A Glimpse At the Modal Universe

Just how many modes are there?

A certificate at Grade 8 would suggest that there are 7 modes all derived from the major scale and maybe one or two from harmonic minor. In reality, there is an entire universe of modes, so many in fact that they can be imagined as existing on a vast continuum of characteristics, a palette from which the composer or improviser may draw.

Here’s a diagram demonstrating a small section of the huge modal universe. You may see how mirroring modes (turning them upside down) can organize them into levels of brightness. It can also identify those modes that are identical in mirror form (the middle rectangle). These include Dorian (used in a thousand tunes from Scarborough Fair, Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Brick House to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Aeolian Dominant (Kate Bush’s Babooshka) and Double Harmonic (Miserlou from Pulp Fiction).

These are just 3 of the heptatonic (7-note) even-tempered mode systems with mirror symmetry parents. There are many others, scales with 2-12 notes, as well as scales with ‘twin’ mode systems. Regardless this technique can be applied widely and is a rich resource for composers and improvisers alike.

Over the next few posts, I’ll look at particular modes and how their beautiful characteristics have been exploited over a wide range of repertoire.