Music Section

Chapter 1, Modal Music Composition Expanded Edition


As with other things of ancient origin, modal music receives a certain respect on one hand and on the other, is regarded as an incomplete or somewhat misshapen ancestor of its modern successor, the major-minor tonal system. The noted tonal theorist, Heinrich Schenker, commented upon the occasional use of modally based passages in the works of Beethoven and Brahms as somewhat delusional exercises, since the passages in question could be analyzed in tonal terms. Naturally, the analysis proved the insufficiency of the modal forms to express tonal concepts as lucidly as the major-minor scale. Of course, the same kind of reasoning could lead to the criticism that the flute is an insufficient wind instrument because it can’t play fanfares as well as a trumpet.

Here, modal forms are accepted for the characteristics and properties, which they possess. If such properties are sought, either as the basis of the composition or as a salutary modification and expansion of the still largely current tonal system, then modal forms can prove useful. Actually, composers have intuitively felt this, since modal passages are often found scattered throughout the works of the most determinedly 19th century tonal composers. However, for the most part, they used modal scales and melodies in a haphazard and loosely integrated fashion, usually as a spot of  “local color” in otherwise firmly tonal works. This form of usage carried over to the more recent folk-tune based styles of popular and classical music. Also in the 20th century, due to the increased enthusiasm for musical styles devoid of ripe tonal harmonies, composers sometimes adapted medieval and Renaissance musical forms, which were based on modal practice. Of course, more recently jazz has made use of modal scales extensively as the framework for improvisation.

Neither art nor history stands still in an active society and it would be futile and anachronistic to attempt to reinstate the modal art as practiced in the Middle Ages into 21st century music compositions. Nevertheless, I believe that the potentialities inherent in the modal forms were not exhausted by composers of that period, if only because of the overwhelming conservatism of music linked to liturgical functions. On that premise, the modal scales have unexploited melodic and harmonic capabilities, which can be revealed with some modifications and added techniques applied to the original modal style. An analogy could be made with the use of the major and minor scales in the early stages of their development in the 16th and 17th centuries compared to their use by classical and Romantic composers. The scales basically remained the same, but the forms and musical interrelations inherent in them were more fully realized through changes in musical procedures and techniques. 

Thus, this book contains a fresh approach to the procedures and methods needed to have a viable modal system for contemporary composers and songwriters. It is recognized that such an approach has to be well organized and detailed to compete with the tonal system. The modified modal system, if viable, should be able to work in varied circumstances, whether used instead of traditional major-minor tonality or alternating with it in a musical work. Of course, in the latter case especially, this updated modal system has to possess a certain correspondence with major-minor tonality so that the seams between the two are not awkwardly obvious. Whether this result can be achieved without hopelessly compromising modal qualities, I have to let readers judge on the basis of their own compositions. But it is important to note that the procedures that have characterized the major-minor scales can also be modified somewhat in the direction of modality, thereby lessening the gulf that needs to be bridged. To put it another way, modality and tonality can be viewed as two ends of the same basic continuum. As with most ends they are more restrictive (monolithic) in their properties and form than the middle of the continuum. This book tries to show that the hitherto largely unexploited middle offers a greater sense of variety and amplitude while supporting a coherent compositional practice.

Although modal musical practice is often pictured as far removed from tonality, this division is at least somewhat based on historical facts, which can govern musical styles as much or more than purely musical considerations do. Certainly, in absolute terms, the similarities outweigh the differences inasmuch as the major-minor scales are direct descendants of the medieval modes. But major distinctions of style can hinge on relatively subtle differences in the rules governing musical form and content. Medieval modal music not only developed from a specific vocal melodic form (chant), but also for a specific purpose in liturgical services. Naturally, this restriction in use, however much it gradually loosened, fostered a similar restraint in melodic and harmonic expressiveness.

Tonal music evolved in a period of increasing freedom for the composer and may well have been inseparable from that circumstance. Therefore, such composers could more systematically develop or even overdevelop the harmonic characteristics that formed the basis of its particular appeal. This is not to criticize tonality as a system (which would be ridiculous in light of the supreme masterpieces composed with it), but the reaction of 20th century composers to reduce the controlling force of harmony over rhythm and melody, either through atonality or a turn to a freer, diatonic form, was quite predictable. (Although paradoxically, atonality “simplified” harmonic progressions by making them equally complex rather than equally simple.)

Parallel circumstances at the end of the 14th and 16th centuries also created a reaction which paved the way for new styles of music. In the 14th century, the innovations in notating rhythm and note duration by de Muris and de Vitry led to works of extreme metrical complexity and part writing unequaled before the 20th century. Within a generation, however, English and Italian composers introduced a more lyrical melodic and harmonic style based on simple inversions of triads. Similarly, the mannered sophistication of madrigal composers at the end of the 16th century led to Monteverdi’s operas and a simpler dramatic style a few decades later.

