In many modern compositions, composers like to incorporate elements from modal music, and to my ears at least, it often sounds very surprising/refreshing. 

As far as I know (and I may be wrong ;) ), modes other than aeolian or ionian mode officially do not have "chord functions" or "cadence" chord progressions to establish the mode. Perhaps it's better to say that cadence-like progressions exist, but they are perceived as weaker than those in the aeolian/ionian modes.

I was wondering if anyone is aware of books or online resources that systematically discuss these "weaker cadences" or some equivalent of "chord functions" in modes other than ionian/aeolian modes? Or if you can contribute some insights of your own those are welcome too of course :) Is it just a matter of transposing existing cadences to the new mode? Do other modes present new possibilities not present in aolian/ionian mode? Other chord substitutions? Is there a "general underlying principle" that allows deriving the most-likely-to-function-like-a-cadence-progression in any mode?

I've already found and read Margo Schulter's very accessible and interesting articles about harmony and cadences in early music here: http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/harmony/.

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Vincent Persichetti's book, "Twentieth Century Harmony" (great book, by the way) has a short section which touches upon modes and the various roles played by the chords within each.

For example: "A set of chords may be found within the diatonic limits of each mode. As in major and minor modes, there is a definite relation between primary and secondary chordal materials. The primary chords are the tonic, plus two dominant equivalents. These double dominants are those major or minor triads that include the characteristic scales step which produces the principal flavor of the mode..."

While not exhaustive on the subject, the section is helpful. Let me know if you can't access the book - I'd be happy to send you a pdf of these pages.

An area that I'm curious about and slowly experimenting with, within these modes, is the effect on more complex chords. For example, I've had difficulty using 11th chords in standard major/minor modes, but they seem to work better in, for example, Lydian mode.


Robert Hunter said:

Vincent Persichetti's book, "Twentieth Century Harmony" (great book, by the way) has a short section which touches upon modes and the various roles played by the chords within each.

Hello Robert,

Thank you for your reply.

From what I can find online, the book indeed looks interesting. I've been able to read the pages you referred to and they are relevant indeed, but as far as I could see they really only touch the surface of what I think might need some more elaboration (for me at least).

Despite that, the book might arrive on my birthday wishlist :) I had always kind of assumed that harmony books were mostly focused on "common practice rules" and hadn't fully realized that more modern approaches to writing music also had been described in text books. 

I love this topic, Stefaan and Robert!  I hope a lot of people offer ideas - everyone will have approached this topic from slightly different angles.

I'm starting to think that modes and chord progressions are like apples and oranges.  My students will start writing in a mode but often get pulled back into major or minor because of their grounding in functional harmony.  I'm thinking about taking an altogether different approach and would love to hear what other folks think.  The original modes were part of monophonic environments, with no harmony, and then gradually moved into pre-Bach polyphonic environments, where the horizontal lines still took precedence over vertical lines.  I love the idea of writing modal music without thinking in chord progressions, but instead thinking horizontally.

One wonderful thing about using modes without trying to apply functional harmony is that you can make up your own cadential patterns, totally unrelated to chord progressions.   Years ago I made up a new mode with its own cadential pattern and was delighted to later find that Bartok had used the same cadential pattern I had fallen in love with:  instead of chord progressions for a cadence, simply thin out the voices gradually and have the remaining lines move in contrary motion until they sing/play the same note.  The only real requirement of a cadence is that it sounds like an arrival or completion, and the unison approached in contrary motion definitely gives a sense of arrival!

Example from Bartok:  2nd violin concert, 2nd movement - starts in Lydian - wonderful chromatic linear motion in the bass which culminates in a unison cadence approached by contrary motion in m. 9 and 11 and in many other measures until the final gorgeous cadence at the very end of the movement:

I've mulled this general musical territory for many years.  Our musical "ground of being" within the western diatonic tradition of the last several centuries  (post modal-ism) has been dominated by the leading tone and its resolution, from which the practice of the Dominant/Tonic relationship and the fundamental colors of Subdominant/Dominant/Tonic coordination grew.  The entire set of harmonic rules and writing are anchored in this 1/2 step resolution of the seventh step of the diatonic (ionian) scale.  But the transition from modal usage where there is no leading tone particularly and where the drive to return to the "tonic" doesn't particularly exist was a gradual transition.   Over time more and more composers added a final raised 7th scale step to modes where the 7th was lower (as in the harmonic and melodic versions of minor/aeolian mode) to lend the feeling of tension/resolution.  I see the introduction of that raised 7th scale tone at the end phrases of modal music as the transition period to the eventual harmonic cadential usage.  I can not give specific examples but remember many instances from years signing madrigals, motets and other Renaissance and early Baroque pieces.

