Micro-drones and the modal IV chord

November 27, 2009

I have been grading my class’s assignments where they were to record original compositions that include a drone and a melody, for any instrumentation and in any style. I have been very happy with the results.

I know of no existing theory books where students are asked to compose such exercises. I think it’s an important ability, as much of the world’s music exists over drones. One can think of hanging out on a chord, even if for a short time, is a kind of micro-drone.

Speaking of hanging out on a chord, something that our current harmonic analysis fails in imparting to music students is how a mode is imprinted on a particular diatonic chord. For instance, in a major key, the IV chord (subdominant) is ALWAYS in the lydian mode; the ii chord is always Dorian; the V chord is always Mixolydian; the iii chord is Phrygian, and so on. The unspoken ability to know that a IV chord is a IV chord, is that the melodies that dance around its magnet are in the Lydian mode, not the Mixolydian or Ionian mode. Even though the root triad of all three modes is major, their modal content is completely different. Teachers might consider adding this to their bag of tricks to get students to hear chord changes.

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PK November 28, 2009 at 11:16 am

When I started studying at Berklee in 1971 (before attending half of the music departments in Boston before ending up at NEC, the only school that didn’t have classes until after lunch… civilized… and perfect for my kind of hangovers) we were all taught modal playing first, before traditional harmony! This is probably the influence of Miles Davis of the time, but it served me well. The ensembles often consisted of long drones (ala Alice Coltrane) accompanied by the endless, modal, weedling of would be jazzsters.

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