from the 'Wake' Blues session after Joe Scurfield's awful untimely death

Using classical Greek modes on a melodeon

Some of the longsuffering members posting on have expressed a certain ennui about my mentioning the Greek music modes in posts. I'd reply that nearly all of our folk tunes are rooted in a mode (you have to start/end that melody somewhere on the keyboard) and knowing something about them is therefore useful. For example they explain why some E minor tunes take their C note from the G row, others from the D, and why some chords don't seem to work. Modes are also a classic way of analysing improvisation. Albeit some would say "don't analyse"!

Anyway - it's here if you want it Chris Ryall

Some background to musical modes

Any musical scale can have 'modes' - generated by starting play on its 2nd, 3rd etc notes respecively. The concept came from the standard 'diatonic' (AKA "Do Re Mi" AKA "white notes of piano") scale originally used in Gregorian chant. The monks found they could get a different 'feel' to music if they based tunes on the seven possible modes available, and gave these names, generally referring to ancient Greek cities or areas where the folk music used these modes.

This web page explores playing in these classical modes on melodeon - a standard English D/G. Although the examples given are in the key of D please realise that all 11 possible keys can generate the same seven modes,and that a 'dorian' based on the second note of G (ie A) will have a similar feel to a 'dorian' based on D, the second note of the C major scale - or that based on E in the examples below for that matter

The seven Greek modes of 'D major' on a D/G two row

The outer row of a D/G melodeon plays the 'diatonic' scale of D major.

    Dpush   Epull   F#push   Gpull   Apush   Bpull   C#pull   Dpush

In its simpler forms much Western music uses this so called 'major' scale, starting and ending on the note of D and harmonising over a D,F#,A chord traid in folk (jazzers add C# to get a cooler 'major 7th')

Gratuitous Ego boost to one row players

Axiomatically, all these notes are available on a single row, so the seven modes should be all there too. Indeed they are. When the one row Maestro plays a tune 'in three minor keys' he is simply using different push pull patterns to pull out (usually) the æolian, dorian and phrygian modes described below. It may be that the flat second note of phrygian sounds a bit sour - he'll slyly leave that one out. He'll also find that some of his chords won't work as one of the notes is in the wrong direction. But a top player can fake that too!

So this isn't two row rocket science. It's just that the second row and ideally a reversed C#/D elsewhere makes fingering easie especially when improvising. Should you invest in a third row you'll find modes of other keys such as F, and the more complex minor keys such as 'harmonic' become available.

The seven modes

Modes can be played on any instrument that has a diatonic scale. On a penny whistle one would simply start each mode a single hole higher. On melodeon we have a choice of push-pull or cross-fingering. The latter is better for improvisation and also facilitates note runs in folk melodies. But neither is wrong. If you cross-finger, note that D or C# are in only one direction on a 2-row box, though you can run most of the scale.

An important concept is that all these modes are associated with chords. These chords are made simply by taking alternate odd notes of the modal scale. In jazz these chords are then 'extended'up into second octave and referred to be adding 7 to the 1-3-5-7 already in use. There's a twist in that standard chord naming is relative to a simple major scale. This expains constructs such as C#min7b9 or Gmaj7#11 but don't worry about that for now.

Characteristic notes

Each mode also contains a 'sensitive' or 'characteristic' note. This note is really important in expressing the 'feel' of a mode, and improvisors tend to hammer it a bit. As an example our 'phrygian' 2nd mode of D (start F#) is demarcated from F# 'æolian'(NB that's also starting F#, but playing notes of the A major scale) by the presence of a G rather than a G#. Listen for these sensitive notes as you midi, or better play, the scales below

Mode 1 - Straight up the scale from D - "Ionian"

D E F# G A B C#
download midi

Is a scale a mode of itself? Ionian is the 'standard' scale against which others are referenced. Speed the Plough is a classic ionian mode tune. Ionian doesn't really have a 'sensitive note' in folk music. The nearest that comes to it is it's major 7th (C# in D) but folk tends not to play that one. The chord that defines the modes is D major (D F# A) or the jazzier Dmaj7 (D F# A C#)

Mode 2 - start on E - "Dorian"

E F# G A B C# D
download midi

E dorian a minor because of its third note G - in the major it'd be G#. Dorian is brighter than æolian and is a folk music minor scale par excellence! About 90% of Irish minor stuff is dorian and it's ery common in english lyrical song. Jazz buffs will use dorian over just about any minor chord, "it sound so nice"'! I'd personally say that the Dorian Em scale is the minor your D/G melodeon was built for.

