Brightness and Darkness in Modes (Is Dorian the One True Scale?)

When you first learn about the modes (the major modes, that is) a lot of theory teachers and texts love to rank the modes on a degree of “brightness” to “darkness.” Brightness and darkness are subjective terms, of course,but they can be used to describe a very real musical phenomenon – the number of flats/sharps in relationship to one another. C dorian is three flats removed from C lydian, therefore it’s three “shades darker.” This is one of the interesting times where musical effect can be so easily quantified.

Here’s a table that I’m sure a lot of people have seen before in some form or another. Positive numbers equal difference in sharps from the major scale, negative numbers equal difference in flats.

Brightness Major Mode
+1 Lydian
0 Ionian
-1 Mixolydian
-2 Dorian
-3 Aeolian
-4 Phrygian
-5 Locrian

So, naturally, if it can be done with the Greek modes, why can’t it be done with the rest of them for all andihemitonic heptatonics? Here’s Melodic Minor… (note, Lydian b7 has 1 sharp and 1 flat in comparison to Ionian, so the “brightness” balances out and equals 0)

Brightness Melodic Minor Mode
+2 Lydian Augmented
0 Lydian b7
-1 Ionian b3
-2 Mixolydian b6
-3 Dorian b2
-4 Locrian nat. 2
-6 Locrian b4

…and Harmonic Minor…

Brightness Harmonic Minor Mode
+2 Lydian #2
+1 Ionian #5
-1 Dorian #4
-2 Aeolian nat. 7
-3 Phrygian nat. 3
-4 Locrian nat. 6
-7 Locrian b4 bb7

…and Harmonic Major…

Brightness Harmonic Major Mode
+3 Lydian #2, #5
0 Lydian b3
-1 Ionian b6
-2 Mixolydian b2
-3 Dorian b5
-5 Phrygian b4
-6 Locrian bb7

I’m a total sucker for patterns, so as soon as I came up with these tables I started looking for them. There’s a couple observations to make, one is that “darkness” seems to be a whole heck of a lot more prevalent than brightness. Brightness also gets dissonant a lot quicker than darkness (+2 brightness sounds more dissonant than -2 darkness, to my ear anyway). If you add up all the values for each of the four tables, you get -14, which doesn’t seem to really mean anything. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be much going on in these tables.

This got me thinking, however. I had read a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post by musician/theorist Jeff Brent in a forum detailing a “Dorian Chromatic Concept” in response to George Russell’s oft-scorned Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. One of the things that I got from that was the concept of radial symmetry (detailed further on the author’s website), and how the major scale can be constructed by stacking fifths in both directions from the pitch “D.”

So what if instead of measuring brightness/darkness from the Ionian scale like we traditionally do we measured it from the Dorian? Well, what essentially happens is that we add 2 to every value in each table (the difference between Ionian and Dorian), and we get something like this….

Brightness Major Mode
+3 Lydian
+2 Ionian
+1 Mixolydian
0 Dorian
-1 Aeolian
-2 Phrygian
-3 Locrian
Brightness Melodic Minor Mode
+4 Lydian Augmented
+2 Lydian b7
+1 Ionian b3
0 Mixolydian b6
-1 Dorian b2
-2 Locrian nat. 2
-4 Locrian b4
Brightness Harmonic Minor Mode
+4 Lydian #2
+3 Ionian #5
+1 Dorian #4
0 Aeolian nat. 7
-1 Phrygian nat. 3
-2 Locrian nat. 6
-5 Locrian b4 bb7
Brightness Harmonic Major Mode
+5 Lydian #2, #5
+2 Lydian b3
+1 Ionian b6
0 Mixolydian b2
-1 Dorian b5
-3 Phrygian b4
-4 Locrian bb7

The patterns are now pretty obvious, especially with the Major and Melodic Minor scales. Not only are brightness/darkness balanced since the sum of each table is now zero, but there are now an equal number of “Bright” and “Dark” modes for each scale, with one “Neutral” mode.

This was cool enough by itself, but as I started looking into it further, the symmetries that were involved were just a little bit ridiculous. Brace yourself for some insanity….

First off, the modes of the Major and Melodic Minor scales are perfect intervallic mirrors with the mode of the opposite polarity. In other words, Lydian, when inverted, becomes Locrian since Lydian has a brightness of +3 and Locrian a brightness of -3. Dorian and Mixolydian b6 invert to themselves (they’re the only AH modes that do that). If that isn’t crazy enough, modes of the Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major are perfect intervallic mirror with the mode of the opposite polarity in the other scale system. For example, Ionian #5 inverts to Phrygian b4, Aeolian nat. 7 inverts to Mixolydian b2, Locrian b4, bb7 inverts to Lydian #2, #5.

Moreover, check out this table comparing the relative brightness/darkness of all the AH modes.

