Do you practice the Modes?

June 9, 2019, 2:32 PM · Years ago when I started out on bass and guitar I worked on learning the Modes so I could bring different approaches and flavors to original music, such as Dorian, Lydian, Super Aeolian etc. is this something Violinists do in their personal studies?

Replies (37)

June 9, 2019, 3:07 PM · Basically it's just starting a major scale on some note other than the tonic, right?

I never "practiced" that or learned the names - but it happens often in classical "Western" music.

June 9, 2019, 3:56 PM · That's about it, but not every position is going to be in a major key, if you began in a major key in Ionian, then the Phrygian would be in a minor key, as well as Dorian, Locrian and Aeolian.
June 9, 2019, 4:14 PM · I used to, but I decided it was too painful and stopped.

Actually, I do these exercises by Siergiej Korgujew before my scales every day which are basically modes, except they're actually useful for my technique. These exercises are essentially double stop scales on the G and D strings where you play in a different key signature each day without moving the notes on the page, so you end up in a new mode every time (technically).

June 9, 2019, 5:32 PM · Some jazz teachers belabor the learning of modes. It is counterproductive in my opinion as an experienced amateur jazz pianist.
June 9, 2019, 5:35 PM · As a jazz musician, I would agree with Paul ;-) . But it depends on what one wants out of music. The whole modes thing is more of an academic thing then a stylistic thing. Kinda like learning words from the dictionary. Could be fun, but in the end making coherent sentences is more fun for me :-)
Edited: June 9, 2019, 5:54 PM · Denis is entirely correct and as we all know, the coherent sentence can communicate meaning even with errors in grammar and punctuation. That's how you order food in a restaurant in another country!

On the other hand, I have also experimented with violin jazz, and I'm not so good at it yet. And part of the problem is just one of basic fingerboard familiarity. There are lots of times when I'd like to be able to play a scale-like passage but can't find the notes in my fingers. And practicing scales up front definitely helps with this. But in my view one the modes are at the bottom of the list. Very high on the list are diminished scales which alternate whole steps and half steps. One does not encounter those too often in classical music but they are everywhere in jazz. Chromatic scales are hugely important too. Patterns (e.g., broken thirds) are useful but not for their own sake, but only because once in a while it will occur to you to play a snippet of music that includes some kind of scale pattern, and if that's the first time your fingers have ever had to do anything like that, you'll stumble.

June 9, 2019, 6:27 PM · What it showed me is how to connect everything from the bottom of the fretboard to the top (on a bass) but it really isn't necessary. How often does anyone do a descending or ascending riff that's that long?
June 9, 2019, 6:31 PM · Paul Deck, what about quarter tones? I've been following Samvel Yervinyan and he tends to use them a lot while soloing. Are they a shortcut?
June 9, 2019, 6:48 PM · I don't see any reason to practice modal scales because the fingering is identical to the major scales.

Starting in the late Romantic era, I'd say diminished seventh arpeggios become quite important to practice.

Diminished scale passages are actually fairly common in early 20th century art music. The major viola concerto repertoire is full of them.

June 9, 2019, 7:19 PM · OK, so, in playing the modes, "the fingering is identical to the major scales". ????

Take up your fiddle, play from C in third position, and on the root of C, play each of the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian modes, three octaves up and down, say, in fourths. Easy!?? After all, the fingering is all the same?

Now that you are skilled to the hilt in playing modes, begin (in third position, of course), on Db, and this time play through the same range of modes in, say, fourths. Simples. Right?

Now run the Dorian mode over IIm7 - V7 in all major keys, following the cycle; and the Locrian mode over IIm7b5 - V7b9 in all minor keys. (Mind you don't go beyond three octaves, play rhythmic patterns that are typical of melodic phrases, and go way, way beyond stepwise movement.)

Musicians who need to use modes, practice modes. The rest of us, well, no ...

June 9, 2019, 8:14 PM · 'Basically it's just starting a major scale on some note other than the tonic, right?....' That's correct.....

Now it becomes really interesting when one plays all the modes beginning on the same tonic, thus, Ionian on C, then Dorian on C, you get the idea. Each mode is derived from a different major scale, thus, Dorian on C is from Bb major, Phrygian on C is from Ab major, etc. So one can remember which notes to flatten or which major key the mode is derived from, just by thinking the name of the mode.

Then one can learn the 'altered modes', the 'phrygian dominant' is a common one on the II7, and maybe followed by another 'phrygian dominant' on the V7.

Really handy to understand which mode can fit over certain chords and progressions.

