Why the Lydian flat-7 mode is so cool

April 15, 2007

Composer William Kraft (Bill) and I were having lunch one day at the UCLA Faculty Center. Half way through a bite of his sandwich (teachers and composers ALWAYS talk with their mouths full) he bolted and said “Roger, I have a new mode I’ve been working with. It’s terrific, it has so many great qualities. Kinda tonal, kinda not.” I responded “May I guess what the mode is?” He looked confused and skeptical. How could anyone know what mode I’ve been using? He’s just a young whippersnapper from Harvard. “Ok, sure try to guess.” I enumerated the notes of the mode: “C D E F# G A Bb.” He was shocked. “Damn, how did you know? That’s the spookiest thing I’ve experienced all day!”

As human brains evolved their ability to perceive vibrations in the atmosphere as sound, and then as pitch, they evolved the ability to hear timbre, or musical color. The timbre is the element that differentiates one voice from another, whether it be another human, or a musical instrument. One of the quantifiable ways that our minds perceive timbre is by the sonic “aura” that hovers above every pitch made by an orchestral instrument (This is not true for metallophones, bells, gongs, cymbals etc.). This gorgeous aura sounds in varying intensities, depending on the sound source. This aura is commonly called the overtone series, or harmonics, or partials, or Nature’s scale, or formants.

Overtone series example © Robert J Frank

[Illustration © David J. Frank]

(The notes in parenthesis mean that they do not correspond exactly with our commonly used tuning system.) If you take the fundamental and the first 13 partials you roughly have a dominant 7th chord with a sharp 11th. In the example below you’ll see, from left to right, the Lydian flat-7 mode, a secondal cluster made from that scale, a much loved C13th chord spelled tertially, and Alexander Scriabin’s famous “Mystic chord.”


Rufus Wainwright’s early song “Damned Ladies” has a magical chord progression that is so exotic I am shocked at its simplicity: a deceptive resolution from V7/IV to V7, and not just V7, a lydian flat-7 infused V7. (Below is an audio clip, a piano-vocal transcription, and the modal and chordal underpinnings of the passage.)



(The text here is “Or is it Gilda’s waiting passion to be stabbed and killed again:”)

Another melody beloved by many baby boomers and one that uses lydian flat-7 in a melody is Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina.”


Here is an audio clip of that opening melody. You hear the mode quite prominently here.


The lydian flat-7mode is also used by Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, and me. The mode has been “in the air” for a while, so my guess at Bill’s “new mode” wasn’t so hard. In that it’s in the overtone scale, perhaps it’s hard-wired into our brains.


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