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:

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What an exciting exchange of ideas!  Thank you Stephan and Julie and Robert.  All much to think about. This is going to take some time to digest.  After you mentioned the Octatonic scale in another conversation I've been trying to read more Julie. 

Harmonia said:

Oh my, Stefaan!  This discussion has been interesting since the very first word, but now you've brought up my favorite musical topic! 

I can tell you that so far I'm enjoying this discussion immensely. So many things to think about and so many prospects for experimenting.

Stained Glass and Birds definitely is not something your average 10 year old would write. That's seriously impressive. If you hadn't told me it was written by your student, I would have attributed it to Messiaen, as it has a typical Messiaen sound to it (one that I recognize from one of the Messiaen pieces I am familiar with: "Vingts regards sur l'enfant Jesus"). Add to that that Messiaen also had a thing for bird songs...
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.I didn't know that Durufle's Requiem was also built from this mode. 
Thank you for the clear explanations. This is tremendously interesting. I definitely want to read more about his ideas. I have his collected works on CD, but I definitely haven't heard all of it (in fact, pretty much far from all of it).
Can you post examples, especially of the Dies Irae harmonization? 
I cannot post score fragments now as I don't have the scores in online form (and they are still covered by all kinds of copyrights, but I quess posting quotes would not pose a problem). But you can hear the octotonic scale being used in the "Libera me" (which also contains the dies irae text - I wasn't all wrong after all), included below.
With the choir we sang a version with just organ accompaniment, which sounded a bit more intimate and perhaps a bit darker (I liked it better than the orchestral version). Singing this requiem has been one of a few life altering experiences. Just hearing it back (even in the orchestral version) apparently is enough for my brain to start releasing endorphines again leading to a "natural high".

Julie -- I'm going to show Stained Glass and Birds to my now 10 year old composition student today and introduce him to the Octatonic.   :-)  Lets see where THAT goes!

That is so exciting, B!  I can't wait to see what happens next. 

Here's how Michael and I approached Stained Glass and Birds:  1) He created a huge collection of "OMG" chords.  If he played a chord and I just smiled weakly or said "how interesting" that chord got tossed.  If he played a chord and I exclaimed "Oh my gosh!" and started swooning it went into the OMG pile.  It takes a lot to get a swoon out of me, and triads were not even considered.  He learned really quickly that he has five fingers on each hand and that chords can take all shapes and sizes!  ;-)  2)  We talked about what the word "progression" means in English - to move forward.  We then cut out all his OMG chords and he started putting them together in different ways, like a jigsaw puzzle, and listening to which lineups seemed to move forward the best.  3)  We talked about structures - nothing deep, just different ways of arranging the letters A, B, C, D etc.  He made up a structure he liked because of its symmetry:  ABCBA.   4)  He then would play or have me play a series of OMG chords he had put into a moving forward order and then he would sing out or play the violin response, and then add bird flourishes to it.  5)  When A was finished, he created B and C and then wrote a Coda/Finale. It was all like a game or a puzzle.

In those days he couldn't write notes on staff paper, so he just played chords on the piano or sang out lines with me typing into Finale as fast as I could.  He composed into the air and I took dictation!  It was just like that scene from Amadeus where Mozart was dictating to Salieri.   Just like Salieri, I kept saying "slow down" ...  but unlike Salieri, I considered it a privilege to work with a young genius!

This was his first piece.  At that time, he didn't know anything about scales or modes or I, IV, V, I or leading tones or any rules - he only knew what sounds he loved.  I just let him run with his ear and his imagination.  He was in love with Messiaen who he listened to night and day practically non-stop and he had (and has) an incredible ear, just like your 10 year old has, so I just followed his lead and helped him give some shape to his OMG moments!!  ;-)  

It was all very playful and non theoretical ... and an experience that changed both of us!

Have fun with your young one ... we are so lucky to work with those who still live in the place where everything is possible!  Let's hope they never get bogged down in rules - even while they are developing a rich collection of tools!