Edited: June 9, 2019, 9:11 PM · Jeffrey, I can't get with quarter tones. One of the problems with jazz improv on the violin is that if your intonation is not quite good, there will be ambiguity as to what notes you are actually playing, and your line will not convey to the listener. That's only going to be worse with quarter tones.

Graeme, I see what you're saying but it really comes down to how you think while you're playing. If you are thinking, "this chord goes with a Mixolydian scale so I'm playing that now" then yes, you better know that scale. I just don't want to think that way. If I want to play a scale with two sharps in it, it kind of doesn't matter where I start. On the other hand, it might be quite an effective means of practicing major and minor scales to start them on different notes. But I won't think of two sharps as anything other than D major or B minor and I probably won't even think about that. Too busy trying to make the right notes come out!

The Beethoven Spring Sonata Scherzo movement has a three-octave F-major scale that runs from G to G. I've never heard anyone call it a G Dorian scale. What would be the point of that?

June 9, 2019, 9:33 PM · 'I've never heard anyone call it a G Dorian scale. What would be the point of that?....'

There is no point. The purpose of naming modes is when they are superimposed where a diatonic mode would be.

Edited: June 9, 2019, 10:53 PM · I'm saying this as a composer who has written an entire movement of a piece for orchestra in F Dorian. When performing, it's easiest to think of it as a major scale starting on a different note, as Paul Deck says. That's what I mean by "same fingerings as the major scales" and that exactly how I've done it when I've played modal music. Isn't the whole point of practicing scales to be able to immediately know the finger pattern you're going to use for any particular key or mode? Does it really matter how you think of the key/mode as long as your fingers end up in the right place?
June 9, 2019, 11:54 PM · 'Does it really matter how you think of the key/mode as long as your fingers end up in the right place?....'

No, it doesn't matter, if the entire piece is in the same mode and does not deviate from it.

Naming modes becomes important when a piece of music modulates several times, the improviser will designate a particular mode to a certain chord and/or progression. In this case knowing the mode and it's structure is much quicker than deciphering which notes are sharpened or flattened, and which major scale it is derived from. There isn't much time to think about all of that on the fly...

June 10, 2019, 3:05 AM · I wouldn't touch western church modes with a bargepole.
If you investigate Eastern Europe and keep going until you get to India, it becomes more interesting, though.
June 10, 2019, 5:44 AM · I agree Gordon, I like the Armenian players, Gypsy style with lots of quarter tones and Persian scales
June 10, 2019, 7:36 AM · Are the Armenian fiddlers playing true quarter tones, or are they just taking "expressive intonation" to an extreme?
June 10, 2019, 7:50 AM · I believe Samvel is right on the money
June 10, 2019, 1:47 PM · I don't think there's any real reason to specifically practice any modes besides major or minor (which are modes, by the way). What do most students really have problems with?

1. making close half-steps (leading tones).
2. maintaining intonation across string crossings, especially in the high positions.
3. Getting lost in major or minor, especially sight-reading, and especially in the high positions.

Here's what I recommend to students, at least more advanced ones concerning scales. One should practice several types of major/minor scale patterns:
1. One-string one-octave scales such as those on the first part of Flesch scales.
2. One-positions scales across all four strings, in all the positions.
3. 3-octave.

I believe that the 3-octave scales are over-rated, and most people don't get enough of the first two.

For #2, I recommend choosing one key, and starting in every position. This means you're technically playing in different modes, right? So if you choose G, and start in 4th position with first finger, I suppose you're playing a Mixolydian scale. BUT.......

Modes are not really the point here. What is the point is being able to start at any point in the major/minor scale--not just the tonic--and stay oriented. It's tricky, and you may have to visualize where the half-steps are (which is the only important thing). So in G, if you start on D as in the example above, you'll have to both tell yourself "B-C and F#-G" while keeping track of which pitch you're on. Not so easy in the very highest positions. Practicing one-position scales will pay huge dividends, not only in intonation, but in sight-reading. Eventually, you develop an intuitive sense of where you are. You don't get lost in the scale.

Edited: June 10, 2019, 1:59 PM · If you have studied the first page of Galamian Contemporary Violin Technique (two octave scales), as instructed, - you did all the major and minor modes already.

Answer 'yes'.

June 13, 2019, 6:32 AM · Not quite Elise, talking out of the top of my head - Melodic minor is only minor mode when coming down.
June 13, 2019, 7:03 AM · Tonic solfa notation denotes modes with headings like:

(I've not seen the latter, as the Scottish Psalter doesn't go beyond Major, Minor and Dorian modes, and I've not seen Tallis's Phrygian mode tunes written in solfa. Singers find the Dorian mode in solfa very difficult to sight read - What they'd do with Phrygian is anybody's guess!).

