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Thread: Modes and Pitch Axis Theory - a little confused.

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  1. #1
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    Modes and Pitch Axis Theory - a little confused.

    Hi all,

    First post and all that ;-)

    I've been playing guitar for some 20 years and have played in many bands of varying styles/genres and every couple of years I become as delighted with the instrument as when I first started. I find that this gives me a huge learning boost and makes me a better player.

    Recently, one of these boosts has hit me again and I decided to delve much heavier into music theory. I know about how chords are created, scales (mainly major and the minor scales) etc... I can read music (not sight read though) and guitar tab (obviously), but I'm reading a lot about modes (I knew about modes and how to create them but never really gave them much more thought) lately and am a bit stuck.

    For one thing, I'm reading about Modal Vamps, and assume it's a chord progression based on notes/chords of that mode/scale, but am not really sure.

    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G? If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice?

    As you can see, I'm a little confused, and the more I read about it, the more confused it seems to make me.

    All help would be appreciated, I've bought books and scoured the Internet (hence ending up here ;-) ), but it's just not getting any clearer for me.

    (It makes it worse that I accidentally broke my guitar on Sunday night, and have nothing else to practice with at the moment!)

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    ....I knew about modes and how to create them but never really gave them much more thought) lately and am a bit stuck.

    For one thing, I'm reading about Modal Vamps, and assume it's a chord progression based on notes/chords of that mode/scale, but am not really sure.
    OK why use a mode? IMHO the only reason to use a mode is for it's mood. The major scale gives an up beat attractive positive mood, if that is what you want just use the major scale for your melody notes and one of your favorite chord progressions. Doing that the tonal center will be major and accomplish what you want.

    Now if you want a sad, startled mood the natural minor scale will give you that so just use the natural minor scale and one of your favorite minor chord progressions that will accomplish what you want. But, if you want the attractive minor jazz sound- Dorian gives you that and pitch axis with the natural minor scale 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7 and then sharp b6 (making it 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7) will give you the Dorian mood - IF you have a modal vamp being played under that - that will 1) contain the b6 note on one of the chords and 2) use a modal vamp of the tonic and the characteristic note chord and nothing else. Why nothing else? The droning modal vamp will stick around long enough to let the modal mood develop. A I IV V basic chord progression will not sustain the mood as it is busy calling attention to the tonic tonal center.

    Playing modes is modal music and that is different than tonal music. http://www.riddleworks.com/modalharm3.html

    Enough for now - ask questions.

    Now on to your other question......
    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G? If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice? As you can see, I'm a little confused, and the more I read about it, the more confused it seems to make me.
    There are two ways to use modes. One is the relative way. This is keeping the notes the same and moving the key as you indicated the the E major to Phrygian example above. The other way is using pitch axis and staying in E but changing the notes. The confusion comes when asking questions on the Internet you probably get answers from both ways. That is very confusing.

    Relative modes is easy to teach thus is the way most learn about modes. I find relative easy to make and hard to use in an actual song. So I use the pitch axis method in my playing. Either one takes you to the same place, just by different roads. So yes it is personal choice. But, I must say again making the mode is only half the job, making the vamp that goes under the mode is the rest of the story - that story very seldom gets talked about.

    With pitch axis the major scale is your home base for the major modes, i.e....
    Ionian is the major scale. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 , 6, 7
    Lydian is the major scale with a sharped 4th. 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7
    Mixolydian is the major scale with a flatted 7. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7
    Want the Latin (I hear Mexican) sound of Mixolydian - take the major scale and flat the 7th.

    Aeolian is the natural minor scale. 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
    Dorian is the natural minor scale with a sharped b6. 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
    Phrygian is the natural minor scale with a flatted 2. 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
    Locrian is the natural minor scale with a flatted 2 and 5. -- 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7
    Want the exotic Spanish mood of Phrygian use the natural minor scale and flat the 2. Stay in the key you are already in ....... That is easy to use - IMHO. Remember it helps if you are doing this over a vamp. If you are doing this over a chord progression good luck - the chord progression is going to keep moving around from chord to chord and not allow the mood to develop.

