Modal vs. Tonal Music

The Differences Between Modal and Tonal.

Tonal music

  1. Is based on development of a melodic idea.
  2. The music is meant to tell a story
  3. The music has chord progressions based on tonic, subdominant and dominant, creating movement through tension-resolution.
  4. Song sections
  5. Melodies are constructed of short phrases that usually have a call and response type of feel, enhancing a sense of musical story-telling
  6. Scales: we think in terms of major and minor scales, happy stories and sad stories.

Modal music

  1. Is based on repetition of melodies
  2. The music is meant to evoke feelings, textures, a mood, an experience, through the color of each mode.
  3. Chord progressions oftentimes based on a drone, centering the melodies on a focused point
  4. No tension and resolution, just being in the moment with focus on the feel and color of the music
  5. Usually no song sections, but repetition of the same melody.
  6. Melodies feel like “stream of consciousness” type of run on sentences, not call and response.
  7. Scales: we use scales not in limiting terms of major and minor, but think of each scale as having its own characteristic color and mood. There are more different mood gradations beyond just happy (major) and sad (minor).

Modes for Moods.

That is the difference between “mode” and “scale”. “Mode” comes from a Greek word which, supposedly, means “mood”. Modes are basically musical moods.
This is well illustrated when you look at the intervallic structures of the modes.

C Lydian: C D E F# G A B C
C Ionian: C D E F G A B C
C Mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb C
C Dorian: C D Eb F G A Bb C
C Aeolian: C D Eb F G bA Bb C
C Phrygian: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C
C Locrian: C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C

As the distance between the tonic (1, C) and all other following notes gets smaller, this has the effect of a scale sounding sadder and darker with each note flattening.

Lydian is the brightest, most open sounding mode, Locrian is the darkest sounding mode.
As you go from Lydian to Locrian, the modes get progressively darker.

Dorian is said to be the most (emotionally, moodily) balanced sounding scale between happy and sad, light and dark.
After all, it is right in the middle of the list.

That is precisely how modes were approached in Medieval Music. Music was created not on the principle of major and minor, nor as a means to tell a story, but in terms of creating and expressing moods, picking the appropriate mode that most closely evoked the mood one wanted to express or share.

It’s fun to mention also that of these modes, Dorian is a palindrome.
You get the same intervals in the same order ascending and descending. W H W W W H W (W = whole and H = half)
Interesting to ponder if it is a coincidence, that the scale perfectly in the center (of the above list), and thus with the perfect balance between light and dark mood, is also palindromic.

Other fun fact: while it appears Lydian and Locrian couldn’t be any more removed from one another, they are actually only 1 note different from one another.
See if you can spot which note.


When you move the first note down a half step in Locrian, you get a Lydian scale.

Cool examples of modal music to illustrate the above descriptions.

“Bolero” – Maurice Ravel
Lots of repetition, only 1 chord, melodies evoke a journey and a mood, more than they tell a story. Less call and response, it just keeps meandering, in the moment.

“Norwegian Wood” – The Beatles.
The 1st part is in Mixolydian, the 2nd part in Dorian.
Notice the character of the song: very floating, like a snapshot, not a whole lot of movement, only 1 chord (in the first section), the song evokes and creates a mood more than it tells a story.

“So What” – Miles Davis
The song is in D Dorian, transposes up a half step to Eb Dorian for the B section.

“Riders On The Storm” – The Doors.
Talking about a mood song. In E Dorian.
Very few chords, same chord repeating for a long time in intro and all keyboard solos.
When vocals kick in, it becomes a 12 bar blues.

“White Rabbit” – Jefferson Airplane
F# Phrygian

“Dear Prudence” – The Beatles.
D Mixolydian
Not a whole lot of chords or chord movement, repetitive melody lines (“the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and so are you” – same 3 melody notes over and again, no call and response), a distinctive mood and vibe that is beyond just major or minor.


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