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the myth of modes

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by HandsFree, Jan 15, 2016.

  1. HandsFree


    Dec 23, 2015
    Here's a confession.
    I have in the past spent quite some time learning music theory and most of it has been very benificial, but I have never ever seen any use in the concept of modes. And yes, I play jazz(y) music primarily.

    In my view the whole mode thing is a big misunderstanding (yeah, I like a small dose of provocation, now and then :blackeye:).
    Say a song is in the key of G major and at some point you have a D7 chord.
    Now I've heard teachers pointing out that the D mixolydian scale would be in order there.
    Sure, when improvising a bass line you would use a c rather than a c# there. But that is because D7 has a c in it. And that is because you're in the key of G. The mere fact that Gregorian chant has used a mode were whole and half steps occured similarly is completely irrelevant.
    And also, in a D mixolydian mode, the tonic would be D, not G.

    In classical music this occurs all the time. In a Mozart sonata you may find a scale d-e-f#-g-a-b-c-d running up and down over a D dominant 7 chord (D7) and nobody will say that Mozart used the mixolydian church mode there. Because he didn't. He used the tones that were applicable to the key he was working in.
    Using scales in pop or jazz music isn't any different.

    Of course a D7 chord may appear in other keys than G major, and it can be interesting to analyze that, but when I am reading from a chord chart and see a dominant 7 chord, I just use the appropriate tones to that chord, including a minor 7th.
    Again, the whole notion that a church mode existed with a shifted tonic doesn't come into play.

    Also note that D mixolydian is not G major played from the 5th tone. That's just a memory aid. It's not like the ionian mode was the mother of all and the rest was derived from that.

    Well anyway, I know most don't agree, but I strongly feel that studying modes in pop/rock music is clouding the vision of how chords function in a tonal (not modal) context.
    Songs exist that are based on true modality but they are a minority and in my view don't justify the extreme focus modes receive in music teaching.

    Feel free to disagree, obviously. :whistle:
  2. MontzterMash

    MontzterMash Supporting Member

    Dec 6, 2010
    agree :)
  3. seang15


    Aug 28, 2008
    Cary NC
    Well stated.
  4. Whousedtoplay


    May 18, 2013
    I'm not a specialist, but here is my opinion.
    When you play any notes from the scale C major - you are already playing the MODES.
    Those modes just COME WITH THE TERRITORY.

    In short, if you play C D E F G A B C - the C major scale, somebody could "accuse" you of playing Ionian Mode on C.
    If you decide to start with D and go up E F G A B C D - you would be playing the same C major scale notes but some TB member could inform you that it's the Dorian mode of D.
  5. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    A thought provoking post, and I generally agree with what you are saying. For example "Amazing Grace" starts on the 5, but it would be a mistake to say it is in "mixolydian mode." I get that.

    The only flaw with what you are pointing out, is that a large percentage of guitarists think in terms of modes. I would say maybe 50% or more of my guitar-playing friends think in terms of modes when they compose, improvise, or solo.

    If I am playing a song that was written by a guitarist, and the guitarist had modes in his head when he was writing the song, then in fact modes are an excellent tool for me to have in my musical toolbox, so that I can understand what the guitarist is trying to communicate musically. We can argue until the cows come home about whether or not that guitarist "should" be thinking in modes, but I've never had much luck arguing with an opinionated guitarist.

    At the end of the day I just keep that smug expression on my face, like "of course I understand chord tones and tonal harmony; I'm a bassist!" and give the mode-slinging guitarist a patronizing pat on the shoulder when I say things like, "G blues jam! That's G mixolydian for you, Bob."
  6. Whousedtoplay


    May 18, 2013
    With all my respect, when you play ANY scale, you are already playing some kind of mode.
  7. yodedude2

    yodedude2 Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2005
    san antonio, texas
    isn't it somewhat like writing in cursive or writing in print, i.e. just a different way to put letters and words and ideas onto paper?
    RoeyHaviv, lomo, Bluebard and 5 others like this.
  8. rufus.K


    Oct 18, 2015
    Glad to finally know that all of those thousands of people before this revelation were part of a great misunderstanding. You'll be famous for this.
    Geri O, Bassist4Eris, lomo and 7 others like this.
  9. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    I am familiar with the line of thought that "the major scale is the Ionian mode" but I've never been able to come up with a test that can be used to settle that debate one way or the other.
  10. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    I would look at the context. If the song uses tonal harmony and structure then I would say it is "C major." If the harmony is droning or modal counterpoint then it might be more accurate of the composer's intent to say "C Ionian."

    But there is no test that I'm aware of to prove the negative case. You could say "Mary Had a Little Lamb uses Ionian mode" and I wouldn't know what to say to you to prove that it is major scale.
    HandsFree and Whousedtoplay like this.
  11. Michael B

    Michael B

    Dec 16, 2015
    Lowell, MA
    Keyboardists would also disagree. It's not the note you start on its the note you imply, or target.
    hintz, Max Blasto and rufus.K like this.
  12. Woolber

    Woolber Supporting Member

    Sep 27, 2013
    I take it you were a history major also. How do you know what Mozart was thinking.

    Having studied Modal Composition, I disagree with your broad scope assessment. There are times where the mode is the diatonic scale. I know it can make for good discussion ( well, discussion at least ) but general hypotheses such as yours ( which abound on TB ) bring to mind the adage "to the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

    That being said, I will go back to my core belief however. The art came first and then it was analyzed, conventions were revealed, those now became rules (modes, scales, brush strokes, colors, etc) to replicate and understand said art form.
  13. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    So, what mode is "Amazing Grace"?
  14. tfer


    Jan 1, 2014
    In the most basic terms, you are correct. The D7 chord notation tells you the notes that are available to you, but what happens when an Amin chord appears? Most people without knowledge of modes may assume that up the scale is Aeolian, but if you were to play that, you'd be wrong. Same with Bmin.

    If you played Cmaj7 as Ionian rather than Lydian, you'd lose all the color that the tritone provides.

    If all you are asked to play are chord tones, then sure - ignore the modes, but those modes provide color with the diatonic tones that are available.
  15. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    No knowledgeable musician would look at an Amin-D7 progression and assume "the scale is Aeolian." And the reason why has nothing to do with modes. ;)
    bfields likes this.
  16. tfer


    Jan 1, 2014
    Then, that hypothetical knowledgable musician understands modes...
  17. Mushroo

    Mushroo Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2007
    Massachusetts, USA
    ii-V7-I is one of the most common chord progressions. You don't have to understand modes to know what a ii-V is.

    I understand there are musicians who probably think "A Dorian, D Mixolydian, G Ionian" when they play this progression. Good for them! :)
  18. Lowness

    Lowness Banned

    Mar 13, 2015
    Healdsburg, CA
    I understand modes and I don't know what the fuss is: they are logical and useful.

    You are complicating something whose purpose is not complicated.
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2016
  19. Ric5

    Ric5 Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    I also don't find any practical use for modes ...
  20. tfer


    Jan 1, 2014
    The names of the modes don't matter, but the concept of them, and how each of the 7 scales resolve is VERY important. Understanding that the minor ii scale has a raised 6th, means you understand modes.

    Yes, a ii-V7-I is very common, but how about a iii-iv-ii-V7-I? Without understanding how modes work (again, whatever you call the scales is irrelevant) you are limited to chord tones. If you know which scale tones are available, and how to resolve them, you understand the concept.

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