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3 Scale Modes That Will Deepen the Emotions of Your Pop Song

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Many songwriters wish to expand their harmonic knowledge and improve their writing — by improving the craft, we hope to be more honest writers.

Using scale modes as a particular weapon of choice, we can manipulate the major and minor scale patterns we’re already familiar with to create a greater emotional effect in our writing.

Let’s look at three modes, Mixolydian, Dorian, and Mixolydian Flat-6, to see how they can increase the depth of a song’s musical backdrop.

  1. Mixolydian:  1 2 3 4 5 6♭7
  2. Dorian:  1 2♭3 4 5 6♭7
  3. Mixolydian Flat-6:  1 2 3 4 5♭6♭7

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1. Mixolydian

The Mixolydian mode is especially prevalent in American roots music, and an integral part of our musical contribution to the world historically. The sound of the flat seventh is synonymous with blues, jazz, and rock, and by extension an important part of pop music. Mixolydian is the fifth mode of the major scale, built on the dominant scale degree.

Mixolydian contains a wonderful tension, while remaining largely consonant, and that is the dissonance of the tritone between the major third and the aforementioned flat seventh.

Let’s look at an example of a pop song in the Mixolydian mode: “Royals” by Lorde. It’s important to remember that when we say a song is “in a mode,” we’re referring to the use of that mode as a tonal center. Every scale mode belongs to a “parent” key signature.

In this case, “Royals” is in the key of G Major. However, the song begins on the dominant (D) and uses the notes of the G Major scale against D, while treating D as the tonal center. This creates the Mixolydian tonality. To that point, when we discuss modes in this context, we refer to the root note of the mode as the tonic. In the case of “Royals,” D would be the I.

If we examine the melody, we can see that Lorde begins on the fifth (A), jumps up to the root (D), and ends the first two phrases on the flat seventh (C). On beat two of bar five, she sings the major third (F#). Now we have a fully realized Mixolydian melody. This gives the song a deeply bluesy sound while still remaining luminescent and upbeat. This is the power of Mixolydian.

We can use Mixolydian in our pop songwriting when we want to write a song that has a major tonality but feels strong and earthy. The color created by the major tonality coupled with the darkness of the tritone between the third and flat seventh is a major mode that’s deep, rural and powerful. It doesn’t feel as airy and whimsical as the Lydian mode or standard major.

The space between the flat seventh and root gives Mixolydian a breadth that evokes the sound of wide open spaces, the mountains and canyons of the American south and midwest. You can hear the echoes of the European folk music and African chants that together, fused into sounds that we identify as uniquely American.

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2. Dorian

Now that we’ve examined the power of the major mode Mixolydian, let’s take a look at an equally powerful minor mode, Dorian.

Dorian is the second mode of the Major scale, beginning on the second scale degree. It contains a minor third and flat seventh, but the sixth scale degree, which is normally flat in a minor (Aeolian) scale, remains major, therefore creating a tritone interval between the minor third and major sixth. This gives Dorian a shimmering, speakeasy-after-dusk quality that can easily be exploited in jazz, pop, and R&B.

Dorian is most commonly used as a tool for improvisers over minor seventh chords, but can be found in some wonderful pop songs; The Beatles’ classic “Eleanor Rigby” is a prime example.

This song uses “parallel modes” — in other words, it borrows a mode from a different key. Even though the key signature for “Eleanor Rigby” would be G, with E as the relative minor, the first four bars of the verse melody contain a C# accidental, which creates E Dorian. E Dorian belongs to the key of D Major, so we’re essentially borrowing it for a few bars, to add color to the melody.

During the last two bars, the C# is lowered to C, returning to the key of G Major. This is an especially great use of modality in melody writing because it’s dynamic; that is, it changes. And the changes can communicate a much wider swath of emotion in a short space than staying within the confines of a standard seven-note scale.

We can substitute Dorian in place of the standard minor scale when we write over minor chords, when we want to evoke the quality of minor without getting too dark. By association, the Dorian mode typically sounds jazzy, and gives us that smokey, mysterious quality that can musically explain hope, trickery, or something sultry in your writing.

3. Mixolydian  Flat-6

You’d be hard pressed to find a pop song thoroughly composed in this mode, but using it in passing can create a very cool effect. I write about Mixolydian Flat-6 a lot, because I think it rules.

Mixolydian Flat-6 (1 2 3 4 5♭6♭7) is the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale (1 2♭3 4 5♭6 7), and is most commonly used by improvisers to solo over 7♭13 chords, but there are a few instances of this mode appearing in pop over the last few decades. Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” is a great example, but it also features in the solo of Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.”

The melody of “Single Ladies” is in E Major, but the bass note in the second half of the chorus is C natural (the♭6). This implies the quality of a major or dominant flat thirteenth chord.

Another interesting instance of Mixolydian Flat-6, is in a IV to IV- movement found in many pop songs. The IV- is found commonly in show tunes, doo wop, Motown and early rock, and found a resurgence into trendiness in the ’90s with Brit Pop. Radiohead uses the IV to IV- movement in “Creep,” it’s everywhere in The Beatles’ music, and Oasis stole that too.

When we use the IV- chord we imply melodic minor, therefore the tonality of the I chord is Mixolydian Flat-6. If you take a simple I V IV IV- chord progression as an example, you can see it illustrated clearly here.

I = C E G
IV- = F A♭ C

The minor third in the IV- chord is the flat sixth of I.

The emotional context of this mode is unique. It’s major but with a seriously dubious quality, due in part to presence of two tritones. One between the second and the flat sixth, and another between the major third and flat seventh. These tritones are a whole step apart, opening a wide world of interplay between major/minor tonalities.

A great way to use this mode practically to create a melancholic, sort of descending cadence on a melodic line would be to ascend through a standard major or Mixolydian scale in some form, then on the descent, include the flat sixth in passing on the way to I.

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Dre DiMura
Dre DiMura

Dre DiMura is a professional guitarist, songwriter, and author. While his friends were studying for the SATs, Dre was already touring the world with Gloria Gaynor, Dee Snider, Palaye Royale and Evol Walks. He's a musician and he's played one on TV too. You may see him at your local enormo-dome on tour with Diamanté.