Jump to content

Why do the major modes sound like completely different tonalities?

Recommended Posts

Focusing on C as the tonic, all the minor modes sound like alterations of a single tonality, C minor. Locrian is so unstable that it sounds unusable to me for anything other than a chord scale played over a diminished chord. On the other hand, the major modes sound completely different. They don't sound like an altered C major at all. C Ionian is the only one that sounds like the root is C to me. C Mixolydian sounds like F is the actual root and it is just displaced by a fourth downwards. In other words, it sounds like F major. C Lydian under the same circumstances sounds like G major.

But why do the major modes sound like completely different tonalities? Is it because I'm so used to the circle of fifths representing a sequence of keys that when I take F major and G major and have them start on C, they still sound like F major and G major? I have 2 theories behind why the minor modes all sound like a single tonality. First off, they all have a minor tonic which alone gives a minor sound to it. Second, it is so common to chromatically alter Aeolian(the natural minor scale) that it barely even registers as a difference(unless you're talking about melodic minor, in which case, to my ears, it sounds like the minor tonic is lying to me and it actually sounds more major than minor). This extends to the minor modes which themselves are used more frequently than the major modes are. So they all sound like a C minor tonality.

I have been able to use the minor modes to my advantage to cause a modulation. I did this in my Spring Trio. If you listen carefully, after the D minor sections of my Spring Trio, I use D Dorian and it sounds like it is going to go to D minor but it instead goes to C major. In other words, I did a modal modulation.

Anyway, is my theory relating the major modes to the circle of fifths the reason that each of the major modes sounds like a different tonality?

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Good question. I have always wondered the same.
I find it specifically hard to compose a piece in a specific mode like Lydian / Mixolydian, because I automatically look for Aeolian / Ionian harmonies.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

We're all too familiar with Ionian and Aeolian modes, so I'll skip those in this post.

The Mixolydian mode isn't too difficult to hear in the home key, and there are plenty of examples of this mode. A lot of blues songs and even traditional Irish music use it. The 'Fellowship Theme' from The Lord of the Rings soundtrack by Howard Shore is in Mixolydian mode.

A lot of flamenco (what our ears perceive as 'Spanish' music) is in Phrygian mode. It sounds pretty exotic and exciting, though it 'feels' like a song in the relative minor. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oTXa6FFnPI0) This song isn't purely in Phrygian mode, but you can hear the exoticism when it happens.

C Dorian also sounds like C minor, but the raised sixth gives it an "ancient" feel. The traditional English song, "The Cuckoo" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPIC9-hGptw is in Dorian mode.) Rather beautiful, in my opinion.

Lydian mode is less common although you can hear bits of it in this mazurka by Chopin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK07kKSMQC0. Although this piece is a modified Lydian mode, pure Lydian mode doesn't have a minor feel to it. (The Polish mazurka is traditionally in Lydian mode.)

That leaves Locrian mode, the strangest and least-used of all modes. Nobody really employed it until the 20th century, because... well, it's built on a dissonant tonal chord. To human ears, there's no finality to the 'tonic' Locrian chord so writing a song in this mode served no purpose until the "anything goes" mindset of modern music.

So, I can't answer your question about whether this modal perception comes about because of our dependence on the circle of fifths.

But maybe this will help—the 'major-sounding' modes are Ionian (of course), Mixolydian and Lydian. The 'minor-sounding' modes are Aeolian (of course), Phrygian, and Dorian. And then there's Locrian, which sounds like straight dissonance.

I hope this all made sense... let me know if you have further questions!


Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

When you are in modal music, forget about circle of fifths. Don't think of dominants and subdominants.

Stick to the characteristic note of the mode and CADENTIAL chords.

Always avoid progressions that reminds to major mode, that is V-I, V-iii, V-iv.

In lydian mode use II and bVIIm as cadential chords: in C lydian =   D - C, or Bm - C.... don't use (or take it with care) D7 - C because D7 "wants to resolve" in G and that may confuse the ear to the major mode.

In myxolidian mode use bVII - I as cadential: in C myxo = Bb - C

You can eve write in pure ionian mode (not major) if you use  Dm - C as cadential chords.

Locrian mode is, of course, possible nowadays.

Inmodal music insist in the tonic all the time, even as a pedal note with other chords.


Just examples



Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...