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Rajko Maksimovic

A Step towards a
General Theory of Modes

Belgrade, 1995
by Rajko Maksimovic
Makenzijeva 35
11000 Belgrade


There is no doubt that a serious crisis of tonal (major-minor) system

began with Wagner's chromaticity in Tristane and Ysolde, and later with
Debussy's usage of whole-tone scale as well as of the pentatonic scale. Atonal
music - in the beginning of the XX century - denied all basic principles of the
traditional (tonal) music, and all consequences of those principles - the shape of
melody, vertical (harmonic) structure, building of musical forms. Looking from
our standpoint now, it was almost chaos. Soon afterwards Schönberg declared
principles of twelve tone music trying to make order and a new system in
organizing his music of that time. One of his basic principles was absolute
equality among tones, i.e. negation of any possible hierarchy. Indeed, such a
"democracy" not only cancelled the supremacy of the tonic and dominant, but
also prevented any possible advantage of any tone in general. Serial music and
its last instance integral serialism elaborated Schönberg's principles further, to
their maximum. Aleatory music applied certain features of serial music but in
much freer form - at least the absolute equality of tones was not under the strict
control. Certain inequality of tones might have happened, if not willingly - then
by chance.
Many composers tried to make certain order in musical thought in
somehow different way. Olivier Messiaen, one of the leading figures of French
music in last few decades, was one of them. In his book "Technique de mon
Language Musicale" he proclaimed and explained his modal system and
showed how it worked. He had "invented" 7 modes of limited transposition1 and
from them he derived very complex harmonic structures, harmonic progressions
and melody shaping. Probably the second mode2 was the most attractive and
popular one (thanks to its great richness and vitality) and many composers
throughout the world had had certain experience with it. As a matter of fact
Messiaen did not invent it, but merely systemized and systematically used it.
That mode can be found sporadically in Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky and even
Scriabine and Korsakow. By the way Scriabine mode means exactly that. The
same pattern of intervals (121212)3 can be found in the Istrian scale, but in the
range of only a diminished sixth.
See more about Messiaen's modes in Chapter I
2nd mode divides an octave in four identical segments (minor thirds), each one consisting
of one minor and one major second. (8 different tones in an octave)
In this paper I'll use the widely accepted convention for numeric presentation of intervals,
as follows:
1 = minor second; 2 = major second; 3 = minor third; 4 = major third;
5 = perfect fourth; 6 = tritone; 7 = perfect fifth; 8 = minor sixth;
9 = major sixth; 10 = minor seventh; 11 = major seventh; 12 = perfect octave.



In my practice as a composer I had used some of the Messiaen's modes

(2nd & 3rd), but also the Mediaeval modes – Dorian, Phrygean, Lydian,
Mixolydian, Aeolian, as well as the (anhemitonic) pentatonic scale (d-e-g-a-c).
During the practice I encountered with modal or scale structures which were not
in any theory known to me. That forced me to think about the problem and to
find out the way to embrace all possible cases (known to me) – such as
mediaeval modes, Messiaen's modes, pentatonic and some others, – in one
single theory of modes, where all mentioned ones would be only particular types
or cases. Naturally, to achieve this goal (General Theory of Modes) I had to start
from already known principles, combine them, make further conclusions and,
finally – make a larger, all-including system.

a) Principles of mediaeval theory of modes4 .......(See sheet 1)

Four (diatonic) tones make a tetrachord, which is considered as the basic unit
in constructing modes. There were four different tetrachords, here listed by
sharpness, depending on the position of a semitone:
lydian 2-2-2 -(1) semitone outside tetrachord. L
mixolydian 2-2-1 (also known as major) M
dorian 2-1-2 (also known as minor) D
phrygean 1-2-2 P

Lydian is the "sharpest", phrygean is the "mildest".

[We can include here (as an option) the harmonic tetrachord, known as the upper tetrachord
in the harmonic minor. It is also known as the
oriental 1-3-1 O
since it is found in many folk scales of the oriental area, like Phrygean minor-major, Gipsy
minor and alike].

Two tetrachords standing a whole step apart (called diazeuxis) make an

authentic mode, with the first tone of the lower tetrachord as the finalis (tonic).
L – M = Lydian mode Lyd
M + D = Mixolydian mode Mix
D+D = Dorian mode Dor
P+P = Phrygean mode Phr

In fact these names are from the Ancient Greeks which were (wrongly) used later in
Middle Ages

Here the sign "+" stands for a whole-step diazeuxis, except the Lydian mode
where the sign "–" stands for a semitone.
When the upper tetrachord becomes the lower one (by the octave transposition)
it links with the other one (former lower, now upper) on the synaphe, thus
making a plagal mode:

