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I am a self taught pianist that played purely by ear for most my life. Only recently have I journeyed into understanding music theory and man, I keep thinking how I should have done it a long time ago. My dilemma starts with modes though. I pretty much thought I understood how you create them... By starting with the major scale and changing certain degrees to a sharp or a flat...? When I wanted to brag about my knowledge to my guitarist friend, we went around in circles and argued intensely the matter. He argues that if you want to play a C Dorian for example, all you need to do is start from C and just change the starting point of your scale to start with D instead and that makes it a Dorian. I disagree with him because if you do that then you stay within the C major scale, you are just changing the starting point and that defeats the purpose of a mode... With my understanding, and I could be wrong granted I did 100% learn everything I know on my own, is that you take the C major scale for example and flat the third and also the seventh degree as to basically get a minor or whichever mode you choose... So you change the scale to make it sound darker or whatever. In his opinion you just play it on from the second degree and booom you are is Dorian, play it from the third degree and you are in Phrygian. Now I get that and this is a cool way to understand modes but stay with the same root. Please help me understand better or please tell me I'm right otherwise it's back to the drawing board for me...

Thanks guys 𝄞

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    If you want to play C Dorian, take a C major scale and flat the third and seventh scale degrees; if you want to play D dorian, take a C major scale and start from the D. Same difference: C Dorian is Bb major played from the C; D Dorian is D major with flatted third and seventh degrees. Play a C major scale starting from D over a D drone to hear the sound of D Dorian; the difference is the tonal center. – ex nihilo Feb 24 '19 at 5:58
  • I understand that but as my friend argued that all you need to do to change the C major scale to a C Dorian is to simply start your scale with D. But then I am no longer playing a C Dorian but a D Dorian... That is the point I am trying to make is that I want to change the way my melody sounds on my right hand but still use the same chord. By simply changing the starting point doesn't change the way your melody sounds if you stil play the same chord on the left. – Kabous Pieterse Feb 24 '19 at 6:11
  • It sounds like you've got it; if your friend is saying that playing the C major scale from D makes it C Dorian, then they are wrong. But, this is a common mistake with learners, and I seem to remember several question on this site about this very misunderstanding. – ex nihilo Feb 24 '19 at 6:23
  • Thanks David, I really appreciate your input and time on this. I knew I was right about this. 𝄞Cheers for now – Kabous Pieterse Feb 24 '19 at 6:29
  • are you sure that you are talking about the same thing? I assume that you actually want to transpose to another key: D major or E major. Indeed I have never heard that someone wanted to transpose into another mode, exepted i.g. a motive or phrase that is repeated a second or third higher. Iimitation) .But if it is for describing the modes it's like your friend says: all the modes of C have the same tones of the ionic scale of C. But each mode has another root regarding the scale it is named. Do=ionian Re=Dorian Mi=Phrygian etc. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 24 '19 at 9:32
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all you need to do is start from C and just change the starting point of your scale to start with D instead and that makes it a Dorian.

Simplistically speaking, that's correct. If you take the notes in the C major scale and play them from D to D instead, that's D Dorian.

He argues that if you want to play a C Dorian for example, all you need to do is start from C and just change the starting point of your scale to start with D instead and that makes it a Dorian.

Well, that wouldn't be correct. As just mentioned, that gives you a D Dorian. (But is that actually what he said? :)

To get C Dorian, we'd have to start with the B♭ Major scale and play it from C to C.

But wouldn't D Dorian still only have the notes contained in C major? It doesn't make sense because it doesn't change the tone of the scale. It stays C Major just starting on D and ending on D.

The thing is, when you compose a piece in D Dorian, you're doing more than just 'starting' on D. You are making D the home note; you're making D minor the home chord; and you are making the listener hear every note in terms of its relationship to D. So it does change the whole mood and feeling.

Have a listen to some of the examples of Dorian songs given on Wikipedia. Drunken Sailor is as good a starting point as any. To me - and I suspect to most listeners - it doesn't sound anything like the mood you get from Major tonality.

I pretty much thought I understood how you create them... By starting with the major scale and changing certain degrees to a sharp or a flat...?

