The use of modal scales

September 25, 2018, 7:06 PM · Once upon a time I learned to play all the modes from ionian to locrian in every key as an exercise in sheer will...
I found it a good way to learn the fingerboard but also very exhausting and time-consuming. At the same time, I feel I learned a lot.
Should I recommend scale regimens like this to a fairly young (let's call them) pseudo-student? Or does it sound too excruciating and is there a better way?

Replies (32)

Edited: September 25, 2018, 8:20 PM · Modal scales are just ordinary diatonic scales that start on a different note. So the long F major scale in the Scherzo movement of Beethoven's Sonata No. 5 ("Spring") ... I believe that runs from G to G. Probably that's some kind of "modal" scale, G-dorian perhaps. I just fail utterly to see how applying that nomenclature to that scale is helpful.

Practicing major and minor scales from different endpoints might be useful, but after a while what one is really doing is composing one's own studies. And there are already plenty of studies to practice, I feel. However, since I also play jazz piano and jazz violin, one thing that I have found is very useful musically (and challenging technically, especially on the violin) is to practice chromatic scales, whole-tone scales (of which there are two) and diminished scales (of which there are three), and diminished arpeggios (which are already standard in the typical Flesch treatment).

Edited: September 25, 2018, 9:31 PM · If you do, pay attention to their comments about it, and their enthusiasm for it. Doing it as a self-assignment is one thing. Suggesting someone else do it might have different results, though I've had a friend talk about having had to do just that for a year (play scales, not sure about modal).

I had an accordion teacher who insisted that at I work first entirely on all the scales on the accordion keyboard. After a few weeks I said "We need to work some songs in here too. This is mind-numbing." I was an adult at the time too. But then again, I might have ADD.

Is the student also working on other works too?

September 25, 2018, 9:41 PM · All the modes are the same scale but use a different note as the tonic or starting note.

One can create etudes for any key that cycle through the modes in ways that add musical interest to the exercise. But theoretically, once you know the fingering for any major key, you know the fingering for any of the other 6 modes.

In modern music, three of the modes are still in common use: Mode 1 which is the major scale, Mode 6 which is the minor scale, and Mode 5 sometimes called the Mixolydian scale.

September 25, 2018, 10:58 PM · If you are interested in modes, consider looking outside of Europe. European modes have come down to us in a system, carefully purged of its details, reduced to simple scales that fit a diatonic model. It is but a shadow of a living modal tradition. Elsewhere things get more interesting--they form the foundation for a theory of improvisation. In the Middle East/Mediterranean, Iran, India, there are many, many different ways of filling up an octave. And real modes include characteristic phrases, references to famous songs in that mode (maqam, dastgah, raga, etc.), particular ornamentation, etc. A characteristic scale worth messing with is Maqam Hijaz (I think this is also used in Raga Bhairav), using the augmented second that so concerned the Church that they banned it... Its series of steps-- h w+h h w h w w (so, for ex, D Eb F# G A Bb C D). Listen to players who work within systems like this--Kahyan Kalhor on kamancheh is pretty amazing. I love picking a mode and exploring it.
Edited: September 26, 2018, 7:31 AM · I'm a mode cynic - myxomatosis and all that nonsense!
I'd say it depends on your repertoire. There aren't really any scales in CG repertoire, so I don't practise them. There are in violin and piano, so I do. You're better off playing Phrygian Dominant (aka Freygisch) music than playing the mode (e.g. D harmonic minor starting on the A).
A few old folk songs are modal, but they only involve one or two modes at most, not the whole theoretical gamut. Don't forget that the arid western modes are just mediaeval church modes that developed out of how they imagined ancient Greek music sounded. Modality in Africa and Asia and Eastern Europe can involve intervals that differ subtly from tone and semitone. Recent research thinks the Greek modes employed quarter-tone/three-quarter tone intervals (although that would surprise me - it hardly coincides with Pythagorean analysis), and some Arabic music still does. There is much truth in saying, if you practise the C major scale on the piano, you are practising all its modes at the same time (and ditto for Freygisch and the harmonic minors), so there's no point in doing them separately. Technique is about finger placement, which won't change (not on the piano, much, anyway).
You even get people who want to practise all the modes on the diatonic harmonica. Madness! People talk of "modal jazz" but I'm not sure modal jazz ever used more than one mode. Let's say two to be safe.
Edited: September 26, 2018, 5:05 AM · Traditional music is heavily modal, partly to take account of the limited capabilities of some instruments that play it.

