The Complete Guide to Piano Modes
Everything you need to know to understand and play modes on the piano
The piano modes (also known as “church modes”) are a set of seven musical scales that were used in Western church music from the 9th to the 16th centuries. They are each based on a different arrangement of whole and half steps and have a distinct sound and character.
On the piano, each mode can be played starting on a different note of the keyboard giving the pianist a unique set of notes and intervals to work with.
Each mode has a different feel and can be used in various musical genres, from classical to folk to popular music. By studying and playing the piano modes, musicians can broaden their musical understanding and expand their creative possibilities.
How are piano modes used?
Piano modes are used in various musical genres and styles to create different moods and emotions. They provide pianists with a set of notes and intervals that can be used to create unique harmonies and melodies.
One common use of modes is in classical music, where they were widely used in the Baroque period as a way to create different emotional effects. For example, the Dorian mode is often used to create a mood of melancholy or sadness, while the Lydian mode is often used to create a sense of brightness and excitement.
In jazz music, modes are frequently used as a basis for improvisation and composition. Jazz pianists often use the modes as a starting point for creating solos or composing new pieces, taking advantage of their unique sounds and tonalities.
In popular music, modes are sometimes used to create a specific vibe or mood. For example, the Mixolydian mode is often used in blues music to create a specific “bluesy” feel, while the Phrygian mode is sometimes used in flamenco music to create an exotic, sultry feel.
The seven piano modes
The seven church modes are:
- Ionian: This mode is also known as the major scale. It has a bright, open sound and is associated with feelings of triumph and glory.
- Dorian: This mode has a characteristically minor sound, but with a raised sixth scale degree. It is often used to evoke feelings of sadness or longing.
- Phrygian: This mode has a distinctive Middle Eastern sound and is associated with feelings of mystery and tension.
- Lydian: This mode has a bright and joyful sound, with a raised fourth scale degree.
- Mixolydian: This mode has a relaxed and laid-back sound, with a lowered seventh scale degree. It often has a bluesy and relaxed sound.
- Aeolian: This mode is also known as the natural minor scale and is associated with feelings of melancholy and introspection.
- Locrian: This mode has a lowered second and fifth scale degree. It is the least common mode as is associated with feelings of instability and mystery.
The Ionian mode is exactly the same as the commonly used major scale. It is a series of musical pitches that are based on a specific pattern of whole and half steps. The Ionian mode starts and ends on the root note and follows the pattern: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (where W is a whole step and H is a half step). This pattern results in a sound that is often described as happy, bright, or confident.
In Western music, the Ionian mode is considered the “default” mode and is often used as the starting point for creating melodies and harmonies. It is used in a variety of musical genres, including classical, pop, rock, and jazz. The Ionian mode can be played in any key by starting on a different root note.
The Dorian mode is named after the ancient Greek region of Doris. It is a musical scale that starts on the second scale degree of the natural minor scale.
The Dorian scale is often used in various types of music, such as Jazz, blues, rock, and gospel. It has a characteristic minor sound, but with a raised sixth scale degree, which gives it a unique sound and feel. It’s often used to evoke feelings of sadness or longing.
The Phrygian mode starts on the third scale degree of the natural minor scale, and is characterized by a specific pattern of whole and half steps that give it a characteristic Spanish or Middle Eastern sound, with a lowered second scale degree. It is used in a variety of musical styles to evoke a specific mood or emotional effect.
The Lydian scale has a bright, otherworldly sound with a raised fourth scale degree. The Lydian mode is often used in various types of music, such as Jazz and Classical. It has a bright and happy sound that evokes feelings of joy and optimism. It is named after the ancient Greek region of Lydia.
The Mixolydian mode is a musical scale that starts on the fifth scale degree of the major scale, and is characterized by a specific pattern of whole and half steps that give it a bluesy, dominant sound with a flat seventh scale degree. It is used in a variety of musical styles to evoke a specific mood or emotional effect.
The Aeolian mode, also known as the natural minor scale, starts on the sixth scale degree of the major scale and has a distinct pattern of whole and half steps. It is often used to create a sad or melancholy mood in music.
The Locrian mode is less commonly used in Western music compared to other modes and is often considered the most dissonant and unstable of the seven modes. It is used primarily for special effects or for creating an unstable or tense atmosphere in music.
History of the piano modes
Musical modes have a rich history that dates back to ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras is credited with developing the concept of musical modes and creating the first systematic classification of musical scales. He divided the octave into various intervals, which he named after the different regions of Greece.
In the Middle Ages, the concept of musical modes was further developed by the Catholic Church, which used them to create chant melodies. The church named the different modes after various regions of Greece and assigned each mode a specific use, such as for liturgical use, meditation, or expression of joy or sadness.
During the Renaissance, the use of modes in Western music expanded and they became an important part of the compositional process. Composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi wrote works in which they used various modes to create different emotional effects.
As Western music developed, the use of modes declined, and by the Classical period, the major and minor keys had become the dominant scales. However, modes continued to be used in folk music and in various forms of world music.
In the 20th century, modes experienced a revival in the Western world, particularly in Jazz, where they were used to create different harmonies and chord progressions. Modes also continue to play an important role in various forms of traditional and contemporary world music, such as in Middle Eastern and African music.