Do the Modal



from Ken Perlman (

In the early 20th century an English collector of traditional songs and dances named Cecil Sharp published a book called “The English Folk Song: Some Conclusions.” Sharp, who about a decade later would also become the first serious collector of Appalachian music, made an impassioned plea in this book aimed at those who sought to perform the tunes he had collected.

He pointed out that quite a number of these tunes were not connected with the major and minor scales that had dominated both European classical and popular music for the previous few centuries. Instead these tunes followed older musical scales, or modes, and that consequently they were governed by different rules of tune organization and harmony.

Sharp then identified the scales he felt were actually in use among the folk tunes he collected, namely a set of diatonic scales often referred to as the “Church Modes” (you get a diatonic scale by starting on any white key of the piano and going up the white keys in sequence for a distance of one octave). These Church Modes have since become household names among folk-music aficionados: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Sharp argued persuasively that new performers of collected tunes should not change the melodies to conform to rules that apply to major and minor scales, and that they should also avoid applying to those tunes conventional harmony progressions from the major and minor world. All these were excellent points, and added considerably to the ability of later generations to understand and appreciate what British, Irish, and North American traditional music was all about.

The problem was that Sharp’s argument didn’t go far enough, and he in fact substituted a new set of unrealistic constructs for the old one. Although the Dorian and Mixolydian scales, for example, described the melodies of some folk tunes far better than had the labels “major” or “minor,” this still only represented part of the story.

Many folk tunes, for example, are made up of pentatonic or fundamentally pentatonic scales (you get a pentatonic, or 5-note scale by starting on any black key of the piano and going up the black keys in sequence till you reach the same note an octave up). Given that pentatonic scales have only five tones, they cannot be definitively assigned to any one Church mode. For example, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian modes in G is whether the seventh tone of the scale is F# or F-natural. Where then do you put a pentatonic tune in G that has no F in it of any kind?

Alternatively, there are many, many folk tunes that feature multiple “inflections” for a given pitch. For example, there are tunes in G that feature both F#’s and F-naturals at the seventh tone of the scale, and tunes in A that have both C#’s and C-naturals at the third tone. Again, the difference between the Ionian and Mixolydian G-modes is whether the seventh tone is F# or F-natural. In that case, where do you put a tune in G that has both these pitches? In the key of A, the difference between the Dorian and Mixolydian modes is whether the third tone of the scale is C-natural or C#. Where then do you put a tune in A in which both tones are present?

Further complication is presented by tunes which contain still more pitch inflections, namely those pesky pitches that fall between conventional scale notes. I’m talking, for example, about a pitch that is between C-natural and C#, or between Bb and B-natural. Sometimes I’ve heard such pitches referred to as “C-neutral” or “B-neutral,” but my favorite nickname for them comes from my fiddling friend Iain Fraser of Jedburgh, Scotland, who uses the term “C-supernatural.”


One Response to “Do the Modal”

  1. Reed Martin Says:


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