    Ask questions.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 12-21-2010 at 07:53 PM.

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    Wow! Thank you for the very fast reply!

    I'm just going to digest that and I'll almost certainly be back to ask more questions ;-)

    Thank you.

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    OK why use a mode? IMHO the only reason to use a mode is for it's mood.
    Indeed! That's exactly what I'm after - Usually I go to my little recording studio, pick up the bass, or turn on the keyboard (long before I touch a guitar) and just see what comes to mind - sometimes the song is upbeat, sometimes sad. I'd like to be in a position to think "I think I'll go and write a piece of music that's a bit spooky, or happy, or etc..." and know where to start, for instance, I'd think I'd like it to be spooky, so I'd start with a minor progression and then improvise using Dorian. I've obviously simplified it for the example, but you (hopefully) catch my drift.

    To another point, just to see if I understand it from your post:

    Pitch Axis is changing the mode/key to the chord being played behind and relative is staying in the key that the progression is in?

    I've seen lots and lots of books/websites with scale patterns for each scale or mode, I can play all of them and have memorised a few of the patterns, but of course, if I want Dorian mode, and the progression is in C, then I'd simply play around D and move my position (say starting at the 8th fret on E, but treating the 10th as the starting point). Does this give a Dorian mode, but simply in a different *pattern* to the ones I have seen in books etc...?

    Is that a valid approach do you think? I know the fretboard pretty well when it comes to the major scales and scale patterns, so to move about is not a big problem, to change the pattern would pose me a challenge. Is it best to learn these patterns instead?

    Once thing that confuses me is that they all give the same pattern for the same mode. Surely, so long as the notes are correct it doesn't matter does it?

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    See above. I think you're misunderstanding the whole modal concept.
    I think so too ;-)

    I'm getting even more confused as to the point of modes now.

    Back to basics: Is a mode simply a way of playing in the same key but with a different tonal centre?

  6. #6
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    I think so too ;-)

    I'm getting even more confused as to the point of modes now.
    I think modes are usually a waste of time, By the time you understand how to use them you could have taught yourself how to play 12 bars of the melody by ear. It's a matter of what you want to involve yourself with; patterns and improvising or playing the song's tune.

    Playing pentatonic scales over the chords and developing your melody notes from the notes of the pentatonic I find much easier and as effective, of course IMHO. http://www.ibreathemusic.com/article/90 At the end of each lesson is a button to take you to the rest of the story be sure and go there.

    Back to basics: Is a mode simply a way of playing in the same key but with a different tonal centre?
    A mode is "A mode of the scale" Or just another way of playing the scale. We could debate that for days.

    If you play C, D, E, F, G, A, B the tonal center is going to be C.
    If you play G, A, B, C, D, E, F what is the tonal center? It's going to sound a lot like C major as those are the notes of the C major scale. Now if you put some chords under that you can change the sound, for example play those notes over the Am, Dm, Em chords and you are going to sound like the Am scale or the relative minor of C.

    My recommendation is to put modes on the back burner and see what pentatonic scales can do for you.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 12-21-2010 at 08:33 PM.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Hi all,

    First post and all that ;-)

    I've been playing guitar for some 20 years and have played in many bands of varying styles/genres and every couple of years I become as delighted with the instrument as when I first started. I find that this gives me a huge learning boost and makes me a better player.

    Recently, one of these boosts has hit me again and I decided to delve much heavier into music theory. I know about how chords are created, scales (mainly major and the minor scales) etc... I can read music (not sight read though) and guitar tab (obviously), but I'm reading a lot about modes (I knew about modes and how to create them but never really gave them much more thought) lately and am a bit stuck.

