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I've been learning and experimenting with modes only recently, despite having played guitar for almost 11 years. In the past, I would use a "no-holds-barred, free-for-all" approach to writing riffs, and my instinct would tell me where to end the riff, or where the so-called 'home' note is.

Now, looking into the harmonic minor scale, I play E Locrian 13 (ascending-then-descending), the first mode of D harmonic minor: 1(E)-b2-b3-4-b5-6-b7. Even when I play it over a bass note backing track (E, E-octave), my head automatically fills in that I have to end my playing on Dm or D5 in order to achieve 'finality'. This also happens to me with other modes of this scale.

When I play E Super locrian bb7 (7th mode of F harmonic minor), ending on E feels very uncomfortable. Moreover, if I linger on F or its octave for more than a second, I cannot 'unsee' or unhear the apparent home note of F even with a backing track constantly playing E-E. I don't have this problem between natural minor and major.

Why does this happen? How can my head possibly know where the 'home' note is if I'm playing with a backing track on a different note? How am I instinctively reorienting a mode to the harmonic minor scale despite having no knowledge of modes till very recently? Can I train to avoid this from happening during my playing?

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  • There are various reasons and answers, depending on physics and listening habits. But, the fact is: just because you "think" you're playing in locrian mode, doesn't mean that you are playing in that mode: without any surrounding harmonic context, that's just a scale mode. Consider a simpler example: playing A mixolydian chord/riff doesn't make the piece in A mixolidian. Our brains always try to make things simple by falling back on easier and well established schemes, and D (harmonic) minor is way more simpler than E locrian 13, also because it contains tensions that lead to that tonic. – musicamante Feb 28 at 12:32
  • @musicamente I think I agree with your last sentence. But I'm not sure what you mean by just because you "think" you're playing in locrian mode, doesn't mean that you are playing in that mode . Imo if I play all the notes of a mode (ascending then descending) over a bass note of that mode's first (E), then I should be playing in that mode. What other criterion has to be met for me to be truly playing in that mode? – Aditya Feb 28 at 12:45
  • You're playing in that mode in that moment, because in that moment the tonal reference is that chord/mode. If my song is in C major and I play chords C, A-, F, Bdim, I could say that I'm using Ionian, then Eolian, Lydian and Locrian respectively, but certainly I cannot say that I'm playing a piece that is in those four modes (and, probably, I couldn't even say that the piece is in any of the other three). UNLESS we're talking about modal harmony, in which instead you usually have a reference mode that is always used for most of its chords (see modal jazz), but that's another story. – musicamante Feb 28 at 13:07
  • @musicamante If I used a chord containing the defining notes of a particular mode, and then played a melody over that chord, would that mean I'm within that mode for the duration of that chord? – Aditya Feb 28 at 13:17
  • Isn't this the same phenomena that makes us drop immediately in to the relative major key if a song starts in Am minor and continues with Dm, G, C, F, then Bm-5, E, Am.??? – Albrecht Hügli Feb 28 at 13:38
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This is simply a manifestation of your sense of tonality.

This is quite natural and I dare say, a positive rather a negative trait for a musician.

When listening to any song, for example, be it in a major or minor key, we all have a subconscious sense of where is "home". Non-musicians have it, too, but they wouldn't be able to easily sing the root note, for example. Musicians have it to a much higher degree, of course, especially if they have done ear training.

Now, if it bothers you, it is simply a matter of learning to direct your attention where you want it.

It's like those images where you can either see the profile of two people facing each other (left and right), or a vase in the middle. The point is that your brain may be spontaneously drawn to primarily see only one or the other, but if you try to switch your attention back and forth between faces and vase, you'll see that you can easily see what you want to see, at will.

Something similar happens with music. There are always many things going on, and we can only focus on one at a time, or very few at a time. But if you practice paying attention to the different aspects of music at will (chords, intervals, relation to tonality, rhythmic issues, etc.) then it will not bother you, and it will rather be an asset that you can use at will.

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I tend to have a similar "problem" where I assign a piece to the minor key a perfect fourth above what others would perceive to be the piece's tonic because it sounds like the piece is soloing on the dominant (i.e. using a mode of the harmonic minor scale or a related scale such as the double harmonic scale). For example, I tend to assign most of "Wicked Thing" from the video game Bravely Default to the dominant of C sharp minor despite the tonic of those sections being G sharp.

I chalk this up personally to having assimilated so many pieces that my brain has found patterns between them, thus extracting keys from music based on proportions of notes used (e.g. for D minor, D and A are more often used than C, which is more often used than E flat, which is more often used than F sharp). It's possible that your brain similarly assigns tonics based on the most commonly used notes in the piece.

You can train to lessen the effect by listening to more pieces in unusual modes and that use unusual scales and/or chord progressions (e.g. less conventional heavy metal such as progressive metal or the extreme metal subgenres can be quite generous in this area), along with playing music that uses a mode but not the full scale of that mode (e.g. I came up with a E-D-E-B♭-E-D-E-F riff just now that could be in E Locrian or in the E Locrian 13 mode you mentioned).

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The mode is not primarily a scale! Modes are melodies that are in a specific mode. And to this definition belongs as quality the first and final note as well the repercussio or dominant note which defines also the mode as the 5th or 6th most repeated tone of the song. I've seen a TV documentation about the Beatles where the moderator says about She's leaving home is in Aeolian mode. But I'm sure that the refrain is in Ionian mode or simply said in a major key, while in the opening phrase we can hear that the Cello is responding in the Dorian mode.

What concerns the Locrian mode - which doesn't belong to the original Greek or Church modes and is only used in Jazz or maybe in 20th century music - it is almost logical that you drop into the relative Ionian mode because playing this scale (ti,do,re,mi ... with the other lead tone fa=tritone from the root tone) you hear the leading tones of the VII of the relative major key.

Test the other modes by starting and ending with the root note and repeating the 5th=repercussio:

e.g.:

Josua fit the battle of Jericho, or Stop this crazy thing : 1,2,3,4,555_,4,4,4_,5,5,5_

(In Phrygian the repercussio is the 6th)

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