I have been experimenting with modal counterpoint lately and have found that it lends itself to game music brilliantly. For a demonstration, I have prepared a new track that uses modal counterpoint in an orchestral setting and will explain the use of the two modes that were used in its creation.
In my previous blog post, I had outlined the techniques used for first and second species counterpoint, CLICK HERE if you need a recap or are unsure on what first and second species counterpoint means.
The use of Phrygian and Locrian modes were used exclusively in the A LINK TO THE MODES, giving the piece an adventure-like tone that can be found in many games. Below is a list of the seven modes found in a major scale and an explanation of the emotion or feeling that could be associated with them.
- IONIAN – Happy, modern major scale.
- DORIAN – Chanting monks.
- PHYRGIAN – Spanish, exotic, adventurous.
- LYDIAN – Enchanted forest.
- MYXOLYDIAN – Blues, country and western.
- AEOLIAN – Sombre, modern natural minor scale.
- LOCRIAN – Unsettling, impending doom, exotic.
The first mode to be heard in A LINK TO THE MODES is the E Phrygian, the third mode of the C major scale (EFGABCD), which has the tone sequence of STTTSTT. The semi-tone between the first and second degree of this mode is what gives it its character.
A good trick I like to use when composing in modes is to start with the chord progression IV-V-I7 but have the mode’s root note (E) as the bass in each chord – the result is that the progression will sound unmistakably Phrygian, instead of sounding like a major scale. To explain this further, here are the notes used to make the chord progression.
- Chord IV – ACE (minor). With E bass becomes EACE
- Chord V – BDF (diminished). With E bass becomes EBDF
- Chord I7 – EGBD (minor7).
I learnt this trick from Frank Gambale while studying his online videos on improvising for jazz guitar, so it was a nice surprise to see that it works when composing in this style.
The next two bars have a strict, first species motif, played by the clarinets and french oboes.
Notice the descending Phrygian mode in the upper voice, this was used to solidify the tonal centre. As with all first species counterpoint, there are no dissonances, or parallel fifths and parallel octaves. The voices are moving in contrary motion, which helps with defining the individual sounds and the repeated notes are kept to minimum of two (the maximum allowed is three repeated notes of the same pitch).
After the introductory passage, a technique referred to as making divisions or diminution is used. This is technique is used in third species counterpoint when you convert a passage from first species. Third species counterpoint uses the same procedures as second species, the main difference is that there are now three or more notes used against one. To demonstrate this, begin by listening to the clarinets with just first species.
For this example, the ‘soprano’ voice has been muted so we are able to hear the first species element of the clarinets. This passage has the same chord progression as was heard in the first bar of the piece (IV-V-I7), also, take note that the second bar of this passage uses the same chord progression, but changes the bass note to an F. Very simple, yet very effective.
Now listen to the same passage, this time with diminution from the soprano voice un-muted.
Most of this passage is using second species counterpoint, in bar two it changes to third species because of the diminution in the soprano voice, as it does in bars 6, 7 and 8.
The next passage repeats the section we have just heard, this time the tenor voice uses diminution to give the piece impetus.
After the tenor voice has made use of the diminution, the alto voice imitates it rhythmically. Imitation is a very important part of counterpoint and as you will hear from the example below, is very effective.
After the imitation, the piece changes to Locrian mode.
While the Locrian mode can sound very unsettling at times, it can also sound mysterious and exotic. The first instance of hearing the Locrian mode in A LINK TO THE MODES, utilises the mysterious element of the mode.
Notice in the example above, the use of the IV-V-IV-I7 chord progression (now in B Locrian).
- Chord IV – EGB (minor). B bass becomes BEGB
- Chord V – FAC (major). Now uses a C bass to become CFAC
- Chord I7 – BDFA (Diminished 7).
This once again allows the new tonality to be unambiguous. You may also notice that the second chord in the progression (V – F major) has a C bass, this is because a B bass would cause a diminished 5th with the F, and a major 7th with the C. Although this mode is unsettling, the diminished 5th and major 7th are classed as dissonant and brake too many rules of modal counterpoint so the C bass was a good alternative that still kept the tonal centre.
Listen to the same passage, this time with an oboe and shakuhachi melody that is later imitated canonically by the violas.
If you have heard Ravel’s String Quartet in F, then you would notice the similarities in this passage. I am a big fan of Ravel and was surprised that when I used the rules of modal counterpoint whilst in Locrian, the sound was strikingly similar to the French composers masterpiece. I guess it makes sense really, seeing that large passages his visionary quartet have the key signature of G flat major, but a tonal centre of F (F Locrian).
The piece then transitions into a gloomy, impending-doom sound that the Locrian is more well-known for. The pedal bass on B and the melody heard previously from the shakuhachi and french oboe (now played by the horns and violas) brings dramatic tension before resolving to original clarinet section. With the techniques and methods used in this piece now outlined, let’s listen to the full version of A LINK TO THE MODES.
Using the techniques of the past, it is possible to make modern sounding music and give validity to the bygone art-form of modal counterpoint. Although using the rules may seem restrictive, it can actually aid in creative output and help with the sheer volume of work required when composing for mediums such as games. Using modes like the Phrygian and Locrian may have not been considered correct when modal counterpoint was originally practiced, however, by using the same rules that applied to the accepted modes of yesteryear, new and exciting forms of music spring into existence that have substance and hold a place in the modern repertoire.
I hope this post has helped you or even inspired you to try some modal counterpoint of your own and until next time, stay creative!