    For one thing, I'm reading about Modal Vamps, and assume it's a chord progression based on notes/chords of that mode/scale, but am not really sure.
    More or less, yes. Usually restricted to the key chord, and one other.
    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G?
    You wouldn't (or shouldn't) be using a phrygian scale in the key of E major.
    There is one phrygian scale that uses the same notes (and will therefore sound OK), and that's G# phrygian. But because the key is E major, that's what it will sound like: E major, aka E ionian.
    "G# phrygian" is just one pattern of the same notes. E is the keynote, so calling it "G# phrygian" makes no sense.
    If you use any other phrygian scale, it will have at least one wrong note.
    Eg, E phrygian = E F G A B C D
    E major = E F# G# A B C# D#
    E phrygian, therefore, contains 4 wrong notes - more wrong ones than right ones!
    Even if you only have one E major chord (ie it's not a progression at all), you'll still have one wrong note: G instead of G#.
    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice?
    See above. I think you're misunderstanding the whole modal concept.

    1. A major key means just ONE mode: Ionian mode of the keynote. Major key = Ionian mode, basically.
    It's make no sense to "apply" any other mode in that key. It would be like playing in the wrong key.

    2. If you want to play in E phrygian mode, choose an Em chord, and play the C major scale over it, using E as your keynote (ending note and maybe starting note too). It doesn't matter what pattern of those notes you choose.
    BTW, although you're using the C major scale, you are not "in C" - you are "in E phrygian", because E is the tonal centre or keynote.

    IOW, it's the keynote and chord progression that govern the mode. You just have to identify that and go along with it. You can't change the mode of a piece of music by playing a different scale. (Well, almost never. Blues is an exception.)

    If you have just one chord, then there's a little more freedom. Three modes will fit any triad chord.
    Major triad = ionian, mixolydian or lydian
    Minor triad = dorian, aeolian or phrygian

    Remember this is for a one-chord vamp. It doesn't apply to individual chords in a chord progression. They should normally all share the same scale. Eg a chord progression in E major means the E major scale covers all of them because that's the scale they're all harmonised from in the first place.

    These are basic ground rules, guidelines. In fact, in practice, songs often include notes or chords outside the main key. But the scale(s) are still governed by the chords. It's a matter of identifying the material used by the song (melody, riffs, chords) and using that as solo material. You don't actually have to consider modal concepts at all.
    Last edited by JonR; 12-21-2010 at 07:40 PM.

  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Hi all,

    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G? If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice?
    I don't have a whole lot of time to type an answer, but I'll try my best.

    When you are talking about diatonic modes (Ionian, etc.) you are talking about tones that establish the key. Within that key you have a tonal center and you have different kinds of chords - tonic chords, etc. Taken together, the tones you play in an improvisation or the chords you play are harmonically meaningful mostly in terms of the way they progress from one to the next. In other words, there must be a sequence of chords in that key in order to establish the meaning.

    You can modulate keys, and that is fine, but in order to establish the "meaning" that "Western ears" expect, you must eventually establish the tonality of a single key.


    A chord takes most of its harmonic meaning from the surrounding chords. Your use of a scale (mode, whatever) for improvisation can give as little or as much harmonic context as you want.

    So, you can improvise in any key/mode you want, but you must eventually establisha tonality and to do that, you have to stick with one key for at least two or three chords.


    All help would be appreciated, I've bought books and scoured the Internet (hence ending up here ;-) ), but it's just not getting any clearer for me.
    The only book I know which not only explains these things, but has you do a lot of exercises so that you can really learn it and hear it, is "Understanding and Iimplementing Harmony on the Piano." But it's not just for piano, as a guitarist you will benefit from it.

  9. #9
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    Quote Originally Posted by mwtzzz View Post
    I don't have a whole lot of time to type an answer
    Don't worry - the thread is 2 years old, so I'm sure he won't mind waiting a little longer...

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonR View Post
    Don't worry - the thread is 2 years old, so I'm sure he won't mind waiting a little longer...
    Lol. yeah

  11. #11
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    -A Mode can be understood as when you take one Scale (i.e. Major Scale aka Ionian), and play those same notes over a tonal center different than the root of that scale... but diatonic to the scale..

    For instance, you take C Ionian scale, and play it over a C Major chord = sounds like C Ionian or C Major...

