Songwriting basics and tips 20: Modes – Outlandish Locrian

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

 

Welcome to the outer limits …

outer.gifLocrian is the last of the modes we’ll look at, and it’s the strangest.

If we take a key signature of no sharps or flats, then we’re using the notes of the key of C major

Locrian starts on the 7th note of that scale, so here are a couple of octaves of that, just so you can see how the chords are formed:

B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B

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The incredible shrinking chord …

Taking our usual approach of looking at the chords based on the 1st4th, and 5th notes of the mode (because, between them, they contain all the notes of the mode), we get something rather strange:

B  D  F – which is B diminished

E  G  B – which is E minor

F  A  C – which is F major

chord.gif

The tonic or 1st chord of the mode is a diminished chord. Using that as the tonic just sounds weirdly unstable – to western ears anyway.

We’re inclined to perceive it as the top three notes of a dominant 7th chord – in this case G7 (G  B  D  F), and we’re pretty much conditioned by our musical upbringing to want to resolve that to C major.

The other thing about using it as a tonic chord is that it’s the only mode in which the distance between the 1st and the 5th notes is a tritone – 3 whole tones – or augmented 4th.

stewie.gifAll the other modes have 3 tones and a semitone – a perfect 5th.

The tritone used to be called the Devil’s Interval because it sounded so jarring. 

The chord based on the 5th note – F major – is also the 5th or dominant chord in the key of Bb, so it has its own little element of instability as part of the package.

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The brave and the bold …

banB.gif
Nevertheless, despite its peculiar characteristics, people have used Locrian to write songs – just not very many of them!

So how do they get round the whole instability issue? Well, there are a number of tactics used. The main one is to never actually play the tonic chord all at once.

You can do that by playing single-note riffs that incorporate the notes but play them as a melody line. 

The Strokes do exactly that in their E Locrian track Juicebox by riffing over an E diminished chord while never actually playing the chord itself. 

And Björk  does the same in her C# Locrian song Army of Me.

You can even just forget about the backing entirely – as  folksinger Jon Boden does in the a cappella song Dust to Dust which uses C Locrian to create the creepy atmosphere for this song about a gravedigger.

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The big finish …tada.gif

So, how do you make a Locrian song finish convincingly if the tonic is so unstable?

One way is just to leave out the 5th note – which would give the impression of ending on a minor chord – or even leave out both the 3rd and 5th and just play octaves of the tonic note – which would leave the listener wondering if it were major or minor.

Another would be to definitively change the final chord to a minor – which would have the advantages of both sounding final, and of being easier for a guitarist to play! So, in B Locrian, that would make your final chord a B minor.

You can also just jump to the 6th chord which, handily, is a major chord. This gives a kind of classical effect. In B locrian that would mean finishing on G major.

Or, of course, you can just keep riffing over the diminished chord and fade the song out or segué into another one – that’s how rock operas are born! winker

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OK, that’s it for modes just now. Next time, we’ll look at the wonderful world of the melodic minor!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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