Theory in context; Modes, Diatonic and Altered

What are modes?

To understand the diatonic modes, first you must understand what a scale is. A scale is an order of pitches that are defined by their tonic (first tone) as a reference point. Different types of scales exist due to how the other degrees interact or relate to the tonic based on intervals or steps.
Modern musical practice is primarily based on the diatonic scale; a scale of equal temperament consisting of 5 whole tones and two semitones in each octave.

The most natural sounding scale in common use is the Diatonic major scale which has intervals built on a pattern of whole tone, whole tone, semitone, whole tone, whole tone, whole tone, semi tone.
If we were to stick to this diatonic major scale but instead begin on the 4th degree of the scale, it would be built on a pattern of whole tone, whole tone, whole tone, semitone, whole tone, whole tone, semitone. Due to the change of order, this scale would give a completely different sound to the previous example. Instead of the 3rd degree ascending a semitone to the perfect 4th, the 3rd degree now ascends a whole tone to a #4.
This gives us a new scale, referred to as a ‘mode’.
By beginning the Diatonic major scale on it’s individual degrees, it will give us 7 diatonic modes in total with completely varying sounds.

What are the modes of the diatonic major scale then?

Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian…
But by far the simplest way to memorize the Diatonic modes is to do so in order of Brightest to darkest, wherein a degree is subsequently flattened each time.
The Diatonic modes are as follows:

Lydian (IV)- Natural scale with a raised 4th degree (E F# G# A# B C# D# E)

Ionian (I)- Natural Major scale (B C# D# E F# G# A# B)

Mixolydian (V) – Natural scale with lowered 7th Degree (F# G# A# B C# D# E F#)

Dorian (ii)- Natural scale with lowered 7th and 3rd Degrees (C# D# E F# G# A# B C#)

Aeolian (vi)- Natural Minor; lowered 7th, 3rd and 6th Degrees (G# A# B C# D# E F# G#)

Phrygian (iii)- Lowered 7th, 3rd, 6th and 2nd degrees (D# E F# G# A# B C# D#)

Locrian (vii)-  Lowered 7th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd and 5th degrees (A# B C# D# E F# G# A#)

So, where do the Altered Modes come about?

The Altered modes exist in modern era composition, there about 1950’s onwards and came about from experimentation with scales other than the Diatonic Major scale. instead they are built on the Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major scale.

Bonus modes for even more additional cheeky jazz

This is the main reason 90% of you are reading this, don’t lie. We all love expanding our sonic palette.

Dorian ♭5 – Dorian mode of the Harmonic major. The Harmonic major is the major scale with a ♭6, so the scale in C would be C D E F G A♭ B C.
D Dorian ♭5 then being D E F G A♭ B C D. The scale can be used in blues music and is often referred to as the Heptatonic blues scale or 7 Note Blues scale; Natural scale with a flattened 3rd, 5th and 7th degree.
More recently, it gets around in minimal stoner rock, often sticking to as simple as a i – IV7 progression but really stretching the dissonance in that ♭5 for all it’s worth.

Phrygian Dominant/ Altered Phrygian – This is an amazing scale for soloing, specially over a Dominant 7 chord in Jazz due to it containing the 1, 3, 5 and ♭7 notes in a Dominant 7 chord. Altered Phrygian is the Fifth mode in the Harmonic Minor scale and thus resembles a Phrygian scale with a major 3rd.
It can also be referred to as the Mixolydian ♭9 ♭13 scale in cases where it’s used over chord V (or so is standard in Berklee).
The notes for Altered Phrygian in A would be A B♭ C# D E F G A.

Overtone Scale/Acoustic scale – This is a pretty groovy mode but the name can be misleading as it doesn’t necessarily imply overtones as a series of notes. No more than any other mode does at least. Instead it is named due to it being commonly found in Khoomei; Tuvan throat singing or overtone singing.
The 4th mode of the Melodic minor, The Overtone scale can also be referred to as Lydian ♭7 or Lydian Dominant. In Jazz, Lydian ♭7 is another scale that can be used for soloing over a Dominant 7 as it also contains the 1, 3, 5 and ♭7.
In the key of F the Overtone scale would be F G A B C D E♭ F.

Super-Ultra-Hyper-Mega-Meta Lydian – The Jacob Collier-coined Super-Ultra-Hyper-Mega-Meta Lydian scale isn’t a Diatonic scale per se, instead it’s a chromatic scale or sound untied to a key centre and is pretty much consecutive Lydian scales built on 5ths. Although it still maintains a continuous Lydian flavour throughout; it doesn’t particularly sound chromatic or atonal.
Super Ultra Hyper mega meta Lydian starting on C is
C D E F# G A B C# D E F# G# A B C# D# E F# G# A# B C# D# E# F# G# A# B# C# D# E# G A B♭ C D E F G A B C and you’re back to the start.
The idea of this scale is to introduce a Lydian sound that “continually wraps itself around the bright side of the circle of fifths” i.e the C,G,D,A,E etc. part.
The Opposite, Locrian version, applies the same logic in reverse and continually weaves itself around the Dark side of the circle of fifths i.e the F, B♭, E♭, A♭ part. It operates in descending motion so you’re going C B♭ A♭ G♭ F E♭ D♭ C♭ B♭ and so on until you resolve G Locrian on C again.


Thanks for reading, hope you guys enjoyed it as always and if there’s anything you want me to talk about next or if you want me to explain or clarify something music theory related please hit me up in the comments or via our beautiful Contacts page.


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