I got a few comments on my intro to theory post
for the academic blogging series
from musicians who relished in having basic theory down pat. It is for those people that I am now rehashing my old post explaining modal music using video games. :) I will include some new stuff that belongs under the banner of intro theory (like what a "key" is [see the section below the cut tag]), but I will do my best to allow others the means to figure all this out while I indulge the more musically experienced among us.
This post will deal with the now-dead church modes. They're kind of like the Latin language of music theory - we use them once in a while, and they're really freaking cool when we do, but they're marginalized by more modern languages to which many owe their origins.
"The musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each. Some of them make men sad and grave, like the so called Mixolydian; others enfeeble the mind, like the relaxed modes; another, again, produces a moderate or settled temper, which appears to be the peculiar effect of the Dorian; and the Phrygian inspires enthusiasm." ~ Aristotle, Politics
I began this piece as a mere explanation of Dorian mode
, which I love. Several philosophers and scholars have written about the emotional and psychological effects of the various modes. Strangely, perhaps because of its ambiguous nature, many of them could not agree on what emotional state Dorian mode was supposed to induce (I think it sounds mystical or reverent). Guido D'Arezzo said it made people serious, while Espinoza said it made people happy. Perhaps Fulda had it right when he said that Dorian could be used to produce any
I used video games because modal music is all over the place in old video games which, in my humble opinion, had much
better music! Think about it, everybody knows the Mario Brothers' Theme or the Legend of Zelda Theme. Can you even hum a song from a recent game? Not only that, but back in the dawn of early video games, you had all these no-name, unorthodox composers looking for work in a market that was hiring composers as quickly as they could crank out games. This gave such composers a platform to compose for these alternate universes that video games created, and what better way to pain that feeling than by using a system of composition that sounds alien to most modern ears? Modal music is thick in early video games. Those games produce some of the most theoretically complex material I've ever seen...much of it is nothing short of brilliant.
Anyway, you're probably asking yourself, "What is Dorian mode?" (unless you're Carly Ann
). Well, let me explain. Listen to this:
It's the Temple of Time theme from the The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
. It has its unique sound because the melody is written in one of the Church Modes - Dorian. Dorian is a diatonic scale that, during medieval times, used "D" as a tonic note (a tonic note is the note that sounds like the "home" note in the scale). Nowadays though, we sometimes use other notes as the tonic. For instance, Zero's Theme from the Mega Man X series
uses C# Dorian:
Where you notice the difference between Dorian mode and the standard natural minor scale
(which itself is a modal scale, the Aeolian mode
), is on the sixth scale degree.
What is a scale degree? Simply, it's a numbering of the notes in a scale. Consider C Major (I have each scale degree typed to the right of its corresponding note):
C - 1
D - 2
E - 3
F - 4
G - 5
A - 6
B - 7
C - 1
The home note, which would be C in C major, would be 1, followed by the 2 (D), 3 (E), etc. Therefore, if you were in C Major, the sixth scale degree would be "A". To lower that scale degree, you would make it an Ab, and to raise it, you would make it an A#.
If you were in D minor, the sixth scale degree would be Bb.
D - 1
E - 2
F - 3
G - 4
A - 5
Bb - 6
C - 7
D - 1
However, rather than the Bb present in the natural minor scale, in the Dorian mode we have a raised sixth, which would raise it up to a B natural. In the Temple of Time Theme, it is the ninth note in the melody, but you may be able to best hear it in this piece from Final Fantasy X
This is the Song of Prayer, as heard in Ixion's Temple. To hear the raised sixth, follow the lyrics:
On the second note of the highlighted syllable, you have the raised sixth. This not only changes the approach to harmony for the entire key, but it plays a trick on ears accustomed to the interval structure of the major and minor keys.
