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I know my question sounds a little bit confusing, hence I don't have any idea how I could google that. Soo for example: a G Major Mixolydian scale has the exact same notes as the C Major Ionian scale. Yet they are both treated differently, and apparently they also sound different. Are they really different? If they are, how can someone make them sound different for example in a solo?

  • Incidentally, it doesn't really make sense to say "G Major Mixolydian" or "C Major Ionian": you're mixing modal and tonal concepts here. Just "G Mixolydian" and "C Ionian". – Théophile Sep 3 at 20:40
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mode = set of notes + tonic

Modes sound different, because each scale degree's distance to the tonic i.e. home note is different. The home note is in a different location relative to the other notes of the scale. The tonic is your zero-point, your viewpoint, where you place your camera: depending on where it is, everything around you is in a relatively different location, and in music, distances between pitches is what creates the harmonic feeling. Moving your point of view makes the harmony sound different, because the intervals and chords built on the scale degrees are different. In lydian mode, the triad built from stacked thirds starting from the home note is a major chord, but in dorian mode, it is a minor chord.

This may seem hard to understand just by looking at the set of notes, because the notes don't say which of them is the home note. None of the piano keys has "home note" written on it, or at least none of the keys in pianos I've ever seen. What is perceived as the home note, depends on what and how is played, and it also depends on the listener.

Example. Same notes and chords and everything, just with a different home note.

Here is a small etude in A lydian, (constructed with guitar chords), with the open A string as a pedal tone, fixing the sense of home note to A. The scale has the same notes as the E major scale, but the tonic is not E.

If we take the same notes, but move the pedal tone from A down to F#, we get an F# dorian sound. The pedal tone moves the tonic i.e. home note. (the sense of tonic is somewhat subjective, but I'd claim that most people will say the pedal tone here is the tonic)

The distances between the scale degrees and the home note are, in semitones: (differences highlighted)

  • 1 : lydian: 0, dorian: 0
  • 2 : lydian: 2, dorian: 2
  • 3 : lydian: 4, dorian: 3
  • 4 : lydian: 6, dorian: 5
  • 5 : lydian: 7, dorian: 7
  • 6 : lydian: 9, dorian: 9
  • 7 : lydian: 11, dorian: 10

What is this "tonic" business really? The concept of a "mode" requires a tonic, and a scale by itself doesn't really explicate it. Instead of just playing a scale, you should have a low enough bass note to get a feeling of where the home note is. And rhythm affects how different notes are perceived. Like this:

How to make the same set of notes sound different in a solo?

If you're using the same set of notes, and if you're soloing, how can you set the tonic? How can you let the listener know where your "one" is? Just like with rhythm: by phrasing. You play the right notes at the right time with the right emphasis.

It's not just the scale and the home note. From a properly phrased solo it should be possible to get an idea what the time signature might be, and where "one" is in the rhythm.

Here's an example solo with no accompaniment, first in G mixolydian and then in C ionian.

I think you can guess what the time signature might be, even without looking at the barlines.

However, it's good to remember that your possibility to set the tonic (or the "one" in the rhythm) depends on what the other players are playing. If you have a bass player playing C all the time, chances are that your G mixolydian modal efforts will be very challenging. Or if there's a drummer playing a straight 4/4 rock beat, it will be quite hard for a guitarist to make everyone believe that the "one" is really between the second and third beats and that it's a 3/4 waltz.

  • Great, now I want to listen to some ELP. – hobbs Sep 3 at 2:10
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Stand in your kitchen and look around you.

Now stand on your head in your kitchen, so that you are upside down. Do things look the same?

(Or if you're not so good at gymnastics, lie on your back and try the same experiment!)

The things in the room are all in the same positions relative to each other; nothing has moved. But the world looks very different when you are upside down, because your perspective has changed.

When we talk about a 'tonic', 'Key centre', or 'home note' - you can think of that as a bit like the point that you're "looking at" the rest of the piece from. Every note you hear, you hear from the perspective of the tonic note.

Because each mode has a different pattern of notes relative to the tonic note - that's why each mode sounds different.

How can someone make them sound different for example in a solo?

By making the tonic note/key centre/home note the most important note. Play from the perspective of thinking that your phrases - or at least, the important ones - want to 'come home' to that note.

