I’d like to say I have a sizeable library of music books. From Bach to Bartok there is no shortage of things to play. Ironically, as a piano teacher I’ve come to realize that my shelves contain relatively little playable material for my students.
Over the past couple years composing for the piano has become a blossoming passion of mine. What better way to challenge myself as a budding composer as well as affordably grow my library of intermediate piano music than to write music directly for my students? Mode 7 is the result of this new revelation and I’m excited to discuss its inception here.
In my last major work, Nocturne, I started to explore a more modal sound so I thought it would be fun to challenge myself as a composer as well as educate my students about the Church Modes by writing a piece which explores all seven of them.
What are modes by the way? You can find them all by playing from any white key all the white keys between your starting note and the one at the next octave up. The modes are more archaic kinds of scales which predate the popularization of the major/minor system. If you’ve heard Gregorian chant you’ve been exposed to the mellow, smooth sound of the Dorian or Mixolydian modes. Modes are alive and well to this day like the use of the Lydian mode in epic movie soundtracks or the improvisations of any seasoned Jazz musician. Even the major and (natural) minor scales are part of the seven modes but they have different names: respectively, Ionian and Aeolian.
But I didn’t want to stop there. If there are seven modes that meant the piece I would write would have seven movements. What better model than the Baroque dance suite? Lest you imagine Herr Bach playing along to a ballroom filled with young couples in the midst of traditional courtship rituals, dances written for keyboard suites were not actually meant to be danced to. Nonetheless they were based on actual dances and preserved their lively, toe-tapping characters. Many composers such as Bach, Handel, and Rameau composed keyboard dance suites which are still played to this day. These suites were comprised of many different kinds of dances from a number of different European countries. Most dance suites included the four staple dances of the Allemande (Germany), the Courante (France), the Sarabande (Mexico/Spain) and the Gigue (British Isles/France).
My dance suite is organized as follows (time points in video included):
- Prelude in Dorian Mode 0:07
- March in Lydian Mode 3:38
- Courante in Mixolydian Mode 5:05
- Sarabande in Locrian Mode 6:03
- Gavotte in Aeolian Mode 9:35
- Minuet in Phrygian Mode 10:22
- Gigue in Ionian Mode 11:12
Now comes the fun part where I get to nerd out about my creative process and some of the challenges that arose. I must warn you, however, that I’m going to start sounding a little bit technical so if you don’t want to read about the nuts and bolts of this work then stop here! Listen to the work if you haven’t already, and feel free to download the score on my compositions page.
Instead of discussing the dances in the order they appear in the score, I’m going to write about them in the order they were written chronologically. To this day my favourite of the seven dances is the Minuet. It also happens to be the dance I wrote first. I wrote most of it in an evening in early December 2019 and then refined it down the road. It’s the simplest piece (around the grade two level) yet it contains some of the lushest harmonies in the whole work.
It’s written in the Phrygian mode which means that I have a lowered second scale degree to work with. It also means that the dominant chord (the chord that helps us steer back to our home base) is a half diminished seventh chord, a chord which normally precedes the dominant. Interestingly, it still has enough direction in it that it maintains a dominant function, as can be heard in the climax of the piece. What was most interesting about the chords in this mode was the relationship between the tonic chord E minor and the super tonic chord F major. The music seemed to want to rock between these two harmonies, back and forth hypnotically thus giving this minuet a haunting character.
The Gavotte was the second dance that I wrote. It is the most traditional-sounding of the seven. The only challenge for me in composing this one was that it is written in the Aeolian mode, that is to say the natural minor scale. As someone who has recently studied a fair amount of traditional harmony, it was very hard for me to not use the major dominant chord that contains the leading tone. I wanted it to sound modal versus tonal. So in the cadence of the main theme I use a minor V chord. I couldn’t resist using a major dominant at the end of the B section to propel the music back to the beginning though.
The prelude really isn’t a dance, rather an introduction to the whole work. I wanted it to sound similar in character to Bach’s Prelude in C major from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. It should have a similar meditative quality, yet sound more modern and minimalist. Writing it in Dorian mode yielded some interesting harmonic colours. I found it didn’t take me long to get the sound I wanted, however, this movement seemed a little bit too difficult for someone with smaller hands. I ended up writing two versions. One that resembled this one and one that had syncopations in the left hand so the young pianist didn’t need to stretch to get the whole chord. Later I realized that it would just make more sense if I changed the left hand from octaves to fifths and sevenths. Doing this not only made it more playable but harmonically richer. I’m happy with the result and have had a couple of younger students play through it.
The March was originally supposed to be an Allemande, a stately German dance in 4/4 time with running 16th notes. The Allemande normally comes after the Prelude. The problem was I came up with this really cool March theme and I wasn’t sure where it would fit in the suite. I decided that this March was stately enough to replace the Allemande in my modern day take on the dance suite.
This movement presented a challenge because of the Lydian mode it’s composed in. In the original version of this dance, everything kept pulling to E minor, as the chords behaved the same way they wanted to in the Minuet. So I had to try to establish a sense of tonic by reinforcing the dominant with a common tone diminished 7th chord. I know this chord is normally ornamental, but here I think it serves a different purpose by strengthening the C major chord which pulls back to our tonic of F.
I won’t deny that this piece sounds a bit like Kabalevsky. One colleague also says it reminded him of music from the Legend of Zelda. I tried to give this piece a sense of balance by putting the melody in the left hand in the B section. It’s around grade 5, but if played up to speed I think it would present a formidable challenge to any intermediate student.
This was by far one of the more difficult dances to put together. I’m not well-versed in counterpoint yet so I tried to think about it more harmonically. Because it is written in Mixolydian, it’s like a major scale with a minor dominant. To give it tonal direction was very challenging for me. In fact it even begins on the minor dominant chord. This one was really nothing more than trial and error at the piano until I refined it enough that I felt it was finally working. Even at the climax what normally would be the dominant chord is now replaced with a G7 or I7 chord. I experimented with many other harmonies, but this seemed to give the required tension I needed to propel it back to the A section even though it was the tonic chord!
This is the dance I was looking most forward to writing. This one is written in the Locrian mode, the weirdest sounding of the seven modes. It has a lowered second scale degree as well as a diminished tonic chord. To boot the dominant is a tritone above the tonic! As any harmony student would know it’s not really possible to tonicize or pull towards a diminished chord. So how was I to establish a sense of tonic that was not in a different mode? Simply hit the listener over the head with it! This is what we hear at the end of the A section. Although this dance begins and ends on the diminished tonic, the stuff in the middle can sound very consonant at times. The B section reminds me of something out of an anime film.
The Gigue was the last movement I wrote and the most difficult to write by far. It is ironic in a way because it’s written in the Ionian or major mode which is the most common key to write in in any genre of music probably. I wanted it to be a little bit different than the traditional Gigue which is commonly written in 6/8 so I thought it would be fun to put it into 5/8. I really struggled giving this movement a sense of flow and balance. The phrasing was always a little bit lopsided. It was changing metres too often and the transitions were just not working. Especially difficult was getting back to the A section. It was really an elbow grease project and finally it came together after a few weeks of experimenting. I’m happy with the finished product but wonder if it might be more difficult than I wanted. Like the March it really depends on the tempo it’s taken at. I hope you enjoy the humour at the end. 🙂