What perhaps sets the contemporary crisis of tonality apart from these earlier stylistic revolutions is the length of time that has passed without any clear successor. Indeed, to some extent, the reactions to tonality have come and gone and left the tonal system like a sandcastle miraculously standing with most of the foundation washed away. This is unprecedented I should think when one considers that a hundred years have passed in the meantime. It is possible that the tonal system has been preserved mostly due to the increasing influence of popular culture on art. And yet even popular music has shown a decided reluctance in recent decades to cling too closely to conventional major-minor forms. For example, the Beatles’ use of modal scales in their songs has been well documented and popular music in general often displays an avoidance of clear tonic cadences at the close.

In times past, when a musical style became overly refined and stylized, composers would often borrow from popular or folk music to create a new, simplified, but also more direct expression. Composers in the 1920's and 30's did incorporate jazz elements occasionally and often made use of folk music from their own or other cultures, ironically at the same time that these folk music styles were themselves fading away. Yet American popular music, and by extension much of  world popular music, derived from Hollywood or Broadway, which was diluted classical music rather than an authentic and direct folk style.

Oddly enough, classical composers almost never employed the most enduring folk style, the blues, except very indirectly through jazz. It must also be admitted that, unless the influence is subtle, most such jazz-influenced classical compositions sound dated today. (This is in contrast to jazz compositions themselves, which often effectively integrate blues styles.) The blues and its associated modal scales had a strong influence on rock and related popular styles later in the 20th century, but seldom developed much beyond the early electric guitar blues of performers such as Muddy Waters or T-Bone Walker. Part of the problem for the jazz-influenced classical compositions lay in the strong rhythmic emphasis of these popular styles, which classically trained musicians find difficult to emulate. Classical music almost never requires that kind of rhythmic swing and timing, particularly at the level of the ensemble.

Thus, at the start of the 21st century, classical music (or formal music, which is perhaps a better term for music that requires notation to be created or performed), finds itself uneasily split along the fault line set by the definitive work of the past century, Le Sacre du Printemps. One camp relies on tonal and quasi-modal melodies typically based on folk or other relatively straightforward styles, while the other holds to chromatic or occasionally a noise-based atonality. In my view, although the latter post-tonal approach has much to recommend it, its acceptance by the public audience remains limited and it may remain as a style for connoisseurs. And it seems unlikely that the public will ever totally forsake a vocal melody-based musical style.

The search for a melodic style neither anachronistic nor abrasive continues to be perhaps the central issue perplexing composers of formal music. It might be asked how an approach founded on the medieval modes can avoid the peril of datedness. Clearly, an approach must be adopted which doesn’t bind itself to the rules and restrictions typical of pre-tonal music. To some extent, Romantic and some later composers did use modal passages in a non-modal context. A modal progression in these works might display occasional seventh and ninth chords and have a mildly complex melodic pattern, while retaining diatonic harmony. However, tonal forms quickly reassert themselves after a few measures. This indicates that the main purpose was to provide a momentary relief from the tonal cadential progressions and formulas. The modes fell out of favor due to their relative lack of harmonic clarity compared to the major-minor tonalities. But yet, the increase in harmonic clarity in tonality led to a more and more frantic search for something to obscure that harmonic clarity.

We come to the startling conclusion that people want their cake and to eat it too. They want the structure and direction that tonal harmony can provide, but without the melodic and rhythmic straightjacket that accompanies it. The tonal dominant cadences have an effect similar to simple, direct sentences in literature. Neither one leaves you in much doubt where you are. This effect can be heard in strikingly clear form in early Baroque keyboard or lute pieces when comparing the tonal dance music such as the courantes and minuets with works in the older passacaglia or rondeau form.

As we will see, the modes have an inherent disadvantage in expressing this kind of tonal organization due to their scalar structure. This relative harmonic weakness makes it difficult for music written in a diatonic mode to avoid slipping into a quasi-major scale or at least be interpreted by the listener as a slightly odd major scale or sometimes a melodic minor scale. Actually, the early minor scale itself was transformed into a counterpart of the major scale by the addition of the leading tone, which also necessitated the augmented sixth degree. The harmonic limitations (characteristics) of the modes do permit a freer, more relaxed melodic expression and a corresponding rhythmic freedom. Melody and rhythm display a direct relationship with each other and an inverse relation to harmony. Where harmonic phrasing is strongest, melody and rhythm are most constrained.

If we follow this line of thought, the modes require some approach or procedures which will give them greater harmonic definition and stability without unduly compromising their melodic freedom. As with most things, the devil is in the details. I present in this book one approach without thinking that there are no others. I have striven to introduce enough method that the reader can assess it both for its internal logic and more importantly for its compositional efficacy. It is certainly not radical in its origins or its substance, not that any modal scalar system could be at this point.

