Friday, November 15, 2013

Leonard Bernstein on modes (especially Mixolydian)

Understandable explanation of how the modes developed, with examples of what feelings they can evoke in listeners, in Leonard Bernstein's "Young People's Concerts" TV show from 1966. Shows aired for nearly 20 years. See Wikipedia for background and list of program segments at:'s_Concerts.

Available on YouTube, in four takes, and in transcript (linked below) on the Leonard Bernstein website. First take begins here ...

Leonard Bernstein: Young People's Concerts | What is a Mode? (Part 1 of 4)

Link here for the other takes:

Transcript of Leonard Bernstein, "Young People's Concert: What is a Mode?" Nov. 23, 1966.

A little history:

The word Dorian obviously comes from the Greek, and in fact, as well as the other modes we're about to discover, does come originally from the music of ancient Greece. We don't know too much about that old Greek music: What we do know is that the Greek modes eventually made their way to Rome and were taken up by the Roman Catholic church during the Middle Ages in a somewhat different form. But the church kept the old Greek names for the modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, and Ionian. Now there's a mouthful for you. I know. But they're much easier to understand than their names are to pronounce. And they are still used today in Catholic churches all over the world, in those beautiful chants called plainsong.

* * *

... From about the time of Bach until the beginning of our own century—roughly two hundred years—our Western music has been based almost exclusively on only two modes—the major and the minor. I can't go into the whys and wherefores of it now, but it's true. And since most of the music we hear in concerts today was written during that two hundred-year period, we get to think that major and minor modes are all there are. But the history of music is much longer than a mere two hundred years. There was an awful lot of music sung and played before Bach, using all kinds of other modes. And in the music of our own century, when composers have gotten tired of being stuck with major and minor all the time, there has been a big revival of those old pre-Bach modes. That's why Debussy used them so much, and other modern composers like Hindemith and Stravinsky, and almost all the young song writers of today's exciting pop music scene.

And this, on the Mixolydian:

Now this is the only major mode that has a lowered leading tone, and believe it or not most of the jazz and Afro-Cuban music and rock-and-roll tunes we hear owe their very existence to this old Mixolydian mode. Like this Cuban riff.


That's just Mixolydian. Now, do you hear how that lowered seventh tone makes a jazz sound? Of course, the examples I could give you are endless, but just to take a recent smash hit:

[PLAY & SING: Berry/Greenwich - Hanky-Panky]

Mixolydian. Could you believe it? Or do you remember a really terrific, barbaric song a few years ago, such by a group called the Kinks. It's called You Really Got Me.

[PLAY & SING: Davies - You Really Got Me]

That's old Mixolydian. Or, I wonder if you know take that absolutely charming Beatles tune, called Norwegian Wood.

[PLAY: Lennon/McCartney - Norwegian Wood]

You hear that lowered seventh note?


You hear that lowered seventh note?


That makes it Mixolydian. They're all Mixolydian. Now again, I don't want to give you the idea that this mode produces only jazz and pop music. It's still to be heard as much in churches as in discotheques. And, in fact, our old friend Debussy, when he wanted to suggest a Cathedral rising out of the sea (in that famous piano piece of his called The Sunken Cathedral used this same Mixolydian mode.

[PLAY: Debussy - Preludes Bk 1: La cathedral engloutie]

Isn't that a wonderfully impressive sound. I don't mean my sound; I mean Debussy's sound. ...

And finally a word or two on the Ionian, or major mode:
... And at last we come to C,


the starting note of our final and most triumphant mode of all, called the Ionian. Listen carefully now: Here is C,


and up we go, white notes only, to the next C,


and what have we got? Surprise: The C-major scale! The good old, tried and true C-major of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms.

Now this C-major scale, once known as the Ionian, had simply survived better than all its neighbors the evolution of history and emerged in glory as king of all Western music for two hundred years. For instance, this tremendous C-major celebration by Beethoven.

[ORCH: BEETHOVEN FIFTH—coda of finale]

That, that was the last 30 seconds of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and there's no doubt that it's in C major. Beethoven doesn't leave any doubt about that. He hammers the point home. ...

And so on ...

1 comment:

Cormack Abbott said...

When I hear Greek music I hear a very wide array of time signatures and modes that were clearly untouched by our Western Classical music tradition. As a musician, that kind of disturbs me and seems very ironic. Did Bach ever try 7/8 time?