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A modal question

Posted by Rex Hamilton III 
A modal question
December 18, 2018 07:11AM

Just a couple of questions as I think I am confusing myself even though I have a good grasp of modes in general (though these questions will make you doubt that!)

I understand that modes are their own entity – with their own intervals and dominant tones/chords – and thus B phrygian and G ionian sound very different despite utilising the same 7 notes.
I also understand that when playing in a mode, the root note and the 1, 3, 5 of the root chord become the strongest notes and those you want to resolve to.

Where things get a little unclear is as follows (we’ll use G and it’s modes):

When learning modes in series (the worst method IMO – parallel is best) we learn G to G over a G chord is ionian, A to A over Am is dorian, B to B over Bm is phrygian etc. so with that said:

1) Do you have to start on the root note to be in a certain mode? So whilst D to D over a D chord is D mixolydian – is it still D mixolydian if I play a run/scale starting on G or A?
My understanding is that it should do because the intervals, and the prominence of the D, F# and A notes will still be evident as the notes – be it a 1 octave scale, 2 octave scale, or even ½ an octave?
I would also expect it to still be mixolydian because even though not starting on or resolving to D, many of the notes are strong in relation to the D maj chord – (1, 3, 5, 7 example).

Furthermore I expect the mode to be the same because, despite what the theory books teach us about modes, it’s highly unlikely we’re ever going to play a scale from root to root – very unlikely we’re going to play D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, D over a D chord – because as musicians we plays runs and licks and passages that sound good rather than complete full octaves.

If my above understanding is correct, and it’s not a matter of what the root/end note is but rather the notes played over the chord and how they sound as a result, then the below question has already been answered:

2) G to G over a G maj chord is G ionian and if my understanding above is correct then D to D over G maj is also G ionian – as is E to E, B to B, C to C etc. But if I am NOT correct then what mode is it if I play the notes of G maj over a G chord but starting on the various root notes (ie: B to B, E to E, A to A)?

3) If my understanding in 1) is correct then G to G over a D maj chord is s D mixolydian but as D is a chord of G maj, is it ever just a simple case of G ionian? If I played the G scale over the I, IV, V progression of G, C and D I’d be soloing in G ionian despite – when we isolate the D chord – playing
Re: A modal question
December 27, 2018 08:50AM
Hi, I’ve been wanting to reply to this for days but sherry got the better of me.

Your question is expressed well by your first sentence - “Do you have to start on the root note to be in a certain mode?”

The answer depends on if you are talking about actual music, or about scales.

If actual music, the answer is of course NO. Drunken Sailor is in Dorian, and the first note “Hooray” is on the 5th degree of the scale, not the tonic.

But that’s an actual piece of music. In the case of a scale (which comes from Scala, meaning ladder), the convention is for the first and last rung to be the tonic. By default. So if you are “playing scales”, then yes you start on the tonic, so B phrygian starts and ends on the B. If you try to play A Dorian scale starting and ending on E, you will actually be playing an E Aeolian scale. That’s the name of that scale and there is no other name for it.

Note, there are some pieces that are bounted, top and bottom, by a note that isn’t the tonic. The Skye Boat song for example, starts on the low dominant (“speed”) and goes as high as the dominant above (“wing”), but that doesn’t alter the fact that those notes are dominants and that the tonic is on the words “boat” and “Skye”.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 12/27/2018 08:58AM by Viz. (view changes)
Re: A modal question
January 19, 2019 03:15PM
Thanks for answering (can't see an answer from Sherry though).

What you said isn't quite correct. Scales don't *have* to go from root to root. On the guitar, the most common scale for the phrygian spans 2 1/3 ctaves and goes from the root to the minor 3rd. Also A dorian from E to E wouldn't be A dorian as it would just be E aeolian, like you said. This goes for all modes if you play them without chordal reference. Ie: the 7 modes of G major share the same notes but if your root is G then you're playing ionian no matter what and if you play E to E you're playing aeolian no matter what.

However modes are determined by the chords you play over - and that is exactly how you avoid the anarchy of A dorian being E aeolian if played from E. That's why modal jam tracks only feature specific chord progressions . So a chord progression of E, D, A is E mixolydian even before you play any scale at all. Not A ionian or D lydian. Hence Don't You Forget About Me and Sweet Child O' mine is in D mixolydian. Take away the vocals for each, elave the instrumentation and you have mixolydian jam tracks in E and D, respectively.

My questions took this knowledge into consideration when I asked them. It turns out - by a chance meeting with an expert - I was right regarding 1) and 2) and in terms of question 3, G to G over a D chord is indeed G mixolydian but if the chord appears in a progression then it's viewed within context - thus that D chord in a G, C, D chord progression is part of an ionian progression - the overall tone and sound of the music is distinctly ionian.

However thank you for replying, much appreciated.
Re: A modal question
January 20, 2019 01:08AM
Hi Rex,

I can’t quite understand the point you’re making but when I play a scale, I play it from root to root, so that the base (and bass!) note is obvious, therefore the key is obvious. If I play DEFGABCD, I’m playing the scale of D Dorian. I have never understood why some guitarists continue playing higher than the top of theb scale, it’s probably because unlike the piano the fingering is different from octave to octave so they maximise the use of the fretboard to practise the fingering.

Anyway, so when practising scales, the top and bottom notes (or bottom note only in your case) tell you the home note, and the notes tell you the mode, major, minor, dorian or whatever.

Like I said, in actual music, like in a I-V-vi-IV progression like With or Without You for example, which is in D major, the IV chord is just a chord in the progression of D major; if for some reason you wanted to play a scale over the IV chord from G to G, you wouldn’t suddenly “playing in G mixolydian” despite the notes being in G mixolydian because in the context of the song that’s a IV chord. The song is still in D major.

I think that’s what you’re saying too so we’re probably agreeing.

The expression “sherry got the better of me” just meant I’d been drinking too much sherry so I didn’t get round to replying.
Re: A modal question
March 01, 2019 05:58PM
The thing is, mode is a melodic concept. In terms of how we now understand the term, it originated as a way of classifying chant according to the last note (the final) and the range (so whether the final fell at the bottom of the notes used or in the middle).

When you talk about playing a mode over a chord or having a different mode for every bar, it's instantly muddying the concept (at best), possibly even to the point of rendering it meaningless.

I know this method is often taught, and it might well be a useful theoretical aid and great help for improvisation and such, but that's all it is. In practice, the mode/key of the music isn't really changing. So as Viz said, if you've got a well-established Dm7 - G7- C progression at the end of a phrase, that phrase is in C major. Generally speaking, it doesn't matter what you play over the top of that, it will almost always be perceived as C major (and if you go too far away from that, it will just sound bad).

So I personally don't think your "modal" approach is a useful one - it's just making things needlessly complicated. In this context, there's no point in worrying about about what note you start on and whether it's Ionian or Dorian (or whatever), in reality, it probably isn't going to be either in any meaningful sense of the term.
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