Modus operandi

I’ve already mentioned modes in the context of Vaughan Williams’ first and second symphonies and several other works, the Tallis Fantasia, Wenlock Edge and so on. By the time he had finished the third (Pastoral) symphony (1921) the composer’s mature style was almost completely formed, and much of that unique, instantly recognisable ‘Vaughan Williams sound’ was the result of his extensive use of modal melody and harmony.

What is a mode? I wasted a good part of my week in pursuit of a definition that didn’t read like a quadratic equation, but, so far, have drawn a complete blank (let me know if you find one!). So, thrown back on my own resources, I have produced my own Brief Guide to Modes – good luck!!

Imagine a piano keyboard:

Keyboard graphic 2 octaves

If you start on C and play all the white notes in ascending order up to the next C you get a scale you’ll recognise; it sounds like this:


…what you’ve just heard is the one of the main building blocks of nearly all the music written from the mid-17th through to the late 19th century – the major scale. This scale is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde character; it has a dual existence,
a) as the scale of the key of C (no sharps, no flats) and,
b) as the mode we now call the major but which was once known as the Ionian:


The difference between key and mode? Well, key has to do with pitch (G major has one sharp and starts on G, E-flat major has three flats and starts on E-flat, etc.); but mode is concerned with pattern. You’ll notice that under each of the examples of modes below I’ve written their template, expressed in the distance between each consecutive note [S =semitone, the smallest pitch difference in European music and T =tone= 2 semitones)]. The Ionian/major scale’s pattern/template is, therefore TTSTTTS (check it out on the keyboard):

Keyboard graphic 2 pattern

and this pattern, repeated at different pitches, give us the twelve major keys available in Western music.

Now, modes are different, each has its own pattern: if, instead of making C the centre of things, we move up one note and focus on D, by playing the scale (white notes only!) to the next D up, we arrive at a new pattern (TSTTTST); it’s called the Dorian mode.



The Dorian mode can be very folksy: think of Scarborough Fair or Lovely Joan (remember it? it’s the middle bit of Vaughan Williams’ Greensleeves Fantasia). But it also has a darker more austere side which finds profound expression in Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony.

Next up is the scale from E to E (you’re either getting the hang of this by now or have fallen asleep); it produces the pattern STTTSTT and is called the Phrygian mode.



We (those of you with dog-sleds, that is) encountered this mode last week when we listened to the Tallis Fantasia (both the Tallis tune and a lot of the original Vaughan Williams that make up the work are Phrygian). Like the Dorian, this mode, too has a darker side, but not of the cold north with its limitless forests and endless nights. Phrygian sings of the warm south, of Spain, duende and flamenco; of Hungary, cimbaloms, violins and the cigányok (gypsies) (think of Falla’s El amor brujo; think of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies).

The Lydian mode runs from F to F giving us a TTTSTTS template. It starts off like a major scale but has added bite (rather like being surprised by a tangy cheese or a squirt of lemon juice) in its sharpened fourth note (B-natural – the scale of F major has a B-flat).



In later life Beethoven started to experiment with modes outside the usual major and minor; both the 9th symphony and the Missa Solemnis contain such modal writing. The most famous example, however, comes from his string quartet in a minor Op. 132 in which the slow movement, entitled Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode), contains long, hymn-like sections of Lydian modality.

Polish music also favours this mode – Chopin used it, when he wanted to be particularly nationalistic (in Mazurkas, and Polonaises).

The Mixolydian’s pattern is TTSTTST: almost a major scale (TTSTTTS) but with the last two intervals reversed



It’s difficult to imagine how pop (from the Beatles to Lady Gaga) and film music (think of all those science-fiction films!) could function without the Mixolydian. In our neck of the woods there is, fortuitously, the opening of the Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony or, again, what about Debussy’s Cathédrale Engloutie – a submerged cathedral that rises magnificently above the waters to ringing triads in the Mixolydian.

The Aeolian (TSTTSTT) is, like the Ionian, a case of survival under another name. As you know ‘traditional’ music theory allowed for only two (out of the seven possible) modes and named them, not the Ionian and the Aeolian, but the major and the minor. However, in order to fit the Procrustean bed of tonality, certain alterations had to be made to this ‘natural’ minor mode, and there arose the double-headed  dragon (tormentor of young instrumentalists) of harmonic and melodic minor scales.



Examples of the natural minor are, as you’d expect, legion: one that immediately pops into my head is the opening melody of Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony.

The Locrian (STTSTTT) is the unstable problem-child/nutty relative of the mode family. The reason is that, while all the others can form settled major or minor chords using their home note as a bass, the poor Locrian can only come home to the very shaky environment of a diminished triad (in the example below b, d and f), a chord that always seems to want to be somewhere else.



Despite its iffyness, it has been used from time to time; both Debussy’s Jeux and Hindemith’s pithily named  Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber contain sections in the Locrian.

To hear these modes all moved (transposed) to the same starting note (C) click here.

That’s it. Enough for the moment. Finished. [YOU CAN OPEN YOUR EYES NOW!]

Course materials:

VW biography

The music:

André Previn;Heather Harper – A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No. 3): Molto moderato

[Spotify search terms: vaughan williams “pastoral symphony” previn]

This week I’ve posted two pages that some of you will have seen before. I hope they’ll be of some help if you need to sort out the occasional musical problem. There’s a keyboard for scales and intervals and a cycle of fifths for those knotty problems with key structure.


Cycle of 5ths

Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as “fair use/dealing”, for the purpose of study, and critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s).