View Full Version : The Term "Modal" in Old-Time

John Flynn
May-30-2005, 12:23pm
This question is about semantics, more that it is about music theory. Old-time players use the term "modal" to describe the key that some tunes are in. But if you say, "Oh yeah, that's in Dorian mode, some hard-core OT players have no idea what you are talking about. To them, it's just "modal." I have even heard OT players use the term "modal" to describe tunes that are just in the natural minor (Aeolian mode).

Obviously, in terms of music theory, everything is in some mode, even the standard major keys (Ionian mode). But what has been your experience with what all is included, and excluded, from the term "modal" specifically in the old-time music context? Not only am I just curious about this, but also I am putting together a tune database and I am unsure what to classify as "modal."

May-30-2005, 3:29pm
There were some lengthy and knowledgeable posts about modes sometime last year in this section - maybe you can find them if you hunt back.

Because most oldtime music is played in one of several keys/modes, it seems to me the term "modal" is most often used by regular musicians (as opposed to theorists) to mean "not in a standard major key" or "something I need to retune for", and can mean any one of a couple of common modes. From the tunes I'm familiar with, Dorian (minor-sounding) and Mixolodian (sp?)(neither major- or minor-sounding) seem to be the most common. But even though I have had some theory and have read about modes, I myself think of modal tunes more in terms like "tunes that sound a certain way" or "tunes that don't use the V chord", etc.

The fiddle fakebook lists modes for most/all the tunes it includes, so that might be one reference to look at.

May-30-2005, 4:46pm
Most people mean "mixolydian" by "Modal".. ie "the root note is A but the scale is D" means "A mixolydian" if you speak modes.

Doesn't sound like you need this, but in case anyone else does, here's Roger Landes's article (http://www.celticmusic.com/magazine/tunes/modes/) on modal harmony

May-30-2005, 5:29pm
I think it's for those tunes where you just have two or three chords and one of them is a minor - like Lady's Fancy or Cold Frosty Morning. Also, like many of the Irish tunes.

Now, just because I think this means nothing. I also hear the modal reference playing old time music and say nothing.


May-30-2005, 6:46pm
Sometimes I've also heard folks use it who mean "don't play the third".. ie keep it just a 5th (e.g. A & E, miss out the C or C# so it's ambiguous if it's an Amaj or Amin chord)

May-31-2005, 7:23am
Hi MandoJohnny.

Hmmm. #It's been a long time since I studied music theory... #As I recall... each mode pertains to a scale. #A scale without "black keys" for instance... on the piano...

Anotherwords, each of those "modes" is a scale... grrrr... Can't explain it... #But... #I'm kinda surprised! #What would "old time" have to do with "modes?" #Now, granted... I don't even have a clue as to what "old time" is, however... I kinda doubt that it (might) utilize modes.

I'm just curious, that's all... # http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

John Flynn
May-31-2005, 8:10am

As I said in my post, this is not a music theory question. I know all about the music theory around modes. As you say, they are all different scales with different intervals between the notes.

Old-time music is traditional, rural American folk music, the music of barn dances and front porch jams, the music that much of America had as it's main source of entertainment before radio, TV and movies. If you want to know more about it, here is a link:

As I said, my question is purely about semantics. There are old-time tunes that are referred to as "modal," but without the sense of what mode they are in. I have seen the term refer to Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian modes, as well as the Ionian mode where there are accidentals. I wanted to see what the group's experience has been in terms of what the term "modal" does, and does not, cover.

May-31-2005, 8:20am
Thank you, M'Johnny... I appreciate your response...

May-31-2005, 8:50am
I have full intentions of getting an answer - it may just take awhile. There are folks that I've recently heard using that description (i.e., Modal), but I just don't see them but once a month. I'll see them though!

fatt "stay-tuned" dad

p.s., here's some links that I found doing a search:



p.s.s., here is a very interesting blog on old-time music (froma woman that I sold a mandolin to):


John Flynn
May-31-2005, 8:58am

Good links! Thanks!

May-31-2005, 11:56am
Mando Johnny,

HERE (http://hetzler.homestead.com/music_2.html) is yet another link (Hetzler's Fakebook) that lists D, G, A, C, and "Modal" tunes. I still have no answer, but it is interesting to see the tunes that are considered "modal" - like "Done Gone", "Kitchen Girl", etc. I just thought "Done Gone" was one of those dang B-flat tunes. The Kitchen Girl is interesting in that the A part is in A and the B part is in A minor.

Oh well, I never did well on my homework in my youth, so I'm making up for it now - ha.


May-31-2005, 2:56pm
O.K. here is the word STRAIGHT from Ed Hetzler (for the uninformed, Carl is the code name for "fatt-dad"):

Hi Carl,

Here is the simple answer: Old Time Melodies that can be played
using a major scale (Ionian Mode)are referred to by key signature
(i.e., C, D, G, and A etc.) Melodies that follow a minor scale
tend to be lumped together in Old Time Music and collectively
called modal (rather than A minor, G minor, etc.).