ML = Hypolydian mode Hypolyd

DM = Hypomixolydian mode Hypomix
DD = Hypodorian Hypodor
PP = Hypophrygean Hypophryg

keeping the same finalis as in the authentic mode and differing from it only in
melodic range.
It should be noted that the Lydian and Mixolydian modes have a major
triad on the finalis and form the major type, while the Dorian and Phrygean
modes have a minor triad on the finalis and form the minor type.
Each one of the modes is featuring one particular interval as its
representative, or characteristic one (counting from the finalis):

lydian fourth (augm. 4) lyd.4 for Lydian mode

mixolydian seventh (minor 7) mix.7 for Mixolydian mode
dorian sixth (major 6) dor.6 for Dorian mode
phrygean second (minor 2) phr.2 for Phrygean mode

We may call lyd. 4 and phr. 2 as primarily characteristic since these

intervals show up uniquely, only in "their modes". Mix.7 and dor.6 are
secondarily characteristic, though, since these intervals as such can be found in
other modes (minor 7 in Phrygean and Dorian; major 6 in Lydian and
Mixolydian), but they are considered characteristic in respect to the
corresponding tonic triad, i.e. minor 7 in spite of the major triad in Mixolydian
and major 6 in spite of the minor triad in Dorian mode.

Later practice of post-renascence period brought up two modes more:

Ionian and Aeolian. As a matter of fact they were the result of chromatic
alterations of real modes. Flattening of augm. 4 in Lydian mode to avoid the
tritone jump, or sharpening of min. 7 in Mixolydian mode to obtain the leading
tone in cadences and elsewhere – produced the Ionian mode (later called: major
scale); flattening of maj. 6 in Dorian mode (what was considered as normal
since early times) – created Aeolian mode (later called: natural minor scale).
Some theorists claim that these modes have characteristic intervals, too, –
aeolian sixth (min.6) and ionian seventh (maj. 7), respectively, but we think
opposite: both of them are middle solutions, the result of a compromise, since
both of them became by truncation (or negation) of real characteristics of real

modes – therefore, they are uncharacteristic modes having no characteristic
interval! Nevertheless we can include them in our list arranged by sharpness:
mode tetrachords interval characteristic

Lydian L–M lyd 4 ** (strong)

Ionian M+M – – (none)
Mixolydian M+D mix 7 * (medium)

Dorian D+D dor 6 *

Aeolian D+P – –
Phrygean P+P phr 2 **

It should be noted that these modes are made either of identical or similar
(adjacent in our list) tetrachords. So called Locrian mode is out of this
discussion since it has no consonant triad on the tonic (it has a diminished triad)
and besides it is structurally unbalanced (it links two extreme tetrachords).
Nevertheless it may be of our particular interest:

Locrian P–L loc 5 (dim.5th) *** (strongest)

b) Principles of Messiaen's modal theory.............(See sheet 2)

An octave is divided on 2, 3, 4 or 6 identical segments (tritones, maj. 3rds,

min. 3rds, maj. 2nds).

All the segments of a mode have the identical internal structure.

The segments are linked by a common tone - (the synaphe).

In respect to the size of the constitutional segments, corresponding mode has

limited number of possible transpositions, as follows:

mode pattern num. of segm. range of segm. num. of transp.

1st mode 2-2-2-2-2-2 6 2 1 + 1

2nd mode 12-12-12-12 4 3 1 + 2
3rd mode 211-211-211 3 4 1 + 3
4th mode 1131-1131 2 6 1 + 5
5th mode 141-141 2 6 1 + 5
6th mode 2211-2211 2 6 1 + 5
7th mode 11121-11121 2 6 1 + 5

It is never said in the book, but it is obvious, that the (perfect) octave is
considered as the measure of periodicity. That means that all modes repeat

themselves in upper or lower octaves, i.e. after the completion of an octave they
proceed the same pattern out of it.
All these modes generate very specific harmonic structures and progressions. It
is possible to make chords of 3, 4, 5 or more tones either by skipping one tone
and take every other or to skip two tones and take every third. It is possible to
combine both these ways.

c) Principles of the pentatonic mode................(See sheet 3)

The semitone is avoided.

The maj.2 and min.3 alternate until the octave is reached. Then the tones repeat
Two consecutive maj.2 may happen

There are three types of pentatonic rows (using here only white piano keys):

c-d-e-g-a-c-d-e...; c-d-f-g-a-c-d-f...; e-g-a-h-d-e-g-a...;

Thanks to the absence of a semitone and tritone, tonal feeling is very doubtful.
Any of the tones may act as a tonic, so: no one is a real tonic. It is true that
among five tones, only one of them (marked bold) has major seconds on both
sides, but this is not enough to promote that tone as a real tonic.

