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how do modes work, really?

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by ILLINOX, Jun 29, 2011.



    Jun 20, 2011
    I've read the conservatory, asked my teacher, another jazz guy, a couple friends and some really great guitarists, and still; I get multiple (sometimes contradictory) explanations of what modes are and how the work.

    Can anyone explain it in a new way that may help me to understand?

    Thank you very much

    (BTW I did search the forums and didn't find what I'm looking for)
  2. Thaos627


    Jan 10, 2011
    modes r pointless its just people making the explanations sound more impressive A major dorian is just A major and itll always be that no matter what mode.

    basically the root note moves up. C Major is cdefgab, in dorian its defgabc, next mode efgabcd, etc. like i said always same key and pointless

    sorry i forgot to add that the last mode and first mode are the same its just plain old C major cdefgab
  3. Modes are just a handy way to describe the inherent relationships embodied in the major scale and it's brother, the natural minor scale (aka the relative minor). They are not rules, they are not magic, but understanding them can provide insight into why some things sound the way they do. It's the actual sound, though, that is important.

    So instead of just reading and trying to imagine, the next time you read one of the multitude of sources explaining modes, have your bass in your hands and *play through the exercises/explanations*. That's the only way to really learn it.
  4. Strengthen your search fu, my friend. There have been dozens of threads on this very thing. Here's one of the many:


    And there's lots more where that came from ... if you search.
  5. Well, when considered that way--as they often are--they are sort of pointless. That is, when you use them to explain individual chords in a diatonic functional harmonic progression, they don't explain anything in any really useful way and often just add needless complication.


    What you describe in your post is not really what modes are about. They're different tonalities--or, better, modalities--that have points of similarity or convergence with standard major/minor tonality but don't have the same functionality. So you can say that some music is modal--either in toto or in part--rather than strictly major/minor. In that setting, modes actually do mean something, and they are far from being pointless.

    There are other things you can say about modes (like their use as local chord-scales in complex harmonic structures), but no point belaboring that here. In any case, the common advice to play a different "major mode" on every chord of a major diatonic progression, even when doing so adds no useful musical choices, is indeed pointless IMO.
  6. Actually, I'd say that they are more usefully understood as ways of defining harmonic spaces that are *not* conventionally major or minor. If all they did was give you what you already had in your major or minor harmony, they would mean nothing. They are of use if they explain something that isn't otherwise explained, or if they give you something you didn't already have.
  7. And to add to what already has been said - I use modes for finger exercises.
    “Here, so there.” ;)
  8. 251


    Oct 6, 2006
    Metro Boston MA
    Modes work by introducing combinations of intervals that are tonic & different from each other. Lets say the chord of the moment is a maj6. Many Jazz players will start their solo on the 3rd or 7th of the chord of the moment. That immediately introduces an unexpected interval to the listener when the root is sounded by the bass. If the note following the 3rd is the 5th, the listener hears a minor interval which the soloist could not do, in key, when limited to the root of the chord of the moment. Likewise starting on the 7th following it with the 2nd. The audience hears a minor interval played over a major chord. Of course, things often get more complicated than that.

    So to partially answer your question, modes work by engaging the audience in unexpected ways that often sound melodic & are in key. You are so accustomed to hearing it, the special nature of what is done doesn't impress you any more. It is there, nevertheless. Listen closely & perhaps write what you heard to better see & hear what is being done. JS Bach is the Father of modal composition. Perhaps you will find some Bach in your Library?

    Hope that helps. :cool:
  9. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    No offence intended, but I think that is unlikely to help somebody asking for a clear, basic explanation. I would imagine (forgive me if I'm wrong) that what you wrote is pretty much incomprehensible to the OP, even though it's technically spot on.

    It's really difficult to explain a concept like this helpfully in just one brief post. And it's good to remember the old adage, "teaching is not just telling". Teaching something clearly is a skill that takes a lot of practice to acquire and one's own knowledge is an essential but not sufficient ingredient in doing this well. Bear with me...
  10. The only mode I use consistently is the "bridge" mode on my amplifier. ;) Other than that they never cross my mind. Then again, I think in patterns and rarely ever consider what the actual notes I'm playing are.
  11. BassyBill

    BassyBill The smooth moderator... Gold Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2005
    West Midlands UK
    I spent quite a bit of time and effort on the thread linked here and apparently some learners found it useful. I promised - and failed - to go back to it and take it further. My apologies, constraints on my time got the better of me. But I still think that it's helpful, as far as it goes. Please read it and take note of the caveats I've included about this topic, as the thread is certainly not intended as a "magic wand" - it's more just to satisfy the curious.

  12. Modes are pointless? I've read some rubbish on here from time to time, but that takes the cake.
  13. Well I disagree. Those other modalities are *inherent* in major tonality. They are based on, and derived from, the major scale, and I see all of those modes as part and parcel to that tonality.

    The important part of my post, which you ignored in a race to "be right", is that one needs to actually play them and hear them on your bass (and also a piano, if you have one), and you will start to see that it isn't really that hard. Provided you have a really firm grasp on the major scale (Ionian mode) and building triads from scales.
  14. allexcosta


    Apr 7, 2004
    Best explanation so far...
    Modes are a fascinating and infinite way of creating different musical atmospheres...
  15. IMHO modes are for the solo instrument.
    Chord tones are for the accompaniment instrument.

    As most of us play chord tones when accompanying and only go to modes when we get a lead break......

    Are you getting lead breaks? If so work on modes, if not, wait until you do.

    Of course IMHO.
  16. It seems you took this personally. it wasn't. There was no "race to be right." There was only the attempt to get the best possible handle on this stuff.

    Of course you need to play the modes. i thought that was obvious enough, and correct enough, not to need further comment.

    The point is, though, that if you play them, how are you doing it, what do you expect to hear, and how are you putting that all in perspective for yourself?

    If it's just the same old play C ionian over Cmaj7, play D dorian over Dm7, play G mixolydian over G7, then I really do feel that's not productive, because it provides absolutely no additional explanatory power beyond what you already get by understanding what it means to have harmonic function in C major. That was my point.
  17. Pointless as they are often conventionally explained. NOT at all pointless when used and understood properly.
  18. I'm sorry, but I have to disagree 100% here. Bach is not about modes at all. If anything, he's the poster boy for functional harmony. Of course I haven't heard everything he ever wrote. (Somebody must have, but I sure haven't.) But I can't think of a single instance where I can remember him composing modally.

    Take his chorales for example--textbook instances of 4-part contrapuntal writing, often studied because they're clear and relatively simple. I can't think of one thing in those works that makes use of modes in any real sense, that requires modes for an explanation, or that benefits from adding modes to the analysis. Everything in them is explicable--fully and accurately--in terms of conventional functional harmony. This is just as true of those larger works of his with which I'm familiar. Shoot, Bach was one of the guys on whom Western conventional harmony was built! He's about the last guy you could claim as a modal composer.
  19. MikeBC


    Oct 28, 2009
    Thanks Bill. I think that is useful info for any level player.
  20. Many posters here probably aren't old enough to remember the TV series Leonard Bernstein used to do for "young people." I, unfortunately, am. I remember watching a bunch of these when I was young, and some of them were pretty hip.

    Anyway, here's one that touches on this topic:

    Leonard Bernstein -- Young People's Concerts

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