Modes Of Misfortune, Banished

Modality in music is special—‘special’ as in “distinct from non-musical senses of the term;” and ‘special’ as in “possessing a striking allure and freshness.”

Often enough, modality has also been confusing.

In this post, I’ll illustrate some basic points about the musical modes, focusing on a well-known Irish fiddle tune, Banish Misfortune, which exists in a couple of different modal variants.

Let’s start with the tune itself.  I liked it so well that I decided to write a set of piano variations based upon it.  Here’s a video of my setting—the ‘theme’ of the set of variations:

(To put in a shameless plug, you can buy the sheet music for my variations here. Click and scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Somewhat unusually, Banish Misfortune is a three-part tune (most traditional dance tunes have two parts.)  Each part concludes with the same cadence figure—a melodic pattern that ends the phrase.  (This is sometimes called “cadence rhyme.”)  Here, it helps make very clear the three-part structure of the tune.

But as mentioned above, there is more than one version of this tune.  That is not unusual in folk music; tunes are transmitted aurally, not primarily ‘fixed’ in written versions.  Each player is free to add, simplify or vary the melody, and the result is that popular tunes can exist in numerous different versions.  Banish Misfortune certainly fits that description.

The first version to be written down dates from 1850, when Edward Cronin’s performance was transcribed and published in a famous compendium of Irish tunes.  That version is shown together with the one I used, with the ‘1850’ version on the upper staff.  The transparent blue enclosures highlight the ‘cadence rhyme,’ which is present in both versions.  (There are four enclosures, not three as you might expect, because in the Cronin version the ‘B’ part of the tune has two different endings.)

Banish Misfortune Ex. 1

If you look carefully at the second version–yes, I know it’s awfully small!–you might notice something:  the C-sharps are found only at the cadences—outside the blue boxes, only C–naturals are to be seen.  Not in the 1850 version, though:  in it, one finds C-sharps consistently.

That note—C-sharp versus C-natural—is the difference defining the different modes of these variants of the tune.  The 1850 version is in D major, whereas the later version is in the modal scale we would call D Mixolydian.  From a scalar perspective, one note is all it takes!

Here is a table illustrating the point for the three ‘major-like’ modes:

Name of Mode Scale Degree Inflected
Mixolydian 7th lowered
Ionian None
Lydian 4th raised

The “Ionian” mode’s scale does not differ from that of major keys—though theorists might differentiate between Ionian and major on other, more subtle, grounds.  Mixolydian features a lowered 7th scale degree, as just illustrated by the C-naturals of the second version of Banish Misfortune.  Lydian is defined by a raised 4th scale degree—the Cronin version could be converted to Lydian, for instance, by raising all the G-naturals to G-sharp.

It’s a bit strange, isn’t it?  (And I don’t mean the cut-off last line–sorry about that.)  The characteristically Irish melodic turns and rhythms assort oddly with a mode that is not at all typical of the genre.

The three ‘minor-like’ modes, like their counterparts tabulated above, can be listed in reference to a central mode, from which the other two differ by a single altered scale degree:

Name of Mode Scale Degree Inflected
Dorian 6th raised
Aeolian None
Phrygian 2nd lowered

Aeolian corresponds to the so-called ‘natural minor scale.’  Dorian—like Mixolydian, a fairly common mode in Western European folk music—differs by a raised sixth scale degree (relative to the Aeolian.)  (Readers familiar with the well-known tune “Greensleeves” may possess an example of this:  that tune is heard in both Dorian and Aeolian incarnations.)  Phrygian—more ‘exotic’ to many listeners—features a lowered second scale degree.

These six modes, by the way, complete the catalog of the ‘authentic’ modes in the scheme of Heinrich Glarean (June 1488 – 28 March 1563), an important figure in the history of modality (and of music theory generally.)  Here’s Holbein’s sketch of “Glareanus”:

Glarean-HolbeinClick here to read more about him.

