Modes and music

Modes and music

The music we’re usually discussing here predominantly uses Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian modes. Can anyone explain whether the use of these modes is more or less unique to ITM, or whether any other types of traditional music use these same multiple modes. Thanks in advance for any info you might have on this.

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Re: Modes and music

The clue is in the names: Ionian, Mixolydian, etc. They were borrowed from the ancient Greeks so they were in use in foreign climes long before what we know today as traditional Irish music ever got started.

But I’ve often thought that music theorists have over complicated the issue. Until recently, the majority of Irish players would be unable to read music, hadn’t a clue about theory and would stare at you blankly if you uttered the words: ‘Ionian mode’. Modes derive naturally from the structure of the instrument played. Take the tin whistle, for example. Start with all the holes open, close them off one at a time counting up to eight, overblow for the next octave where necessary, and you’ve got your standard major scale. Follow the same actions again but start with the first hole closed and you’ve got the scale of a different mode. Repeat again starting with the third hole closed, etc. Some of the scales will sound better than others, and those are the ones that belong to the popular modes. As the six hole whistle or flute has been found around the world throughout history then it’s no surprise that the various modes playable on that instrument are found with it.

Re: Modes and music

Ionian is the same as a common major scale, and Aeolian is the minor scale (or natural minor), so you have a lot of music in those modes.

When I hear music in other traditions with a minor feel and a major sixth (technically "Dorian"), it usually doesn’t sound like ITM. It’s probably not anyone’s intention either. Major tunes with minor seventh (Mixolydian) can also be found outside ITM (e.g. Scottish, Indian…). You find both Dorian and Mixolydian stuff in Beatles.

Re: Modes and music

Breandan Breathnach, in Folk Music and Dances of Ireland, says that the Major/Ionian mode is the most common, comprising over 60% of the tradition, Mixolydian approximately 15%, and Dorian "somewhat over 10%". He says Aeolian is the "least numerous". (He usually uses the solfege names rather than the Greek names.)

He goes on to say
"It is of interest that English folk music, by and large, falls into these same four divisions and the proportion of airs in each division is surprisingly close to the Irish figures."

Fairly common in the Scottish Highland repertoire are tunes in Lydian, where the chord based on the 2nd degree functions as the Dominant. At least one of these tunes has moved into the Irish repertoire.

About traditional Irish musicians not being aware of the modes they’re playing in, it reminds me of the story about the Appalachian dulcimer player who was asked what notes the dulcimer played.

"There ain’t no notes on the dulcimore! You jess play it!"

Re: Modes and music

Aeolian mode is very general in Andean flute or panpipe tunes, such as El Condor Pasa (maybe the best-known example).

Re: Modes and music

Although pentatonic may be thought of as an Asian mode, it has appeared in at least one example of ITM I play: "The Rookery" (see link below). There are few C’s and F#’s, and the F#’s can easily be substituted with another note in the pentatonic scale (in this case G-A-B-D-E). Naturally, if you accompany this tune with the traditional western I-IV-V chords, it doesn’t sound quite so pentatonic, but played by itself it has quite a bit of an Asian flavor to it.
https://thesession.org/tunes/2958

David E

Re: Modes and music

Until recently, the majority of Irish players would be unable to read music, "hadn’t a clue about theory and would stare at you blankly if you uttered the words: ‘Ionian mode’."

That would be me! I can read music due to learning the recorder in infant school but that’s as far as it goes! I just know tunes and whether they sound good or not. I am a theory ignoramus. I do have the book mentioned by Brendan Breathnach but I didn’t get very far with it.

Re: Modes and music

The pentatonic is great scale. It is simply a standard major scale with the semitones removed. And like the full scale it has its modes too. For example, the Scottish air ‘Speed bonny boat’ (the Skye Boat Song?) uses a mode of a pentatonic scale; on the fiddle it’s a doddle - you only need to use the first and third finger. It’s most easily played on the D and A strings and it’s only one octave.

The pentatonic seems to be almost inbuilt into our psyche; there’s great demonstration of this by Bobby McFerrin on the Ted site.

http://www.ted.com/talks/bobby_mcferrin_hacks_your_brain_with_music

It’s really worth watching.