    But, if you play the very same notes, over a Dm chord = sounds like D Dorian (cool jazzy feeling)

    Playing the C Ionian scale from the second note, D, over a Dm context is in fact playing D Dorian..


    -So there is no point in relativizing everything to the major scale anymore, if you know your modes..

    If the root is D, and you play a Dm chord, and you play D dorian over it... you are in fact playing D dorian!! (wich will be enharmonic to C major, but you see the point, no need to say C major..)


    -So we could extend this to the rest of the notes..

    C Ionian has this notes = C D E F G A B

    wich correspond to this chords = C, Dm, Em, F, G7, Am, Bm7b5

    That means you can use any of this chords to create a chord progression, wich will be diatonic, and wich will imply whatever ideas or feelings depending on how you use them (that is functional harmony)

    So knowing the modes order, and extrapolating it to the C major scale we get:
    C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Eolian, B Locrian

    You must get yourself to the point of being familiar with each of these modes, but summarizing (and of course in a subjective way):

    Ionian= happy resolution
    Dorian=jazzy, cool
    Phrygian= Flamenco/Arabic
    Lydian= dreamy, misterious, hippy
    Mixolydian= Celtic, Hindu
    Aeolian=epic, sad?
    Locrian= terrorific, surreal (not really used, as it is quite unstable)

    Of course its all dependant on every and all other factors like, tempo, tessitura, arranjement, the kind of instruments used, etc.. (if you play Major Scale with a Sitar, it will surely sound Hindu!! but if you play it with a Guitar, it will be harder to express that feeling with the same Major Scale... also the opposite is true.. if you play Mixolydian with a guitar you can easily make it sound hindu, but if you play Mixolydian with a Sitar, it will be a perfect match...)


    -So, if we wanted to create a F Lydian chord progression we could use any of these chords: F, G7, Am, Bm7b5, C, Dm, Em

    And the scale will have this same notes: F G A B C D E

    (Also bear in mind, that you can use ANY note of the scale to decorate the chords, and make them have a determined sonority wich matches the feeling or ideas you want to convey... you can play naked triads, but you can also decorate the chords as much as you want, as long as you dont play notes outside of the scale...)


    -What happens now, is that not only the F Lydian scale has a unique and characteristic feeling or mood into it, but also the functional harmony of the chords changes!!!

    For instance, the 7th chord will not be the V anymore.. it will be the II.. and somehow, this II7 has a strong feeling of resolution towards the root I..

    Or for intance, the IVm (Dm) chord, has a strong leading tendency towards the V (C)... and the V (C) has a strong leading tendency towards the II7..


    Functional Harmony of the modes, is something wich is not taught, cause it hasnt become as standarized or popular as your typical Major and Minor key (Ionian and Eolian).. But it exists nonetheless, just as Major and Minor functional harmony exists.. nobody can deny this!

    Some views argument that functional harmony in Modes other than Ionian and Eolian (Major and Minor scales), is faulty or broken, cause they dont have a V7 etc..

    But to me it is just as legit as the Major or Minor scale.. i mean, what makes the functional harmony of Major Scale any better than say Dorian or Mixolydian?

    It surely changes, and has different effect, but they are just as useful to me..


    -So, you can apply all this on any other scale, and develop its modes.. The most useful will be knowing the modes of the Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor scales..

    In Melodic Minor I find most useful: Melodic Minor, Lydian Dominant, Superlocrian

    In Harmonic Minor: Harmonic Minor, Phrygian Dominant, Dorian #4

    there is also the Harmonic Major (and its modes), and the Major Locrian (and its modes), but those are quite wild scales wich are rarely used..
    Last edited by ernzzz; 10-22-2012 at 05:13 PM.
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    -On a side note, i would like to add that sometimes you can use outside notes over a chord, to decorate it, or to imply a different feeling, or a different key/harmony/modality..

    For instance in Flamenco (as in Blues) some ambiguity exists with the 3 and b3..

    In theory you need to play Phrygian scale (1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7), over a minor chord; but squite often you will be playing it over a maj-b9 chord, wich creates some ambiguity..

