my example, if Em chords are played throughout that example (say it went on for ages)..

it will ALWAYS be C Ionian?


- Alex :)

I think i do understand you a lot more than i did.. once i do the same with some examples im sure it'll just click.

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Melody = F G A Bb C D Eb F (F mix)

Chords underneath it = C minor

so it can be from..

i in C minor
ii in Bb major
iii in Ab major
iv in G minor
v in F minor
vi in Eb major

if its in C minor we would have F Dorian
if its in Bb major we would have F Mixolydian
if its in Ab major we would have F Aeolian
if its in G minor we would have F Mixolydian
if its in F minor we would have F Aeolian
if its in Eb major we would have F Dorian

we know the melody is based around F.

Right im confused cos im not working in Ionian, but Mixolydian..

can anyone finish off what i started, so i can see how its done so we end on a mode that isnt Ionain/Aeolian


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The melody runs from F to F, starting and ending on F, so it's F 'something'.  It's not F major, because you're flatting the 7th, so it's F mixolydian.

It remains F mixolydian (the modality) regardless of the underlying chord structure (the tonality).

You're playing this over a C minor, which isn't enough by itself to establish tonality.  Your tonality could be in any of the six keys you listed, but the modality will be F mixolydian no matter what -- if the C minor is the ii chord, you're playing an F mixolydian melody over a progression in Bb major.  If the C minor is the vi chord, you're playing F mixolydian over a progression in Eb major, etc.

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Ok now we have estabalished that an underlying harmony cannot change the modality of the melody..

and any chord progression you play underneath it will just alter the sound..


Now is there any way harmony can be used WITH a melody to enhance the "modal" sound.

for instance playing IV and V chords from the scale you took the mode from and putting the root of the mode in the bass..


C Phrygian (taken from Ab major)

IV = Db
V = Eb

if you had a chord progression of

Eb/C (which is Cmin7)

(i saw this on a program about modes)
So this is a harmony trick to help enhance the modes..

i suppose playing a relative chord like C major under a C major melody.. and Em under a  E Phrygian melody..

BUT its also not wrong to use any chord progression you like under, its just more common for the relative chord to be played.

Has it clicked for me?


Also howcome you always discard the Locrian mode? and say it is a modern addition to the modes, or something along those lines, you got me interested.
You dont have to but if you want to can you explain why?

Thanx  8)

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It looks like it's clicking for you, Alex :)

Locrian mode... I don't think I 'always' discard it, but I do in a couple of situations: when we're talking about church modes or mode history, because the monks didn't start on the 7th tone - I usally call the Locrian the 'leading tone scale' in those discussions, and mention that it came later.

The othe situation where I discard it is where it won't work very well... look at the notes in B locrian:


against the notes in a typical B minor progression:

B-D-F# (Bm)
E-G-B (Em)
F#-A#-C#-E (F#7)

When you get to that F#, you're going to be kind of limited in the notes you can play.  Every note in the locrian except E is going to form a b9 against a note in the F#7 chord, so you're gonna have dissonance galore, with only one 'escape route'.  While you could use the locrian over just the Bm chord (where only C, F, and G are really going to clash), I think it's a really bad idea to consider changing modes over every chord in a progression.

Yeah, I know there are a lot of guitar teachers out there who will tell you that's the 'right' way to use modes.  Personally, I think they're full of it :)

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first of all, changing modes over every chord progression does sound stupid because your never going to really bring out what you want and what modes do if its being changed so fast.

anyway : dissonance

i thought that was the point of the Locrian mode..
and i thought the dissonance was what made it sound so "weird" and nasty (kinda like diminished)
ive heard loads of descriptions of modes as what they would be used for.. and for Locrian i remmember reading something like "Imagine the music for a dark lonely castle on a big huge hill, thunderbolts clapping, really creepy, imagine walking through the dark halls in a film, Locrian mode would sound like what you expect to hear"

Like, the dissonance and overall sound gives it something like the Diminished sound and it sounds creepy and evil, and its the dissonance of BARELY any notes fitting together that gives it this..

I thought Dissonance was the whole point of the Locrian mode.

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The other difficulty with the Locrian mode is that it's not as easy as the other modes to establish.  It tends to end up sounding like other modes.

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i agree because barely any notes are used to try and avoid dissonance and then it gets confused with related modes..

all the more reason i think that the dissonance is an essential part to the Locrian mode, because it doesnt truely work without it..

Music isnt always "wow that sounds so beautiful", its sound, and the Locrian sound doesnt sound nice but it has a job to do and it can do it.

Same with a diminished chord/scale.. it has a job to do and it does it, it doesnt sound particularly nice.