Yes, you can do it that way as well - you'll get the same thing.

To understand what C Dorian is in terms the major scale, you can think of it as:

  • B♭ Major played from C to C

OR

  • C Major with a flattened third and seventh

Either will give you C, D, E♭, F, G, A, B♭, C - The C Dorian mode.

However, when using the Dorian mode, you don't have to think of it in either of those ways. You can simply think of it as a scale pattern in its own right; Or as a natural minor scale with an unflattened sixth - whatever makes sense to you!

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  • The whole thing is I don't want to change my chord. So in staying with the C major chord, all I need to do is play the third flat and the seventh flat. This is just an example but the whole problem is, everyone is telling me to change the starting point... I don't want to do that. I want to stay with C as my chord but I want the melody to be something other than C D E F G and A. – Kabous Pieterse Feb 24 '19 at 10:42
  • I'm not quite sure what you mean by "I don't want to change my chord". If you play C major with the third flat, then your chord becomes C minor, so you are still changing your chord. Do you mean that you don't want to change your root note (C)? – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 24 '19 at 10:56
  • Yes, I don't want to change my root note to be able to play a different mode with my right hand something like C Lydian as an example or any other mode for that matter. In moving the root keeps it in the C major Scale. I want my root to be a C and with that, combine it with a mode that Wil give it a different flavor. So basically my left hand will play C G C for my first Chord in the progression, my right hand wil play something like the C Lydian however I feel like the order of those notes should be as long as I stick to C Lydian while jamming my C G C "power Chord" or what ever its called. A – Kabous Pieterse Feb 24 '19 at 12:03
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    @KabousPieterse -- "... or Phrygian 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 etc... This in my opinion is a much easier way ....": I think that it is critical that you be able to think about modes in this way if for no other reason than that it helps in understanding where the chord tones are in the mode. But fundamentally it is best to have multiple ways of thinking about musical concepts; if you can think about modes in both ways, you will find that sometimes one comes more naturally than the other. You can only get there by practicing both methods. – ex nihilo Feb 24 '19 at 14:13
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    @KabousPieterse you can certainly do it whichever way you find easiest. It is still good to know the relationships between the different modes though, just as it's good to know the relationship between relative minor and major keys - as seeing your music from these different perspectives gives you different avenues for making creative chord progressions. – topo Reinstate Monica Feb 24 '19 at 16:26
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There are two distinct ways to look at modes, as far as the notes are concerned. Your guitarist has slightly mixed them! There's also the confusing nomeclature - C Dorian is not the same as the Dorian of C.

Trying to simplify things, let's first take the seven modes of a parent key of C.

C Ionian D Dorian E Phrygian F Lydian G Mixolydian A Aeolian B Locrian

All use exactly the notes from the 'parent' key, C major, but each mode is centred around the letter name stated.

Put another way, if we played the C major scale notes, but started at D, and ended on a higher D, we'd be playing D Dorian - which is also known as the Dorian of C.

The other way of looking at all this is seeing how each mode differs from its parallel major, as various notes change according to the mode.

For example, C major has C D E F G A and B. however, C Lydian (which uses the notes from key G) will have the notes C D E F♯ G A and B. C Mixolydian (using key F notes) will thus be C D E F G A B♭.

I'm trying to simplify the process - one way or the other will suit you better, so it's maybe easier to stick with one way of looking at modes. He has almost got it right, but mixed up a factor or two. You seem to have understood it using my second idea, which works if you know each formula. For me, reverting to the parent key gives me the sharps/flats involved - and maybe is more logical, because, after all, the parent key is where the modes originated from.

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You're arguing the same thing.

If you look at D dorian you're starting from a D major scale: D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D, and you are then lowering the third and seventh to get: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D.

He's looking at a C scale starting from D, and getting exactly the same notes.

You view the modes as parallel to the major scale, and he's viewing them as relative to the major scale.

For what it's worth, I was taught the relative system, but if I do modal improvisation I use the parallel system, because it keeps me in the correct tonic.

