Parallel vs. Relative Modes
So, two weeks ago, Colorado Music Academy published a blog entry about the Modes of the Major Scale. In the post, they discussed what I think are relative modes of the major scale. There’s another kind though, which is what I tend to practice, because it remains in the same key and illustrates the sonic differences of the modes more clearly to me. These are called parallel modes.
At the end of their Modes post, CMA asked for requests for other entries. I suggested an explanation of parallel vs. relative modes, and they were kind enough to deliver, so Thanks, CMA! I found the explanation both illuminating and heavy on theory for beginners. I’ve come to realize that I’m not a complete beginner anymore, so the explanation made sense to me, and I know repeated readings will add to this, but I also know that other beginners will be confused by it, so I wanted to share some more basic information about these two types of modes.
First, here are CMA’s posts:
- Colorado Music Academy: Modes of the Major Scale
- Colorado Music Academy: The Difference Between Parallel and Relative Modes
Now, here is my understanding of the two types of modes, starting with the major scale:
I. The Major Scale
I’ve blogged about the major scale in the past. Here are some of those entries if you’re new to the concept:
- Scale Patterns – The Major Scale 1
- The Major Scale and Chords
- Two-Octave Major Scale Pattern
- Two-Octave Major Scale Pattern 2
- Two-Octave Major Scale Pattern 3
So, if we take the C major scale as our basis for discussion, we can look at its notes like this: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
II. Relative Modes
A relative mode of the major scale keeps the same notes that are used in the scale, but starts on a different note as its root or tonic. Using that C major scale (above) as an example, we’d get the first mode (D, Dorian) by starting on the 2nd note of the scale (D) and playing the same notes (E, F, G, A, etc.) from there. It looks like this:
So, what we did there was play the same NOTES as a C major scale (C, D, E, F, etc.), but starting on D and ending on a higher D (the octave). Essentially, if you look at it as scale degrees, we turned the original 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1 into 2-3-4-5-6-7-1-2. Its the same notes, but we’re just changing where we begin playing from.
Here it is as notes, starting on C, then D, E and F. C is in blue so its easier to see what’s happening:
C D E F G A B C (original, starting on C)
D E F G A B C D (1st mode, starting on D)
E F G A B C D E (2nd mode, starting on E)
F G A B C D E F (3rd mode, starting on F)
Because we’re playing starting from a different note, the sequence of whole-steps and half-steps also changes. This is because we’re keeping the notes, and there are specific, non-changing distances between these notes: namely, some of them are a step apart (2 frets) and some are a half-step apart (1 fret). For example, C and D are a whole step apart. This never changes. So, no matter when they appear, whether they’re the 1st 2 notes or notes 2 & 3, or 3 & 4, there are still 2 frets, or a whole step, between them.
Think of it like a conveyor belt at an assembly plant. There are 8 steps to create a product, and then the process repeats. If we proceed from steps 1 through 8, we get the product. If, instead, we start on the 2nd step and complete all of the other steps, including going back to step 1 at the end to make sure its included, then we also end up with a product, but its slightly different, because our sequence was different. Starting on step 3 and going forward produces a different result, and so on.
That’s what a relative mode is. Its the same set of notes played starting from a different point. Here’s something a little weird, but it might help some people to visualize it. Here are “modes” of Stairway to Heaven lyrics. The root/tonic of “And” is in blue, to show where its shifted to as we start on the 2nd word, 3rd, word and 4th word to illustrate the “modes”.
III. Parallel Modes
A parallel mode keeps the root note, but the pattern or sequence of whole and half-steps changes. Its all based off of the major scale, or, specifically C major, which is also called Ionian.
Its like this. These modes each have their own name. The major scale is called Ionian and starts on C. The next one starts on D and is called Dorian. The one after that starts on E and is called Phrygian. When we start on a different note, that sequence of whole and half steps we mentioned above changes. This is our formula for that mode. Here are the first 4 of them:
Hopefully, that color-coding makes it easy to see that we’re shifting the formula. That’s what’s key. In a parallel mode, those formulas are what we’re playing, but the root stays the same. For example:
See what we did there? For C-Ionian, we started on C and played the Ionian formula. For C-Dorian, we started on C again but this time, we played the Dorian formula of whole and half-steps. This kept the root but continued with slightly different notes. For C-Phrygian, we again started on C but played the Phrygian pattern. Parallel modes start on the same root but then have a different sequence of whole steps and half-steps. This means different notes are played after the root, which is what lets each of these modes sound different from the other.
And yes, this means that we can start any mode in any key. So, we have C-Ionian, D-Ionian, E-Ionian, etc. The same obviously holds true for the others – C-Dorian, D-Dorian, E-Dorian, etc.
My understanding is that the concept of relative modes is easier for people to grasp. Its the same notes, but you’re starting them from something other than the first note. Most people can count 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 and then 2-3-4-5-6-7-1, 3-4-5-6-7-1-2, etc.
Parallel modes are harder to initially grasp because the formulas change, but for me, when practicing, they make it easier to hear the differences with each mode because we’re starting from the same point for all of them, so we have something common to use as a baseline for comparison. Its like, if you play C and then these 6 notes, it sounds like this. Now, if you play C and follow with these other 6 notes, it sounds different. In a way, relative modes are like remixes and parallel modes are like new songs.