As an example, E minor is unpleasant on many high-D whistles, and unplayable on some, due to the C. E Dorian still has a minor feel, but replaces the C with a C#, which is a much more pleasant note on a whilstle, and hence sounds much nicer in an ensemble including whistles.

What this means is that Dorian is a very commonly used key in traditional music (probably thousands of pieces), and I regularly practice scales and arpeggios in E Dorian to enhance my fluency. I suspect that it is just as regularly used as D major. The key difference is that it will be backed by people playing chords suiting E Dorian.

So, depends what your repertoire is.

Edited: September 26, 2018, 8:17 AM · Like many above have already answered, these are just in the common major scale, but starting on a different note than the tonic. In the same way the A-minor scale is just the C-major scale but going from A to A instead of C to C. I'm sure we all know that but the same story is happening with all these other modal scales, just starting on different notes. A very useful exercise is what is known as Primrose scales. This consists simply of choosing some position, say third, and playing all the major scales, but each time starting from the lowest note in that position (so C on the G-string in third, but possible also C# depending on the scale) and always running until the highest note in that position (so D on the E-string in third, possible D# or Dflat). So the only variation is the choice of position in which you are going to do that. It is very useful to try play each scale up and down in a single long bow, so the speed required is rather high, and get all the notes nice and clear.
Edited: September 27, 2018, 7:18 AM · My understanding: -
In the West we have scales, major being defined as tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. Minors defined as..., etc.
Everything that isn't a scale is a mode.
In world music there are many geniune modes.
Western Church modes are fake modes (but a few of them were used for unaccompanied plainsong melodies).
"Modal" jazz probably only ever used the Dorian.
Eric Taylor writes that nothing was ever written in the Locrian mode (C major scale starting and ending on B).
Thankfully there are only 8 notes in an octave. If there had been 27, the Church fathers would have invented 27 modes.
September 27, 2018, 8:55 AM · One of the most useful scale exercises, one that is not in the Flesch or any other book, is one-position scales. Starting with first finger, pick a key and start in every position. You stay in key, but the half-steps are in different places.

These turn out to be modal scales, although it's not necessary to think about them that way. I think that starting on notes other than tonic, and staying in one position, really helps in many areas of finger placement, and remaining tonally oriented within a key. If, for example, you're comfortable in a high position playing a Phrygian scale, you're less likely to get lost in major or minor. You develop an intuitive sense of where the half steps are regardless of starting point.

"Everything that isn't a scale is a mode."

Andrew, my understanding is that major and minor are indeed modes--we just don't call them that anymore.
Other theorists may have different views than mine though.

September 27, 2018, 10:21 AM · hi Scott this is in a book "Technique is Memory" by Primrose.
September 27, 2018, 10:48 AM · OP, you didn't mention the age and skill level of the violinist in question, but here's my take: you get modal scale work through passages of orchestral and solo repertoire, and in my opinion, there's just so much to learn that this could be an inefficient use of the limited time we all have.
Edited: September 27, 2018, 11:24 AM · There’s a bit of misinformation or unclear info here. I have a degree in classical music theory and am also very well versed in non-classical harmony

Here’s the simplest definition of modes that i can come up with:

“A mode is a scale that is associated with a specific chord type. “

In other words, the underlying harmony determines the mode. If for example , there is a C major scale being played over a G dominant chord, then the name of that mode is G mixolydian.