    It sounds right for one reason: if you take the Phrygian scale, and raise its 3rd... what you are left with is the Phrygian Dominant scale, wich is one of the the Harmonic minor modes, and wich has the same kind of flamenco/arabic feeling, but even more so..

    You could also do the opposite, that is playing Phrygian Dominant, over a minor-b9 chord...


    Another typical example would be in a Minor context, using Harmonic Minor instead of Eolian (Natural Minor) to make it sound more eastern...

    or for instance, when you play blues-funk in E Dorian, and the progression goes to the IV7 chord (A7); you can play E Melodic Minor (wich will be A Lydian Dominant) to give a more surrealistic kind of feeling..

    that could be called modal substitution I guess...


    Endless other harmonic effects exist, and that can make music much more interesting... and also help to define a player's style; Larry Carlton will use some harmonic effects, Pat Metheny would use some others..



    -Pitch Axis, is something i'm not so experienced with, but as far as i know:

    Pitch axis is when you maintain one note as tonal center ALL the time, but you modulate to other tonalityes/modalityes, giving an effect of harmonic movement or modulation...

    anything is valid as long it sounds good, and as long as it has at least one or more notes in common..

    So its all about what feeling or idea you want to convey.. you choose how smooth or abrupt those transitions have to be

    Personally i havent fully used this yet on any of my compositions, but it is certainly an interesting topic..


    For a good example you can listen to the song "The Riddle" by Steve Vai...

    here's an AMAZING structural analysis of the song:
    http://www.patrickdailly.f9.co.uk/VAI.htm

    And this is a more Harmonic one:

    From 0:00 to 0:50- yeah you can call it E Lydian or B major scale, but he melodically gravitates more to a C# tonality (C# dorian). Even though the E is "peddaling" through the piece, it is not really a drone. The bass has rhythmic stops and starts. There are lots of chords moving throughout the piece.

    0:51-1:15- The G# tonality is sort of like mixolydian (C# major), since he melodically avoids the E or E# note at first. But the thumping bass (E natural) adds the impressionistic flavor of melodic minor. This is the section where he cuts loose and won the speed contest from some stupid magazine. C# melodic minor over an E bass can be thought of as E augmented lydian. But don't forget there are G# and F# triads moving around w/ the keyboards. Very cool, intellectual, deep.

    1:16-2:32- Back to the C# dorian stuff over E bass. At 1:40 the band stops so he does an A minor pentatonic descending run ending on F#, then back to C# dorian.

    2:33-2:56- this is the E mixolydian section. The guy who analized this section described it as 70's jazz. Actually this is the main theme from the previous track "Answers", only the tone is weird, so it is like the melody is a distorted, slow, dreamy version of something vaguely familiar. Very clever Mr Vai.

    2:57-3:48- this is the love making, paradise section. Very sexy, but again, there seems to me a pull to C# dorian, not E lydian, but that is my ear. It is a very different mood than the earlier section that used the same scale and bass.

    3:49-4:13 The E minor rock section. He uses the pentatonic w/ lots of bends and vibrato. Wish I could call it E dorian, but he avoids the C/C# note all together. It is just E minor RAWK!

    4:14-4:39- This is another impressionistic section, I could not find a description of it in the other guy's review. He uses E lydian dominant (B melodic minor) and again cuts loose w/ speed. Funny how both virtuoso sections of this tune use melodic minor (not an easy pattern to play quick and fluid).

    4:40-5:04- this is the very interesting E harmonic minor section where he harmonizes guitars rather than take an Yngwieish speed solo. This part of the tune always used to jump out at me from nowhere when I first started listening to this album. Now I get the whole E pedal and how it ties all the different scales and tonalities together leading to the ....

    5:05- "happy" E Ionian ending. I don't think the pledge or whatever kills the flow of the tune, it is not literal. I think it flows nicely and this ending is meant to be a little ironic. Notice how it gets crazy and dissonant there for a minute before the final end.
    Last edited by ernzzz; 10-22-2012 at 11:39 PM.
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