The Most Common Modes in Traditional Celtic Music

The Four (or scales) that are commonly used in traditional Celtic

Woodkerne Celtic Band

music:

  1. Ionian (Major Scale)

  2. Mixolydian.

  3. Dorian.

  4. Aeolian.

IONIAN MODE:

Ionian is more commonly referred to as the Major Scale. This is the most widely used scale in Irish music. It’s used in tunes such as “Miss McCloud’s Reel”, “Off to California”, and “The Blackthorn Stick”. The two most popular keys are G and D, with stringed instruments often using A. Sometimes C and F are used.


Mode Tonic relative to major scale Interval sequence Example

Ionian I T-T-s-T-T-T-s C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C


MIXOLYDIAN MODE:


Examples of mixolydian mode can be found in the tunes “My Love is in America”, “Langstrom’s Pony”, and “Rakish Paddy”.


Mode Tonic relative to major scale Interval sequence Example

Mixolydian V T-T-T-s-T-s-T G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G


There is one note different between The Ionian and Mixolydian. The sixth note of the Ionian is flattened by a semitone. A contrasting example of these two modes in use is to be found in the Lennon/McCartney song “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The verse is in the Ionian mode but switches to a mixolydian mode for the chorus.


DORIAN MODE:

Dorian mode is the most common form of minor scale in Irish music. Examples of tunes using this mode include “Star of Munster”, “Pigeon on the Gate”, “Green Groves of Erin”, and “Julia Delaney’s”. The majority of “minor” tunes use this mode.


Mode Tonic relative to major scaleInterval sequenceExampleDorian II T-s-T-T-T-s-T D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D


AEOLIAN MODE:

The Aeolian mode is known as the “natural minor”. It is often found in tunes that move to the related major key. “Paddy Lynn’s Delight” and “The Galtee Reel” are examples of this.


Mode Tonic relative to major scale Interval sequence Example

Aeolian VI T-T-s-T-T-s-T-T A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A


When practicing modes, practice them the same as you would practice regular scales. Use the same picking or bowing patterns assigned you, and practice the 4 modes with each tonic according to the schedule you are following around the Circle of Fifths


For example, if you are practicing the C scale, you are already practicing the Ionian mode and the Aeolian (relative minor) mode. Just include the Dorian mode (starting on D) and the Mixolydian mode (starting on G)The Four (or scales) that are commonly used in traditional Irish music:

  1. Ionian (Major Scale)

  2. Mixolydian.

  3. Dorian.

  4. Aeolian.

Here's a video I made illustrating in more detail how to work with the modes, and giving some examples of tunes in each mode so you can hear what it sounds like:



 

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