by Joe Satriani
More on modal theory.
Before we continue last month’s examination of modal theory, I’d like to say a little something about the study of music theory in general. Music, in the true sense, is not theory, nor is it an academic study. To me, something can only be classified as music if it transcends theoretical or academic perimeters and becomes something that’s much more ambitious and fulfilling. Music is a mind-body-spirit thing: your fingers must be working, your soul has got to be immersed in it, and your brain is there simply to put two and two together.
In terms of modal study, the modes only have meaning when they’re addressed and understood as entities unto themselves, not as permutations of any “parent” scale. Whatever the root note of a particular mode may be—for example, B in the B Phrygian mode—that root note must be made clear to the listener in order for the unique harmonic texture of a given mode to be experienced by the listener. It is only when a mode is heard against a particular root note or tonal center that its quality can be understood. Its position or fingering on the fretboard is irrelevant to the listener.
For example, FIGURE 1a illustrates a G major scale with the B Phrygian mode extracted from it. You’ll notice that B Phrygian is built from the third note of the G major scale, so Phrygian is logically known as the third mode of the major scale. If we play a C note within the context of B Phrygian, the function of this note is entirely different than if it were played within the context of G major. When C is played over G, as illustrated in FIGURE 1b, it’s heard as the fourth, as in a Gsus4 chord (G C D).
Playing C over B Phrygian is an entirely different matter. When C is played over B, it functions as both the minor, or “flatted,” second or ninth (“b2” or “b9”). The sound of a C note played over a B root is very dissonant and is totally unlike the suspended fourth sound of C played over a G tonal center. To illustrate this point, FIGURE 1c shows the notes B and C played as flatted seconds/ninths and also illustrates how C functions as the “b9” over a B root note in two commonly used chords.
Early on in my academic study of music, I felt there was an audible distinction between music created by someone who is really thinking about the listener versus someone who has “crossed the line” and done the dreaded thing of creating music that succeeds only as an academic study. Unfortunately, a great many music theoreticians suffer the consequence of becoming so out of touch with listening to music as art, they believe that simply constructing it absolves them of whether the final product expresses true musicality. This is something that just about everyone comes up against when studying music within an academic institution.
Getting back to the real world, utilizing modal concepts within rock was a challenge that musicians of my generation were faced with. In the late Sixties, guitarists like Jimmy Page and Carlos Santana, who basically started off as third-generation blues players, came up with new concepts that echoed sounds they’d experienced, which originated from all around the world. An analysis of rock music of the Sixties reveals Oriental, Indian and Asian influences, as well as elements of virtually every other type of ethnic music. When Jimmy Page incorporated Moroccan influences to create something like “Black Mountain Side” (Led Zeppelin), he was already building on the influence of Delta and Chicago blues and early rock and roll. Bringing in these ethnic influences helped blaze the trail toward the rock music of today.
One could write volumes in an attempt to unravel the development of modern music. In a nutshell, composers of the last 300 years have all been working toward changing the idea of cadence and tension and resolution. In the old days, composers were commissioned by royalty, so their reasons for writing a piece of music, and who it was written for, played a huge part in the nature of the music itself, no matter how brilliant these classical composers proved themselves to be. And, needless to say, the music of the great classical composers is worthy of intensive study.
Fast-forward centuries later to the existence of jazz clubs, where musicians are encouraged to improvise spontaneously and at great length. This type of creative environment was available in the days of Mozart, rare as it may have been. But jazz saxophonist John Coltrane thrived on the privilege of artistic expression; not only could he compose a piece of music that emphasizes the Mixolydin mode, he could, in terms of improvisation, take the initiative to build separate, unrelated modes off of the different notes of the Mixolydian mode. His artistry developed by having the opportunity to do this night after night, year after year. If the network of jazz institutions was not there, that form of music would never have grown the way it did.
When I first began to compose music, I became fixated on evoking certain feelings and emotions from the listener, and I came to realize that each mode communicates a certain emotional quality. The song “Time” [Live in San Francisco] is based on the B Phrygian mode, and listeners who are only familiar with American musical forms like pop or blues may feel that a song like “Time” sounds very “exotic.” But in other parts of the world, like, say, India or China, the sound of the Phrygian mode is well familiar.