June 13, 2019, 7:37 PM · 'What they'd do with Phrygian is anybody's guess!....'

Maybe they could use 'Chromatic Solfeggio'.

Do Di Re Ri Mi Fa Fi So Si La Li Ti.

Then they could sing 'all' the modes with the same tonic pitch...

June 13, 2019, 9:56 PM · As somebody that did a jazz postgraduate studies - yes!
June 14, 2019, 7:02 AM · Henry replied to

'Does it really matter how you think of the key/mode as long as your fingers end up in the right place?....'


No, it doesn't matter, if the entire piece is in the same mode and does not deviate from it.

But, hmmmm?

Modes are harmonised differently to tonal music. If you are not "thinking in the mode", how will you make sense of the harmony, especially when it features a lot of I - bVII, or vm - im ?

Henry, as an improvisor, that would be an issue for you, surely?

Edited: June 14, 2019, 8:27 AM · The best improvisers I've heard are the ones who spin out what's in their mind's ear. I can't imagine Keith Jarrett or Michel Petrucciani worrying about modes. For ordinary mortals, it might be a means to an end. And maybe those guys used it at some point too. But my own experience -- having relied on that stuff for many years because I was basically taught from the "Aebersold school" -- is that it's a crutch and an impediment to actual improvisation. Now that I'm starting to play jazz on the violin, I can see myself doing it all over again, too, and it's kind of frustrating.
June 14, 2019, 8:40 AM · Somewhere along the interminable list of music scales you'll find this oddity, the super-Locrian scale (the lower case "b" indicates the flat sign):
C Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb C
Make of it what you will :)

On a more practical note I can recommend the whole-tone scale for practicing intonation, and it's not quite as easy as you'd expect. This scale is not as rare as one might think, several modern composers using it, including Elgar, rather unexpectedly.

In one of my orchestras we've started rehearsing Elgar's "The Music Makers", a 40-minute choral work, with solo singers and full symphony orchestra. Elgar's use of harmony here is often positively Wagnerian and in places he uses the descending whole-tone scale over more than an octave, not only for the orchestra but also for singers. I find it safest to play that descending scale on one string - it can get confusing if two strings are used.

June 14, 2019, 12:03 PM · Along with the whole tone scale comes the augmented arpeggio. Nobody practices it because it's not in Flesch. But Fischer has it!
Edited: June 14, 2019, 12:40 PM · Agreed. The whole-tone scale and the augmented triads are difficult and useful for learning the crawl-shift. The church modes are technically not very useful, but the scales with the aug. 2nd gaps, like the harmonic minor, help expand the hand. There are lots of common chords that are not in our standard scale books. I find the half-diminished, [b5-7] to be difficult to remember.
June 14, 2019, 4:32 PM · If an experienced sight reader that's never practiced, say the Super Locrian, came across it while sight reading a neo classical piece, would they have an issue with it?
Edited: June 14, 2019, 5:02 PM · No problem. I'd read it as having the same notes as an ascending melodic minor scale. I wouldn't care much about where the tonal center is.

The more challenging scales are the ones that don't have seven tones.

June 14, 2019, 5:09 PM · Note: I play viola and compose, but I don't improvise. My mind works differently when composing and when playing someone else's music; I actually have a hard time doing both less than two or three hours apart. In fact, I don't even think about modes when I play my own modal music!
Edited: June 14, 2019, 7:44 PM ·
Henry, as an improvisor, that would be an issue for you, surely?

Not at all. If I am constructing a 'free-form solo improvisation' I am not required to follow any chord progression, and I can imply chords and change the mode when ever I desire.

But, when it comes to improvising over 'All Along The Watch Tower' I do have an obligation to follow the changes, as I always do no matter what the tonalities may be.

Sorry if my previous post seemed to be ambiguous.

June 14, 2019, 9:00 PM ·

Gary Burton talks about modes very clearly here. If you want an answer then watch this.

Edited: June 14, 2019, 9:21 PM · 10 minutes in is something to watch if you are coming from up and down classical scale practice.

For those of you that don't know, Gary Burton is one of the most consummate jazz improvisors.

June 15, 2019, 3:04 PM · Practicing some form of the blues scale has been a lot more useful to my improvisations than modes. I use the minor blues scale, but any form is useful practice. Jazz came out of the blues. The blues scale is a foundation. Notes in the blues scale can be used in any chord, in any song - to change "the flavor" a bit. It comes down to how do you want to spend your practice time to get improvisation skills that are useful to your performing.

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