Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 163 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. This question was sent by Anne. She writes:
Good Morning Vidas and Ausra – I have a question for you.
I am working on Bach’s Christ Lag In Todesbanden from the Orgelbuchlein (Riemenschneider Edition). The Key Signature for the Chorale is D minor (B flat) but there is no B flat in the key signature for the Prelude. However the piece is apparently written in D minor. I’m assuming it’s modal. My question is how do I determine which mode it is written in?
BTW, I am working on your pedal exercise from the Bach BWV 540 in all Major keys and the Cadence transposed to 24 keys. I really like them to get warmed up on before my daily practice. Thank you so much for taking the time to do that!
Anne Kimball (Total Organist subscriber)
So that’s great, that Anne is practicing all kinds of exercises from the collection that we have in the Total Organist training system, right?
V: So, going back, Ausra, to the question about modal pieces and their key signatures--do you think that--Do you know this piece? It’s in d minor, but there is no B♭ next to the clef. But it starts and ends on a d minor chord.
A: I know; and actually, this is not the only case that composers in the Baroque period did that. But it just means that the piece is written in Dorian mode, D Dorian mode.
V: D Dorian. So this system, of course, is much older than the major/minor system?
A: Yes, it is. And although I’m telling that this piece is written in D Dorian mode, it’s yes and no, because it already has that tonal system--major/minor system--but also preserves some features of that modal system as well.
V: You know what would be modal? I think the chorale melody is modal.
A: Yes, yes.
V: But their harmonization--harmony, chords, and polyphony--I think it’s quite normally minor. D minor.
A: So...and you know, she asks about how to determine which mode it is. So this is sort of simple: for example, like in this case, it starts and finishes on D. Not on A, as it should be if the key were a minor. So if it finishes on a different note, then you can suspect that the mode is in D.
V: Mhm. And, is it a major or a minor mode?
A: It’s a minor mode.
A: In this case. Because if you would take a piano--all the white keys--and start playing from each of the keys, you could get a different mode each time.
V: Like from C, would be one mode…
A: Yes. Maybe let’s start from A. Maybe we could talk about all of them.
V: Alright. So, what kind of mode would you get if you started playing a scale with white keys starting from A?
A: This would be Aeolian mode.
V: And it doesn’t differ from any normal, natural minor, right?
A: Yes. It’s like natural minor. And because it’s natural minor, it doesn’t have that raised seventh scale degree and sixth scale degree; it sounds modal.
V: Mhm. And then, if you start with B with white keys only, it’s not b minor then.
A: Yes, it’s not b minor. It’s Locrian mode.
V: Locrian. I don’t think we teach that in school very much.
A: Well, we don’t teach that in school. But I think it’s crazy, because actually, the head of our department, he is crazy about math. Actually, I believe that he’s a true mathematician, but not musician!
A: Because he teaches kids that there are 3 major modes and 3 minor modes; and if he adds Locrian mode, then there are 7 modes, and it’s not right for him mathematically. But actually Locrian is a minor mode. So in that case, if you would teach it, you would have 4 minor keys and 3 major modes. 3 major, 4 minor.
V: It’s not symmetrical.
A: I know, and it doesn’t suit him. So...well, I teach my kids...at least I say that there is a seventh mode, too.
V: Exactly. I think that you have to understand that from the B note, when you start playing the scale, it’s more minor than major, because B Major has 5 sharps from B, and b minor has only 2 sharps.
A: Yes, and you can sort of imagine that it’s a minor-minor-minor key: compared to natural minor, it has a lower second scale degree and fifth scale degree.
V: Aha, so even tonic triad or tonic chord is not minor there; it’s diminished.
A: It’s sort of the most awkward mode of all.
A: Of those seven modes.
V: Very sad mode, right?
A: Yes, it is.
V: Saddest of them all. What about if you start from C?
A: Well, you have Ionian.
V: Ionian. Okay. What about...Is it different from C Major or not?
A: No, it’s actually the same.
V: Natural major.
A: Yes, natural major.
V: I see. And then from D would be our beloved Dorian mode.
A: Yes, and it’s very common. Many composers actually use this D Dorian mode in their compositions.
V: Why is it related to minor and not to major?
A: Well, because it’s based on the d minor scale--you could say that. Only, it has the sixth scale degree raised.
V: B natural.
A: Yes, yes. And if you would look at the tetrachords, there are 2 tetrachords each in this mode. You have a minor tetrachord at the bottom, and then again you have a minor at the top; so 2 minor tetrachords.
A: That’s why it’s minor mode.
V: I see. And D Major should have 2 sharps.
A: Yes. F sharp and C sharp.
V: It’s more distant from all-white-keys then.
A: That’s right.
V: Alright, how about from E? What happens?
A: You would have Phrygian mode. It’s a minor mode too; but compared to e minor key, it doesn’t have the F♯. So it has a lower second scale degree.
V: Mhm. And about the F mode--it would be, what? Lydian.
A: Lydian, yes. Comparing with major, that’s a major mode. It wouldn’t have the B♭, so you would have the 4th scale degree raised.
V: So the last would be from G.
V: And it is Mixolydian.
A: Yes. It’s also a major mode, and you could compare it with G Major key, but it wouldn’t have F♯. So it has the seventh scale degree lowered.
V: Mhm. So all those early Baroque pieces, even Renaissance pieces, were written in a modal system, right?
V: And only later composers adopted a major/minor system. And as late as Bach, sometimes he adhered to the rules of modal writing, even though he clearly wrote in major or minor mode.
A: Yes, but also, not only Baroque composers--like later composers, especially French composers, they liked to use modes, too.
V: 20th century composers.
A: Yes, 20th century. Composers like Langlais, for example.
V: Organ music suits very well for the modal system. Somehow in my church, when I improvise, I use modes all the time.
A: Yes. And if you would look at any hymnal, you would find quite a few modal hymns, too.
V: Right. So guys, if you decide to check out some modes, practice them by playing just a single melody with one hand; and adapt and transpose to any other note system, starting from C or E♭, or B, or G♯--whatever starting point you can do, it’s okay. So then, your melody will have different modes. And you can transpose to major, also, related modes. Like Lydian, Mixolydian, and Ionian. Or minor related modes, as Ausra said, Dorian, Aeolian, and Phrygian.
A: And Locrian!
V: And Locrian, if you want to be complete. Thank you so much, guys, for listening to us. And send us more of your questions; we love helping you grow. This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.