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Modes of Limitless Inspiration - Part 1    Page 1 2 3 4
a Stickschrift for Emmett Chapman about his "Offset Modal System" by Sean Malone

The title of this article alludes to the designation given by composer-theorist Olivier Messiaen to scales such as the whole-tone and octatonic, as being "Modes of Limited Transposition." The distinction of being "limited" is due to the parallel arrangement of intervals in each mode, limiting the number of possible transpositions. In the case of the whole-tone scale, there are two, and in the case of the octatonic scale, there are three. This illusrates the finite nature of modality: there are a limited number of combinations available when we decide to rotate the intervals of a scale, so in a sense when we discuss modality, there is "nothing new under the sun." However, the OMS isn’t merely a collection of modes as it is a description of relationships between modes, the potential of their extension ("offsets"), and the seemingly limitless possibilities found in their combination.

What is a "mode", anyway?
Before we continue discussing the OMS, it is important to understand what a ‘mode’ is, since the words "scale" and "mode" are often used interchangeably. Think of the word ‘mode’ as meaning version, or as a variety of some larger concept, or as a manner of doing something. For example, when we travel we pick a mode of transportation – a car, walking, the bus, an airplane – they are all a manner of transportation. Or, think of them as being individual members of a set called "transportation." In terms of music, the larger concept is "scale" and modes of a scale are the manner of ways you can ‘make a scale.’ To ‘make’ a scale, characteristically we arrange pitches within an octave, no more than a step apart (there are some exceptions), and use a different letter name for each pitch. As you will see later on, ‘mode’ and ‘scale’ are essentially the same thing, though both terms are employed in order to differentiate between the scales we see most often, and their modes, which are used less often.

The Church Modes
While the origins of scale and mode can be traced to ancient Greece, the collection referred to as the seven "Church" modes was devised during the Medieval Era and expanded during the Renaissance. The first four modes were called: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. Later on the modes Aeolian and Ionian were added. A seventh modern mode, Locrian, completes the collection. As with major and minor scales, each of these seven modes has a particular order of half and whole steps, and there are two traditional ways to learn them.

First, we can divide modes into two categories: modes that are like a major scale (with a natural scale degree 3), and modes that are like a minor scale (with a lowered scale degree 3). In most cases only one other scale degree is changed.

Modes like the major scale:
Lydian and Mixolydian
Modes like the minor scale:
Dorian, Phrygian, and Locrian

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