Most Old Time modal tunes fall into the Dorian, Myxolidian or
Aeolian Modes. Modal tunes are generally played on the fiddle
with standard GDAE tuning.

The mode distinctions are important to dulcimer players who need
to retune for different modes. They are also helpful to guitar
players because the chord triads are different.

As with anything involved with music you can drill down into
excruciating detail on this subject, but for most people the
above answer should explain what is going on.

Hope this helps.

Ed Hetzler


So, now all I have to do is ask the folks that I play with if that's what they think when they use the term. . . .


John Flynn
May-31-2005, 4:03pm

If Ed H. says so, that's good enough for me. That pretty much confirms what I suspected, but was not sure about. In addition to the three modes Ed listed, his basic definition of the use of the term "modal" also fits tunes that are actually in major keys, but have accidentals (sharps, flats and naturals that are not in the scale), because they can't "be played using the major scale." I have the picture now, thanks. Man, you really have the inside track!

May-31-2005, 7:28pm
My boss doesn't expect me to know everything. He just expects me to have an answer a "phone call away" (or in this case a mouse click). I had never heard of Ed. H. (seems like he has a good web site), but trying the contact link at his page, he replied. I love it when a plan comes together - ha.


Bob A
May-31-2005, 7:56pm
Anyone wants to really get into "modal", you need an Appalachian dulcimer,one without the nasty extra fret. You have basically a three-stringed instrument, with a basss string that's the tonic, the next one up is tuned to the fifth; both are usually played as drones. Then the melody string (which is sometimes TWO strings) determines the mode.
If it is tuned an octave above the bass, you'll be playing in myxolydian, which is like a major scale with a flatted 7th. If you tune it to the fifth (same as the middle string) you'll be playing a major scale. If you tune it to a flatted 7th, it'll be playing in a minor scale, and so forth.

This works because the instrument is fretted in an 8-note scale, instead of a 12-fret (chromatic) scale. So it's impossible to hit a wrong note.

Of course, people had to go ahead and mess with it, so they inserted an extra fret between the 7th and the octave on many "modern" dulcimers. Traditionally, from the nut it'd run whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step.

they're lots of fun to play, and easy for beginners to make decent-sounding music with, and of course the drones are great fun. The whole thing is like a string bagpipe in a way. Except not as loud, and it doesn't scare the natives, and you can't play while marching into battle. OK, maybe it ain't all that bagpipe-ish. But still worthwhile, especially for getting that old-timey mountain sound.

John Flynn
Jun-01-2005, 12:48pm
you need an Appalachian dulcimer
I will second that. I can't say I'm a dulcimer player, but I built one for my wife from a kit. I had to make it left handed for her, but I still have a blast just goofing around on it right handed! They are amazingly addictive!

Jun-01-2005, 12:57pm
I just bought a Strum Stick, which is a variation of mountain dulcimer. It is a lot of fun and I'm anxious to try some different tunings for it. Thanks for the idea!

Jun-20-2005, 9:52am
Here's the way that modes were explained to me:

A C major scale goes from C to C and has no sharps or flats. If you were to play the notes in a C major scale but starting, for example, on D then you would have a scale that goes from D to D but with no sharps or flats. This is called the dorian mode. Starting from any major scale, the dorian mode will be the one that has the same sharps and flats but starts on the second note of the major scale.

The mode starting with each note in a major scale has a name. The example above starting from the second not in the major scale is the dorian mode. Starting from the fifth note in the major scale is the mixolydian mode and the sixth note is the aeolian mode. Those are the only ones I can remember the name of.

The easiest way to recognize a modal tune is to notice that the last note (usually) doesn't correspond to the key signature. For example, a tune with one sharp that doesn't end on G is probably modal and a tune with two sharps that doesn't end on D is probably modal.

John Millring
Jul-04-2005, 9:16pm
I had this explained to me by the local old-timey expert. He was kinda hard to follow. He went into such great detail that I sort of zoned out a little, but as I remember, it went something like...

blah blah blah blah fretless instruments were the rule for old-timey blah blah blah blah non-tempered tunings, no guitars blah blah blah naked women (okay, he didn't say anything about naked women, but by that point I was starting to nod off a bit, so I resorted to old tricks to keep myself awake) blah blah blah no minor chords.

Anyway, what I concluded was that, when I play backup for him I am not to play a minor chord for ANY song (even tunes like "Temperance Reel" -- a tune that he STOPPPED ME mid-tune when I had the unmittigated noive to call out an Em to a guitarist who was not familiar with the tune).

But he would tolerate a minor chord on a tune that was truly "modal". It still wouldn't be "right", but he would tolerate it. Kinda like he would tolerate a guitar in old-timey music in the first place.

