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For some time I've been trying to understand modes. - I've read myriad posts, debates, and explanations, and have generally been left confused. But - I think I finally have a handle on it. Can anyone tell me if what I have below is correct, or incorrect?

What we call modes came from something called modal music. Most 20th century music, with the exception of some jazz starting in the 1950's is tonal, rather than modal music. For brevity, I won't discuss the difference, but I think it suffices to say that most current musicans don't need to be concerned with modal music. (I said MOST, not ALL.)

However - just because you're not playing modal music, doesn't mean you can't use modes! For most musicians, the 7 modes (Dorian, Mixolydian, etc.) can be considered scales which can be used (in the right situations), just like any other scale.

What is the best way to learn the modes, as used in tonal music? Just like any scale, they should be considered in the context of the harmony. But here I will only address how to best learn the fingerings of these scales, on guitar.

Many posts suggest that to find the fingering for a mode, take a major (or minor) scale and start it on a different note. After reading much discussion about this, I've concluded this is a waste of time, and is simply a shortcut which confuses people and misses the essential point: each mode has a different sequence of intervals which gives it its particular flavor.

So to learn the fingering of a mode, just learn the intervals, just like any other scale. I do it by categorizing each mode as either major or minor (whichever one it's closest to), then figure out which intervals are different between the mode and the major (or minor) scale it's based on. I then play the modified major (or minor) scale. For example, for A Dorian, I play an A minor natural scale, but raise the 6th a half step. I practice this all over the fingerboard.

There is much more that could be said of course, but I want to keep it simple for those of us that are just starting to learn.

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    Would this be better posted as an answer to some mode question, as it's hardly a question, in its own right?
    – Tim
    Mar 16 '20 at 9:20
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    What is the question? It would be better to have just the question in the question, and answers in answers. Or are you trying to reverse the logic, have one answer and multiple questions for it? ;) Mar 16 '20 at 10:08
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    its not truly a question, but it is a good answer. I struggled with modes for ages. I just think of Dorian as the "right" scale to play under a II chord. Mar 16 '20 at 10:29
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    @bigbadmouse - I think of Dorian as the 'right' scale to play over a ii chord!!
    – Tim
    Mar 16 '20 at 13:39
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's more of an answer than a question.
    – Tim
    Mar 16 '20 at 13:44
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There are really only two ways to regard and understand modes.

One is, as you prefer, to consider each mode as a separate entity, with its own set of notes and flavour, and learn each 'scale' for each mode, which is then movable (on guitar especially) to start on each of the 12 different roots.

The other is to think about one particular major (in this case) key, and thus its scale notes. That's the parent key/scale, and the other six modes which it spawns are all using the same set of notes, but each with a different root. So once one has learned a major scale, one uses exactly the same notes, but starting on a different one from the original parent root. so Dorian will go from note 2 to note 9, so to speak.

I think anyone learning modes will find one better for understanding than the other - intrinsically, they're both valid, and once one has digested the one concept, it's easier, and worth while, starting on the other.

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In German we have the to names for scales called:

absolut names: a,b,c and relative names: do,re,mi (movable do!)

May be the introduction of "relative names" could be confusing as you understand something different under relative, for this I write it italic. *1)

But this concept of movable do ("relative" -> that is referring to the root key!) is most useful to understand the modes:

there is a "relative" scale existing of 2 equal tetrachords wwh (w) wwh, note that the 2 tetrachords are separated by a whole step (tetrachord = 4 strings -> 4 degrees I ii iii IV - V vi vii I)

So you can make a scale of a movable do (do,re,mi,fa,so,la,ti,do) that you can underlay to every of the 12 keys: (sharp and flat).

the modes are nothing else than the 7 scales that we get if we begin with another root note of the do re mi.

do = ionian

re = dorian

mi = phrygian

etc.

finally this concept is quite similar to the intervals but it is historical derived from the church modes (middle age) and their root tones names that have been used since Guido of Arezzo.

As we first learn to sing with the do,re,mi (s. Aristocats) or baby songs and folk songs, it is very easy to apply this concept to a) to the 7 church ladders and then to all other 12 keys.

*1) I don't know if related or referring names would be less confusing?

