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Thread: Modal vs non-Modal Music

  1. #1
    Registered User SkinnyDevil's Avatar
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    Modal vs non-Modal Music

    So one of my students walks in the other day and is confused by something she heard on the radio. The guest, who was explaining basic music concepts while spinning records, says to the announcer, "...that's neither major nor minor - it's modal...".

    We had covered modes briefly, but our focus has been technique & improv within a folk & blues structure. As I attempted to explain modal music, she got further confused...so I have to assume that I've just got a decidedly BAD way of explaining some things. Perhaps someone here can help me inprove in this area?

    So...let's pretend that I have never heard of medieval music, modal-era Miles, "Scarborough Fair", and the like, and that my understaning of modes is extremely superficial (I typically "trick" my students into modes by having them improv in C major while playing an uber-simple groove in A minor or D dorian or whatever, with near-zero emphasis on chords). Let's further pretend my understanding of music history does not include references to Pythagoras, equal-temperment, the difference between "folk musics" and "serious musics", or anything much older than Elvis (hahaha!!!).

    How, then, would you briefly explain how modal music is different from any other music?

    I'm beginning to think the best explaination is: That's all a matter of music history and absolutely irrelevant to any modern discussion (hahaha!!!).
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  2. #2
    Registered User SeattleRuss's Avatar
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    Wish I had more time to respond....
    Not to be cryptic and murky but it's not so much a difference in the music as it is in the approach, yes?

  3. #3
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    Well, unless I'm dumber than I thought (entirely possible), ionian, lydian and mixolydian are major, aeolian, dorian and phrygian are minor, and locrian is diminished. Or half diminished. Or something like that. Pretty sure about the major and minor thing though.


    So if it's modal, it's still major or minor. Isn't it?

  4. #4
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    Or are you talking about symmetrical scales and, whaddya call 'em, "non-tertiary" chords?

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    Or music where you're changing modes over each chord, and the chords generally don't form a "minor" or "major" progression? Sorry, I don't play stuff like that myself, so it didn't occur to me. I guess in that case, you might try explaining it via an analogy with colors. Major is white and minor is black, but there are various shades of grey in between, and those are modes. Except that makes them sound...well, not very colorful. Major is red, and minor is blue? Dorian is a yellowish red, while phrygian is a purplish black? Yeah, that would make everything perfectly clear

  6. #6
    I like music.
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    Modal music stems from Miles Davis' innovations. He decided to do away with all those pesky intricate harmonies, and decided to work with just a few different chords, emphasizing the inherent beauty of a certain mode. Instead of the player having to worry about tons of chord changes, the player just has to worry about making pure melody.

    Think Flamenco Sketches.
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  7. #7
    Registered User fortymile's Avatar
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    the distinction that was made--that the song was neither major or minor, but was modal--should prolly be taken to mean that the song wasn't using the standard, familiar major and minor harmonizations that are pretty much the foundation of western music. instead of using a chord set derived from the ionian mode (major) or the aeolian (minor), the song in question dipped into one of the other modal scales, pulled out the harmonization, and used those chords. whichever mode was harmonized will determine the song's major or minor quality, based on the polarity of the third, but the song wont, of course, be in the ol' standard major or minor. maybe stress the fact that major is ionian, which is a major mode, and minor is just aeolian, which is a minor mode, and then quickly show the kids how modal chord sets are derived from the scales.

    you know that, though, right? i don't see how else there is to really explain it. i might not be understanding it right, but this is my understanding.
    "All bad poetry is sincere" -- Oscar Wilde

  8. #8
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    This is my way to see it.
    The first thing to learn is the triad chords made by starting on different degrees blahblah, then that modes are just thinking the major scale starting somewhere else, which makes it sound different blahblahblah.

    In western music, the I chord is cursed because it has a huge "magnetic" pull. If u think "minor" the VI is "magnetic" also. It's just that w'ere used to it. By magnetic its meant that u wanna start and specially END (ur song/prog whatever) on it. Knowing that, modal music is simply arrageing stuff somehow so it wants to resolve in a given modal root, not the common I or VI. Somehow all music is modal, but I guess the word is used to make a difference from the usual major/minor.

    For example in CM tonality u can arrange ur chords so they wanna come back to Fmaj and end ur stuff on it, then ure thinking "modally", in F Lydian. That's (unless i'm wrong) and example of modal music.
    I've tried it and its really tricky to get away from the I pull, and the more complicated ur chord gets (7s, 9s etc...), the harder it is to avoid it.

