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“Mode” can be defined as the arrangement of notes within a musical scale – the sequence of whole tones and half tones within an octave. In ancient times, both Plato and Aristotle believed that music that had been composed in different modes would cause listeners to feel different emotions. Later, in the 6th century, a Roman philosopher/theorist named Boethius attempted to reconstruct what those Greek modes were. Then a few centuries after that, early church musicians used the modes identified by Boethius to define modes that could be used to write Christian liturgical music.
Different scale intervals (modes) create different moods? That sounds iffy until you learn that two modes still survive today, and that you know them quite well. One is the Ionian Mode (also known as the major scale) and the other is the Aeolian Mode (also known as the minor scale). 
In common perception, the major scale is thought to be “happy” and the minor scale is thought to be “sad.” Those are pretty subjective perceptions, but I think you agree that they have some basis in truth. So were Plato and Aristotle right when they observed that different modal scales create different moods? Looks that way to me.
Music You Have Heard in Ionian (Major Keys) and Aeolian (Minor Keys) Modes
Because there is so much music written in major and minor keys, you might think that I am pretty dopey to provide some examples of familiar music that is composed in them.  But because such examples can let you quickly hear the difference between major and minor, here I go anyway.

  • Familiar melodies in major keys: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “O Canada,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (the Beatles) “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Joy to the World.”
  • Familiar melodies in minor keys:  The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “We Can Work it Out” (the Beatles), “Autumn Leaves.”
In the Phrygian Mode and Mood

Let’s listen to a bona fide piece of ancient Greek music, the famous “Skolion of Seikelos,” a song composed in the Phrygian mode. One of the earliest examples of notated music, it was inscribed on a 1st century Greek tombstone that was found in Turkey. The words, roughly translated, mean “Life is short, so be happy.”

In The Republic, Plato wrote that the Phrygian mode is appropriate for sober contemplation. What do you think?




Digging Deeper into Modal Knowledge
What is the quickest and easiest way to understand the structures of modes? Here is a video that does a pretty good job of explaining them:



But to take the explanation one level deeper, let’s look at the way that the modal scales are built within a span of one octave, going from the lowest note to the highest:
  •  Ionian – (Today’s major scale) is made up of one Whole Tone (W), One Whole Tone (W), one Half Tone (H), one Whole Tone (W), one Whole Tone (W), One Whole Tone (W), and one Half Tone (H). To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from middle C up, without any sharps or flats.
  • Dorian – This scale is made up of W-H-W-W-W-H-W. To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from D, without any sharps or flats.
  • Phrygian – This scale is made up of H-W-W-W-H-W-W. To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from E, without any sharps or flats.
  • Lydian – This scale is made up of W-W-W-H-W-W-H. To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from D, without any sharps or flats.
  • Mixolydian – This scale is made up of W-W-H-W-W-H-W. To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from G, without any sharps or flats.
  • Aeolian – (Today’s natural minor scale) is made up of -H-W-W-H-W-W. To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from A, without any sharps or flats.
  • Lochrian – This scale is made up of H-W-W-H-W-W-W. To play this mode on a piano, play a one-octave scale upwards from B to B, without any sharps or flats. 
Common Modifications of the Aeolian (Minor) Scale
In compositional practice of the Baroque and Classical periods, it became customary to make several modifications within the minor scale. These modifications “stuck” and are still used today in composing both classical and popular music.
I’m assuming that most readers of today’s post have not studied music theory, so I will keep the explanations simple:
  • The harmonic minor scale – Raising the 7th degree of the minor scale by a half tone became customary, in order to give the scale the half-step leading tone that provided more oomph when the dominant chord in the scale (V) resolved to the tonic (I).
  • The ascending and descending melodic minor scales – To please the ears of composers and listeners, some aspects of the major scale have been “borrowed” and used when writing melodies in minor keys.  Specifically, it became customary to raise both the sixth and seventh notes of a minor scale by one semitone when a melody is going up (ascending), but flatten those notes when a melody is going down (descending).

In future posts, I’ll be exploring more topics that have helped me understand why music sounds like music. If you’ve enjoyed today’s post, I hope you will favorite me and check back often.