Modes are a basically simple system which is very complicated to explain. As there are lots of different ways to explain them, they appear to be even more complex.

In medieval times they had only one key or scale. This was 'C', equivalent to the white notes on the piano. There were 7 notes CDEFGAB. (Doh, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti). But there were 5 more notes that were not played. These were the black notes or sharps (each black note could be called either sharp or flat, so I will call them sharps. (for example Gsharp is the same note as Aflat). So there were really 12 notes in all: C, C sharp,D, Dsharp,E,F,Fsharp, G.Gsharp, A,Asharp,B. As you can see if you look on the piano, or go up the string of a guitar, there is no sharp between E and F or B and C. This is what gives the unique sound to the major scale. It was called the Ionian mode in medieval times.

As they wanted a bit of variety in their music, they also decided to start and end on D. If you go up the piano on the white notes D to topD and back down again, you will get the sound of this scale(or key). They called it the Dorian. It sounds different to the major scale because the two places without a sharp are now in a different position on the scale.

Other modes were made by starting and finishing on succeeding notes up the white note scale, e.g. F to F, G to G, A to A etc. Many of these other modes were not used in traditional music. The other ones commonly found were the Mixilidian or Sol mode, starting on G; and the Aeolian or La mode starting on A.

The way to spot a mode in written music is to look at the main note. It is the note that the song ends on. If that is the same as the key signature, it is in a major key. So if the key signature is 'C' (no sharps or flats) it would end on C, if it was in the major key. If the key signature was 'C' and the ending note was D, it would be in the Dorian mode. It would be called 'C' Dorian. If in the key of C, it ended on G, it would be 'C' Mixilidian. If in C it ended on A it would be 'C' Aeolian.

If the key signature was 'G' (one sharp) major scale/key would end on G. So if it ended on another note it would be 'modal'. e.g.if it ended on A it would be Dorian ('G' Dorian etc.)

If the key signature was D (two sharps), and it ended on E, it would be 'D' Dorian.

If the key signature was F (one flat), and it ended on G, it would be 'F' Dorian.

The main mode in traditional music was the major key (Ionian mode). But although the modes were less common, they were like the icing on the cake. They were special only because most songs were in the major key as a foil. Frank Purslow went on about how Vaughan Williams had changed history by composing modal orchestral pieces. 'We are now so brain washed that any hack feature music writer has only to give a plaintive Dorian melody to a solo oboe against a shimmer of strings for visions of green fields and trees to automatically appear in the minds eye. Thus so easily can the truth be perverted!'

Vaughan William's compositions are great, but they have distorted our view of folk song. Most songs were in the major/Ionian mode. They are glorious songs, and I think people underrate them because they are easy to learn. They are in the well-known mode that is most frequently used in all western music today. The so called 'modal' songs have a different sound which makes them stand out.

Copyright: Bob Askew 20.09.09

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