The True Story of the Origin of the Relative and Parallel Modes
In the beginning there were the notes and the notes preferred to live alone with their respective tones. They were comfortable with their singular intonation and thoroughly enjoyed the curious resonance of an octave blend. Of course, back then resources were plentiful and there was no need or interest in pursuing or fraternizing with harmonic frequencies that existed outside of your native tone. Middle C was quite content to hum aloud with a frequency of 261.63 and enjoyed the lower or higher octave greeting offered by another Cs as they passed. The family of the Cs, as other notes, were happily monotoned and, in fact, proud of their particular frequency.
Now as the musical landscape changed and note populations grew, there were occasional encounters with notes other than your own. Mr. and Ms. C were quite surprised to find how quickly they enjoyed passing encounters with the E and G families. They found the harmonies created to be quite pleasurable and the Cs, Es, and Gs all found they truly enjoyed each other’s company. At first the order of the exchange was somewhat unpredictable but after a short while they found that by starting and ending on C tone they felt quite similar to that warm feeling immediately after a nice meal. Now, of course, notes really never enjoyed a nice meal, but it seems reasonable to think that after a resolved melody they would feel satisfied, rested, and somehow resolved. There was most certainly many harmonic alliances being built. This alliance was being gradually formulated among all of the notes that discovered a tonal kinship.
All of the other notes began mingling in the town square and town parks and found themselves aligning with other tones that, well for lack of a better description, just seemed right. They congregated with regularity and certain notes found themselves attracted to particular tonal groups. The leader in each of these congregations became known as the root note. Oh, how the third and the fifth note could all harmonize, either together or in note dances commonly known as arpeggios. The second, fourth, sixth, and seventh notes initially felt excluded but little by little they jumped in and soon found themselves welcomed by the Core Trio as they could add different musical coloring that the root, third, and fifth were unable to do by themselves. Before you could whistle a lengthy tune – understanding, of course, that tunes weren’t really common at this time – the notes found themselves in different groups and established a level of familiarity known as scales. Groups of 7 notes arranged themselves in a certain order that seemed to work. Notes gradually gravitated to one of 12 different arrangements that all centered around a particular root note. There was good natured harmonic jostling among all of the Major scales. The root, 3rd and 5th tones were clearly dominant but there was no tonal arrogance and all of the notes learned to drift in and out of harmonies and sequences in a fashion that was tonally pleasing and often interesting to those listening.
Relative and/or derivative modes:
One day the 7th tone discovered that he or she could force the scale to a point of resolution. Oh how 7th tone loved to jump in at just the right moment in a musical passage and say, “Ok, time to go to root, and go right now.” Of course, this was communicated from the tension in the melody and not really with words. Now a couple of the ‘regular’ notes – those 2nd, 4th, 6th tones - noticed this and decided that they would like a moment of attention and musical direction as well. One day, when all was going musically well in the C Major scale group, the D note suddenly stepped forward and sounded with a purposeful emphasis. The C note – the root – was taken aback but decided to release the musical reigns over to the D just to see where this might go. Well, imagine the surprise when the entire mood of the scale changed as the tones were bouncing about the D note. How can this be the family of tones in the C Major scale asked. Aren’t we all the same notes we were before the D note took control? After pondering this dilemma for some time, one of the notes – I forget which one – suggested that the intervals between the notes had been altered. The Major scale typically has a step pattern (whole and half) of C - W – D – W – E- H - F – W – G – W – A – W - B - H - C but when the D note took over the pattern became D – W – E – H – F – W - G – W - A- W – G – W – A – W – B – H – C – W - D. How about that the notes exclaimed. Here is a table view of the change:
You can see that C Major starts out with the W W H pattern while if you start on the D note you get the W H W pattern. Certainly a small and seemingly incidental change but the tonal quality was immediately noticeable. And one more thing, the whole and half steps were the same going backward and forwards when you started on the D note. A tonal palindrome for goodness sake. D now had pride and uniqueness that rivaled that of the root, 3rd, and 5th. All of the notes celebrated and one by one took control of the melody in the very same manner as the D note did. Even the 3rd and 5th tones stepped up to lead the parade. A veritable cornucopia of musical possibilities and expressions were unveiled. Even C, the root note, didn’t seem to mind. C admittedly got tired on occasion and welcomed the opportunity to step – however so slightly – outside of the spotlight. Since D was the second note of the C Major scale, the C root note called upon all of the other notes to remember this arrangement as the D Dorian Mode. This was the original significant note of the many Dorian notes that would follow.
Having established a rather remarkable musical breakthrough, the C Major scale was more than happy to share their new found technique with all of the other Major scale groupings. The level exuberance experienced by the C Major scale was soon replicated in all of the other Major scale families. Every single note found their spirits lifted by their ability to alter the tonal mood of their scale. The 6th tone did seem to be more sad than happy when directing a melody but soon accepted the role. There was some initial resentment when the other notes began to refer to the 6th tone as ‘mopey’. “Cheer up Mopey,” they would joke. Even the 4th note was seen walking about with pride. There was a suggestion to give each tonal mood a name in order for everyone to have a point of common reference. There was much debate – often quite contentious – but eventually there was agreement to assign names that had a sense of the classical. Some of the notes felt this was a tad pretentious but they eventually were persuaded to support the new naming convention. Most of the notes actually thought this would be a good joke as they anticipated some level of confusion with their new naming scheme. They also decided to group all of these new names into a family of that would be known as modes. Each Major scale would have a collection of modes. Here is the result of their new naming convention.
