Music of the Minor Modes

The prior post concerned the three major modes which are designated by their major 5ths. The minor modes are similarly designated by their minor 5ths. Each has a unique history and flavor, but they share the familiar minor darkness of emotion in common. From the bittersweetness of the Dorian, the tense power of the Phrygian, to the floating lunacy of the Locrian, they all hold a distinct place as one of our seven modern modes.

Mode II: Dorian

The first minor mode is the second of seven modes (three major and 4 minor) – named Dorian. In C major the sequence of notes begins on D: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. It’s intervals are very similar to the natural minor scale (known as the Aeolian), but it has a raised 6th note. This raised 6th is the peculiarity of the Dorian mode that gives it a special feel, wistful but not tragic, due to the brighter interval from the raised 6th.  The sequence of steps is W, H, W, W, W, H, W (with W being whole-step and H being half-step) laid out in a symmetrical manner with the three wholetones in the middle bordered by halftones and ending on each with a whole tone.

The Dorian scale derives its name from the Dorian Greeks, who are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as living on the island of Crete. It was a scale during the Greek period and one of the church modes of the Middle Ages, as well as existing in a current modern form. Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910) gave prominence to the Dorian mode when studying the structure of folk songs and dubbed the mode the “Russian minor.” Tracks of recent era seem to have a dark but hopeful sense to them, sad but not crushingly desolate. To me, at least, these songs share a common sound and I suppose it’s because they all employ the Dorian mode: “Scarborough Fair” by Simon and Garfunkel, “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix, “Evil Ways” by Santana, and “Who Will Save Your Soul” by Jewel. If your in the mood to compose something in this vein, play around with the Dorian mode.

Mode III: Phrygian

Phrygian, the second minor mode, is the third of the seven modes. In C major the sequence of the notes begins on E: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. Like the Dorian mode, the Phrygian is nearly identical to the Aeolian, but with a flat 2nd, giving the interval a dark and tense feel. This note sequence is especially tasty for metal tracks as with “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica. This flat 2nd gives the Phrygian it’s unique characteristics, unexpected by most modern listeners accustomed to the normal whole step from the first to the second notes in both the normal major and minor scales (Ionian and Aeolian), giving an impending negative mood.

Interestingly, it has the same notes as F minor, a common key in horror scores. The sequence of steps is H, W, W, W, H, W, W, and its sequence gives mysterious sounding mode and also coined the “Gypsy mode.” The notes constitute an E minor chord OR an E major, which with a C major scale played on top is reminiscent of “Spanish Music” as guitarist John Heussenstamm demonstrates:

The Phrygian mode is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Greece. Its music contributed to Greek musical traditions through Greek colonies and the mode is associated with combat and war. In fact, according to scholars the ethnic name Phrygian describes the wild and passionate people of the mountainous regions in Anatolia. It would make sense then, that the music derived from this mode does not fit neatly into the traditionally common Western Ionic/Aeolian box, being of the strange and the wild. Also, it’s not surprising that it lends itself to heavy metal with it’s wildness and power.

Mode VI: Aeolian

The Aeolian is the third minor mode, the sixth of the seven modes. Its series of pitches corresponds to the natural minor scale in Western music. In 1547, music scholar Henricus Glareanus first named and described the Aeolian in his treatise on music Dodecachordon. He added to the eight church modes that had dominated for 600 years to include newer major and minor modes and the Aeolian was one of the four (the others being Hypoaeolian, Ionian, and the Hypionian). The Aeolian used A as its tonic and matches the current minor of C major: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A with flats on the 3rd, 6th, and 7th. As with the other modes, Aeolian was named after an ancient Greek ethnicity – the inhabitants of Aeolis on the Aeolian Islands.

The sound and feel of the Aeolian mode, ie the minor scale, is commonly known even among non-musicians. It quite simply is the opposite of the major scale. While the major scale, the Ionian, is bright, happy, cherry and optimistic, the Aeolian is dark, sad, foreboding, and heavy. Often songwriters will move from a major scale to its minor counterpart during a transition or bridge. Again, it is striking that simply by rearranging the exact same notes from Ionian to Aeolian one can create an incredibly different sound and feel. REM’s “Losing My Religion” is in Aeolian, the natural minor:

Mode VII: Locrian

The fourth minor mode is the Locrian, the final of the entire seven modes. The triad based on its tonic is a diminished chord and is dissonant from B to F and termed a “tritone”  – an interval of three whole tones. B is the tonic with the intervals H, W, W, H, W, W, W and the notes B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B. While Glareanus in 1547 happily added Aeolian to the canon of acceptable modes, the Locrian was left out, as it attempts to resolve on the B and creates the dissonant tritone. The mode is named after the Greek regions of Locris. Yet while the name Locrian harkens back to this era, it is rarely used and finding examples of its use difficult. 

The dissonant tritone was not accepted into music for centuries as it fell under the label “diabolus in musica,” meaning the devil in the music. The tritone, and hence the Locrian, was forbidden until the Baroque era when it was used within limit. The sound of the Locrian can be sinister and unsettling as it is used over half-diminished chords and has the same pitches as B-flat Aeolian and D-flat Ionian. It uses notes and combinations of notes not in the norm of western music and tends to be avoided unless perhaps one wants something very horrific and disturbing. Some musicians, heavy metal of course, do use the mode as a scale to build riffs such as in “Sandman” by Metallica as noted by Christopher Smith on “What are some of pieces that use the Locrian mode” on

Smith goes on to explain that, as stated, the Locrian mode doesn’t sit well with Western ears, but that it is used frequently in the music of South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. He mentions that some Egyptian and Persian melodies in the folk tradition adhere to the Locrian mode. He writes further that three techniques have been used to solve the resolution problem with the chord cadence in the Locrian. 1. Just end on an octave note, not a final chord. 2. Use a minor chord to end instead of the diminished, but only in the final chord. 3. End on a flat 6th chord which suits as an ending yet leaves the piece feeling not quite resolved. In Western music though, it can be used to rock as with this demo of “In Your Words” by Lamb of God.

Because of this open-ended and unappealing feel of the Locrian mode, it has been called a “theoretical mode.” In other words, it exists in theory just as fine and dandy as the other modes, but in practice it is not widely used. It comes down to theory. In this case since the Locrian does not have a perfect 5th it sounds basically terrible and is unable to resolve if one intends to adhere to it perfectly, which essentially no one does. The mode is reminiscent of the Lydian major mode in that it floats rather than grounds itself. And, perfectly, Bjork, who uses the Lydian mode a bit in “Possibly Maybe,” also uses the Locrian in “Army of Me” briefly in the bassline. This makes sense of course as Bjork is the quintessential experimenter.

What is striking about these modes and their unique characters and the emotions that they elicit is this: they point to a pre-existing structure and pull us toward obeying that structure. A perfect fifth is a necessity, at least in Western music, or it sounds dissonant. Why? As with Hans Jenny’s work discussed in another blog post here on Cymatics, there is evidence of pre-existing order that humans are tapping into. To me, it’s the same question I ask regarding math. Did we invent math or did we discover it? Did we invent music or did we discover it?