My students know not to get me started on this topic because I end up going off for a LONG ramble.  I see that one evolutionary musical step, the acceptance of the dominance of the leading tone and its resolution as the heart of what unwinds into the whole western harmonic musical usage that so dominated composition for several hundred years.  It lead to all the accepted major structural forms, with themes planted in the tonic and dominant, and the development of greater and greater harmonic extension of that cadence (secondary dominants and more) right up to the extended chromaticism and break-up of the diatonic system in the 20th century.

Today, in borrowing modal sounds for contemporary music what I feel is really being played with is the musical underlying context -- the soundscape, the dependence of our modern ears on whether or not the tension we are accustomed to in domininant/tonic relationship is created -- or avoided.  There are always elements of tension and resolution in all effective music but is it created harmonically? rhythmically? structurally? and what is the natural evolution of form born from the seed of the musical material.  It isn't just about can modes provide cadential patterns.

It is interesting to note that the melodic flow of singing in young children takes a similar pattern of development.  Most very young children sing freely with no relationship to leading tone resolution.  Their melodies are almost always modal/pentatonic in feel.  Somewhere around 5 to 7 (early school age) these invented tunes that are often hummed by musically unselfconscious children switch to the diatonic formula with the pivot around the tonic and its leading tone. 

Harmonia said:

The only real requirement of a cadence is that it sounds like an arrival or completion, and the unison approached in contrary motion definitely gives a sense of arrival!

Giving a sense of arrival indeed is what a cadence is all about.

Before I had seen B_Graytful's answer though, I was wondering about how in a minor key (aeolian mode) we typically use a major V chord to create a leading tone. This, to me, suggested that perhaps there are certain other principles/best-practices that can even further enhance the sensation of arriving in a certain mode. By just using contrary motion I don't see how in aeolian mode one would raise the seventh before stating tonic again. (And frankly, when I'm home alone I dare to play cadences in minor without raising the seventh, and totally like how it sounds as well ;) )



B_Graytful said:

Our musical "ground of being" within the western diatonic tradition of the last several centuries  (post modal-ism) has been dominated by the leading tone and its resolution, from which the practice of the Dominant/Tonic relationship and the fundamental colors of Subdominant/Dominant/Tonic coordination grew.  The entire set of harmonic rules and writing are anchored in this 1/2 step resolution of the seventh step of the diatonic (ionian) scale.  But the transition from modal usage where there is no leading tone particularly and where the drive to return to the "tonic" doesn't particularly exist was a gradual transition.   ...

Today, in borrowing modal sounds for contemporary music what I feel is really being played with is the musical underlying context -- the soundscape, the dependence of our modern ears on whether or not the tension we are accustomed to in domininant/tonic relationship is created -- or avoided.  There are always elements of tension and resolution in all effective music but is it created harmonically? rhythmically? structurally? and what is the natural evolution of form born from the seed of the musical material.  It isn't just about can modes provide cadential patterns.

...

Hi B_Graytful,

Thanks for your insights! While I wrote the question, I was in fact contemplating a bit about how much of our harmony rules are really just the result of summarizing certain traditions and the result of us being accustomed to hearing certain "cliche" patterns. While reading the early music FAQ I referred to in my question, it struck me how different the approach was back then, how much they enjoyed parallel fifths, e.g. :)

I think you hit the nail on its head with saying how music, as it evolves, surprises us by changing some of the solid floor (established patterns) underneath our feet.

I was recently listening to some microtonal Wyschnegradsky pieces and it struck me how beautiful it sounds. Also there, it must be possible to formulate certain rules or principles for creating a sense of arrival or to do a modulation. Although that topic is out of the scope of my original question, I think it is related as I am more or less expecting that by taking one or two steps back from "diatonic" music theory, it is possible to formulate some general principles that underly a whole family of music theories. While listening to Wyschnegradsky, I thought about how the principles of voice leading (moving between chords by the smallest changes possible) would equally apply to e.g. microtonal works, and might even have an underlying psychological origin: people's fear of and resistance to change. By changing things gradually we soften the changes and create something more enjoyable for the listener. Just yesterday I was reading about Paul Hindemith's theory about how a good melody is constructed, and also there he argues that a good melody, amongst other things, consists of a  series of interwoven secunds (I won't try to explain here ;) ), the relevance to this discussion being that it again involves small changes. The principle of gradual change therefore seems to be one those basic principles that one can consciously play with while composing to create a certain subconscious effect on a listener. (How's that for a RAMBLE? ;) )

After reading your answer, it became more clear now that, in the long run, I am really hoping to arrive at some insights into how one can manipulate musical context and why/how it surprises listeners.