To prove it, here's Melnet contributor Anahata playing Idbbury Hill, and "Stepback" in Em.

Mode 3 - start on F# - "Phrygian"

F# G A B C# D E
download midi

Phrygian is quite rare in British folk music, but commonplace in the Balkans, and absolutely the standard scale in Turkey (Phrygia was an Asia minor city) Bulgaria and parts of India. Relative to the 'standard' æolian minor it has a flattened 9th (counted as second note +7) note and this G is its 'sensitive' note.

Phrygian mode is common in jazz because strangely it plays nicely over dominant 7th chords, and you can take liberties making 3rd note major or minor because of a relation to Blues scales. Phrygian is "cool".

Improvisors on this scale tend to take liberties with both its third and seventh notes. Making the third onto a major (here A#) produces the so called gypsy/Spanish/arabic scale that seems neither major nor minor. And they seem to switch major/minor 7ths at will with no sense of 'bum note'.

The defining chord of phrygian is a dominant 7th extended by a b9 (ie a half tone above the tonic. Importantly, as the chord then includes the sensitive note. On our present D base, we get F#, A, C#, E, G = "F#min7,b9"

download midi

Mode 4- start on G - "Lydian"

G A B C# D E F#
download midi

Lydian mode with it's "bright" characteristic fourth note is a big, big jazz scale. Here we are using the D notes to play a scale starting on G. Our ear expects Cnat but gets C#.

The related chord for lydian mode again needs extension to include the sensitive note - G, B, D, F#, C = "Gmaj7#11"

download midi

Lydian has a characteristic, bright 'tinkle' due to the tritone between F# and C, but as it's in the extensions it doesn't seem to act as a dominant.

For melodeon this scale is actually more useful when playing in G! Next time you play a G tune and it has a C there, try reaching into the D row for C# instead. so long as you keep the tune's momentum going it nearly always works and can lift it (but be judicious). To get that blue feel try running both - eg B-C-C#-D

The underlying theory is that the sensitive note in the G scale is a 4th and not expressed in the G chord which has first, third and fifth. In general it is safe to change notes that lie between those of the present chord. Rather braver to switch those within it.

Watch Kate McGarrigle do this sort of thing, and also play G in its mixolydian D mode on this Youtube clip

There's another lydian in G when you hold a C drone and play rocking the bellows. In this case you are playing G scale notes against C bass. Should be F, but you play F# = C lydian. We do it all the time!

There is a different way to think of lydian. You have a choice on say a flute of playing 'simple G scale' or 'G lydian' over a Gmaj7 chord. The C/C# is 'out' of the chord so it's undefined. The jazzers trying to break out of the bebop straighjacket realised this and switched fluently. But they also said that while base diatonic 'worked' over a major chord - lydian 'was' the major scale. Miles Davis went so far as to say that the centre note on a piano should be 'F' - making its defining 'white notes' scale lydian F!

The major scale probably emerged as the predominating scale of Western music, because within its seven tones lies the most fundamental harmonic progression of the classical era....thus, the major scale resolves to its tonic major chord. The Lydian scale is the sound of its tonic major chord. REFERENCE

Mode 5 - start on A - "Mixolydian"

A B C# D E F# G
download midi

We are completely back into folk music here with much Scots, French, American and Blues music based on mixolydian scale. It's uniquitous in County and Western - not so common in England. Here the associated chord is perhaps even more important.

    A, C#, E, G  = "A7"

Why underline two notes? Because C# and G are a tritone (three whole tones) apart which is as unrelated as two notes can get. Play this chord (four adjacent buttons, G row, pull). Feel its "instability". Now push and feel the "resolution". For this reason the mixolydian related "7" chord is called "dominant" and by convention has four rather than three notes. But actually only its G and C# are needed (try it).

The charateristic note off mixolydian is undoubtedly its 'blue' or 'minor' 7th - here G. It is the only major mode that hase this minor seventh note.

