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Scale Materials in 20th Century Tonal Composition

by Howard Richards

Many scales are used in modern (post-Romantic)composition. Certainly, the 12 Major and Minor scales are utilized most often, however, in 20th century composition, modes are often used.

Any central tones or key-centers to which other tones are related establishes a KEY or TONALITY. The manner in which tones are placed around a key center produce MODES or MODALITY.

There are well over 100 modes in which to write, especially if one takes World Music into account. For the purposes of this article we will concentrate only on the 7 diatonic or 'Church Modes' along with their synthetic derivatives.

If you were to locate the seven modes in Schirmer's Dictionary of Music, for example, they would be listed in order as follows -

  • IONIAN - C to C'
  • DORIAN - D to D'
  • PHRYGIAN - E to E'
  • LYDIAN - F to F'
  • MIXOLYDIAN - G to G'
  • AEOLIAN - A to A'
  • LOCRIAN - B to B'

    Effective utilization of modes as a compositional technique requires knowledge of their transposition to the tonic center.

    In order to realize the transposition of the modes, one must consider that C Dorian would share its' key signature with the key of B-flat since D is a step higher than C. If you were to examine the pieces that J.S. Bach wrote in Dorian mode, you would discover his penchant for D Dorian that results in a neutral key signature ( no sharps or flats).

    The Key Signatures move downward as the modal scales move upward incrementally. Thus the diatonic whole-half step order is preserved.

    The transpositions of the seven modes (diatonic in C) are as follows-
    W= Whole Step H= Half Step


    W - Dorian - B flat - WHWWWHW

    W - Phrygian- A flat - HWWWHWW

    H - Lydian - G - WWWHWWH

    W - Mixolydian- F - WWHWWHW

    W - Aeolian - E flat - WHWWHWW

    W - Locrian - D flat - HWWHWWW

    H - Ionian - C - WWHWWWH

    Modes can result in an overall color that is either bright or dark depending on which is chosen. The darkest of the modes are those containing the most number of flats. Locrian being the darkest and Dorian being the mid-point which sets the norm. Subtracting flats and adding sharps brighten the sound of the mode. The order, from brightest to darkest, is as follows: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Locrian.

    The Lydian and Mixolydian modes are favored by Jazz artists. An example of Mixolydian passages can be found in Gershwin's "Preludes for the Piano".

    The Blues scales (hexatonic) are polymodal in construction. For example, the C Blues scale reads C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb-C. You will note that the Eb and Bb stem from the Dorian while the F#, or raised 4th degree, occurs in Lydian.

    Polymodality and Polytonality can occur even within altered chord structures as is evidenced by the C7 #11 chord. When extended to the 13th, this becomes a polytonal chord containing the keys of both C and D major(at the whole step).This chord contains elements of Lydian and Mixolydian modes, however, is also polytonal as well.


    In Ionian mode, the triads are straightforward. The seven degrees of the diatonic scale are true to the key as follows:

  • IONIAN-I Cmaj ii-Dmin iii-Emin IV- Fmaj V-Gmaj vi-Amin vii-Bdim

    The modal triad qualities are as follows:

  • DORIAN i-Cmin ii-Dmin III-Ebmaj IV-Fmaj v-Gmin vi-Adim VII-Bbmaj
  • PHRYGIAN i-Cmin ii-Ddim III-Ebmaj iv-Fmin v-Gdim VI-Abmaj vii-Bbmin
  • LYDIAN I-Cmaj II-Dmaj iii-Emin iv-F#dim V-Gmaj vi-Amin vii-Bmin
  • MIXOLYDIAN I-Cmaj ii-Dmin iii-Edim IV-Fmaj v-Gmin vi-Amin VII-Bbmaj
  • AEOLIAN i-Cmin ii-Ddim III-Ebmaj iv-Fmin v-Gmin VI-Abmaj VII-Bbmaj
  • LOCRIAN i-Cdim II-Dbmaj iii-Ebmin iv-Fmin V-Gbmaj VI-Abmaj vii-Bbmin

    Useful seventh and ninth chords in the modes are those not containing a tri-tone(aug. 4th interval). Many modes contain more than 1 dominant chord and the possibilty of 3 dominant chords(Phrygian). Utilization of more than one dominant along with repetition of the tonic chord and frequent cadences will aid in retaining the character or 'flavor' of the mode.

    Pure modal composition consists of using both melodic and harmonic material diatonic to (or within) the mode. In some instances, harmonics must be altered to avoid the tri-tone. In Locrian for example, the tonic chord is diminished and therfore naturally contains a #4. Composers tend to eliminate the 5th of the tonic triad in these circumstances. (C-Eb).

    A melodic line can move through more than one mode. The harmony also may follow wthin the same or even different set of modes. When the same mode moves from one key to another this is known as modal modulation. If the key center has not changed with the new mode, this is referred to as modal interchange.

    Many 20th Century composers do not use key signatures. This allows the composition to move freely between modes, chromaticism and even atonality while allowing for easier to read notation.


  • Bloch, Concerto Grosso #1
  • Debussy, Pelleat et Melisande
  • Satie, Socrate
  • Sibelius, Symphony #6


  • Debussy, String Quartet
  • Shostakovich, Symphony #5
  • Bloch, Visions et Propheties
  • Pizzetti, Sonata in F for Cello and Piano


  • Britten, Seven Sonnetts of Michaelangelo
  • Milhaud, Protee
  • Ravel, Trois Chansons
  • Sibelius, Symphony #4


  • Bartok, Piano Concerto #3
  • Gershwin, Preludes for the Piano
  • Satie, Gymnopedie #2
  • Britten, Serenade op. 31


  • Orff, Carmina Burana
  • Respighi, Pines of Rome
  • Walton, Facade
  • Randall Thompson, The Peaceable Kingdom


  • Bartok, Mikrokosmos Vol. II
  • Debussy, Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp
  • Hindemith, Ludus Tonalis
  • Sibelius, Symphony #4


  • Bartok, String Quartet#3
  • Ravel, Piano Concerto in G
  • Poulenc, Mouvements Perpetuels
  • Stravinsky, Oedipus Rex

    The aforementioned pieces contain modal and polymodal passages, however, do not necessarily utilize Pure modal construction.