In the harmonic elaboration this mode eliminates chords by thirds. Instead,

chords (of no matter how many tones) consist of the combination(s) of perfect
fourths and fifths, major seconds and minor thirds.




First of all we have to see what is our goal, i.e. what is the meaning of this
Brief answer might be in following few statements:

a) Looking throughout the (European) history of music we notice that in all

times some kind of a tonal feeling was more or less present; from Gregorian
or Byzantine monophonic singing up to Stravinsky's polytonality – we could
recognize the gravitational force of one (or two or even more) tone(s).

b) We can conclude that some kind of a tonal feeling helps both in organizing
musical form (time) by the composer and to its comprehensiveness by the

c) Among many problems of our time, one might be how to establish the sense
of tonic and yet to avoid worn out traditional solutions (especially of major-
minor system).

d) I think that the variety of modes I am going to present in this paper may be a
good base to start off. Naturally, I always underline that any method or system
or knowledge are just tools. Without the real talent of the user they remain an
empty shell without the living body. On the contrary: a talented person
without knowledge (tools) remains – the poor talent. Therefore, only the
talented and earnest person equipped with the broad knowledge, up-to-date
information and good taste may be one to create something really new and of
good quality.

At the very beginning I took the Messiaen's modal system and asked two
basic questions:
– Why all the segments of a mode must be identical?

– Why the range of a mode must be an octave? What to do with the tone-rows
which – following certain logic or pattern – quite normally and smoothly
skip the tone of the first octave above?

When I began thinking this way I realized that the octave – though the first
natural transposition – as a mode frame is too cramped.

To answer the first question I was helped by the Mediaeval modes. Three of
them (Ionian, Dorian and Phrygean) are made of two identical tetrachords,
but the others (Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian) have different
That encouraged me to dig up even the Messiaen's modes! I took the third
one 211-211-211, and made another pattern: 211-121-112. (See figure on
sheet 4). That's different. That's the new mode! Then, I tried some unusual
combinations of tetrachords and also got the result (See sheet 4).

Then I "attacked" the octave range. I began from a scale (mode) known in
theory as the Antique Major – which links several major (Mixolydian)
tetrachords on the synaphe, like a chain. (See figure on sheet 3). Though most
of the tones have their octave transpositions, it is obvious that octave is not
the interval of periodicity of the mode as a whole. We may notice that "b
natural" and "e natural" in upper octaves have flats! For that reason the
mixolydian segment transforms into aeolian one in the upper octave. If, for
instance, we want the first tetrachord (g-a-b-c) to find transposed somewhere
else in the mode but in exactly the same sequence of tones (g-a-b-c), we have
to wait not less than 5 octaves! The interval of its periodicity is 5 octaves!
So the next thing I had realized was that:

– similarly to the interval of one octave which is reachable either in 6 whole-

tone steps, or in jumps of 4 minor-thirds, 3 major-thirds, 2 tritones
(Messiaen's modes)

– interval of two octaves may be reached in 3 minor-sixth jumps,

– three octaves may be reached in 4 major-sixth jumps,

– five octaves may be reached in 12 perfect-fourth jumps,

– seven octaves may be reached in 12 perfect-fifth jumps.

These jumps which evenly divide ranges of 1 octave, 2 octaves, 3 octaves, 5

octaves and 7 octaves – I named modules. And modules happen to be the
basic units in mode construction.

• Module is a unit similar and analogous to tetrachords in mediaeval theory
and to segments in Messiaen's, but it has specific features, too.
Each module has three essential (and variable) features:
– number of tones included in it
– internal disposition (spacing) of tones (interval pattern)
– occupied interval (range)
• Modules of one particular mode are made of a constant number of tones (3, 4,
5, i.e. trichords, tetrachords, pentachords etc.) – exactly like in the Messiaen's
theory – while the
• internal spacing of tones within modules of the same mode as well as
• their occupied intervals may vary, depending on type of the particular mode;
these two features are very unlike the Messiaen's system.

There are two types of mode construction:

I.– linear
II.– centrally oriented, with two subtypes –
and all of them may be good base for creating unusual, interesting (and
logical!) – melodic shapes, contrapuntal tissues, complex and compound
harmonic structures and progressions – naturally depending on the individual
taste and craft.


This type is built by the superposition of two, three, or more modules, linked
on the synaphe or with a diazeuxis in between.
• An octave may and (preferably) may not be the interval of periodical
repetition (transposition).

1.1. If it is, then we have the variety of modes mentioned earlier in this text,
such as: mediaeval modes, Messiaen's modes, pentatonic and many other
modes and scales of folk tradition or "synthetically" made; we can still do
something new, e.g. we can divide an octave on equal segments (like
Messiaen did), but to fill them (unlike Messiaen) with differently
organized (spaced) trichords, tetrachords etc. (see an example on Sheet 4);
I call all of them closed modes.

