Modality: Definition, Principle & Effect

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Modality is the precursor to the modern musical scale; its origins can be found in ancient Greek music theory. In this lesson, we'll explore the principle of modality in relation to musical scales and discover how scale degrees build modes.

Modality and Scales

Modality is a type of musical scale, or a group of eight successive pitches, with no pitch skipped and the first and last tone repeated. Each scale degree is numbered and labeled in Roman numerals on the scale, beginning with one or the first note and ending with eight or the last note. The names of the degrees are important only in how they relate to each other:

  • 1st: tonic or the home tone
  • 2nd: supertonic, which is one step above the tonic
  • 3rd: median, which is between the tonic and the dominant
  • 4th: subdominant or lower dominant
  • 5th: dominant or the primary overtone of the tonic
  • 6th: submediant, found between the tonic and the subdominant
  • 7th: subtonic or the leading tone
  • 8th: tonal center, which brings us back to where we started

Modality is built upon eight successive pitches that share the notes of the tonic scale. Each scale has a different melodic content, and each accentuates a different tonality. The origins of modern Western musical scales can be found in modality, which is based on the Greek system of musical theory. The Greeks established the 8-tone scale, with the first and last tone being an octave apart.

As found in Western music, the tonic note is displaced among seven natural tones or church modes. Post-Greek music developed in the Western Catholic Church, specifically under the Gregorian monks. One example of the Gregorian sound can be found in Monty Python and the Holy Grail Monks; it's actually a great representation of the style! Now that we've reviewed scales, let's move on to how scale degrees create modes.

Benedictine Saints, including Gregorius the Great
Benedictine Saints

Scale Degrees and Modes

Each mode has its own name, based upon one of the original Greek modes. They include: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The following mnemonic device may help you remember them: I Don't Pheel Like Making Any Love. Now, let's take a look at some of the major musical features unique to each of the modes.

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