Thoughts Welcome.

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Wow!   8)  I just want to say this is the coolest, most interesting thread I think I've ever read.  I was just looking for something to read during my ten minute tea break before practicing, but I've been glued here for quite a while.

It's great to hear people bantering this stuff around.  It really does show why beginners find this stuff so confusing when more experienced players can't even agree or just have totally different approaches.  

I'd like to say that I agree that changing modes every chord can make it very difficult to make any sort of improvisation sound cohesive, especially if the chords change twice a measure or every measure.  If the chords hang around for a while, two measures to four measures, you have enough time to tweak this kind of moment, but it still may not be the best choice, depending on what you are trying to say.  If you comping on chords every four measures or more before switching, then changing modes may be precisely the best way to tweak different feels.  

I think that teachers often teach the changing on every chord idea is because it is easier than teaching the learning to find what chords go together approach, which requires more theory and analysis.   But the second approach usually leads to better lines.  It is much easier to say something if you analyize a song as iii vi ii V, change key iii vi ii V, change key iii vi ii V I than if you see it as constantly changing centers.

For instance, if we use the progression  Em Am Dm G C
we can think of  playing

E Phrygian
A Aeolian
D Dorian
G Mixolyidan
C Ionian/Major

OR we can just play in C major being conscious of the chord changes underneath so that we compliment them, learning to use dissonance for flavor on purpose instead of by accident.  You can even choose to emphasize the chordal note without changing the scale pattern, which is the same as playing the modes anyway, but without all the fancy moving around.

Another simple way to approach modes in improvising is to just see them as colors you can add as you please.  For major chords, you can improvise freely between major, lydian, mixolydian, major pentatonic, or even minor pentatonic if you prefer a more bluesy sound.  For minor chords, you can mix and choose between aeolian, harmonic minor, melodic minor, dorian, phrygian., minor pentatonic, and blues sclaes.  I agree that some dissonance can be considered spice.  When it get too much for you, then it's just time to consider another option.    

Many jazzers especially seem to want to make this subject so complicated, because they want a surefire way to plug in a certain scale/mode whenever they see a particular chord.  And while you can memorize a scale that fits every chord alternation, it will definitely fit but it still might not make music.  

Thanks for the mental exercise!

Music is therapy. Music is celebration. Music is everywhere. Music is life!

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Topic starter  

OK, I am still here and reading just a little confused.  Let's start with simple stuff.  A mode is established by the melody because all of the modes based on C major can have the same chord progression.  So it is the melody over the chords that tells us what the mode is.   (And I have played some chords with the different scales over it and heard the difference.)  Before I say anything else, I am going to keep reading and be back with questions, later.  just wanted to let you know, that I am still here, lost, but here.  As soon as I figure out what it is I don't know, I'll ask.


It's not easy being green.... good thing I'm purple.

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jstar -

when you said use the dissonance as flavour...
as in when the chords change..
All your chords (not sure if you got it from Cycle of fifth's or from C major scale fitting into the cycle)..

There would not be any dissonance, because all the chords and the melody's are the same and dissonance only comes when notes clash..

I would have thought using those chords and scales could be the safest thing to do..

like E Phrygian over E minor, if you use a chord in E minor that contains the F#, and its being sustained when a natural F from the melody comes in, then it is being dissonant.

But this is still my point from before, that it is Dissonance that makes a mode.

Phrygian, a very dark scale, been described as "The one that would keep you on the edge of your seat"

And i have written something in Sibelius to test it out..
Hmm i might record it and put it on here..

Two examples, one is in E minor (F's are sharp)
then there is a few second gap and ive made the F's natural, so it is E Phrygian, (all over E minor chord progressions)

And you can clearly hear how the F's and F#'s clash and that is what gives the mode that feel..

Am i wrong? I say that dissonance is the key to some modes, it has to be there, avoiding disonance is pointless because you wont get the sound of the mode.


Now you may tell me im wrong, and i want you to, but even if i am when i compose im going to be doing what i am now because this way i get the sounds i want to.

But i also want to know what everyone else thinks and how they would do it avoiding dissonance.

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Just to clear up,

in that mp3 the first example is in E minor, second in E Phrygian..

and my point is that in the second one it is clearly more of a modal and not minor sound, and the ONLY thing i have changed is F#'s to F's.. thats the only thing

and it does sound different, so that HAS done something, and allthough there isnt always an F# in the bass part to that you can hear the difference, so it isnt JUST the dissonance that makes that sound..

Its the tonal center as NoteBoat said before, but dissonance helps.

I am gonna shut up now.

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