The Difference Between Modal Music And Tonal Music

The Difference Between Modal Music And Tonal Music

The difference between modal and tonal music can very easily become confusing, in this article we’ll keep it as simple as we can. The first thing to understand is that tonal music has only been around for a relatively short period of time. In fact tonal music first made its appearance during the renaissance period (1400 to 1600).

Modal music has been around since the days of Ancient Greece, in fact, the word mode derives from the Greek word meaning method or manner. Let’s take a closer look at the two systems and get a better understanding of how they function.

Modal Music

Modal music is based on repeating melodies and/or phrases to evoke certain feelings or moods depending on which mode the piece is being played in. Scales are used when performing modal music but in a different way to tonal music. In modal music we don’t look at scales as major or minor, we look at scales as moods.

The modal scales are called modes which can be translated in this context to mean moods. These modes contain all of the mood variations from happy to sad (as we’ll see below).


  • C Lydian: C,D,E,F#,G,A,B,C
  • C Ionian:C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C
  • C Mixolydian: C,D,E,F,G,A,Bb,C
  • C Dorian: C,D,Eb,F,G,A,Bb,C
  • C Aeolian: C,D,Eb,F,G,Ab, Bb,C
  • C Phrygian: C,Db,Eb,F,G,Ab,Bb,C
  • C Locrian: C,Db,Eb,F,Gb,Ab,Bb,C

Running from Lydian which is the brightest, happiest sounding mode the modes become sadder until they reach Locrian which is the darkest, saddest of all. The mode in the centre of the list, Dorian, sounds what can only be described as balanced emotionally speaking. Which does make sense when you consider its position within the list of modal moods.

This system provided the basis for all mediaeval music. Back then music wasn’t intended to tell a story or be structured in a major or minor key. Music was used to convey a particular mood, using the nearest mode to the mood trying to be evoked through the music. 

Modern Modal Music

As with most things in life, there are exceptions to the rule. Many musicians started to experiment with modal music during the 1960s and the progressive rock genre was born. Bands like The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane all used modes to create a new genre of popular music with a musical formula dating back to Ancient Greece.

On certain songs even The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana have also delved into the realms of modal music. It’s generally the solos that are modal in prog rock songs, a good example of this is in “The End” by the Doors.

guitar chords

Tonal Music

From the renaissance period and right on up to now most Western music tends to be tonal as opposed to modal (with some exceptions). From classical music through to pop music most is tonal. By which we mean, the progression of the harmony and melody work from a root note or tonic note. 

Within the confines of tonal music pretty much any melody is allowed providing it fits in with the harmonies that meander away from and back to the tonic or root. The majority of Western tonal music is based upon the major and minor scales because both supply that essential tonal feel.

In some ways tonal music has more flexibility than the modal system and yet in other ways it’s more strict. It’s more flexible because all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are available to play whereas some are always excluded in a modal scale. Stricter because any melody is forced to follow the route of the chords.

Where Modal And Tonal Music Meet

There is a genre of music where both tonal and modal are always ever present and that genre is the blues. The basic chord progression of any blues piece usually runs using the chords I, IV and V. These are tonal in structure. 

However, playing alongside these chords are the modal scales that originated in West Africa, in particular the pentatonic and blues scales. This makes the blues unique within musical compositions, a fusion between two musical systems separated by thousands of years and brought together in the 20th century in the blues.

Why Is Understanding The Differences Between Modal & Tonal Music Important?

For anyone that plays the guitar or the keyboard for that matter, it’s important to understand the differences between tonal and modal music. Playing chords (tonal) is the basis of pretty much every tune you’re likely to play in Western music at least. If you want to solo over the top of those chords and you want to sound original, you’ll need an understanding of the modal system.

Think of some of the jazz greats, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, they would have been very run of the mill performers without their knowledge of the various modes.

Some Examples Of Modal, Tonal & Blues Music

Here are some examples of each type of music mentioned within this article to give you a clearer idea of how they sound.

Modal Music Piece

Tonal Music Piece

Blues Music Piece

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between modality and tonality?

Modality describes which particular mode a piece of music is in, whereas tonality describes whether it’s in a major or minor chord.

What is tonal music?

Tonal music is music constructed in either a major or minor key and has the freedom to use all 12 notes in the chromatic scale. Most Western music since at least 1600 is tonal music.

What is a good example of modal music?

Mediaeval chants are a good example of modal music.

What is the difference between modal music and tonal music?

The difference between modal music and tonal music is that most modern Western music is tonal and is structured within the major and minor keys using all 12 notes in the chromatic scale. This allows far more range of notes than modal music which uses repetitive phrases of short melodies. Modal music is more about moods, the various modes range from bright, happy sounding to dark sad sounding music.

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