Modal music and tonal music are two different things, and while elements of modality can be applied to tonal music (and vice verrsa), I generally prefer to keep them as separate as possible unless I want to create a specifc effect.

In other words, if there’s a chord progression that went Am Dm G C , all those chords belong to the key of C major, and it would be pointless to say Aeolian, Dorian, Mixolydian, and Ionian. It shouldn’t be seen that way (even though you could)it should just be all in the key of C , therefore C major scale. Why complicate things for the sake of complicating it?

One might argue that it forces you to think of the chord tones as you go through each chord, but it’s something you should do however you think about it.

Here’s an example of superimposing modal elements over tonal elements and just to be clear , tonal music (also known as functional harmony) is music that is governed by a hierarchy of chords where certain chords lead to others and have strong needs to resolve. IT’s too big of a topic to sum up in a comment (there are year long college courses dedicated to basic tonal harmony)

Anyway , an example of modal music over tonal music.

In the same chord progresssion Am Dm G C. It’s all C major scale, therefore A Aeolian, D Dorian, G mixolydian, C ionian.

Over each chord, we can change the scales therefore implying new modes. We could for instance, make the Am , A dorian. We can make the Dm , D Melodic Minor, we can keep G Mixolydian, and on the C we can make it C Lydian.

This stretches the ear because it removes the common scale that kept those chords together, but it’s something that improvisers or composers do to stretch the boundaries of harmony

In modal music, you can have chord progressions too but they don’t have any hierarchy. For instance , in irish music, where you have progressions that go Dm C Dm C, etc... all of this is modal music, because the Dm and C chords don’t have any specific function as they would in tonal music. Again this is a huge topic that is covered in the first year of music school

In Am Dm G C, it’s tonal music, because the Am is the VI chord that leads to Dm the II Chord, which leads to G which is V, and finally, C , the tonic

Edited: September 27, 2018, 11:53 AM · Galamian one position scales from his scale book are great.
September 27, 2018, 4:02 PM · Another twist: practise those harmonic minor scales!

I started getting the idea of modes while listing to Loreena McKennitt singing something in G mixolydian. "Hey," I thought, "it's in the key of G7!"

I don't pick lilies much any longer.

Edited: September 27, 2018, 4:11 PM · "A mode is a scale that is associated with a specific chord type."

Personally, I don't see how modes are associated with chords. The church modes (historically they were not called by their modern Greek names, by the way) were used well before the concept of triadic harmony developed.

Here's an alternative:

"Modes in the modern era mean all of the diatonic scales besides major and minor." It should be noted, however, that it is common to refer to a modulation from major to minor (especially between the parallel major or minor) as a "change of mode."

And for those that need a definition of "diatonic":

"A diatonic scale is one that splits the octave into 5 whole and 2 non-adjacent half steps."

Major and minor, in other words, are the only surviving modal (diatonic) scales to be used in music of the Common Practice Era.

This definition does recognize that modal scales are today used in other genres such as jazz.

I believe that major and minor survived due to their use of the leading tone. Thus, scales that lack a leading tone, including the natural minor, sound "modal" or "primitive" to modern ears. And by "modern" I include composers and musicians of the early and middle 17th century.

September 28, 2018, 1:08 AM · Believe what you will despite my credentials, but while it’s true that modes were different a few centuries ago , almost no one is thinking in terms of those modes outside of Renaissance music specialists. Chords didn’t exist back then in the way we think of them today.
September 28, 2018, 9:09 AM · Denis,
You just contradicted yourself. First you said "“A mode is a scale that is associated with a specific chord type. “ Now you're saying "Chords didn’t exist back then in the way we think of them today."

".. If for example , there is a C major scale being played over a G dominant chord, then the name of that mode is G mixolydian..."

If this statement somehow helped you pass a test on remembering the modes, great. But frankly it's gobbledygook.

"In modal music, you can have chord progressions too but they don’t have any hierarchy."

Then it's not a chord progression by definition.