1.2/3 If the octave is not the interval of periodical repetition, then we have
several categories of basically different modes:

1.1. –(By periodical repetition after 1 octave - see above) closed
1.2.1 – By periodical repetition after 2 octaves semi-closed
1.2.2 – By periodical repetition after 3 octaves semi-closed
1.3.1 – By periodical repetition after 5 octaves open
1.3.2 – By periodical repetition after 7 octaves open
1.4 – Non periodical (irregular)

1.1. The modes of the first category – octave modes – I call closed or finished
since everything happens within an octave (tones and their relations show
their qualities and potentials) and the octave as an interval is reachable by any
voice or instrument.

1.2. For that very reason, 2-octave-, and especially 3-octave-modes, I call
semi-closed since a voice or an instrument may not reach the (upper or lower)
end of the mode (which exists theoretically) and thus the mode may not show
all its characteristics and potentials in that voice.

1.3. Third category – 5-octave- and 7-octave-modes – in most cases will stay
"unfinished"; points of repetition (periodicity) will hardly be reached and the
awareness of both the beginning and the end of the mode will be missing.
Usually they are open on both sides. In extreme (though possible) cases, if a
work is scored for an orchestra, piano or organ, the whole range of five and
even seven octaves may be reached, either in succession or simultaneously. In
those cases, particularly, the following fact comes into force:

• The key consequence of periodicity of modes after two or more octaves is

that the situation changes from octave to octave, from register to register.
(See sheets from 5 to 11 as examples of the upper statement, especially in
multi-voice harmonic movements).

All modules of a linear mode occupy the same interval (min. 3rd, maj. 3rd,
perf. 4th, tritone, perf. 5th, min. 6th, maj. 6th, or: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 semitones).

• They may have an identical internal spacing (homogeneous modes), but it may
vary as well (heterogeneous modes).


Instead of the linear concept of mode construction (up-and-down), modes

may be organized centrally oriented, from the center, in both directions. Two
types are possible:

Symmetrical (with mirrored "wings")


• A special sub-type of the symmetrical type are gravitational modes, where

modules, moving from the center away, progressively expand their ranges
(e.g.: dim.4, perf.4, aug.4, perf.5, min.6, etc.), whilst keeping the constant
number of tones within them.
• Consequently, internal dispositions also change.

• Looking the opposite way, from the ends towards the center, modules
decrease their range and consequently increase density and gravitation of the
center – tonic.

• Particularly interesting and illustrative cases of symmetrical and gravitational

modes are with the center on keys d or g# at the piano, since piano
keyboard is symmetrical to these two points.

Unusual (but possible) type is a symmetrical, gravitational mode with double

tonic! Its construction goes similarly to the previous one, but instead of one
point (tone) as a center, a minor second is treated as the center. Now from its
upper tone starts the right wing of the mode, while from the lower tone
starts the left wing. Tones of both wings belong to the same mode and, when
played in multi-voice texture, they produce very interesting, or at least
unexpected, combinations of tones. (See sheets 12 & 13)

Of course, I am aware that all this is not The General Theory of Modes, as I
mentioned. Yet it gives the idea what the modes are and how they might be. I
may never finish this task but I think that this paper throws a new light on the
problem. Each composer may now dig on his (her) own. For the moment it is


All what is shown here ought to be understood only as an attempt to establish

a kind of order among tones, potential relations among them and especially
the gravitational power of tonic.
The worst thing would be is to understand this as a recipe for successful
composing! It should never be forgotten that great masters from the past are
great, among other merits, because they used to outrun the system they had
inherited! Remember multiple appogiaturas in Bach's organ and piano works
(which are out of chord), also his chromatic alterations of a given scale; or
take Beethoven and his frequent changes of tonality; and many, many other

And now we come to the crucial question: what is the relation (if any)
between the rational element in music (knowledge, theories, systems etc.)
and irrational one – commonly called inspiration (or intuition)?

We state that both elements have always been present in compositional

practice – more or less, and in best examples they show beautiful and
harmonic interdependence. On the other hand extreme cases, from our point
of view, are clear: strongly predominant rational element kills musical being,
while the absolute lack of it gives an illiterate product. Therefore, I think that
both elements are essential with light predominance of intuition.
This opinion is based on experience: it is much easier to "civilize" a "savage"
musical idea than to add some kind of spontaneity to a piece rigidly written
according to a certain system.

It’s the time to quote Anatole France here: “The art is being threatened by two
monsters: the Artist who is not master and the Master who is not artist”.

IN SHORT: Theoretical knowledge and in general rational experience gives

the music its body whilst inspiration is the soul of music.

[This paper was prepared for a group of Greek graduate students of

composition who – in 1995 – attended my course in Karditza, Greece]


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