Mode 6 - start on B - "Æolian"

B C# D E F# G A
download midi

Æolian is regarded the prototype minor (often called 'simple' or 'relative' minor) and has flattened 3rd and 6th notes relative to major scale. The æolian scale is very even tempered and its name comes from 'whispering winds'. It has two sensitive notes. firstly there is its obvious minor third. However its 6th (here G) also carries 'minorness' and in also 'minor' relative to the major scale. This specifically discriminates it from the brighter Dorian. It is regarded as a tonically 'flat' mode - but that can be nice.

    B, D, F#, A  = "Bmin7" Both B "æolian" scale and its assocated chord work better on push on our D/G box.

Example tune - Melnet's doughty "Lester" plays March TOTMSchottische a Bethanie (opens new tab/window)
an iasidenat as a "passing note" and you are playing the classic Blues scale.

As dorian and æolian modes only differ in their 6th note you can drop in and out of Blues from either scale. You can get away with changing C# to C in a dorian tune (eg running a C bass into and Irish jig) but playing C# when the melody is æolian tends to sound ugly.

Mode 7 - start on C# - "Locrian"

download midi

Locrian is exceedingly rare in folk music. It is phrygian but with added darkness in its flattened 5th characteristic note. As with "mixolydian" our tonic C# and b5th G clash within the chord and demand resolution. It again this acts as a dominant.

The chord that "defines"locrian is the "minor7,b5,b9" - in D that's C#, E, G, B, D = C#m7,b5,b9 - conveniently a simple four adjacent pull notes on the D row. Did you expect something more complicated?

Locrian mode has little utility in folk, but because of its intrinsic tension is very important in Blues, impro and jazz. It is actually possible to go one further into musical darkness in two ways ...

  1. Further flatten the (already minor) 7th note of the scale - it is now "diminished"
  2. Flatten the 4th (here F# to Fnat) as well as 5th notes. This generates the "altered" scale commonly used in jazz.

Some important associated concepts

Numbering v naming - source of confusion

Sadly musical notation didn't evolve entirely logically and this will likely lead you into confusion. Importantly a scale "has modes" but I personally think these are best referred to by their number.

Thus the second mode of D is E dorian scale. Put another way E dorian is a mode of D major. The underlying principle is that any named mode other than ionian is always based on the notes from a different key

Examples: D dorian is the 2nd mode of C major. D mixolydian is 5th mode of G major. D lydian is the 4th mode of A major. OK, a harder one. If you work it out .. D locrian is the 7th mode of E flat .. but Eb is an utter pig on our instument so "just theory"!

Confused? I was. Just go through the above a second time - it's just looking at the same process from top, or bottom line. You should try out these modes on your box and try to be able to play in them at will. Should you have a reversed D/C# on a third row it will make things much easier, and also allow full chording.

The concept of majorness or minorness

Is this real - well yes! The notes in a scale that define it's major/minor quality are obviously the third, but also the sixth and the second/ninth. The fifth note is pretty neutral as a true harmonic interval, but gives extra darkness when flattened (here in locrian). To put the modes in major/minor order - I've made them all C based scales to emphasise my point. Note that these C 'xxxxian' scales are all modes of different majors. But that isn't the issue. Try playing these out in order. Just listen for minorness ...

Major+Lydian 4th mode of G
MajorIonian ..simple C major
'blue' MajorMixolydian 5th mode of F
Minor + 'sparkle'Dorian 2nd mode of Bb
'softer' MinorÆolian 6th mode of Eb
Darker .. Phrygian 3rd mode of Ab
Very darkLocrian 7th mode of Db (or C#)
All the wayAltered scale mode of melodic minor

That final one is not a greek mode and so is only included for 'completeness'. It's the 'altered' scale of jazz and can be seen as a tonic with every other note flattened - Db, Eb, Fb(=E), Gb, Ab, Bb! It's sometimes called 'super locrian' for this reason.

IMPORTANT - reality check!!

At this point in what is not exactly rocket theory - everyone feels they might have cracked it. But there is a trap that many including yours truly have fallen into. So time for a quick recap.

If a modal scale is not simply 'major' .. then it is a mode of some other major scale.