Thanks Julie. . . very helpful. . . .Tho amazingly my student has all the scales and the primary triads -- in EACH inversion pretty much down cold.  He loved the idea of the Octatonic and I just introduced it for a short period of time while we talked more about some Kabalevksy he's working on and did an improv in that style using a tune he remembered from Beethoven as a take off!    We also listened to parts of Stravinsky's Rite.

However I gave him an assignment this week of just getting familiar with the Octatonic formula and sound and finding his way around it, playing chords, and letting him drift into it.  He does not know Messiaen but next week I will play some for him. 

When I mentioned Stravinsky (in relation to our conversation about Kabalevsky)  he didn't know any Stravinsky -- so I said -- then shall we listen to some right now?   And he said "Imagine the luxury of being able to listen to music officially IN CLASS!"   For him its such a treat.  And I'm taking your lead from your earlier comments about listening with your students.

He was also delighted and bemused that I called Octatonic a "mode" since he thought he knew all the modes.

BUT we are wandering far off topic -- sorry everyone.

I meant to say primary triad cadences in each inversion.

B_Graytful said:

Thanks Julie. . . very helpful. . . .Tho amazingly my student has all the scales and the primary triads -- in EACH inversion pretty much down cold.

Harmonia said:

You might want to find a copy of Messiaen's book - it is invaluable.  

Having read through Messiaen's "The technique of my musical language" now (and tried to play through most of the examples), I can say I probably didn't get all of it, and it raises many questions ;)

I think my first, and biggest question is about the "limited transposition" property that, according to Messiaen, lends the modes their charm.

Is having "limited transposition" "just-a-symmetry-constraint" or does it somehow create effects unlike anything based on a different collection of notes?

I mean: in principle I could take any set of notes from a chromatic scale (e.g. C Db E F G# A B,  a set of notes that do not posess limited transposition or other symmetries) and use that as a basis to create melodies and harmonies. Would such music in certain ways be "crippled" compared to music based off one of Messiaen's modes?

Don't you think it's just a matter of personal preference? 

Messiaen experimented with many aspects of musical language throughout his long life, but two things particularly interested me.  One - his choices for the "music of God" - when the angel gives St. Francois the gift of music in his opera.  For such a deeply spiritual man, the music of God was not something to be undertaken lightly - and his opera was eight years in the writing, so there was plenty of time for contemplating the perfect choices.  His music of God was built on an extended C major chord played by three Ondes Martenot -- back to elemental music, so to speak.   Another thing that interested me was that in his last work - Eclairs sur l'Au Dela - he goes back to the language of Poems Pour Mi, written in his twenties.  After exploring a lifetime of musical possibilities, his last work was like his first works - grounded in the second mode of limited transposition.  In "Eclairs", he said he was hearing the music of the hereafter ... so to him, there was something profoundly meaningful in this mode.  That doesn't preclude profundity from elsewhere as so many other composers have demonstrated!

I don't think he was saying that this is the mode to end all modes, but just sharing with us his passion and excitement.  I know for myself that I enjoy writing in this mode above most others, but that is definitely a personal preference.  I love Lydian for many of the same radiant reasons - but this form of octatonic offers a rich harmonic palette with all its tritones and diminished sevenths and seems to be one of my native languages. 

I don't think any one scale or mode or method inherently offers more or less than any others.  In the hands of a maestro or maestra, any combination of notes can create something unforgettable.  After all, those first three notes of Beethoven's Fifth are certainly nothing to write home about - not to mention the so-called theme of the slow movement of his Seventh.   And yet, he creates something sublime from very basic musical elements.  It's like Frank Lloyd Wright's bricks and stones - it's really not the stones themselves that are magical, but his ways of "stacking" them!