"IT’s too big of a topic to sum up in a comment (there are year long college courses dedicated to basic tonal harmony)"

Yes, I taught first-year theory for many years. Another reason your explanation of modes doesn't make sense is the timing of most theory courses. Modal scales are covered pretty early, in the first few weeks. Well before there is any talk of chords or progressions. So if you gave your explanation to first-year students they would probably not know what you were talking about. And by the time harmony comes along in the second semester, any talk of modes would be long past.

You didn't really list your credentials in your profile. You just said you "have a degree."

September 28, 2018, 11:17 AM · I'm going off topic to correct several statements made about the history of modal scales. Modal scales go back much further in time than European church music or Greek music. That is a Euro-centric view of history.

All the modal scales were well known to Babylonians in 1400 BC, and they were probably known and used for as much as 1000 years before that. Tuning instructions for modal scales on Babylonian harps were written on a cuneiform tablet that was translated in the 1950s. Lou Harrison gave a detailed 30 minute lecture about it, and you can listen to it at

If that is too long for you, you can read a quick, but incomplete article about a Babylonian song from 1400 BC at

Enjoy! Musicians have been practicing modal scales for at least 3400 years.

September 28, 2018, 11:35 AM · And then along came Gesualdo in the late Renaissance and threw the harmony text books out of the window, 400 years before he was allowed to.
September 28, 2018, 12:39 PM · While it may be true that chords as we know them didn't exist at the time Gregorian modes were being regulated, this doesn't mean there weren't rules about how they were used.

It's not as simple as playing a diatonic scale on a different note because only some scales (authentic modes - dorian phrygian lydian mixolydian) resolved to the first note of the scale. Other scales (plagal modes - add the prefix 'hyper' to these modes) resolved to the fourth but used the range above and below this 'tonic'. There were also rules defining which notes should be used for the chanting (my rather too old memory says the jey note was the'dominant' but that this is only a 5 in the authentic modes - maybe a 6 in the plagal ones?) And when the rules could be bent (specifically bs to avoid the evil tritone). These rules are what give Gregorian chant its flavour.

The other modes didn't appear until the late renaissance (C16th?), long after polyphony was well on its way to what became the harmomic basis of western art music (think well-tempered klavier). To my limited knowledge, other than aeolian and ionian, they were more often theoretical than practical.

Gregorian modes are still hanging around today in european folk music - and in classical music that borrows from these traditions. They also turn up in jazz, film and some pop music.

It's important to realise that they are not merely c major starting on a different note, but specific tonalities (think natural minor/aeolian vs harmonic or melodic), so scales (and, arpeggios, which sound really odd!) may be worth practising even with limited time/headspace if they are relevant to particular repertoire.

They should also be taught if they're included in theory exams (they are introduced from grade 3 onward in Australia's music craft syllabus) so they become living tonalities rather than theoretical constructs.

If the aim is just to expand your ear then look at jazz scales, kletzmer modes, whole notes scales, pentatonic scales and (if you really want to get into endless permutations) indian ragas (there are ragas for pretty much anything, incl. times of day, days of year etc).

If you're after a scale book for modes, try greenblatt's fiddler's scale book:

Edited: September 28, 2018, 2:27 PM · If you go to the Irish folk music forum and search for a tune in a particular key you will find that you are given a choice of keys with no more than 4 sharps or 2 flats (very pragmatic for the instruments used in the genre!), and invited to choose a mode from: major, minor, dorian and mixolydian. These modes are the basis of virtually all Irish folk tunes - currently, has over 17,000 tune settings on its database.
Edited: September 28, 2018, 2:59 PM · I prefer to stay relatively anonymous here, but i’ve posted links that hint at who I am elsewhere, i don’t care to show off my credentials, and I also don’t care to argue, but you misread what I wrote:

I did not contradict myself at all, I said that how people perceive modes today is not the same as how people perceived modes during the renaissance era. I said it already, and I’ll repeat it, the only people nowadays using the old definition of modes are specialists in early music.