    The seven step synthetic one octave scale, like the major and minor scales, consist of two 4-note groups known as tetrachords. All repeat the tonic at the 8th step. Each synthetic scale contains a set of chords within it's own interval make-up as do the previous scales already examined.

    The principles that produce the seven diatonic modes (Ionian, Dorian, etc.) may be applied to any scale creating multiple versions.The first modal version of any scale begins on the tonic. The second on supertonic, the third at the mediant and so forth. The harmonic usage of synthetic scales is largely dependant upon their indigenous chords.

    Primary chords are the tonic (root) plus the two or more triads that include scale steps containing the most characteristic colors of the scale. In Ionian these would be I, IV, and V. Secondary chords are those triads within the key that gravitate toward the primary including secondary dominant chords or dominant preparation chords. Not all scales will produce the same primary and secondary chords. e.g. Locrian.

    The following is a list of altered modes and synthetic scales that can be utilized. The list does not reflect all of the existing modes, but rather those that have been synthesized from the seven 'Church Modes'. The list will also include pentatonic, hexatonic and 8-tone derivatives.

    SYNTHETIC SEVEN NOTE (diatonic in C)

  • Super Locrian - C-Db-Eb-Fb-Gb-Ab-Bb-C
  • Neopolitan Minor - C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-B-C
  • Neopolitan Major - C-Db-Eb-F-G-A-B-C
  • Oriental - C-Db-E-F-Gb-A-Bb-C
  • Double Harmonic - C-Db-E-F-G-Ab-B-C
  • Enigmatic - C-Db-E-F#-G#-A#-B-C
  • Hungarian Minor - C-D-Eb-F#-G-Ab-B-C
  • Major Locrian - C-D-E-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C
  • Lydian Minor - C-D-E-F#-G-Ab-Bb-C
  • Overtone - C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C

  • Whole Tone - C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-B-C
  • Eight-tone Spanish - C-Db-Eb-E-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C
  • Symmetrical - C-Db-Eb-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C


  • Diatonic - C-D-E-G-A-C
  • Pelog - C-Db-Eb-G-Ab-C
  • Hirajoshi - C-D-Eb-G-Ab-C
  • Kumoi - C-D-Eb-G-A-C

    Pentatonic scales are naturally limited in their harmonic direction due to the lack of semi-tones. If the 5 tones of the diatonic scale are sounded together, it results in a Static chord. Therefore, composers tend to use them for passage work rather than attempting to build larger scale works with them.


  • Symmetrical - C-Db-E-F-G#-A-C
  • Promethius - C-D-E-F#-A-Bb-C
  • Promethius Neopolitan - C-Db-EF#-A-BB-C
  • Whole Tone - C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C
  • Blues - C-Eb-F-F#-G-Bb-C

    Harmonic monotony is easier to avoid with the hexatonic scales due the additional interval. There are no modes possible within equidistant scales such as the whole-tone or chromatic scales.


    The chromatic scale is comprised of the 12 half-steps within any given octave. It can ornament any diatonic scale or be used indepedantly with 12 equally important steps. The use of all twelve tones in any random order is the basis for 12-tone or tone-row composition.

    There are several types of chromatic writing.

  • Chromatic melody supported by non-chromatic harmony.
  • Chromatic harmony with diatonic melody.
  • Chromatic melody generated by chromatic harmony.
  • Mixed chord structures formed by chromatic motion.
  • Chromatic harmony generated by chromatic melody.

    When groups of melodic notes are used vertically, chords are formed from the linear motif. Composition utilizing all 12 notes can generate this type of harmonic movement.


    I would encourage musicians at any level to investigate these compositional tools and attempt to incorporate them into your own pieces or improvisations. Each scale presented in this article is useful, but not necessarily easy to incorporate. You may find that certain modes sound ugly to you. There are definitive reasons that not all are frequently used. The least used mode is the Locrian. Increasing dissonance demands resolution to tonic. This becomes difficult in the Locrian mode as the tonic chord is diminished in nature and must be altered to achieve said resolution. Pandiatonicism is a term attributed to Nicolas Slonimsky to describe music which, in reaction to excessive dissonance or atonality, reverts to the diatonic. This is a common occurence in composition since dissonance has a tendency to propel music forward. Aaron Copeland exemplifies this term in his composition "Appalachian Spring" (1944).

    Synthetic scales are useful in a variety of passage work, but are tedious to use as an entire compositional determinant. The same holds true for the limited, but nonetheless useful, pentatonic scales. For more information on modes and music theory, go to the links page on my site.

    Bibliographical References

    "Twentieth Century Harmony", Vincent Persichetti, 1961, Norton

    "Techniques of 20th Century Composition", Leon Dallin, 1974, Wm. C. Brown

    "Treatise on Harmony", Jean-Phillipe Rameau, 1722, © 1971, Dover Pub.

    "Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction", Eric Salzman, 1967, Prentice Hall

    "Lectionary of Music", Nicolas Slonimsky, 1989, McGraw-Hill

    © Copyright 2004 Howard Richards

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