Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Lydian Scale/Mode

A friend on Facebook posted a link to this explanation of the Lydian scale, and it's very well done. With the simple graphics and musical examples it does a great job of getting across the feel of a scale that's neither major or minor, the two scales we sort of mostly settled into around the time equal temperament came in during the 18th century.

Since at least Plato, there's been the feeling that different modes elicit different mental/emotional states in people. Before equal temperament came in (which makes it much easier to modulate from key to key) the different modes had a stronger flavor due to the more pure tunings used (e.g. C# and Db weren't the same pitch as they are today). The examples here, though, show that they still have a feeling different from either major or minor.


  1. Hi Lyle, Sorry to have been away for so long!

    There are two separate issues here which I believe you're conflating. There's the issue of scales other than the major/minor we are so familiar with, and the question of temparament - how to tune keyboard instruments.

    The Bluffer's Guide to Music (which I strongly recommend as a handy and satirical guide to the music world, I don't know whether it is available in the US) has a set of definitions at the back. Among them are:

    Minor: Keys which sound a bit odd
    Mode: Scales which sound a bit odd.

    Which probably accurately sums up what most people thing of modal harmonies when they hear them. But even modal scales can be played using just intonation, and if keyboard instruments are not tuned using equal temperment, then different modes will sound different on the same instrument.

    I recall my sister telling me about a lecture/concert she went to on the history of temperaments, and the lecturrer had a harpsichord tuned using one of the old temperaments before equal temparament was invented.

    One piece he played modulated through several different keys, and there was a very string sense of returning "home" when the piece returned to the original key for which the harpichord had been originally tuned for.

    He then played the same piece on a piano tuned using equal temperament, and there wasn't nearly the same sense of returning "home".

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  3. Lyle Sanford, RMT4/5/14 06:51
    Jonathan - Something like 40 years ago I had an LP with a tuning demonstration like the one you're talking about. I realize temperament and modes are two different issues - was trying to get across, without going too far into the weeds, that modes have a stronger flavor or characteristic sound in pure tuning, but that even in equal temperament their difference can be heard, as in the example, due to the chord functions being different due to major/minor/diminished triads falling in different places.

    I've ordered that book - thanks for the tip!