In fact , the OP mentioned that he’s talking about the contemporary definition of modes. Billie Jean by Michael Jackson for instance has elements of modality and tonality. It starts of in F# dorian; the bass plays a repeated figure revolving around the F#m chord, but the keyboard is going back in forth between F#m G#m A G#m. this implies the Dorian sound. But then the song also introduces elements of tonality.

It goes back to what I said, a mode is a scale associated to a specific harmony. If you don’t believe me, you can buy ANY book on jazz harmony, watch ANY video on jazz harmony featuring prominent jazz pedagogues

Like I said, I prefer to stay relatively anonymous on this site because my name gets searched a lot on google for music reasons, and I am quite sought after for what I do which is related to this topic :-) . No more no less, I am not interested in arguing

EDIT: while wikipedia is not always the most reliable source, you can see that even wikipedia even confirms everything I wrote above

September 28, 2018, 5:19 PM · I like Scott's definition, and have come to prefer it to the other frequently used one of a major scale that starts on a different note. The latter for me creates the perception that the major scale is somehow the most important of all, whereas it certainly is not in the music I play.

Denis, we all play different music, and think about it differently. It is an art form. Great that you have found a definition that works for you and others. Doesn't mean we have to accept it verbatim, and it does not work well for traditional music, which may use no chords at all.

September 28, 2018, 9:50 PM · "Like I said, I prefer to stay relatively anonymous on this site because my name gets searched a lot on google for music reasons, and I am quite sought after for what I do which is related to this topic :-) . No more no less, I am not interested in arguing...

Then stay off the forums?

Edited: September 28, 2018, 11:53 PM · Seems like people are getting quite defensive here :-)

Like I said believe what you will, and the funny thing is I never said that you can’t do what you want , but if you read what the OP wrote, he s refering to the modern definition of the modes, so why talk about something else? I only pointed out that there was a bit of unclear info being talked about, but fair enough, go on however you wish

It’s funny, I spent the entire week producing a documentary on Gary Karr, and we talked about something like this: how people get upset when we point out little factual errors, and get extremely defensive. In his own words : “you can show them all the facts in the world, but people will believe only what they want to believe”. The man redefined double bass in the 20th century and went through quite a lot of hoops in his life.

September 29, 2018, 8:21 AM · Well "Denis,"
It's not being defensive. I just find that your attitude is laughable. "I'm a famous expert but I can't reveal myself because everyone is looking for me, and I refuse to argue, even when I'm arguing. While I drop names..."

I don't post under an alias. All my info is available for all to see. So put up or shut up.
I have to even wonder if you have a bachelors degree at all.

September 29, 2018, 9:31 AM · The attack on someones right to post annonymously or semi anonymously is no longer even related to the topic, and telling people to shutup is uncalled for meanness.
Edited: September 29, 2018, 3:39 PM · " I spent the entire week producing a documentary on Gary Karr ". Since producers of documentaries on famous people tend to have a lot of expertise in their own right, and are unlikely to be chosen for the job otherwise, that suggests something to me.
Edited: September 30, 2018, 4:29 AM · I must try that one next time I attempt to book a table at The Ivy; "I don't like to advertise who I am but I'm very important so you'd better accept my reservation". The motto of the Royal Society is "nullius in verba", by which is implied "accept nobody's word as authoritative without substantiation".
Edited: September 30, 2018, 4:53 AM · Of course in the Arts two professors will disagree about the answer to an open question, and both will substantiate their view with full documentation, biblio, etc. And at least one of them will still be wrong!
September 30, 2018, 10:16 AM · In my first year chemistry course, the department decided to experiment on us with a new text book which they doled out one chapter at a time. Before mid-year exams, my study group discovered a disagreement between professors on the question of distillation, whether alcohol could be distilled to 100% purity or not.

Turns out you can't, so everyone in my class, taught by the department head, got that question partly wrong on the exam. What brilliant PhD touting experts.

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