Standardizing the Naming of Seven Note Modes

Standardizing the Naming of Seven Note Modes

This spring I wrote my thesis for my master’s of arts in composition. Much of the music I discussed used synthetic modes with no previous nomenclature, and I could not find an established, nor even existing, way of naming synthetic scales. There are well-known names for common practice modes (e.g., major or harmonic minor), the traditional church modes (e.g., Dorian or Phrygian), and a handful of synthetic scales (e.g., overtone or Neapolitan minor). The most universal way to define an arbitrary mode might be to use pitch class set notation, yet pitch class set notation is both cumbersome to use in prose and, by definition, an unordered collection that would not imply a tonic.

For my thesis, I adopted a naming convention for seven-note modes that combines descriptive names (sometimes shortened) for each of the two tetrachords that comprise the mode. The tetrachord that begins at the first note of the mode is given first, and the tetrachord that ends at the octave is given second.

Ideally there would exist a naming convention for tetrachords. The most complete set of proposed names I found is Larry Solomon’s names for the Forte pitch class sets, and I used his names as a starting point for naming my tetrachords. Some examples follow:

Pitch Classes Example Name Used Full Descriptive Name, if Different
0 2 4 5 C D E F Major
0 2 3 5 C D E♭ F Minor
0 2 4 6 C D E F♯ Lydian
0 1 3 5 C D♭ E♭ F Phrygian
0 1 4 5 C D♭ E F Arabian Arabian Tetramirror
0 2 3 6 C D E♭ F♯ Harmonic Harmonic-minor Tetrachord
0 1 4 6 C D♭ E F♯ All-1 All-interval Tetrachord.1
0 3 5 6 C E♭ F F♯ Blues Perfect-fourth Diminished Tetrachord
0 3 5 7 C E♭ F G Minor-5 Perfect-fourth Minor Tetrachord
0 1 2 3 C C♯ D D♯ Chromatic BACH / Chromatic Tetramirror

In two of the cases above, I use a very different tetrachord name than Solomon’s.  The “Blues” tetrachord is named such because it is the first four notes of a blues scale. I use “5” in the name “Minor-5” to reflect the added interval class of a perfect fourth.

Using this mechanism, some of the synthetic modes I used in my compositions for my master’s are named as follows:

Pitch Classes Example Derived Name Alternate Name
0 2 4 6 7 8 T C D E F♯ G A♭ B♭ C Lydian Phrygian Whole-Tone Quint (WTQ)
0 2 4 6 7 8 E C D E F♯ G A♭ B C Lydian Arabian
0 1 4 5 7 9 E C D♭ E F G A B C Arabian Major
0 2 4 6 7 9 T C D E F♯ G A B♭ C Lydian Minor
0 1 4 6 7 8 T C D♭ E F♯ G A♭ B♭ C All-1 Phrygian
0 3 5 6 7 9 E C D♯ E♯ F♯ G A B C Blues Major
0 2 3 6 7 8 T C D E♭ F♯ G A♭ B♭ C Harmonic Phrygian
0 2 3 5 7 9 E C D E♭ F G A B C Minor Major Melodic Minor
0 1 3 5 7 8 E C D♭ E♭ F G A♭ B C Phrygian Arabian
0 3 5 7 9 T E C E♭ F G A A♯ B C Minor-5 Chromatic

The alternate names listed are names I found more convenient to use over the generated names. The Whole Tone Quint (WTQ) is described near the beginning of this post, and Melodic Minor is clearly an already established name for what otherwise would be called Minor Major. Note that the Blues Major is mode two of the All-1 Phrygian. The E Minor-5 Chromatic scale [ E G A B C♯ D D♯ E ] really does not stand analytically on its own as a true scale: the listener likely would perceive the notes of the top tetrachord as either mixture or chromatic passing tones within some variant of an E minor scale.

I want to offer a side note on composing within synthetic modes: maintaining a strictly diatonic spelling within the notation can make reading the music more difficult. Consider the “Blues Major” scale listed above. Writing a vertical harmony with scale degrees 1, 2, 3, and 5 [ C D♯ E♯ G ] would be more easily read when respelled as [ C E♭ F G ].

Although I propose a standardized way of naming modes, I did use one alternative naming convention within my thesis. A number of my modes were blues scales with a single added tone. I opted to name these modes as “Blues” with a suffix indicating the added pitch class interval:

Pitch Classes Example Name
0 1 3 5 6 7 T C D♭ E♭ F F♯ G B♭ C Blues + 1
0 2 3 5 6 7 T C D E♭ F F♯ G B♭ C Blues + 2
0 3 5 6 7 8 T C E♭ F F♯ G A♭ B♭ C Blues + 8
0 3 5 6 7 9 T C E♭ F F♯ G A B♭ C Blues + 9

Music theorists have been discussing synthetic scales for well over a century, and I find it surprising that there is no standardized way of naming 7 note modes. However, having a logical and accepted naming convention for modes increases the ease of visualizing the scales being discussed when writing about music. Perhaps in the future some naming convention similar to this will be adopted.

2 thoughts on “Standardizing the Naming of Seven Note Modes

  1. Neat.

    Question: why do the pitch sets show hexachords throughout ?

    Wouldn’t it be helpful to have for say Lydian Phrygian to show (0 2 4 6 7 8 10 T)

    Same with the blues scale stuff. Don’t you need to include the 10 for the minor 7th ?
    Blues +9 = (0 3 5 6 7 9 10 T)

    Just curious.

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