(c) 1998 Zeke Hoskin SOCAN
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Playing in Different Tunings
Very many melodies use exactly seven notes. Seven seems to be the number of notes which most people can keep track of and feel they belong in a tune. Many more tunes have an essentially seven-note feel to them, but contain accidentals, notes that don't belong to the original set but emphasize a place where the scale has changed for a short time.

There are many melodies that use fewer than seven notes, but I'm not going to cover them here. There is also a body of art music that deliberately uses more notes, sometimes going so far as to use all twelve notes on the piano the same number of times. A modal analysis of Schoenberg would be interesting but beyond the scope of this page.

Assume a palette of twelve distinct notes from which we can choose our seven-note scale. Most often these twelve notes are the 12-tone equal tempered scale used in Western music.

Ecclesiastic Modes

Start with a sequence of seven notes skipping upwards by a tone, a tone, a semitone, a tone, a tone, a tone, (and another semitone to get to the note an octave above where we started). This is our ordinary Major Scale. We could call the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B or Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti. When we play in C Major, we use C as the keynote, and melodies tend to end on C (or at least feel as if they want to.) If we tune a harp or similar instrument to this scale, tunes that center around C will sound "major".

Now, take this same instrument and play a song that centers around A. It sounds completely different, more solemn and less cheerful. We call this sound "Minor". I conjecture that the reason the notes are named so the major scale starts with "C" and the minor scale starts with "A" is that the church composers considered the minor scale to be more important.

Given a seven-note instrument, we can obviously choose any note as the keynote. Tunes centering around each note sound different, and scales beginning with each note were given special names as "Modes".

The Notes And Intervals in Church Modes

       ("t" stands for Tone and "s" stands for Semitone)
MODE      Note    Note    Note    Note    Note    Note    Note   Note
Aeolian    A   t   B   s   C   t   D   t   E   s   F   t   G   t   A
Locrian    B   s   C   t   D   t   E   s   F   t   G   t   A   t   B	
Ionian     C   t   D   t   E   s   F   t   G   t   A   t   B   s   C
Dorian     D   t   E   s   F   e   G   t   A   t   B   s   C   t   D	
Phrygian   E   s   F   t   G   t   A   t   B   s   C   t   D   t   E
Lydian     F   t   G   t   A   t   B   s   C   t   D   t   E   s   F
Myxolydian G   t   A   t   B   s   C   t   D   t   E   s   F   t   G
The names assigned to the modes come from regions of ancient Greece. The Church theoreticians thought that music in the various modes reflected the character of the regions.

A majority of Western music uses either the major scale (Ionian mode) or the minor scale (Aeolian mode). Many Celtic tunes are in Mixolydian and Aeolian mode, Phrygian has a flamenco sound to it, and Dorian is a popular Renaissance mode. The distinctive feeling of Myxolydian tunes is the seventh note, F instead of F# as it would be in G minor. Dorian has sixth note B instead of the Bb expected in D minor, and Phrygian has second note F instead of the F# expected in E minor. Celtic Aeolian music tends to use Am, G, and F chords where minor-scale music tends towards Am, Dm, and Em.


The Church theoreticians gave their modes Greek names, but Church modes are not much like Greek modes. Greek theoreticians analyzed the musical meanings of tetrachords, sequences of four musical tones. A musical scale consisted of a tetrachord starting on the keynote and another tetrachord starting on the fifth and ending on the keynote.

For the purposes of having names to talk about, I will call a tetrachord that goes up by a tone, a tone, and a semitone a "major tetrachord". Example: C, D, E, F is a major tetrachord and so is G, A, B, C. A tetrachord that goes up tone, semitone, tone is a "minor tetrachord", like A, B, C, D or D, E, F, G. One that goes up semitone, tone, tone like E, F, G, A will be called a "subminor tetrachord". Now we see that five of the Church modes break into tetrachords:

    Mode      First Tetrachord     Second Tetrachord
Ionian             Major                Major
Mixolydian         Major                Minor
Dorian             Minor                Minor
Aeolian            Minor                Subminor
Phrygian           Subminor             Subminor

Lydian mode starts with three tones - not one of the tetrachords we're using. And Locrian mode doesn't have a note a fifth above the keynote.

By combining the three tetrachords, we get four other modes: minor-major, subminor-minor, major-subminor, and subminor-major. Minor-major is seen in classical analysis as the ascending melodic minor scale. The first three of these new modes can all be played by tuning C sharp but leaving F natural, giving A major-subminor, D minor-major, and E subminor-minor. To get a subminor-major scale you have to retune two notes: C# and D# gets us E subminor-major.

Just because a mode exists doesn't make it sound good. The only one of the four non-Church modes I really like is minor-major, which lets me play tunes where the chord on the keynote is D minor but the chords on the fourth and fifth notes are G major and A major.

Ethnic Minor and the Gapped Tetrachord

The Greeks thought up a *lot* of tetrachords, and most of them don't fit into equal-tempered tunings. One very important one that does fit is what I'll call a "gapped tetrachord", consisting of a semitone, a gap equal to two tones less a semitone, and another semitone. Some theoreticians consider the "leading tone", one semitone below the keynote, to be essential for music to sound right, and they created the harmonic minor scale, like the minor scale but with the seventh note raised to be one semitone below the keynote. This scale breaks down into a minor tetrachord and a gapped tetrachord.

To play in A harmonic minor, you would tune your G to G#. This is an interesting tuning. If you start your scale at E, you get a gapped tetrachord E-F-G#-A with a subminor tetrachord on top. This scale is sometimes called "Jewish minor" because a lot of Jewish tunes (think Havah Nagilah) use it.

Much Eastern European music uses a scale of two gapped tetrachords. It is especially characteristic of Rom music.

With four tetrachords to choose from, we can get sixteen different modes. Not all of them will sound good to you.

Ukrainian Modes, Sharped Fourth, and Double Leading Tones

I put aside the Lydian mode because its first four notes didn't span a fourth. If we don't insist on having a fourth in the scale, then we can use the Lydian Tetrachord as a bottom tetrachord with any of the others. Lydian Mode is then a Lydian tetrachord with a major tetrachord on top, and there are obvious possibilities of Lydian-minor, Lydian-subminor, ams Lydian-gapped. Much Ukrainian music uses scales beginning with a tone, a semitone, and a gap. Like the Lydian tetrachord, this Ukrainian tetrachord spans a sharp fourth and can only be used as the bottom tetrachord.

A gapped upper tetrachord gives a "leading tone" a semitone below the last note. You can get even more urgent and have a second leading tone a semitone below that one. Assuming that the scale does contain a fifth and the upper tetrachord starts on it, that gives a tetrachord of a gap and two semitones. Try that one over a Ukrainian tetrachord.

Modes in Different Tunings

The Church modes were developed when Pythagorean tuning was preferred. If you play a lot in these modes, it is worth retuning to the Pythagorean scale to see if you like the result. The modes that use gapped tetrachords sound better in a tuning with bigger semitones and smaller tones than 12-equal. Somebody could spend a lifetime experimenting with combinations of modes and tunings, but I don't plan to.