What does “Modal” mean?

Updated: May 7

If you’re one of those clawhammer players who likes to play old time fiddle tunes then you’ve no doubt seen and heard references to “modalism


You’ll see some tabs listing the key of a tune as A modal, for example. Or you’ll be in a jam and someone will say, “This is a modal tune.


But what in the world does it mean to say that a particular tune is “modal”?



Answer #1

I get this question from a lot of beginners and early intermediate players and I usually answer by demonstration. I’ll play a modal tune or two and let them hear the difference in the character of a modal sound versus a standard major key sound:

Click to hear a tune that is modal

Click to hear a tune in a major key


Then I teach ’em a modal tune or two so that they get a feel for how the concept looks and feels on the banjo neck. Here’s some tab and a FREE video lesson of a modal tune for you:

Watch this video here to learn the modal tune Pretty Polly:


Click here for the tab to Pretty Polly


*note: The tab and video lesson above is taken from my 30 Days to Better Banjo course. You can learn more about the course by clicking here.


This “experiential” method to understanding modal tunes is certainly the most practical approach to understanding modal music. The more of these tunes that you learn and listen to, the better you’ll become at handling yourself in modal situations.


So, answer #1 to the question, “What is a modal tune”? is:

Listen to it and play it and then you’ll know.


For some people, however, simply doing is not enough and their inquiring minds want to know the “why” behind the “what”. If you fall into this camp, then you may want to take a look at answer #2.


Answer #2

Alright. I’ll give you a little bit of the technical answer to the question of “what is modal”?


*note: You do NOT need to know or understand these concepts in order to play modal tunes. What I’m talking about in the paragraphs below is music theory stuff. It can be helpful to some people in some situations but it is by no means necessary for you to care about or understand this technical end of music in order to be an accomplished musician.

If any of this stuff confuses you or you’re just not interested in “looking under the hood” then simply ignore it. 

If you’re confused by it but still interested in understanding, well…just keep your head in the game, read as much info as you can on the subject, then reread it a few days later, study it, talk to other musicians about it, and eventually, with some time and effort, basic music theory will make perfect sense to you.


Anyway, back to the question at hand. A few technical points to consider about modal tunes:

  • Some people in the old time/folk world explain a modal tune as a tune that is neither major or minor. This is true to a degree and it is a simple way to define modal tunes in reference to the more common major or minor key melodies that we’re more used to hearing in American music but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.

  • It should be noted that all western music can be divided into “modes”. Melodies that we consider to be major or minor are no exception.

  • To say a tune is major is the same as saying it is based on the Ionian mode.

  • To say a tune is minor is the same as saying it is based on the Aeolian mode.

  • In the old time music world, when we come a cross a tune that is in a mode other than Ionian or Aeolian then we refer to it as modal (not major or minor).

  • But, again, this doesn’t tell the whole story.

  • A “modal” tune can be based on a variety of modes beyond the Ionian or Aeolian. For old timers and folkies, these tunes usually belong to the Dorian mode or the Mixolydian mode.

Confused yet? Good. Let’s move on and talk briefly about one way you can think of modes.


If you know anything about the major scale then you have a way to start extrapolating a little knowledge of modal systems.

Here are the notes of an A major scale:

A   B  C#  D  E  F#  G#   A


I told you earlier the major scale is really just another name for the ionian mode. So, let’s start calling the above sequence of notes A Ionian.


Now let’s shift the starting (and likewise the ending) note of this sequence. We’re not going to change the order of the notes…we’re just going to shift the start/end point. Let’s start on the second note of the A Ionian. That gives us this:

 B  C#  D  E  F#  G#   A  B


This we call B Dorian. B because that’s our root note and Dorian because it starts on the second note of the Ionian mode.


Let’s look at another example. Let’s use the C major scale (also known as the C Ionian mode):

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C


Now let’s give it the same treatment we gave our earlier example and build a mode off of the second note of this sequence.


What we get is the D Dorian mode:

D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D


This we call D DorianD because that’s our root note and Dorian because it starts on the second note of the Ionian mode.


Continuing with this idea for a second longer

If we started a sequence from the third note of an Ionian mode we would have what’s called a Phrygian mode.


Using this perspective, we can layout the system like this:

Dorian starts on the second note of the Ionian mode (major scale)

Phrygian starts on the third note 

Lydian starts on the fourth note

Mixolydian on the fifth note

Aeolian(minor scale) on the sixth note 

Locrian on the seventh note


As I’m sure you can see, we’re now starting to wade out into the deeper waters of music theory and it just doesn’t have a lot of immediate relevance to the task at hand.


This is why I prefer offering up Answer #1 to Answer #2.


I love studying basic music theory and I do often apply music theory concepts to my playing and my arranging but I’m careful to encourage you to jump in too deeply too soon…lest you get hung up on the conceptual understanding of the music at the expense of your experiential understanding.


Conclusion

The simple answer to “What is a modal tune?”:

A tune that is neither major nor minor.


The more complex answer:

They’re all, technically, modal tunes. A good dose of music theory study will start to shed some light on the nuances of modally classifying melodies. Understanding, at least, how the Mixolydian and Dorian modes manifest themselves on your banjo might be helpful toward your understanding of these fuzzy concepts.


Disclaimer

I wrote and posted this article on a whim.


I hadn’t sat down at the keyboard intending to talk about modes and scales and the mysteries therein but, rather, was inspired by a question that someone in the Play Better Banjo community had sent me.


Answer #2 is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a complete answer. I’ve simply given you a peek behind the music theory curtain in an effort to relay a modicum of technical explanation of modes. 


If you want to take you’re music theory studies further, send me an email and I’ll do my best to connect you with some useful materials.


Alright. Enough talk. Now, get out there and make some noise!


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