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How can I learn to "hear" modes in music? I feel like I have not developed my modal hearing sufficiently, and everything just sounds major or minor to me. Perhaps it's the genre of music I listen to (mostly video game, Japanese, some pop and EDM) that limits me? For example, if I hear a sharp 6 (or multiple) in a minor piece, do I think melodic minor or Dorian?

Before even that - am I just not hearing modes, or are they really not there in the kind of music I listen to? Example from real life: Jane Doe has no musical training. When I tell her to listen for the alto voice in a four part harmony, she can't hear it. I don't blame her - it is very difficult, almost nonexistent, to the untrained ear. Is it the same with me and modes, and if so, how can I improve?

  • Sharp 6 appears in melodic minor, not harmonic minor. – Dekkadeci Aug 12 '17 at 14:22
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As you are a piano player and you are able to identify major and minor scales I would start from there as follows:

Ionian (1 2 3 4 5 6 7)
Lydian (1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7)
Mixolydian (1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7)

start playing the Ionian scale (in a key you are comfortable with), listen to it, then play the Lydian scale emphasizing the #4 switch back and forth between those scales and concentrate on listening to the difference it makes playing 4 and ♯4. Listen carefully also to the difference it makes when playing the scale up or down. The 4th in the Ionian scale tends to go to the 3rd, while the ♯4th in the Lydian scale tends to go to the 5th. Then compare the Ionian scale with the Mixolydian, mind the 7 and ♭7, listen to the difference.

Then start from the aeolian, the minor scale you know and compare; (also in a key you are comfortable with):

Aeolian (1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7)
Dorian (1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 ♭7)
Phrygian (1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 b7)
Locrian (1 ♭2 ♭3 4 ♭5 ♭6 b7)

On the Dorian Scale mind the difference the major 6th makes.
On the Phrygian mind the difference the minor 2ond makes.
On the Locrian mind the difference the flat 5th makes.

Then also compare Phrygian and Locrian and so on.

Good practice is to do this exercises all in one key, since it is easier to spot the characteristics the different modes have.

It also might be a good practice to sing along with the scales while you play them.

  • That is a good way to start. I sing while I play them on the piano and I also practice singing modes in my free time. – reincarnationofstackexchange Aug 12 '17 at 17:51
  • Is modal music found predominantly in non-Western music? A lot of the times when I listen to non-Western music I get the feeling I am hearing a mode, but I am never sure. Any suggestions on what to listen to? – reincarnationofstackexchange Aug 12 '17 at 17:51
  • I would recommend to listen to Miles Davis. – nath Aug 13 '17 at 13:22
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I usually recommend to my students that they practice modes in all keys. I have them start with C Major, then C Dorian progressing through Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and finally Locrian; all in the key of C. I also have them go through the modes of Melodic Minor Ascending, Three Symmetrical Scales, Two modes of Harmonic Minor and the Major and Minor Pentatonic and finally the Blues scale. Lately I've also added in the modes of Harmonic Major. It is important to practice all these scales because they are the modes that are most often needed when improvising over chord changes.

Back to the modes of major. If you are only interested in the (Ionian) modes, then I would play all of them in C, then move cycle 5 through the keys:

C,F,Bb,Eb,Ab,Db,Gb,B,E,A,D,G

I would also recommend using a Metrodrone or some type of constantly repeating low note so that you hear all of these modes in the correct key center. For instance, if you play a G Mixolydian scale without a drone it can easily start to sound like C Major. You want to train your brain, ears and hands the right way; to "think the way you hear."

I would also recommend learning each scale, then applying the scale to a real-life musical situation such as using a jam track. This will help you make music out of the scale and will also help you to remember it better.

There are a few other things to learn about each scale.

  • Which chord is each scale most often used over.
  • What are the avoid note(s) in the mode.
  • What are the available tensions in the scale when placed over a chord.
  • What are the characteristic notes of the scale when used in a "modal" setting.

Once you have all of the information you are ready to apply the scales in appropriate situations.

Hope that helps

Warm Regards,

Bruce Arnold

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