Re: Modes and music

"standard major scale with the semitones removed" - no it isn’t - it just means "5 note" scale and there are several.
The most well known is a major or minor without the tritone interval notes e.g. Cmaj or Amin scales without B, F i.e. CDEGAC or ACDEGA
The tritone is a strange interval and often missing from simple music - which makes the pentatonic scale the best one for beginners.
Sorry, the Skye boat song doesn’t fit either!

Re: Modes and music

«… pentatonic has appeared in at least one example of ITM I play…»

You might want to look a bit closer. There are dozens of well-known tunes that are purely pentatonic and loads more into which a couple of the missing notes have surreptitiously crept, often as leading or passing notes. Also quite few tunes that show pentatonicity in the A part but lose it in the B part.

Modes are useful but only take us so far in Irish music - there are so many exceptions and curiosities. "Hexatonic" with one degree missing rather than two for example. Is Julia Delaney in D dorian or D minor? Right, where’s the sixth degree that should settle the matter (B or Bb)…

I think trying to assign a Greek/church mode to every tune is barking up the wrong tree. Except I don’t know what the right tree would be and if it existed whether it would be instructive up it to bark.

Re: Modes and music

Actually the major pentatonic scale is derived by taking five consecutive steps round the circle of fifths. The sixths and seventh steps are the ones that generate the semitone intervals in the heptatonic scale, so Muircheartaigh is sort of right. That the two missing notes happen to be a tritone apart has little relevance, and if you wanted to eliminate the tritone you would only need to remove one of those notes from the scale, not both.

Re: Modes and music

Jacob, you say, ‘Sorry, the Skye boat song doesn’t fit either!’

So let’s have a look at it.
We’ll use the key of G
A pentatonic scale starting on G has the notes GABDEG
Using a mode from that (it doesn’t matter what it’s called) starting on D has the notes DEGABD
Below is the fifth abc version of the Sky Boat Song taken from The Session music database.

X: 5
T: The Skye Boat Song
R: waltz
M: 3/4
L: 1/8
K: Gmaj
|: D3 E D2 | G4 G2 | A3 B A2 | d6 | B3 A B2 | E4 E2 | D6 | D6 :|
B3 G B2 | B6 | A3 E A2 | A6 | G3 E G2 | G4 G2 | E6 | E6 |
B3 G B2 | B6 | A3 E A2 | A6 | G3 E G2 | G4 G2 | E6 | D6 |
D3 E D2 | G4 G2 | A3 B A2 | d6 | B3 A B2 | E4 E2 | D6 | D6 |]
# Added by ceolachan 5 years ago.

It has a range of one octave, D to d, and contains only the notes DEGABD. Isn’t that pentatonic?

Re: Modes and music

"I think trying to assign a Greek/church mode to every tune is barking up the wrong tree."

I respectfully disagree here; as long as we understand and appreciate the fact that today’s Western definitions of these so called "Greek scales" actually have nothing to do with the music of ancient Greece. Fact is, we really don’t know what their music actually sounded like. (I may be off base here, but my amateurish guess is that these "modes" referred to regional musical styles of the Greek city-states rather than to specific scales). A modal scale does not have to be "pure" in its notes to be defined as such. I can play in D Ionian (major) mode but the introduction of the G# as a leading tone to the dominant chord does not change the fact that I am still playing in D Ionian. Musically, it takes more than that to re-define the mode. So "Banish Misfortune" can legitimately defined as being in the Mixolydian mode even though most notions sneak in the occassional raised 7th, such as in the final cadence.

David E

Re: Modes and music

Nice one Stiamh, brings to mind Winston Churchill’s comment along the lines of "this is language up with which I will not put!"

Re: Modes and music

You can take the scale of any mode, and choose to avoid any one of the notes, and you’re playing in a hexatonic scale. Thousands of Irish tunes are like that.

Choose to avoid any two of the notes and you’re playing in a pentatonic scale.

In other words what makes a scale hexatonic or pentatonic is how many notes are in it, not which notes they are.

For example a couple of the commonly heard Native American scales have no 2nd and a minor 3rd. (The presence of the 6th and 7th vary in different scales.)

Many Scottish tunes are in a pentatonic scale that has no 3rd or 6th.

Amazing Grace is pentatonic, having no 4th or 7th, the 3rd and 6th being Major.

Re: Modes and music

Here’s a load of songs from a span of many years using the same Major pentatonic scale, followed by a load using its relative minor scale

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3wyBtfJEuY


One could easily do the same with Irish reels and jigs, play dozens in each of several different pentatonic scales.