  • 2
    This is a terrific ELI5 answer; I'm using this in the future! – Richard Sep 1 at 15:43
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    @Richard I'm not sure my analogy works perfectly, but once all the blood has run to the head, hopefully people won't care... – topo Reinstate Monica Sep 1 at 16:52
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    That's a good, strong, analogy! (To the fact that EVERYTHING is RELATIVE!) – Randy Zeitman Sep 3 at 12:08
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True, the seven modes of one key all contain the same notes as the parent key (Ionian). But it's the key centres that differ. In the Ionian mode (major key)in C, the actual note C is the root, home if you like. When a piece is in that key, the note where everything feels like it's at rest best is that C.

All the other notes bear some relationship to that root note - the B is the leading note, which generally feels like it needs to resolve to the root - which it does do nine times out of ten.

It's the same sort of idea with modes, except that because their root notes are different, the other notes have different relationships with their roots.

As in -G Mixolydian, where there is no leading note per se. G Mixolydian (C major notes) has no note one semitone below the root. The closest is a tone below. Different feel.

As in -D Dorian, a minor mode (♭3), but a different 'leading' note from D harmonic minor, and a different 6th as well.

As far as how a modal piece retains its modality, and doesn't revert to parent key, lots of visits to its root helps, and just like V>I sounds convincing in a major key, it will in a mode too.

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Because major and minor scales are diatonic and modes are not.

Major scale is build from WWhW and minor is from WhWW. Notice the first and last interval are whole intervals. That's what makes these five note patterns "diatonic" and why keys are created from them.

Cmajor + WWhW = G, the fifth note of CMajor as well as the next key upward having one sharp (accidental). The next key is a fifth up again, to D.

But modes don't follow either of those patterns ... which is why they're not (diatonic) scales but instead special cases, a 'modes of operation', of the diatonic music machine.

For example D-dorian means WhWWWhW ... the arrangement of intervals starting at the second note of a major sale.

That pattern, starting with D, is available in a Cmajor scale and it's relative minor, Aminor.

Modes of the major scale...

Ionian (I) / Dorian (ii) / Phrygian (iii) / Lydian (IV) / Mixolydian (V) / Aeolian (vi) / Locrian (vii)

Modes of the natural minor scale...

Aeolian (i) / Locrian (ii) / Ionian (III) / Dorian (iv) / Phrygian (v) / Lydian (VI) / Mixolydian (VII)

If you build chords in D-dorian you'll see the first chord is Dminor. But is D-dorian the same as D-minor? ... No because intervals don't match.

D-minor (built from WhWW ... the fifth note being the first note of the second WhWW).

D E F G A B♭ C D
 W h W W h  W W

... this is actually....
 W h W (W)
     + (W) h W W ... the (W) are sharing the same spot.

D-dorian ...  (yes there is WhWW but they're end-to-end WhWW+WhWW ).
D E F G A B C D
 W h W W W h W

 W h W W + W h W W
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    Considering that the major scale is equivalent to the Ionian mode, and that the natural minor scale is equivalent to the Aeolian mode, does your point really hold? – ericw31415 Sep 2 at 1:34
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    The term diatonic is used in a few different senses. In a loose sense (that I don't like) it can apply to any scale. In a strict sense, it applies to the notes of the major (diatonic) scale; but in this sense, all of the modes of the major scale are in fact diatonic to the major scale. There is an even more strict interpretation where even the natural minor scale is not considered diatonic, but I haven't ever really encountered anyone who used the term this way. In the usual strict sense (the right sense), minor scales are not diatonic (because melodic and harmonic), but natural minor are. – David Bowling Sep 2 at 3:51
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    I don't know anybody who has ever asked "When people say a major scale is a tritone+W+tritone .. "Why?" " because the major scale has nothing to do with that. All there is to the major scale is the scale pattern WWHWWWH. While there are different definitions of the term diatonic, it's commonly accepted that the modes are diatonic because they contain the pattern of the major scale within them. There's really no reason to talk about the circle of 5ths when just talking about modes because we're not shifting notes in the scale, but we're starting the scale from a different root. – Dom Sep 3 at 1:33
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    "The most common definition of a major scale I've seen is that it's two tritones with a half note between." That's the most outlandish definition I've ever seen. – Théophile Sep 3 at 5:44
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    Well, regarding the downvotes, I think one of the main issues with your answer is that it doesn't really address the question. The OP is wondering why the same collection of notes sounds different in different contexts, and your explanation doesn't show why (or doesn't do so clearly). You are also using terminology in a very unorthodox way, which is confusing and distracts from the OP's question. – Théophile Sep 3 at 20:45

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