There are other modes aside from Dorian - Aristotle mentioned them in the quote atop this entry. The church modes are Ionian (C), Dorian (D), Phrygian (E), Lydian (F), Mixolydian (G), Aeolion (A), and the very, very seldom-used Locrian (B)(unless you're a jazz musician
). They can all be played as diatonic scales by starting on the note beside them in parenthesis, and this is how they were used well over a millenia ago. Phrygian mode
is interesting in that it sounds like a minor scale, but it has a lowered 2nd. So whereas a leading tone can be used in major keys and in the harmonic minor scale to achieve modern tonality, Phrygian can paint its tonic note more easily than other modes using the 2nd as an inverted leading tone. Rather than pointing up to tonic from the position of the 7th scale degree, it points downward. This "Phyrgian Cadence" is still used in the harmonic minor by have a iv chord in first inversion resolve to a V chord. It is for this kind of awkward versatility that Phyrgian mode is my second favorite mode. Phrygian was used to write Magus' Theme in Chrono Trigger
, and the Brinstar Theme from the Metroid games
is used frequently in video game music, usually for space themed music (the Star Trek theme is in Lydian mode, also the Simpsons
theme is written in Lydian). Here's an example just for David Drake
from Mario Galaxy
Another mode that often appears in video games (as well as Elton John's music) is Mixolydian
. Mixolydian just tends to sound really happy, I think.
An example is Home Termina from Chrono Cross
Next is Aeolian mode (which many of you know as just the "minor" key). Songs in this mode are everywhere, as are songs in Ionian mode
(the "major" key). The fact that the vast majority of songs are written in major and minor is what set all these other modes and the songs written in them apart!
And now, you know.
 A diatonic scale uses only the white keys on the piano. It starts at one note and goes up the keyboard using only the white keys until it reaches that same note an octave higher.
 A leading tone is present in every major key as the 7th scale degree. In C major, the leading tone would be B. A leading tone typically resides a half step below the tonic note, and for various technical reasons really pulls toward the tonic note, giving one a sense of resolution when it finally gets there. You can hear this occur at the end of almost every song you hear on the radio. It's why you feel at "home" on the tonic chord of a key. In fact, one of the greatest challenges of writing in the modes is managing to paint a note as "home" without the use of a leading tone.
How keys work
what makes a key? It depends on what system you're using. Every key dictates a starting note (tonic) and then a series of half-steps between notes. For the modern major scale, it works like this:
Tonic note - 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 2 - 1 - Tonic note an octave higher
The numbers represent the number of half-steps between notes. So for the key of C major, the notes in the key would be C (tonic), then D (two half-steps above C), then E (two half-steps above D), then F (a single half-step above E), so on and so forth, so that the C major scale would include the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B (and another C on top if you take the last step). C major is a very easy key because it uses no accidentals (sharps or flats, the notes represented by the black keys on a piano).
See if you can figure out all the notes in a particular key.
Ex: A major (A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#, A)
Now you try it: D major.
The minor scale simply has different distances between notes than major. A minor scale works like so:
Tonic - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2 - 1 - 2 - 2
So a C minor scale would have the notes C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb.
How shortcuts can get you into trouble with modes
As my exhibit A, watch the beginnings of this video, which is the first thing that pops up if you type "Dorian mode" into youtube search:
This guy is not dumb about theory by any means (in fact, I like his approach...just not the incompleteness of it), but he's making some fairly important mistakes. Dorian is a sound to be achieved, and if you're not careful about how you go about it, even using the notes in the scale will not give you the Dorian sound. There's a whole set of theory that goes beyond just knowing what notes to use and, if you're not careful with your theoretical application, you're going to wind up with a sound indicative of another, probably major, key. In short, knowing what notes to use is just the tip of the iceberg - there's a whole ocean of theory out there explaining how to use those notes
to achieve the desired sound.
Using standard major-key chording but just shifting a full-step up the scale as this man suggests will still sound like you're in a major key, rather than in the modified minor of Dorian. Essentially, what you'll wind up with is a major-key piece with some regressive progressions, but the major tonic will still be a tonal home, which will give you not only a completely different sound, but a completely different tonic note, than if you were treating the Dorian mode with the proper theory. It is a tricky, tricky beast to jettison our dependence on a tonal, harmonic sound in order to give Dorian a whole, modal feel.