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    The church had 8 modes, in four pairs of authentic and plagal modes, such as Dorian and Hypodorian. The plagal modes differed from the authentic modes in their range rather than in the set of pitches in use. Their names were all constructed by prefixing "hypo" to the name of the related authentic mode. The authentic modes gave their names to the modern modes; they are Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. The Aeolian and Ionian modes were invented in the 16th century; the Locrian was invented in the 18th century. Not all of the modern modes have been used since Guido of Arezzo.
    – phoog
    Mar 26 '20 at 14:55
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Group together mode and key as types of tonalities.

Treat scale as tonleiter the German word for scale meaning tone ladder, all the tone of the tonality going up or down in step-wise order.

Mode can also have the meaning of the various rotations of a scale: ex. the seventh mode of the melodic minor scale is the altered scale.

Don't confuse mere scales with being in a mode. For example...

enter image description here

...the music is clearly in C major. The passage starting at m. 5 is not the right hand playing in Aeolian, Mixolydian, and the Lydian modes. The mode of the music is not changing. It stays in C major. Describing the passage as a series of mode change really misses the point.

The series of scales is not about changing mode. It just a rhythmic elaboration of this...

enter image description here

...in terms of mode the passage is doing only one thing: affirming the mode is C major.

The main perpetrator of this way of thinking - scalar passages are actual mode changes - is probably the jazz "chord scale system". In that system when given a progression like Dm7 G7 C6 you are told to play Dorian, Mixolydian, and Ionian scales respectively over each chord instead of identifying C: ii V7 I and learning how to play a harmonious part over it.

...for A Dorian, I play an A minor natural scale, but raise the 6th a half step...

I agree. A good way to conceptualize the modes is grouping them in major and minor families and then altering tones from so-called Ionian or Aeolian to get the other modes.

Most 20th century music, with the exception of some jazz starting in the 1950's is tonal, rather than modal music. ...most current musicans don't need to be concerned with modal music.

I think you should be careful here. Tonal just means music organized around a central tone. In the sense that modes have tonics, then modal music is tonal. Music with no tonal center is atonal.

I think current musicians DO need to be aware of modal music, because tons of popular and audience-accessible music is modal. Folk and Americana are heavily modal. Rock has important modal elements definitive of the style. Many essential jazz tunes are modal.

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  • With regard to "tone ladder" it's worth noting that "scale" derives from the Latin word for "stairway." The German is probably just a translation of that.
    – phoog
    Mar 20 '20 at 6:53
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Reading between the lines, I suspect I come from a similar background to you -- jazz / rock / pop music probably played on guitar. I agree with pretty much everything you said.

For the likes of us (if I haven't misidentified you!) I think what you say here is the key:

So to learn the fingering of a mode, just learn the intervals, just like any other scale. I do it by categorizing each mode as either major or minor (whichever one it's closest to), then figure out which intervals are different between the mode and the major (or minor) scale it's based on. I then play the modified major (or minor) scale. For example, for A Dorian, I play an A minor natural scale, but raise the 6th a half step. I practice this all over the fingerboard.

Yes! The Dorian scale is just a scale. You can think of it as a natural minor scale with a raised sixth. It's no different to thinking of Harmonic Minor as natural minor with a raised seventh. You're doing the right thing.

The idea of "modality" arises when you notice a weird coincidence: the A Dorian scale ends up having the same notes as the G Major scale. This also means they contain the same intervals in the same order (but "starting from a different position"), and this means they probably share important sonic properties. But this is a matter of somewhat deep theory. It's not a helpful "short-cut" for students -- witness the approximately infinite number of internet posts from confused students who've been shown this too early -- and may or may not be of any practical value to a particular musician.

I studied jazz and rock guitar in the 1980s, when modes were all the rage. Your approach is the one I eventually arrived at, after some wasted time early on, and one I've seen widely advocated among modern guitar teachers.

(Note all this is ignoring the history, which supposedly stretches back through the medieval period to Boethius and ultimately the ancient Greeks. In reality, what modern musicians mean by "modes" is indeed mostly a 20th century invention. For example, it only becomes fully operational with the dominance of 12TET as a tuning system.)

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