A conversation with a young pupil about medieval monasteries (!) led to talking about the kind of music heard then; the term 'mode' came up.
Explaining modes wasn't as easy as I thought, bearing in mind that my pupil, although very bright, is only nine. My music dictionary (OUP) says that a mode is 'an ancient or exotic scale of five or more pitches to the octave, often identified with a particular emotion, ritual function, time or season, to which music is composed or improvised...' Ever tried explaining that to someone who's nine? Throw Ancient Greek influence during the Renaissance on the names of the modes and it starts to get a bit complicated. Essentially you can explore them using the white keys of the piano - I think of them as melodic note 'groups' rather than an ordered set of pitches with the 'tonic' as a reference point.
We can say that C major/minor, A major/minor are modes of these particular keys, but if you go right back to plainsong in early church or early folk songs, you find pure, simple, beautiful tunes. We might use all the notes in C major in a tune, I told her, but without finishing on the 'keynote' of C, it feels and sounds different altogether, a bit unfinished or 'outer-spacey' or heavenly (which made sense for the church). "Before 1600 it was all the rage," I said. The interest was sparked and we tried some modes to get the feel for their different moods.
Just like scales, each mode is characterised by a sequence of tones and semitones - it's what gives each one its mood or flavour. So what might these moods be? If we were to give a colour to each one, what might that be?
Here are the modes using the white notes of the keyboard, and it's a starting point for beginners, just to explore the interval sounds.
Ionian mode C up to C (Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone)
On C it is C D E F G A B C
Essentially this is the major scale. It's the most widely used set of tones and semitones in the business. It sounds bright, cheerful, clear and stable. What colour would you give it? White, or lemony yellow, my pupil suggested!
Aeolian mode A - A (T,S,T,T,S,T,T)
Therefore starting on C it would be C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
The notes of the descending melodic (natural) minor, with the flattened 3rd/6th/7th. It's sadder, even meaner, depending on how you want to use it. In the lesson we used Mozart's simple theme K265 (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) and compared what happens to the mood when you change it from starting on C to starting on A and only playing the white notes - it was a bit more 'mysterious' when the intervals changed. There's a plaintive little piece on the ABRSM piano syllabus 2015/16 at Grade 1 (Papps - Waltz) that uses it, which makes a pleasant change. Mauve, pale blue or pale lilac?
Dorian mode D - D (T,S,T,T,T,S,T)
On C, the pattern would become C D Eb F G A Bb C
The Dorian mode is a minor scale with a sharpened 6th, so sounds a little more 'upbeat' than the Aeolian. If every modal scale has it's characteristic note, then this 6th is 'it'. This mode is bluesy, soulful, so is popular in jazz. Folk songs use it too - listen to or play Drunken Sailor and Scarborough Fair, for example. Turquoise maybe, then it can be a bit of jazz blue and country green.
Phrygian mode E - E (S,T,T,T,S,T,T)
On C, the scale becomes C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C
This minor scale with the addition of a flattened 2nd comes across as even darker than Aeolian. It's broody and tense - a bit of Spanish flamenco red, deep purple or Black Sabbath, anyone?
Lydian mode F - F (T,T,T,S,T,T,S)
On C, the notes are C D E F# G A B C
This is a major scale with an augmented 4th, so it's even brighter, more spacious sounding, than the major scale. A perfect 4th seems so much more natural to the classically trained ear, but if you listen to The Simpsons theme tune, you can hear how quirky and jolly it is. Most definitely brightest yellow, orange or pink.
Mixolydian mode G - G (T,T,S,T,T,S,T)
On C, the scale is C D E F G A Bb C
My pupil noticed that 'Twinkle Twinkle' is no different if played using this mode, because we never actually reach the flat 7th as part of the melody. It's C major scale played with the dominant (5th degree) as the root. Some exploration could take place in lessons with other related major scales and modes, e.g. D mixolydian related to G major and E mixolydian related to A major etc. as a starting point for the relationship 'pull' between tonic and dominant. The 7th in the Ionian mode sounds unresolved because of the final semitone, whereas the 7th in this mode is much more gutsy. Try Richard Rodney Bennett 'Thursday' or Julian Anderson 'Somewhere near Cluj' to see how this one works on the piano. Blue?
Locrian mode B - B (S,T,T,S,T,T,T)
Starting on C, we get C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C
This is definitely an odd one, the sound of nightmares with a flat 2nd and 5th. All those diminished intervals you can make - just think of the Jaws film theme, for a start. It's a cracking mode for creating tension. I remember the theme music to those old Dracula films, full of diminished fifths - makes you want to hide behind a cushion. It sounds so unstable - perhaps it's a gunge mix of other colours, or murky grey or deepest black?
It just goes to show how different a mood you can create if you take a different note in a major scale as the starting point. We played 'Twinkle Twinkle' using modes and came up with an order of 'niceness' over the next lesson - let's call it bright to dark, with the brightest first: Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian.
Whilst there is so much more to delve into regarding modes in music, using them for improvisation or as starting points for little keyboard compositions is a valuable and fun resource. I should encourage it for 'soundscaping' some more :)