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There is a general principle used to describe the intensity of a mode. The more flat notes there are in the formula of the mode, the darker it sounds. So the Locrian scale is the saddest/darkest mode, because it has 5 flats: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7.

Then how can for example A Locrian sound dark and sad, but it has the same key signature as Bb major? Major keys are the same as the Ionian mode, and the Ionian mode has no sharps and flats in the formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. So the major key sounds happy and bright. So if the tonic is A, it sounds sad, but if the tonic is Bb it suddenly sounds bright and happy? How is this possible ?

An easier example : C Major and A Minor.

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It's all about context and emphasis. When we say that something is in a particular key or mode, we are describing what sounds like the home or most important note. So the reason we would say we're in C major instead of B locrian is that the emphasis is placed on C and everything is compared to that. When we look at keys/modes, we can look at how the other notes within the mode sound compared to the root. The flat scale degrees are more dissonant when played with the root than would be the natural/major scale degrees found in a major mode.

You can also consider this in terms of chords. It may be easier to recognize that the combination of some notes sounds more bright/consonant or dark/dissonant. If you take those chords and consider a scale/mode that goes with them, then consider that being your tonic, you should be able to see how that set of notes, within the context of that chord, sounds more dissonant than the same set of notes against a major chord derived from them.

So it's all about context. You have to consider what is happening in the music and what is the focal point of the melody and harmony.

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    @Stallmp - Glad to provide some insight for you. I'd also point out that there are other modes, some of which you may think of as darker, that don't come from the notes of the major scale. Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor modes are pretty fun and some are quite dark sounding. – Basstickler Jan 11 '18 at 16:55
  • Arent harmonic and melodic minor scales brighter than the natural minor scale, since it lowers less notes than the natural minor scale? – Stallmp Jan 11 '18 at 17:43
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    Yes and no. If you look at them as modes, you will see that not all of them are brighter. For instance, the altered scale, which is built off of the 7th degree of ascending melodic minor, is very dissonant. This would also be an example of flat scale degrees not necessarily being the key factor in determining dissonance. – Basstickler Jan 11 '18 at 18:09
  • Great answer, +1! I'm used to thinking about darkness/brightness of a scale in terms of color (e.g., A major is brighter and Db major is darker). Does dissonance also translate into that type of darkness vs. brightness? Or are you more thinking more about "happy" and "sad"? – jdjazz Jan 12 '18 at 0:40
  • @jdjazz - It's a little subjective when you start talking about "brightness" and "darkness", in the same way that "happy" and "sad" are very subjective. People tend to say major is happy and minor is sad but it's fairly easy to find examples of that not being the case, even just playing a major 7 chord compared to a minor 7 chord changes that a bit for me. I don't tend to find that particular keys are brighter or darker inherently but you can find some tendencies based on the instruments playing them. – Basstickler Jan 12 '18 at 19:23
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Every mode shares a key signature and a pitch set with some major key. But the different 'tonic' gives its scale a different colour, as you state. That's the whole POINT of modes!

  • Thank you for this. There's really nothing more to say here. – Stinkfoot Jan 12 '18 at 17:44

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