In the end, of course, I'd like to be able to incorporate some of my newly acquired insights in my own music.

I have posted earlier some discussion about the term I use of "musical syntax" which means to me that regardless of the tonal (or atonal) idiom music needs an internal coherence and a development of ideas.  But I struggle to explain what I mean.  Music is a language and as such first of all it needs to communicate.  The best pieces have a coherence, they don't ramble, they don't mindlessly repeat.  Good music develops ideas and themes using tools familiar to all musicians such as sequence, variation, contrast, expansion. The tools are in the service of the composer, not the reverse.  

Studying music of earlier eras its important to analyze how the composer accomplished their ideas not just the harmonic/melodic set of rules they played by.  Far too much of academic analysis and teaching focuses on studying the set of rules rather than thinking about how those were used to create an enduring piece of music.

As example, just because a piece of music in the classic era loyally follows the rules of part writing of that period does not make it a great work.  I'm sure many of us have run across those pieces from the classic period that bore us to tears and others that leap the centuries with ease and still inspire.  Why?  That is what is always in my mind when I look at a score -- what is this saying, why is it touching me and how was that accomplished.   In a current study of the Beethoven Waldstein Sonata I was recently discussing with a student the effect of the steady rhythmic pulse in the first theme area that felt like a fast heart beat (agitation) contrasted with the slower motion of the second theme that breaks out suddenly like a relaxation of the tension and how the first and second theme did not touch the expected key areas (for the period) leaving the listener of that time in a kind of musical suspension.  All of this as a whole created a certain dislocation and unsettling feeling in the listener, one of anticipation.   But then looking at the details we learn how, within the musical assumptions of that time, Beethoven accomplished this. 

The final question is, how do we translate all of this into the modern era?  Using again the Waldstein example, a modern composer can extract the idea of the tension of repeated rhythmic pattern contrasted with a slow expansive theme as a way to develop tension and then a rhythmic resolution of that tension.  In effect a rhythmic rather than harmonic "cadence." 

There are many who say that studying the bygone eras of music is no longer productive since we no longer use the same tonal equipment but I very much disagree.  I find it endlessly revealing and inspiring.



B_Graytful said:

The final question is, how do we translate all of this into the modern era?  Using again the Waldstein example, a modern composer can extract the idea of the tension of repeated rhythmic pattern contrasted with a slow expansive theme as a way to develop tension and then a rhythmic resolution of that tension.  In effect a rhythmic rather than harmonic "cadence." 

Hello B_Graytful, 

I cannot seem to find your entry on musical syntax anymore, although I remember seeing it.

This indeed hints at a second more universal principle underlying whole families of music theories: the principle of creating tension and release. Nowadays this can be done using whatever means one can think of: harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, tempo, .... And as with all principles one can choose to adhere to it, or to avoid it.

One example I really like is a very experimental requiem by Mark Snyder. Each part of his requiem is like the audio equivalent of animated perlin noise. Animated perlin noise is shown in the youtube video i've included here:

   

The requiem is using gradual change (the first principle), and avoiding tension and release (second principle), yet I find it highly intriguing to listen how it changes over time. This would be an example of "music that is" versus the more traditional approach of "music that becomes". You can listen here to one of the movements:

Examples of music that avoid both gradual change and tension/release would be things like serial and stochastic music. Those then have other constraints that lend them some uniformity, e.g. fixed tone rows or statistical distributions of properties.

But it seems like I'm hijacking my own discussion though. I am still very curious about established techniques for modal music composition...

Interesting music the Kyrie but after a while of listening I found myself restless.  I guess I'm "corrupted" by the need for things to change more frequently or perceptibly. 

And yes we've hijacked the discussion but its still very interesting!

Interesting. Julie's example of Bartok's Violin Concerto #2 vs. Stefaan's Mark Snyder piece seem to be the distinction between Art and Science. The notion of Perlin noise as the visual equivalent of the sound we hear in Snyder's piece, seems the result of a mathematical algorithm, with no dramatic element. While listening, I imagined going to a theater to watch a play, where the actors randomly (perlin noise-like) moved around the stage. While fascinating, from a certain point of view, there is little dramatic tension (dramatic tension seems a critical element of Art).

I agree with Julie's point about the difficulty in applying standard harmony and cadential structures to modes other than Ionian and Aeolian. I've been experimenting  with some of the "exotic" modes (e.g. Arabian mode, Algerian mode, Hungarian Major, etc.), and I'm struggling to apply harmonic structures to melodic themes in these modes.

