We don't play scales, we play music. The notes we play and the order is based on sound and emotion. Then why is it that if the notes are the same for all of the derived modes, why do we need modes?

Mode A = abcdefg
Mode b -bcdefga

Does it really matter?

Or does it really only matter if we are trying to harmonize a progression? In other words a context other than the melody we are playing?

I've never understood this

  • possible duplicate of What are modes and how are they useful?
    – Dom
    Jul 7 '14 at 12:46
  • 6
    Modes, like all music theory, are there to describe things people are already doing. They were not invented to give people new things to do. Jul 7 '14 at 16:47
  • I've never understood this : Your ears should certainly understand it: Does the scale A-B-C-D-E-F-G sound the same to you as the scale B-C-D-E-F-G-A ? How will it sound if you play the scale B-C-D-E-F-G-A over a piece of music built on the scale A-B-C-D-E-F-G ? Try these two experiments and your question will be answered. Or try this: On has the same letters as No - are they the same word?
    – Stinkfoot
    Jan 9 '18 at 17:39

Modes and scales are just a way of ordering a series of notes. A bit like there's an order for letters - alphabet - but those letters never get used in that order (apart from the word 'no'...).

A song in a particular mode will be based around a particular note. As in, that note feels like home, often a start place, and usually a finish place in a journey.

It's not only that, though. The underlying harmonies are mostly what define which mode/scale a piece is in. Simple example : using the three major chords from your idea of C Ionian (major),CEG, FAC and GBD, most tunes over the top of those chords, in whatever order, but obviously fitting, will give that 'happy' feel. Use instead ACE, DFA and EGB,and the feel will be 'sad'for the want of a better term.Now, it's in A natural minor, or Aeoian mode.

Try using DFA and GBD only. A melody over this will maybe centre around D, and it's in D Dorian.

Not a question of needing them - they exist, and humans like to put things in boxes. It's been said before, the theory exists to explain what happens, not vice versa.


It's important to understand that mode doesn't have to be, and often isn't, an explicit choice. You wrote:

The notes we play and the order is based on sound and emotion.

and that's true enough, but—if you've mostly written notes from a single western key and are writing in a more or less traditional style—then the way you've used those notes will be in a mode whether you intended it or not. One of the notes will almost certainly be the primary resting note, that's the tonic of the mode. You will generally lead to that note from a note that is a half- or whole-step above or below. Approaching from the half step below implies that you're probably in Ionian or Lydian. Half-step above implies Phrygian or Locrian. Etc.

Every mode has unique relationships between the scale degrees. Only one mode has a lowered second scale degree and a diminished fifth scale degree above the tonic. Only one mode has a half-step below the fifth and first scale degrees. It's silly to say that any particular relationship is "happy" or "sad", because both music and human emotions are more complex and variegated than that, but a composer will generally learn that certain modes work better for some kinds of pieces. They'll have favorites and least favorites, ones that are comfortable, ones they find challenging—and thus they sometimes will start by deciding what mode to use before writing—but generally the music will be in a mode regardless.

Of course, it's worth noting that there's no law that says you have to use any modes. You can use all 12 notes equally, you can use microtones, you can compose using only 5 different pitches. Modes can be a convenient framing tool, and most western composers and song-writers tend to write using them, both on purpose and coincidentally, but plenty of us ignore them entirely.

EDIT TO ADD: I realize that I had left out another important aspect of modal composition. Due to the way composers tend to use a certain set of scale degrees as relatively stable (in most cases the 1st, 3rd and 5th scale degrees primarily), and the tendency for half-step melodic motion to have more urgency when leading to another tone, different modes have different "gravitational" direction and strength. Lydian has a marked tendency toward upward melodic moment, while Locrian tends to have a very strong pull downwards. Dorian, by contrast, tends to not feel a super strong pull in either direction. To be sure, no composer has to follow these tendencies, and we will exploit or not exploit them in whatever way that fits the material, but the gravity is there nevertheless.

  • Most people interpret certain relationships between notes as happy, sad, or other emotions, though, and usually there's a decent consensus on which one it is, especially in specific areas of the world. Like I don't think I've ever heard a Locrian song that I thought sounded happy, and pretty much anywhere you go, a major third will be considered happy-sounding. That being said, people accustomed to western music will think that gaps and minor seconds in scales sound exotic, but people used to them will just think they sound normal.
    – Musicguy
    Jul 7 '14 at 16:37
  • 1
    I think you are vastly underestimating the amount of variation between cultures. But at any rate, my objection is to the idea that something is either happy or sad—a massive oversimplification of the range and complexity of emotions that music can evoke. I'd probably agree with you that I haven't heard a Locrian tune that sounded happy to me personally, but I've heard plenty that didn't sound sad. The interval idea that M3=happy and m3=sad is patently absurd and ignores the enormous impact of context. I've written many pieces with M3rds that no one would call happy. Jul 8 '14 at 13:16
  • I'm more using happy and sad as a simplification of the idea, though. Lydian can provoke a magical feeling, a distressed feeling, etc. depending on whether choose you resolve the augmented fourth, and Locrian can have an angry/demonic/etc. feeling, but each relationship does usually have a feeling or two associated with it. I'm assuming those songs didn't just have major thirds in them. With each note it can become more nuanced, but that varies as well. But still, composers usually consider the emotion of the relationships when writing a song, and definitely more than the direction they lead.
    – Musicguy
    Jul 9 '14 at 0:25

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