  9. #9
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    My music dictionary says this about Modal:

    Having to do with modes; this term is applied most particularly to music that is based upon the Gregorian modes, rather than to music based upon the major, minor, or any other scale.

    Try this simple explination, sometime a student will accept a simple straight forward explination and move on. ---- meaning you are off the hook, as they know more they will ask another question.

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    Hmm, Good replies, i like Malcolm's simple approach; sounds practical.

    Well, i am not a teacher, these are purely personal ramblings,

    I don't know, but I suppose if you are trying to give the full picture in the space of one or two lessons, then it is possible that the student is suffering from 'information overload'.
    Some people are not too interested in the 'why' and 'wherefore' and prefer to get straight to the nitty gritty, so they can put something new into the playing.
    Nothing wrong with that. You see that often on this forum.
    But, they will probably have to accept any instructions as 'fact'.
    It probably helps to know a little more about what's going on and it takes time to get a good grasp on some of these concepts (i speak for myself).

    Do you think the student has spent long enough on Major and minor scales ?
    Long enough to feel the structure of the scale in any key ?
    and to grasp an understanding of a Tonal centre ?

    Initially, it is probably easier to think of modes just as more scales.

    Although the mode will be constructed from it's parent scale, which of course means it will share exactly the same notes; the intervallic structure (pattern of Tone/Semitone) will be different for any mode.

    Then, just introduce chords and chord progressions to show how they can be used with modes,


    Where's Doug McMullen when you need him ?

  11. #11
    Registered User fortymile's Avatar
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    some students do care, though. if i were in that class, i would keep asking this question and then probably go to an internet forum like this one if i were still unclear.

    i am still unclear.

    is it not true that "modal song" can refer half the time to the chord set and half the time to the scale used for the melody line? that is, using either one or both of those tactics--harmonizing the mode and then writing with those chords, or just using a modal melody over some vamp--will give you a piece of modal music?
    "All bad poetry is sincere" -- Oscar Wilde

  12. #12
    Steve Lydian Steve's Avatar
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    SkinnyDevil,

    Heyup, i'm 16 and have been playing guitar for about 7 years, i've only recently started having lessons from an amazing teacher who is better than i could ever wish to be on the instrument. I've been having lessons strictly on Theory, due to all the time i've been playing guitar i've never learning theory, i've just 'noodled' which has sort of stopped me from making any progress.

    Anyway, i'd looked at modes a little before having my teacher and understood that they were constructed from Major and Minor scales, and theoretically if you already know the Major and Minor scales, then you already know the -notes- of the mode.

    My teacher really helped me to understand Modes more when he explained the forumulas that actually constructs each individual mode. For example Dorian is 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7, it's the b3 and b7 that makes it -sound- dorian, since the whole construction of this mode is completely different to your standard Major (Ionian) scale, it has completely different tonality and so sounds like it wants to resolve to -it's- root rather than Chord I.

    It also helped me understand everything modal by not viewing modes literally as modes, but viewing them as seperate scales in their own right. After all that's all that your standard natural minor is isn't it? It's built from the 6th degree of your major, so it's just like the modes really =D
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  13. #13
    Registered User fortymile's Avatar
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    i'm so glad to hear someone finally say that. the thing that unlocked modes for me, even though i'm still foggy on a few things like modal harmonization and such, was that they are essentially thier own scales. once i learned the interval formulas for a few of my favorites i began to grasp them. but it took years of casual reading before i finally stumbled on to the explanation that cleared it up for me. most people insist on teaching modes with the *very confusing* "new starting note" method. that method causes more problems than it's worth, and even now i don't use it.

    who wants to reframe a scale using algebra when you could just alter your degrees on the fly? so much easier and more intuitive. if all teachers began with the scalar explanation, i would have learned modes when i was 16.
    "All bad poetry is sincere" -- Oscar Wilde

  14. #14
    Steve Lydian Steve's Avatar
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    lol Awesome, well at first i was like 'Modes, what the hell?!' and now i understand them it's opened up a whole new world of licks, chops and literally thousands of ways of adding new texture and atmosphere to my playing..

    For about 2 hours after reading this thread i started playing around a 12 bar blues idea in D Dorian, nice and easy since it's just C Major, right? ;D I had a ball using D Dorian, G Mixolydian and A Aeolian over their corresponding chords =D I would have carried on but i dont' like leaving my amp on for too long since it gets soo hot lol
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  15. #15
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    I disagree...IMO nothing's easier than derviative approach, and u dnt have to remember 6new scales. Maybe is it harder to really understand the meaning of modes with it...okay, but its just a question of explanation. Both methods have their good stuff.

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