Musician’s Corner Part II

In Part I we discussed three different ways to look at the relationships between the notes in the C major scale. Let’s do a quick review. The first way of looking at the relationships assessed the distance between each successive note in the scale. From this we found the formula for the major scale. The second way assigned an index number to each note (scale degree) and then examined the distance between the root of the scale and each note (interval). The third way looked at the relation between each note in the scale and the root of the key that we were in.
These three relationships are the key to understanding what is happening harmonically and melodically in music. It can get a bit confusing, but the better one is able to figure out these three relationships simultaneously, the more successful one will be at navigating harmony/melody. This ability will also keep the musician grounded and confident, which is of the utmost importance for delivering a moving performance.
Let’s get started with Part II. Today we are still going to be looking at the C major scale, but we will look at it from a different perspective. This will be the beginning of the discussion of modes. Much has been written about the modes and most of it is down right confusing. There is lots of information about what they are, but much of what I have read concerning their application is either misleading or taken out of context. Unfortunately, much of music education is presented to students in a rote manner. “Use X scale over Y chord.” Although this type of statement can be based in sound music theory, there is practically never a discussion of WHY to use X scale over Y chord. This was always my question. I wasn’t satisfied with just doing as I was told. I needed to know how my teachers came up with the idea to use X scale over Y chord. What I will give you is a way figure out this answer for yourself, instead of just doing what you are told.
For a good history of the modes read:

This article discusses the evolution of the modes. For our purposes, the most important section of the article is under the heading Modern. This will be our starting point, but I will give a bit of the back-story as well.
In Part I we examined the C major scale. It looked like this:



Today we are going to look at the same scale but start if from a different place, the second degree. If you remember from part one, the second degree of the C major scale is D. Our new scale, D Dorian, will look like this:



Before we examine the three types or relationships, let’s make sure we understand where this comes from and it’s relation to C major. Below is the C major scale juxtaposed with the D Dorian scale.







From this the relationship should be clear. D Dorian is the C major scale, but starting from D and ending on D. It is exactly the same notes, but this will change what our three important relationships look like. Let’s examine those.

Relationship #1, distance between notes (in steps):

From this we get our distance-based formula for Dorian mode:



Relationship #2, scale degree and interval from the root:



Here we see for the first time altered scale degrees. So why would I call the third a flat third and the seventh a flat seventh. Well, to answer this let’s look at the table that shows us the number of steps each note is away from the root.

Note → NoteNumber of StepsInterval
D→E1major 2nd
D→F1+½=1½minor 3rd
D→G1+½+1=2½perfect 4th
D→A1+½+1+1=3½perfect 5th
D→B1+½+1+1+1=4½major 6th
D→C1+½+1+1+1+½=5minor 7th
D→D1+½+1+1+1+½+1=6perfect Octave


So when we look at our original C scale the distance between the first and third scale degrees (C and E) was 2 whole steps. In our new scale, D Dorian, the distance between the first and third scale degrees (D and F) is only 1½ steps. Since we are looking at the distance between the first and third scale degrees the resultant interval is still a type of third, but we must acknowledge that it is slightly smaller than the interval of a third we examined in the C scale. Therefore we will call it a b3rd (flat third). This same logic will apply to all of the scale degrees, hence the b7th (flat seventh).

Relationship #3, relation to root of the key:


Our key in this example is still C major so each degree of the D Dorian scale still has a relationship to it’s parent key. The top D note is shown as 2 and 9 because the scale can be viewed as repeating or continuous. This will become important later when we get into the discussion of chords. For now it is simply important to recognize these two ways of viewing scales.
Ultimately, the musician should be able to conceptualize all three of these things at the same time and see the secondary scale’s relationship to it’s parent key for any given musical passage.

By now, you should have a clear idea of where Dorian mode comes from. From the above tables we can choose any note and know many things about how it relates to other notes. For example, the note F. F is the fourth degree of the C major scale. It is also a perfect 4th above C. F is also the third degree of the D Dorian scale. Since its distance from the root of the scale is 1½ steps, we will call it a minor 3rd, or flat third. We can then say that F is a minor third above D. F is also the fourth degree of the key of C. We can then figure out that the third degree of D Dorian is the fourth degree of the C major scale and the fourth degree of the key of C. This may all seem like a fancy way to say that F=F, but that would be missing the point. We are not naming F in and of itself. We are naming F as it relates to all the other notes that it is involved with.
At this point, many instructional books simply say, “Now just do that with every mode in every key and you will get it.” I know that most students, including myself, do not have the focus to continue all these tables myself. On top of that, when each step of it is presented to me, I am better able to retain it. Stay tuned for the next installment: E Phrygian mode.

Read Chapter III