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(This is my first post in this community, I tried to search an answer about that basic question but it's not easy, so sorry if it is a duplicate)

Since the C Dorian scale contains the following notes:

C D D# F G A A#

And the D Phrygian contains:

D D# F G A A# C

And thus bacially the same notes. How is it possible to say about a track that is has been written in C Dorian or in D Phrygian ? More generally, how is it possible to say about a track it is in written in a particular mode without naming any key.

I ask that question because on this Wikipedia page you can find a sentence like:

Björk's "Army of Me" is a rare example of a pop song whose verse is written in the Locrian mode.

And I don't understand how it has been determined.

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  • Pretty sure something largely equivalent has been asked before. Jun 4, 2021 at 23:27
  • Hmm, I don't hear Army of Me in C Locrian; I hear it in Bb minor, with a lot of emphasis on the 2nd degree.
    – JW.
    Jun 5, 2021 at 1:58
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    D# needs to be called Eb, and A# needs to be called Bb. That way, there's one of each letter name - a convention nearly as old as written music.
    – Tim
    Jun 5, 2021 at 5:23
  • Personal example: I wrote a song a few months ago that I originally thought was in E dorian, but looking at it afterwards, I realised that it was more accurate to say that it was in B minor. The 'b' tone sounds like 'home' whereas the 'e' sounds like 'going away from home'. To distinguish between two modes that use the same notes, one has to establish what sounds like 'home', or in musical terms, the tonic. Jun 5, 2021 at 10:34

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How is it possible to say about a track that is has been written in C Dorian or in D Phrygian

You are the judge! If after hearing it you feel that C is the home note, then for you it is in C Dorian. If you feel that D is the home note, then for you it is in D Phrygian. You feel it, you don't calculate it.

Saying that something is "written in" a mode gives the impression that as long as you use the right tool, you're guaranteed to succeed and produce the result that was printed on the tool's packaging. But it is entirely possible to use the notes of the D Phrygian mode in such a way that G ends up being felt as the tonic, for example. And then it would be in G Aeolian from the perspective of those listeners. It's not what you use, it's how you use it.

You can often move the tonic and thus change the mode by simply playing a different, loud, bass note. Rhythmic placement of "one" can affect the interpretation of notes as well. In the right circumstances, even a drummer can change the mode! See this answer: Why do modes sound so different, although they are basically the same as a mode of another scale?

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A piece in Dorian will emphasize the sixth and seventh notes of the scale, because these are what distinguish it from other modes.

A piece in Phrygian will emphasize the second note of the scale, because that is what distinguishes it from other modes.

In general, a mode has a characteristic sound, which is determined by a set of intervals that differentiate it from other, otherwise similar modes. Locrian, for example, will emphasize its fifth note, which forms a unique interval (against the key note) not occurring in other modes.

So recognizing that unique, characteristic sound is how one knows the mode (or by analyzing a score).

The mode is independent of the key. The key just indicates the pitch considered to be the "resting point" of the music.

THUS:

C Dorian sounds different from D Phygian, because Dorian will emphasize the sound of the A-Bb part of the scale; whereas D Phrygian will emphasize the D-Eb part of the scale.

In the Bjork sound, Locrian is recognized because, given its "resting pitch", the other notes used form a Locrian scale.

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  • allright, could you develop a bit more that notion of "emphase" of those notes. This is because they are more present in regards to the other notes of the scale or because they are used on the strong beat of the bar? (I'm a french native speaker, not sure if I use the right terms)
    – snoob dogg
    Jun 4, 2021 at 23:34
  • @snoobdogg You have the right idea. Those notes will be used frequently, in prominent places in the music. That could be on strong beats, but it could also be at important emotional moments — any part of the music that might call attention to their unique sound.
    – Aaron
    Jun 5, 2021 at 0:23
  • I feel like this is put backwards. Emphasizing characteristic tones is a possible technique to establish the feeling of given scale or mode, but to know what feeling we have about the tonality we need to... feel it. So you answered a question about some of the techniques that Bjork has used to achieve given result, not how do we recognize what the result is. Jun 5, 2021 at 2:04
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    @snoobdogg the notes being emphasized are a secondary consideration. The primary consideration is the home note. It's entirely possible to have a piece in C Dorian that emphasizes E flat, and it's entirely possible to have a piece in D Phrygian that emphasizes A and and B flat.
    – phoog
    Jun 5, 2021 at 18:43
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I think this is one of the places where you could actually argue that music theory is just theory, because you can decide how you choose to analyze it, and there's no way to prove that either method is better. You could look at, "Which chord is the root of the chord progression in this music," but then you might find a song like Viva La Vida, where I personally feel it isn't the first chord of the progression, but there isn't any way to "prove" that.

The hard part is that people will feel the music in a certain way. They will subconsciously analyze it in a more advanced, organic way than we ever could. So I would argue that some songs are definitively one, and not the other, because they feel like they are one, and not the other. An easy way to check this is by playing one of the scales (to set a context in your head) and then listening to the song. Does the song seem to fit more in one context than the other?

TL;DR Mechanically, you can't prove any difference between the two, but when people hear the music, their subconscious will likely interpret it as being in a certain scale, simply because the song "feels" that way in a way that we can't definitely define.

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  • I don't think your points here hold up. There's nothing in music theory to suggest that the first chord of a progression is, or should be, the root chord. Further, the whole point of music theory is to explain why people tend to hear music in a certain way.
    – Aaron
    Jun 5, 2021 at 22:21

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