The peaceful and entirely unexpected revolution of the parallel modes:
Well, you know the young. Never quite satisfied with how things happen to be and eager to explore what might be. A couple of the younger root notes began to get an itch to explore the musical space outside of their immediate scale family. No one can really explain the origin of this itch, but it is generally expressed by the older generation with a sigh and two spoken words, “the young.” These notes began by listening to the sounds of the neighboring apartments and stopping a bit longer by the groups of other scales as they melodied in the park. The younger A root note of the A Major scale was probably the first to wonder how he might sound within the context of other Major scales. One night the younger A root note was walking back from the park when a sudden rain storm swooped in from the west. The young A note ducked into the doorway of the D Major scale apartment in an almost futile attempt to stay dry. Ok, now this might get confusing but try to follow along. One of the younger A notes that resided in the D Major scale building opened his window – the roof protrusion allowed this without rain getting in – and saw his distant relative standing outside the doorway.
“Hey, you want to come in?” hollered the young D Major A.
“Sure,” hollered back the young A root note and entered when the door release buzzer sounded.
Now the young A root note was used to walking in his apartment on the ground level in the A Major scale apartment, after all, this was a root note. YAR – young A root – was about to knock on the ground floor apartment when he saw the big ‘D’ on the door. “No, up here,” yelled the D Major A note from the 4th floor of the stairwell. “Come on up.” The YAR looked up briefly, waved, and then climbed the stairs up to the 4th floor and entered the D Major young A’s apartment.
“Wow, it’s different up here,” said YAR. “I live on the first floor over in A Major.”
“Yeah, I know, I listen to you guys sometime. You actually blend quite well. We’re about ready to do a couple of numbers. Do you want to jump in? Let’s shake this up a bit. My spot will come up in 10 or so. You just want to be careful of the different step pattern. We have a little time for review if you would like to go over some things. I think this is how it will go. Take a look. Pay attention to the G natural in my scale. Funny how little things like that can alter the tone.”
“So I just play the D Major scale but hover about myself?” said the YAR.
“I guess that’s it. Haven’t played around much with this but it should be interesting,” answered the D Major A.
“Go,” said the D Major A note with a nod of his head.
The YAR took off and soared through the notes of the D Major scale and lo and behold, found himself in a Mixolydian mode. This was completely different than his position as the root note in A Major. The musical opportunities were startling. The YAR had never been in this musical territory. Exuberance was mixed with exhaustion and after a while the B note was pounding on the ceiling in exasperation as the YAR had well exceeded his bar count.
“Oh my goodness,” the young D Major A note and YAR said in unison.
The YAR hung around the D Major A’s apartment until the rain subsided and then returned to the A Major apartment and resumed his role as the Major scale root note. He was eager to share his experience with the other notes.
“I couldn’t believe it. I mean I have never gone outside of our Major scale arrangements. I’m not criticizing being a root note but, my goodness, did the Mixolydian mode feel good. That name still makes me laugh. I could get out there and then bring it right back home. I am so used to being the root or anchor and finding myself in the 5th position of the Major scale was indescribable. You should try it, each one of you. Go find your relatives in the other scales,” said the YAR just before a melodic session.
You would never have though that a chance, rainy day visit would turn out to be so significant. And so began the peaceful revolution of the parallel modes. The following days and weeks were filled with notes exiting their apartment and meeting their relatives in the different Major scale residences. There was some initial apprehension and hesitation about heading outside of the established comfort zone, but this dissipated rather quickly. It wasn’t long before these inter-Major scale visits were frequent and regular. Oh, and the music created was wonderful. Each note found new purpose and opportunities for expression that had NEVER been explored. There was a great deal of musical life outside the walls of the relative scale apartments.
The only negative associated with the birth of the parallel modes was the requirement for more traffic management on Harmony Avenue. There was an arrangement – they joked about ‘arrangement’ - among the Major scale apartment dwellers to define and abide by a Home Owners Agreement that was quickly implemented and, all things considered, relatively cheap.
Of course, the Aeolian mode was still sad more times than not, but the other notes did cease and desist calling him “Mopey”, even though he was.
Here is the resulting table of the parallel mode revolution for A Major. Pay attention to that parent scale designation.
So in summary:
Relative / Derivative modes of A Major ONLY use notes found within the A Major scale. Relative / Derivative modes of any Major scale use notes only found in their own apartment building. Sorry to be repetitious but C Major relative / derivative modes use ONLY the notes found in the C Major scale. Get it?
Now, of course, some of the older notes still find themselves to be more comfortable within their own scale and aren’t eager for change but recognize the fact that change has come. These older notes and/or more conservative notes stay at home and are quite content to play only with the notes in their apartment.
Parallel modes of A Major visit their relatives that live in other Major scales and have no problem doing so. The root of A Major has a different purpose as A Mixolydian in the D Major scale. Or for that matter as A Aeolian (6th tone) in the C Major Scale, and as A Dorian (2nd tone) in the G Major scale and so forth. The A note takes on the Mode assignment depending on where the A note is found in the different Major scales.
Just as an aside, as this can confuse some folks. If the A Major root note goes over and visits the D Major scale and becomes A Mixolydian the parent scale is the D Major scale. When the A note visits the G Major scale and becomes the A Dorian mode the parent scale is the G Major scale. This is because all of the notes of A Dorian or A Mixolydian parallel modes are found in the G Major or D Major scale respectively. What this means is you can play the D Major or G Major scale notes, but you must be careful to emphasize the A note and not the D or G roots. You won't find A Mixolydian in the A Major scale. Look all day but you won't find it there. You have to look in D Major to find A Mixolydian as A is the 5th note in the D Major scale. Just a word of caution.
Both the relative / derivative and parallel modes have proven to be musically compelling and one is not necessarily better than the other.
YAR remains a hero to this day and serves as an example of a peaceful and positive social change.