Exploring the modes of a different major scale

OK now find the seven modes on your G row - they aren't quite so fluid are they? It's useful to then appreciate that dorian Em scale is based on D notes, and contrast it with the æolian Em you've just found based on G notes. The only difference is C# rather than Cnat - but what a difference! That is why picking the wrong C when playing a folk tune can sound a bit raw.

Still don't believe it - try this 'plinn' - a Breton dance recorded live in South France in 2011. It's la chambre bleue by Pignol and Milleret. It uses C# locrian and F# phrygian scales both of which are simple diatonic D modes. So (apart from Stéph's fine lead break) it's all playable on your D row.

Chambre Bleue © Stéphane Milleret (with permission)

That isn't to say it might be easier cross fingered - up to you.

Chord notation is different

Chords also have their own notation which is slightly out of sync with the modes, based generally on their lowest 'tonic' note, and relativeto the major scale. Thus our ionian triad is called simply "D" whereas the second mode chord is "E minor". Although the chords and the scales are the same thing the scale is numbered from first to seventh notes. I'll do simple examples in C for general chording.

Basic chords are simply built up by stacking adjacent odd notes. 1,3,5 is called a triad, major or minor depending on that third note. 1,3,5,7 is regarded as a full or richer chord. In modal music a flat 3rd implies a flat 7th with the important exception of the mixolydian mode 5, where mixed major 3rd and minor 7th ring as a tritone to give the chord 'dominance'

In this scheme the even notes are then regarded as 'extentions'. If you want a 2nd in there to add richness - its voiced in the second octave. 2+7 = 9th.(If you put these 'even' notes in in the lower octave it's called a suspended (sus) chord - another topic).

  Ctonic   E3rd   G5th   Bmajor 7   D9th   F11   A13

The triad can be either major or minor. In anything less minor than locrianb5>, changing mode is then equivalent to keeping that basic major or minor 1,3,5 structure the same, and changing those even notes. eg you'd flatten notes 2 and 6 of a basic minor triad to "force" phrygian mode.

  Ctonic   Ebminor3rd   G5th Bbminor7   ->   Ctonic   Ebminor3rd  G5th Bbminor7   Dbminor9

Db is the phrygean characheristic note, so its mere presence is sufficient to imply that scale. An Ab is also implied, and you could add it too in the second octave. When improvising you'll need to play all three these flat notes. The trick seems to be to play a true scale, keep a strict rhythm, and just keep going!

  Ctonic   Db(2)   Eb3rd   F(4)  ; G5th   Abb6   Bbminor7   C (3rd mode of Eb)

"Full" chording in D

As the modal scales can be started on any of our seven notes - so can the chords. Jazzers find it convenient to then number the chords too, conventionlly using Latin numerals. Some people drop into lower case for the minors (see chart) but that isn't critial. For we melodeonists, the seven 'full' chords of the D scale are given below. They are all technically available, generally on the pull, albeit you may need to borrow a pull D and get a resultant odd voicing

 Notes usedChord nameScales that may work
ID,F#,A,C# Dmaj7D ionion, or D lydian (mode of A scale)
II (ii)E,G,B,DEmin7E æolian, dorian or sometimes phrygian, (E blues)
III (iii)F#,A,C#,EF#min7b9 Phrygian (other minors if that Gb9 is not included), F# blues
IVG,B,D,F#Gmaj7 G lydian (or G ionian!)
VA,C#,E,G A7Lots of things!
VI (vi)B,D,F#,A Bmin7 any minor, or B blues
VII (vii)C#,E,G,B C#minb5,b9(aka C#φ)Lochian or Altered

download midi

Observe how the notes are simply stacked up - the modes and the chords are one! That's actually all there is to the Greek modes. It's a matter of using them in your music. The main way it to emphasis the tonic of the current mode, and it;s characteristic note in any impro or ornamantation.

OK. Any scale in music can be made into modes, or for that matter split into the associated chords. In particular the non diatonic (so tonal) "harmonic" and "melodic" minors generate special scales/modes that I will descibe on another page

If you can see this your browser is ignoring this page's syle sheet!

Acknowledgement I'd like to thank the community for their help in constructing and debugging this page.

link: site uses validated HTML-4.01 and CSS-2 - visit for more info © Chris Ryall 2010/11