At least for Western music of the past 300 years, it has been far more common for music to have major or minor scales as their basis of harmony, as opposed to a modal harmony. Is there a reason modal harmonies (other than aeolian or ionian) are not used more often?

  • I'd like to mention that the way you frame this question seems a little inaccurate. When we look at music from about 1960 and beyond, we start to see a huge amount of modal music, whether that comes from Jazz or Classical or Rock or anywhere else. I understand where your question comes from, as it was quite standard to compose within a Functional Harmony (Major/Minor), but I think it's important to keep in mind that Modal Harmony has played a huge role in modern music. And statistically a lot more music has been created since 1960 than before, so the actual numbers might even out. – Basstickler Jan 6 '16 at 15:28
  • @Basstickler You're right: I was largely thinking about the Baroque through Romantic eras and completely spaced on jazz and other genres that aren't often discussed in theory classes. – cjm Jan 6 '16 at 19:42
  • @cjm - I was thinking it was most likely that this was your perspective but I tend to be nit picky, especially since this site is ultimately intended to be a reference for others with the same questions, so I tend to throw out things like that so that if any random person stumbles across it, they may have a little clarification or additional perspective. Don't mind me and my semantics! – Basstickler Jan 6 '16 at 20:16

Well, harmonies cannot help being mostly major and minor. If you take a look at simple chords, there is C-E-G, F-A-C, G-B-D in the major category, D-F-A, E-G-B, A-C-E in the minor category and B-D-F as a diminuished chord. Of course, these chords can occur in the context of any church mode as well, but the chords as such fall into two categories.

A mode is only established in the context of chord patterns. Minor is actually the revolutionary here since its modifications (harmonic/melodic minor) fall outside of the church modalities and thus lead to a much stronger and less ambiguous focus on the tonic.

So Minor's modifications make it special from other modes, and the modifications are mostly borrowed from Major mode, making the two one pair working with related cadenze which are essentially tonic-leading chord sequences.

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