Jul-05-2005, 6:58am
Not to add to the confusion but...

On old-time b***o a so-called "modal" tuning is d' - g' - c'' (instead of b'') - d'' (with 5th string g'') and played in "G modal". So the chord has g - c (not b) - d as the triad, i.e. a 1 - 4 - 5 instead of 1 - 3 - 5. The scale seems to have a Bb instead of a B, i.e. flatted 3rd, and of course an F instead of F#, i.e. flatted 7th. Those two flatted tones make it Dorian mode. But the really cool sound comes from the open 1 - 4 - 5 chord.

John Flynn
Jul-05-2005, 9:06am
John M:

LOL! That's just about the kind of explanation I get from the old-time experts around here. I will have to remember the "naked women" image. It will help pass the time the next time one of them starts rambling on.

"Modal" just seems to be how old-time players describe anything not in the major scale. I was hoping that there was more to it, but this thread has been very successful at validating my suspicion that there is not. The hard-core old-time players seem to have no idea of the seven natural modes or any other specific modes. It's just plain "modal" to them.

Michael H Geimer
Jul-05-2005, 9:31am
I think the 'No Minor Chords' rule is actually usefull. To my ear, a big part of the Ancient Tone sound comes from playing minor thirds and flatted sevenths against Major chords even where the melody suggests minor. The way I hear it, if the back up chords were changed to minor then all the tension would be stolen away from the melody and passing tones. They need those major chords behind them in order to constrast appropriately and make it all sound 'right'.

Plenty of vocal harmonies come in flat under the third, and hint at a 'blue note' before scooping up to the true major third. Done right it can make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

I'll often drop the minor third from the tonic chord if I'm playing in the dorian mode ... that way things will sound more modal rather than minor.

(Truth: I play lots of minor chords. I often do add in the vi chord as a minor in many songs I play if I want to flesh out the harmony or just vary the tune ... I'm not shooting for any sort of authenticity in my personal playing)

I also think 'modal' gets applied when drone tones are used ... the drones can interact with the meldoy and chords to #hint at things being minor without actual making any sort of formal chord. I've played some chords on banjo lately that defy explanation ... at the end of the day the song doesn't care what you call it! LOL

- Benig

Jul-05-2005, 9:38am
swampstomper -

Trying to get a handle on what that sounds like. Is the tonic really C with the 5th (G) at the bottom? That would actually make the tune C mixolydian. If it was G dorian, that C would keep the thing suspended forever, even though the notes are the same. Have you got an example of this I can hear? Thanks in advance!

Jul-05-2005, 12:19pm
Well, I play Pretty Polly in this tuning -- can't remember who I stole it from, it may have been Pete Seeger's book. It resolves to G and yes it sounds suspended forever. Now, the technique is to hammer on from the open C to D and meanwhile fret the 1st string at the 5th fret (g), then you have a power G (d-g-d-g) which is resolved to from that suspended d - g - c - e or g. The 3rd is flatted so the scale goes g - a - Bb - c - d - e - f - g.

I guess it is C mixolydian but the tonic is G. Modal or what??

John Millring
Jul-05-2005, 12:58pm

That's a good explanation, and much like I heard it explained (minus the naked women). So when I'm playing accompaniment for a tune that implies a move to the minor, do I...

1. assume the implied minor is the relative minor, and therefore, play the major (to which that is a relative minor? (i.e. In Temperance Reel, in the key of G, the relative minor, Em, is suggested by the melody. Should I stay on the G?)

2. Play the major chord of the minor implied (i.e. In Temperance, when Em is implied, do I play a E?)

3. Play the 4 chord?

4. Play the 5 chord?

Michael H Geimer
Jul-05-2005, 1:44pm
That's the $100,000 question, isn't it?

For simplicity, let's say you're playing out of G. Where you hear an Emin implied by the melody, you would want to stay on the tonic (G) to be true to the OT style.

I sometimes change up to a proper Emin, though. Doc plays John Henry on banjo, and he let's an E-note ring over his G-chord ... so I play E-minor to add thrust to the song. (Heck ... I add a IV chord in there, too! )

Now, same thing came up learning 'Fifty Miles of Elbow Room' last week. I once again heard an E-minor in the melody line but this time I didn't want to change the backup to a vi chord. Instead I just added on a E-note to the typical G-chord and hinted at the minor.

A different thing comes up in 'Keep my Skillet Good and Greasy' where the song makes use of minor thirds, and flatted-seventh intervals to lend a bluesy feel, but the chords want to remain major. So, even though there might be a F-natural being played against the D-chord ... that chord is major. Even though I might leverage a Bb note in my lead line ... please don't play G-minor behind it.

In the end it's your call ... follow your nose ... it always knows.

Just don't ever call it a minor chord! Just say, "Oh ... that's nothin'. That's just a different sort of G chord, is all."


- Benig