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  • But wouldn't D Dorian still only have the notes contained in C major? It doesn't make sense because it doesn't change the tone of the scale. It stays C Major just starting on D and ending on D. – Kabous Pieterse Feb 24 '19 at 5:23
  • Yes, D Dorian has only the notes contained in C major. That's the relative view (and it's how modal theory began with Heinrich Glarean's book Dodekachordon in 1547). Both of you get to the same tones; neither of you is wrong – Tom Serb Feb 24 '19 at 5:28
  • Actually, the guitarist hasn't got it right. He said to get C Dorian, you take the C scale, but start on D. That doesn't give C Dorian, but D Dorian. (Or the Dorian of C, which is different.) Although what the OP quotes isn't crystal clear. – Tim Nov 6 '19 at 16:23
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If you want C Dorian, you take the Bb major scale and start from C.

If you take the C major scale and start from D, you get D Dorian.

If you take the C major scale, keep C as the base note and start adding flats, you get

  • 1 flat : C Mixolydian
  • 2 flats : C Dorian
  • 3 flats : C Aeolian
  • 4 flats : C Phrygian
  • 5 flats : C Locrian

For 6+ sharps, C doesn't belong to the scale anymore, so you can't start from C.

If you take the C major scale, keep C as the base note and start adding sharps you get

  • 1 sharp : C Lydian

For 2+ sharps, C doesn't belong to the scale anymore, so you can't start from C.

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I assume you are mixing the modes and the keys of the circle of 5ths.

  • Indeed I have never heard that someone wanted to transpose into another mode, exepted i.g. a motive or phrase that is repeated a second, a third or any other intervall (imitation) .

But if you want to describe the modes it's like the following:

(I'm not sure whether this is what your friend means to say)

  • In C all the modes have the same tones like the ionic scale of C. Yet each mode has another root regarding the scale it is named. Do=ionian Re=Dorian Mi=Phrygian etc.

  • But this has nothing to do with all the keys as C, G, D or F, Bb. Eb etc. As in those other keys the modes will be transposed exactly like in C major (ionian=1st degree, dorian=2nd degree)

Example:

In major C:

Do=ionian = Scale of C major root C

Re=Dorian = Scale of C major root D

Mi=Phrygian etc.

In major A:

Do=ionian = Scale of A major root A

Re=Dorian = Scale of A major root B

Mi=Phrygian = Scale of A major root C#

etc.

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    'All the modes of C...' (line 6) is confusing. It could mean - a. The modes from the C scale, or b. C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc. – Tim Nov 6 '19 at 16:27
  • or: in C... is this correct? – Albrecht Hügli Nov 6 '19 at 16:33
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Both are correct but need to be put into some kind of musical context for these statements to have meaning.

He argues that if you want to play a C Dorian for example, all you need to do is start from C and just change the starting point of your scale to start with D instead and that makes it a Dorian.

Another way to state that is: the second mode of the C major scale is the D Dorian scale.

Identifying the modes of a scale is an important theory concept. It happens a lot with jazz and exotic folk scales. For example, the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale is the altered scale. Or, the fourth mode of the melodic minor scale is the Lydian Dominant scale.

But those a mere definitions of scales. It doesn't tell us anything about the tonality of the music. It doesn't tell use what key or mode the music is in.

take the C major scale for example and flat the third and also the seventh degree as to basically get a minor or whichever mode you choose...

You can call that a change of mode. You changed the C major scale to C Dorian by lowering the third and seventh scale degrees.

IMO that still doesn't tell us what is going on with the tonality. In terms of key signatures it just means two flats. It could be C Dorian... it could be G minor, or B flat major, etc.

You need to know the harmonic context, or if the music is more linear, you need to see some kind of cadence to finally know the tonality.


To illustrate the point consider these two examples.

In both the key signature is no sharps or flats and there is a scale from D5 to D4. But the harmonic context differs.

enter image description here

Harmonically that is in C major. It's musically pointless to talk about the D5 to D4 as a D Dorian scale.

enter image description here

Harmonically that centers around a D minor tonic. It's then meaningful to talk about D5 to D4 as the D Dorian scale, because D is the tonic.

The point is to not confuse a mere series on tones - a scale-like passage - with the actual tonality.

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