Re: Modes and music

The naming of them using Greek is a nod to what people thought Greek music was about, but they’re as much to do with classic revivalists as real ancient greeks.
They’re called modes for a reason, they are a way of playing music and giving it a form (flavour) as you work your way through the octave, you can play in other modes than the most common ones normally listed. They are ways of approaching an ascent or descent through a scale and giving it a flavour.
In terms of playing trad I find it simplest (quick’n’dirty works best for on the fly thinking) to just think of it as playing in a key, keeping the intervals where they are for that key, but starting and finishing on a different note depending on the flavour required (hence the focus on seven modes while many more are actually possible and used in other types of music)

I 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
D 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 2
P 3
L 4
M 5
A 6
L 7

In a way you just give the key a new home where the tune can rest or turn.
If you’re doing this with a pentatonic scale you get even more of the raw flavour; possibly because there are less locations to lock the mode down to any scale from which it might originate.
Best to get the taste in your head then leave the working out for over a pint after the music stops.
For remembering the modes I use a mnemonic which may help some.
I
Don’t
Play
Like
My
Aunt
Lilly

Re: Modes and music

I believe the ancient Greek modes were possibly originally associated with areas and peoples but they quickly became tied to particular sorts of music. Eg marching and battle music would be in one mode and paens would be in another etc… possibly in a similar way to their choice of particular dialects for particular types of literature. It was ages ago when I read all this though, so I might be misremembering or quoting some long discredited theory. At any rate I dont think we know many specifics about the scales used. There is maybe one written piece of music that survives from that era and I think a lot of theorising and reconstruction went into actually working out what it might have sounded like.
As to modes the way we understand them they are a sort of tweaked modernised take on the modes of church music. But it all seems to work quite well.
I know Phrygian gets used a fair bit in flamenco.
I think klezmer uses a kind of mode based on the fifth note of the harmonic minor but don’t quote me on that.
In short theres a lot more to modes than you might think from trad and our modern take is several degrees of tweaking away from church modes let alone whatever the ancient Greeks were doing, but it seems to work reasonably well for trad. To be honest if you’re a melody player learning by ear you don’t necessarily even need to know the key or mode unless its to shout it to a backer and when you do tends to be when you discuss modes, as in "why did you say g major when it was mixolydian?" Etc…

Re: Modes and music

With no musical education I can honestly say I don’t give a hoot what mode a tune is in as long as I can play it to sound like it should.

Re: Modes and music

I used to think Mixolydian was a a disease which rabbits suffered from until reading this thread.

Re: Modes and music

"I used to think Mixolydian was a a disease which rabbits suffered from until reading this thread."

You’re thinking of Locrian.

Re: Modes and music

Ok yes Muircheartaigh I was wrong Skye boat is pentatonic, but myxoldian according to my dim understanding of theory i.e same notes as Cmajor pentatonic but the tune starting and ending on G. I think!

Re: Modes and music

The lowest note of many pentatonic tunes happen to be a fifth below. Some of them even start and end on it - as the Skye Boat song above.

A tune doesn’t become mixolydian unless the seventh note of the scale is minor/flat - and in the case of Gmix, that’s an F.

Re: Modes and music

Yes Jeff true, but actually it’s a bit deeper than that, it’s more an aspect of the harmony and the musical effect or position of the notes. So a tune might not contain an f at all, nat or sharp ,but still be mixolydian and a tune might have only 5 notes but not actually be pentatonic .
There is more to it than just the number of notes, it’s about relationships between the notes.
It’s about the feel , not a mathematical thing .
People make the mistake of just considering the notes written down and we’re always pointing out here that there is much more to it than the dots, they are an aid , a map, a sketch but not the actual thing itself.

Re: Modes and music

Richard Cook, do you have examples of pipe tunes in the Lydian mode? I’m also not seeing how the a chord build on the 2nd degree could function as the dominant. If we were in G Lydian (with F#and C# in the key signature), why wouldn’t the dominant still be a Dmaj chord? The 2nd degree would be an Amaj. Resolving from Amaj to Gmaj wouldn’t sound like a closed cadence, in my opinion (the reverse makes a lovely mixolydian resolution, though). I’d love to see or hear examples.