One concept that surfaces frequently, with respect to modes, is the use of "vamps", repeated use of tones that "pound into place" a tonal center, an alternate approach from using standard cadential patterns.


Robert Hunter said:

One concept that surfaces frequently, with respect to modes, is the use of "vamps", repeated use of tones that "pound into place" a tonal center, an alternate approach from using standard cadential patterns.

It kind of makes sense to emphasize the "color" notes in modes, since those make the difference between the major/minor keys we're accustomed to hear versus some other mode.

At some point the choir I attend sang the requiem by Maurice Durufle. Durufle based himself on Gregorian chant, and harmonized that in interesting ways. One of the parts, the "Dies Irae" if I recall correctly (I don't have access to my scores right now), uses harmonizations that appear to be derived from a rather special "scale"(something like C Db Eb E F# G A Bb ). The incredibly dark and brooding harmonic colors he manages to create by systematically working with this scale-like thing made a huge impression on me (and on many members of the choir I believe). Ever since, I've had a fascination with modes and other scales. I'll have to go back to the score and take a in-depth look at how he did what he did.

Oh my, Stefaan!  This discussion has been interesting since the very first word, but now you've brought up my favorite musical topic!  Jazz musicians and many classical musicians call that scale you outlined the octatonic scale, but in reality any scale with eight notes before returning to tonic is an octatonic scale, so I prefer Messiaen's description: the second mode of limited transposition.  

Olivier Messiaen wrote a treasure trove of a book entitled "The Technique of My Musical Language".  I spent one summer ten or twelve years ago studying just one chapter in the book, and it totally changed my musical life.  In fact, page 50 alone, combined with hundreds of hours of listening, has been life changing for me and many of my advanced students.

I apologize in advance if I'm talking about things everyone knows already, but it's so exciting to me it's worth writing out in case it would be new to someone out there!

Messiaen points out that our major and minor scales have to be transposed 12 times before we get back to the original notes.  Take a C major scale up a half step and every note is different, another half step and you have 2 sharps that weren't in the original scale, etc. etc.  It's only on that 12th transposition that we are back to C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C again.   He calls the whole tone scale the first mode of limited transposition - transpose twice (up by half steps) and you have all the original notes again, albeit with a different starting tone.   His second mode of limited transposition, which was in many ways the basis of his life's work in music, is the half step/whole step mode you described:  C Db Eb E F# G A Bb C.  

There are many magical aspects of this mode!   One is the wealth of tritones within the intervallic structure:  (C-F#, Db-G, Eb-A, E-Bb, F#-C, etc)  In a major scale we have one tritone interval - in this mode we have one on each note of the scale!   Another aspect is that it's built from two overlapping diminished seventh chords and lends itself well to polytonality.  A third aspect is that every other chord is what my students and I call a "radiant" chord and every other chord is what we call a "dark" chord - the harmonic possibilities are stupendous.

You might want to find a copy of Messiaen's book - it is invaluable.  In addition to being a great composer, he was also an extremely generous man and superb teacher.  He wants us all to share in his knowledge and in his child-like wonder at what a collection of notes can create.   I wish I could copy sections of his book here ... especially the radiant-dark chords and his cadential examples.  Here is the best I can do with a computer keyboard.   Our major/minor scales have three chord colors - each major scale has three major triads, three minor triads and one diminished triad.  His 2nd mode builds chords with four notes instead of three and has two colors:

G-C-E-F# (radiant chord - a lydian-like sound)
A-Db-F#-G (dark chord)

If you move up through the scale building 4-note chords, all the chords have one of those two colors.  My students and I have built some wonderful pieces just based on the principles of this mode.   No one has won the Pulitzer Prize yet, but one of my students won the national composition competition for MTNA, one of the highest honors a US student can achieve.  His piece was built from this mode - he also used all the tools which apply to almost any genre - shape, texture, tension-release, repetition-contrast, etc.  He was ten years old then and wild about Messiaen and his first composition, Stained Glass and Birds, won the big prize and set him on a lifetime path.  He's fifteen now, and studying at Juilliard.  So, you see, this mode can work wonders in a composer's life!  ;-)

I'm attaching Stained Glass and Birds to this discussion, because it's a very clear and easily accessible example of using that mode that so entranced you!   I played piano on the premiere and marked my music with "R" and "D" everywhere to tell me whether the chord was radiant or dark!  So much easier than reading flats and sharps in the same chord!  ;-)

I didn't know that Durufle's Requiem was also built from this mode.  Can you post examples, especially of the Dies Irae harmonization? 

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