By the way, you are an astoundingly fast learner!   It took me an entire summer to fully comprehend one chapter of Messiaen's book.  I had read it years before, but couldn't really understand most of it.  It literally took me hundreds of hours of listening to fully grasp even some of the musical implications, which I still cannot put into words, can only experience. 


Harmonia said:

Don't you think it's just a matter of personal preference? 


Yes, I think so. But I have to admit I very much like the sound his second mode creates. The human brain is optimized for pattern matching and is sensitive to symmetries. Symmetries play an important role in everything from art to science. 

I don't think he was saying that this is the mode to end all modes, but just sharing with us his passion and excitement.  


I think you are right. In fact I think he expresses in several places his admiration for Debussy, Ravel and other composers who used different modes. About the whole tone scale he claims that Debussy has put it to so good use that he won't allow himself to use it again. I wonder now if that kind of implies that, since he put his modes to such good use as well, we shouldn't try to touch them again. (I hope not, because I thoroughly enjoy the sound it creates!)

By the way, you are an astoundingly fast learner!   

Let's not exaggerate... one cannot read a book and then claim to know everything about a subject. Music in that respect is a bit like mathematics. Students often get the impression they understand something while they read the handbook (everything seems to make sense and logically follows from what came before it), until they need to apply it to their problem and get stuck almost immediately. Only then the real learning can start to take place.

I expect I will need to spend many more hours listening, writing and revisiting Messiaen's book before I have fully and truly understood his ideas. 

E.g. it is not yet clear to me exactly how his "modulations" between same mode/different modes actually modulate. He teaches these things mostly by example, but it's still up to us to find out the mechanism that underlies the example. A similar problem I had with some of the transformations he demonstrates (e.g. starting from a measure of Ravel or Debussy and then bending it through the prism of his musical language to make it something of his own in which the original cannot be recognized anymore) caused me to raise my eyebrows because I didn't always see exactly how the transformed version relates back to the original version (which only means he did his work well, as he says a few times that it's his intention that the original composition is no longer recognized).

To gain a really in-depth understanding remains a work in progress.


I ordered (and in the mean time also received) a book by Stephen M. Cormier called "Modal music composition".

The book appears to describe exactly what I was looking for. It explains techniques to maintain the feeling of a certain mode and ways to modulate in and between modes.

So far, I find it very fascinating (but I have only read a fraction of the whole book).

Some of the things I've read about are:

- similar to major and relative minor, also also pairs of modes can be defined that have certain related harmonic characteristics (Lydian-Dorian, Mixolydian-Phrygian)

- ways to brush up a melody after modally transposing it so that it works better in a given mode (e.g. by avoiding the melodic tritone that might appear)

- generalization of the idea of a "secondary dominant" to "parenthetic harmonies", and how to apply it to better retain the feeling of a certain mode while making chord progressions

I've still got quite some study and experimentation work ahead though.

Hello Stefaan,

I'm putting up a comment long after your original post, so sorry if the thread is done. As a composer who uses a lot of modal sounds in my pieces, I can tell you that I don't look at music along the lines of your post, in the sense that I don't use keys in any kind of pure way. Yes, I will put up a key in the score, and compose with a tonal center based on that, but I feel no obligation for the piece to be purely ionian/aolian or even end on the original tonal center. So I'll have chord progressions which follow traditional lines, modal sounds, sometimes bitonality, and sometimes other off-the-wall things. Don't get me wrong, my music is purely tonal at the end of the day, I just like stretching the rules. This enables me to get the cadences I want from the traditional parts and the more modern sounds that come from modal approaches.

Hello Gav,

Thanks for chiming in. If I understand you well, modality in your case comes as an "accidental byproduct" of "following your ear". When I asked my question, I was interested in a modal version of harmony rules. If you can pull it off without any rules - then by all means do so!

I for one like to read about such rules (provided any exist) if only to expand my vocabulary/create some possibilities to escape from repeating myself. I have found the book "Modal music composition" referred to above to be thought provoking, although I could easily formulate some critcisms against the book as well.

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