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What Does Modal Mean?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

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:

Click 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 Dorian. D 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.



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.



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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Ryan Spearman lives to share music. He's a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, educator, volunteer radio producer, promoter, podcaster, and the co-founder of an organization (The Green Strum Project) encouraging connections between sustainability and the arts in St. Louis. Here's what St. Louis' Premier music magazine, The River Front Times, has to say about Ryan: "Consider Ryan Spearman the jujitsu master of folk music. Whether selling out listening rooms as a solo artist or performing around St. Louis with formal and informal blues and old-time groups, he uses his considerable knowledge of folk material and unassailable skill on guitar, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and fiddle to disarm any attempt to fix tradition in history books or on wax cylinders. Spearman's 2010 album, Live at the Chapel is no less than a clinic on how to update tradition without losing what makes mastering the old language worthwhile. His music speaks to the old spirits and teaches them a thing or two about contemporary life and song as well." Spearman is an instructor at The Folk School of St. Louis where--for the last three years-- he has taught classes covering several traditional musical subjects including, clawhammer banjo, old time & bluegrass fiddle, guitar, jug band, improvisation, music theory, & old time ensemble performance. He has also conducted numerous educational workshops across the United States including a recent 3-part presentation on "Traditional Songs and Fiddle Tunes of Missouri and the Midwest". The presentation was commissioned by the Missouri Artisans Alliance and co-conducted with banjoist and midwest fiddle tune historian, Sean Barth. Ryan is a proud recipient ot the 2012 Earth Dance Farms Mission Award for his work exploring the connections between sutainability and music. He has recently worked with The Muddy Waters Theater Company as a consultant in musical direction on their production of Eugene O' Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" in which he provided live musical performance and played a small role as a townperson/musician. He also scored, arranged, & performed the music for Muddy Water's subsequent production of O' Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night". Spearman has recently finished recording St. Louis, Missouri's first local, sustainable CD project. The CD is called Get Along Home and was sponsored in part by The Green Strum Project. The idea for the album was conceived during a recent European concert tour and features instruments made from found and recycled items in the St. Louis, Missouri metro area. The album was written, engineered, mixed, mastered, and designed in St. Louis. The idea was to make a recording with significantly low environmental impact and, as a result, help to raise awareness of easily adoptable sustainable practices for artists and the importance of local economy. He has toured all over the United States and in France, Portugal, Spain, and Italy. He has performed on the main stage of The Telluride Bluegrass Festival (Telluride, CO), The Northwest String Summit (North Plains, OR), High Sierra Music Festival (Quincy, CA), Kinfolk Festival (Lyons, CO), and The Thomas Hollow Songwriters Gathering (Exeter, MO), The Fayetteville Roots Festival (Fayetteville, AR), The Boulder Theater (Boulder, CO) , The Aggie Theater (Fort Collins, CO), and The Fox Theater (Boulder, CO), & The Sheldon Concert Hall (St. Louis, MO) just to name a few. Currently Spearman is performing solo, with the newly formed Ryan Spearman Band, and as one half of The Pokey LaFarge & Ryan Spearman Duo.

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