Friday, February 24, 2012

Modal Practice: Scales and Arpeggios, or The 9 Most Common Modes of Irish and Oldtime Traditional Music

I’m starting to think of traditional music in terms of modes, tonal centers and arpeggios.  There are arguably 9 modes that players of Irish and oldtime tunes are most likely to encounter.  These modes are (in basically no particular order): D ionian, E dorian, A mixolydian, G ionian, A dorian, D mixolydian, A ionian, A aeolian and C ionian.

Tip:  Practice scales in these modes and also noodle around with the arpeggios these modes are built around.  One benefit of such practice is that it will make you a better ear player.  For help with selecting the arpeggios for a given mode, think about it this way: Ionian tunes are usually built around the I-IV-V chords.  Meanwhle, Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian tunes are typically constructed with only two chords a whole step apart - a "home" chord and a "contrast" chord. See table below for more details.

About the modes
Ionian is the same thing as the major scale.  It is the most common mode. It sounds major and is built around the I-IV-V chords.
Aeolian is the same thing as the natural minor scale. It sounds minor. It is typically built around two chords: a minor "home" chord and a major "contrast" chord a whole step below.  
Mixolydian resembles Ionian but has a flattened seventh note (minor seventh).  The Mixolydian mode sounds major with a hint of minor. It is typically built around 2 chords - a major “home" chord and a major “contrast” chord one whole step below.
Dorian mode resembles Aeolian but has a flattened sixth note. Dorian sounds minor with a hint of major.  It is built around two chords: a minor "home" chord and a major "contrast" chord a whole step below.

Scale Notes
Used For
D ionian
d, e, f#, g, a, b, c#, d
D(d, f#, a ), G(g, b, d), A(a, c#, e)
Oldtime, Irish
E dorian
e, f#, g, a, b, c#, d, e
Em (e, g, b), D (d, f#, a)
A mixolydian
a, b, c#, d, e, f#, g, a
A (a, c#, e), G (g, b, d)
Oldtime, Irish
G ionian
g, a, b, c, d, e, f#, g
G (g, b, d), C (c, e, g), D (d, f#, a)
Oldtime, Irish
A dorian
a, b, c, d, e, f#, g, a
Am (a, c, e), G (g, b, d)
Oldtime, Irish
D mixolydian
d, e, f#, g, a, b, c, d
D (d, f#, a), C (c, e, g)
A ionian
a, b, c#, d, e, f#, g#, a
A(a, c#, e), D(d, f#, a), E(e, g#, b)
A aeolian
a, b, c, d, e, f, g, a
Am (a, c, e), G (g, b, d)
C ionian
c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c
C (c, e, g), F (f, a, c), G (g, b, d)

You may be wondering how I came up with that list of 9 modes?  Well, for starters most but not all Irish tunes are comprised of different inversions of the D scale (2 sharps) and the G scale (1 sharp). With 2 sharps you can cover the D ionianE dorian and A mixolydian modes, and with 1 sharp you can cover the G ionianA dorian and D mixolydian modes. That's 6 of the modes right there.  (Why no Aeolian so far?  Well, in Irish music, the Aeolian mode is rare.  If you hear an Irish tune that sounds minor, it is likely to be in Dorian).  When it comes to oldtime, folks tend to play in D, G, A, C or what they call "modal".  D and G mean the same thing as D ionian and G ionian - already listed with the Irish modes. A and C mean A ionian and C ionian.  Those are modes 7 and 8 on my list.  In oldtime the term "modal" often refers to a minor sounding tune with A as its tonal center.  Since we've already listed A dorian and A mixolydian that leaves A aeolian - number 9 and the only aeolian on the list!

Nine modes is enough for now, but if you wanted to take it further you could add the slightly less common modes of B aeolian, E aeolian, D aeolian, G dorian, G aeolian, B dorian, D dorian and G mixolydian, and work through those scales and arpeggios as well.

The fine print: I'm relatively new to learning traditional music. I have not spent much time in the saddle yet, and by no means am I an expert on the subject.  I just like to share concepts as I hit upon them. For a lot of traditional players, learning the tunes by ear is its own informal form of etudes, so the above described exercise is simply meant to be a supplement to aid in that process. Nothing beats total immersion in the music and the tunes.

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