Brightness Andihemitonic Heptatonic Mode
+5 Lydian #2, #5
+4 Lydian #2
+4 Lydian Augmented
+3 Lydian
+3 Ionian #5
+2 Ionian
+2 Lydian b7
+2 Lydian b3
+1 Mixolydian
+1 Ionian b3
+1 Dorian #4
+1 Ionian b6
0 Dorian
0 Mixolydian b6
0 Aeolian nat. 7
0 Mixolydian b2
-1 Aeolian
-1 Dorian b2
-1 Phrygian nat. 3
-1 Dorian b5
-2 Phrygian
-2 Locrian nat. 2
-2 Locrian nat. 6
-3 Locrian
-3 Phrygian b4
-4 Locrian b4
-4 Locrian bb7
-5 Locrian b4 bb7

Wow, look at that – the brightness/darkness ratings are symmetrical with one another for all 28 andihemitonic heptatonic scales. Discovering this sort of symmetry was a real eye-opener, and a little overwhelming. I’m sure all of this has something to do with the fact that Dorian inverts to itself, but who knew that it could accurately explain all of that?

There are plenty of problems with this, however. In theory, now that brightness and darkness are balanced, brightness and darkness are both equally dissonant in “opposite” ways, if that makes any sense. While this may be true for Lydian #2, #5 and Locrian b4, bb7, I just can’t hear Lydian being as dissonant as Locrian. Perhaps this only works with non-Major modes? I don’t know. Aesthetically, it just doesn’t all line up as nicely as I thought, and the new system is no better than the old. Also, thinking that Dorian is the center of the universe is really no better than thinking Mixolydian b6 is, so Mixolydian b6 could be considered “the one true scale” just as much as Dorian. They both yield the same results on the scale tables for brightness/darkness, and they both mirror to themselves.

More troublingly are the results if we redefine scale formulas measuring from the Dorian mode instead of the Major scale. Normally we think of Dorian as (1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7), but now it would be (1 2 3 4 5 6 7) and a scale like Lydian would be (1 2 #3 #4 5 6 #7) This manner of thinking is very foreign to any trained musician, and does nothing to illuminate any theoretical concepts. It would just serve to confuse. So when thinking about brightness and darkness it might be useful to use Dorian, but adopting it as a ONE TRUE SCALE isn’t something I’d care to do in the same way that George Russell adopted Lydian.

Anyway, hopefully you gleaned some interesting things from this. I’ll be sure to write more about actual music in the future.

-Adam

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3 Responses to “Brightness and Darkness in Modes (Is Dorian the One True Scale?)”


  1. 1 Dan May 4, 2012 at 6:55 am

    Woah guy. I wish I understood all of this, but what sense I am making of it is blowing my mind. Cheers for this, I’m going to save this in a favorites folder to come back to and slowly wrap my noodle around haha.

  2. 2 Ferdob February 1, 2013 at 2:22 am

    Brilliant article. I found this by searching ‘Lydian is opposite of Locrian’ on Google.

    I’ve been delving into these mysterious symmetries myself, in different ways. I’ve no formal musical training so I’ve never heard of categorising scales by a quantified ‘brightness’. I found patterns by noticing that the formula (in whole and half steps) of the ionian and phrygian (for example) were opposites. I noticed that the dorian was the opposite of itself, and hence some kind of centre.

    This provided me with much clarity, as it makes a lot of sense to me now that the dorian mode sits in between the other 6. This lent some explanation to how I had used the dorian (recognised after the fact) in several songs, to several disparate effects, from reassuring and peaceful, to playfully menacing, to Irish, to contemplative and slightly mournful.
    People often introduce Dorian as being Aeolian sharp 6th, but it’s also Mixolydian flat 3rd (i.e. it’s equidistant from minority and majority, unless one defines majority by the ionian scale, an idea which I reject).

    It also makes sense to me that the phrygian and ionian are opposites, and aeolian and mixolydian.

    It ALSO makes sense that the locrian and lydian modes are opposites, though with more consideration.

    One could consider the Phrygian/Ionian and Aeolian/Mixolydian pairings as two different takes on the ‘minor/major’ paradigm.
    Locrian and Lydian for me, sit outside of this paradigm because of their strangeness. Lydian is characterised by a sharp 4th, and Locrian a flat 5th. This is the same note. However, they develop upon this strange note in totally different ways. Lydian is airy and ethereal, Locrian is grounded and suspenseful. In this way they are opposites.

    I’ll be returning to this article to read again. Thanks for the effort.

  3. 3 Ben May 9, 2013 at 5:33 am

    What a great insight. I new that dorian is the most neutral scale in terms of brightness and darkness. but never had I thought it woould yield these results for minor melodic, minor harmonic and major harmonic.


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