However, I have tried to devise a system, which is informed by the cognitive capabilities of the listener. By that I mean, that the listener, far more than the score reader, is governed by the capabilities and constraints of the mind in recognizing and recalling and interpreting a stream of auditory information. The past century, in common with the early Medieval period, has been replete with musical systems based on mathematical, symbolic or other rational schemes, which are independent of human cognitive capabilities in processing serially presented information such as music.

In Chapter 2, the diatonic modal scales will be presented and their scalar structure. Relationships are described in detail and summarized in tables. Since each mode has a unique intervallic structure, chordal relationships necessarily vary between them to a greater or lesser extent. The locations of the melodic tritone and the step with the diminished triad in the scale (formed on the seventh step in the major scale, of course) play a strong role in determining the basic character of the mode. A few additional modes used by 20th century composers are touched upon as a point of comparison. Since modern composers and songwriters are likely to be more familiar with the interrelationships of the major-minor scale compared with the modes, considerable attention is paid to presenting and describing modal chordal relationships.

In Chapter 3, comparisons are made between the modal and tonal systems. Topics of discussion include the transformation of the minor scale from its modal origins to a close counterpart of the major scale, the use of equal temperament to allow complete unification of the major-minor keys, cadential formulas and the distinction of defining vs. incidental differences that separate modal and tonal practice. In Chapter 4, the new proposed approach to forming a coherent modal compositional practice is set forth. A fuller presentation is made of the major and minor forms of the modes and the dyadic relationships between modes that form a correspondence with the major-minor scale. The basis for the three modal scalar dyads or complements, the Lydian-Dorian, the Mixolydian-Phrygian and Ionian-Aeolian, is explained within the context of a modern modal system. (The term “scalar dyad” should be distinguished from dyads related to pitches.) The correspondence of harmonic scale properties between the Ionian and Aeolian modes led to their pairing in the major-minor scale. Similar correspondences are shown to exist between the Lydian and Dorian modes as well as the Mixolydian and Phrygian modes.

Chapter 5 presents more specific stylistic issues in composing with the modes such as maintaining the mode harmonically, use of inversions, seventh and ninth chords, non-triadic modal harmony, melodic outline, bass melody and instrumentation, within-set dissonance and outer-set dissonance, use of within and outer-set dissonances as a substitute for the cadence pause, rhythmic considerations and their notation. In addition some more general human information processing concepts are touched upon including short-term memory constraints and limitations in the number of scale notes, the role of recognition and recall in perception of formal relationships and the use of the full set or subsets of scalar elements as a determinant of style and complexity.

Chapters 6, 7 and 8 explore the characteristics of the modal scalar dyads, Lydian-Dorian,  Mixolydian-Phrygian and the Ionian-Aeolian, respectively in a more practical way by presenting detailed information about their melodic and harmonic properties such as cadences, parenthetic harmonies and modulation within the scalar dyad and with the other 2 scalar dyads.  

Appendices 1-3 present the modal dyads, the Lydian-Dorian, the Mixolydian-Phrygian, and the Ionian-Aeolian respectively, in the context of actual (study) compositions and accompanying analyses. The analyses of the study compositions focus on the particular ways that musical features discussed in this book are used in the piece as well as some of the compositional decisions that should be considered in writing modal music. They are not intended to provide a rigorous musicological description. Each of these appendices has a study composition scored for a clarinet choir primarily or entirely in the modal scalar dyad in question. The study compositions illustrate particular concepts, procedures and relationships relevant to composing in that scalar dyad presented in the exposition of the modern modal system. Particular attention is paid to the use of parenthetic harmonies and melodic voice leading to support the modal identity and the harmonic relationships of each modal scalar dyad. The study compositions, although they necessarily present particular ways of realizing the modal system, are not intended to define or restrict the use of the modern modal system by composers, but are offered simply as helpful examples. More generally, they favor ways of implementing the approach that differ from the more customary practices of modal and tonal practice. The assumption is that composers and songwriters already have a wealth of material and experience with these customary procedures (for example, canon or sequences) and are best served by seeing the compositional efficacy (or lack thereof) of something less familiar.

The musical examples and tables were designed to present the most useful information in a practical (compositional) sense. The book is meant to provide composers with a comprehensive and in-depth reference source for modal harmonic and melodic properties regardless of their compositional practices. Of course, these reference materials are equally useful in aiding composition in accord with the modal system presented in Chapters 4 and 5.

Soliloquy for Violin   John Stephens

Click on link for the Scorch score. You have to download the Scorch program first, if you have not already done so.    

Appendix 4: Root Triad Progressions S. M. Cormier (from forthcoming Expanded Edition of Modal Music)     

Click on link for the Scorch score. You have to download the Scorch program first, if you have not already done so. 

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