There’s another way to look at the modes, though:  one can envision them as rotations of a single set of tones.  To put it another way, imagine the white keys on a piano, which give the notes A through G.  Of those seven notes, one can then form seven distinct scales, simply by taking each note in turn as a central tone, or ‘final.’  Here’s a table illustrating this way of thinking about the modes:

Name of Mode Final (“Starting tone”) and scale degree, relative to the major (Ionian) mode.
Locrian (not used, traditionally) B (7th)
Aeolian (Natural Minor) A (6th)
Mixolydian G (5th)
Lydian F (4th)
Phrygian E (3rd)
Dorian D (2nd)
Ionian (Major) C (1st)

In a way, that approach is illustrated by the notation chosen above for the dual versions of Banish Misfortune.  Some astute (and detail-oriented!) readers may have noticed that although the tune is in D, I used the key signature appropriate to G major.

That is quite normal for the Mixolydian version of the tune (lower staff.)  Consider it from the perspective of G major.  If G is ‘scale degree 1,’ then ‘scale degree 5’ would be D.  And, according to the table above, it is ‘scale degree 5’ which forms the final of the Mixolydian scale.

Thus, D Mixolydian would usually be written with a key signature of one sharp.

Let’s turn back to the tunes themselves for a bit.  A quick overview can be had by listening to the two played simultaneously.  It’s not a particularly pleasant musical experience, it must be admitted—the modal clash between C and C# does sound quite sour —but the simultaneous presentation does rapidly highlight where and how the tunes diverge or coincide.

You can tell that the first section differs the most, while the second section is most similar—in fact, for much of the second section it sounds as if just one tune is playing.  The third section occupies an intermediate place in this scheme.

I’ve illustrated that visually below.  The green boxes highlight specific similarities of pitch or contour; the yellow-orange boxes identify a more subtle correspondence found between the ‘A’ sections of the tunes:  for six successive downbeats, the two melodies form a dyad—a pair of pitches—from the tonic triad.

I hesitate to make too much of that relationship, but it does suggest a static tonic ‘harmony’ underlying this section of both melodies.  (Traditional performances would likely have been unaccompanied.)  The same cannot be said of harmonies of the other two sections of the tune, which seem to imply non-tonic harmonies.  (The 1850 version actually states a dominant (A major) triad by arpeggiating it in measure 20.)

Banish Misfortune Ex. 2

There’s an irony here:  a modern listener might tend to perceive the modal version of the tune as more ‘primal,’ older, while the 1850 version seems somewhat conventional.  The reality is different:  though I don’t know when the earliest Mixolydian version of Banish Misfortune dates from, it is said that the popularity of versions such as the one I used (and present above) dates only from the 1960s, when the renowned Irish band The Chieftains recorded it!

“Satin Doll”: Soup Cans And Turnarounds

Duke Ellington (1899-1974) knew something about elegance in the social sense. But one of his signature tunes, Satin Doll—perhaps partly (or even entirely) the work of long-time Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn—also exhibits great musical elegance in the economy and ingenuity of its musical structure. Let’s take a closer look at an eight-bar excerpt. Here it is, notated somewhat schematically:

Satin Doll Excerpt

It’s not hard to see that the first two measures are repeated, transposed up a whole step, in measures three and four, nor that the harmonic rhythm—the rate at which chords change—speeds up in the second line.

Or does it? Looking again, the chords continue to change every two beats, so at the surface level, the harmonic rhythm does not actually change. Yet the harmonic rhythm feels as though it accelerates. Tabulating the changes can make the reason for this perception clearer. Let’s make our table in two-measure segments:

Mm 1-2: Dm7 G7 (2x)
Mm 3-4: Em7 A7 (2x)
Mm 5-6: Am7b5 G7 Abm7 Db7
Mm. 7-8: C (plus turnaround, not shown)

In bars 5 and 6, there is twice as much harmonic information, since the repetition of the first two chords is eliminated and two new chords substituted.

Moreover, there’s a clear logic governing the specific chords chosen. To understand it, we need to understand the concept of the “ii-V” progression in jazz. (For readers who don’t know this numerical terminology for chords, the “ii” denotes a chord built upon the second degree of a scale and the “V” a chord built upon the fifth degree. For example, in A major “ii” would be a B minor chord, “B” forming the second degree of the A major scale, and “V” would be an E major chord, since “E” is the fifth scale degree.)

The “ii-V” progression is very common in all “common-practice” music, as easy to find in Bach as in Ellington. But in jazz it is particularly useful because it so clearly defines a key center, and creates such a strong sense of harmonic motion. In fact, it has become a stock element, used ad lib, for example, as an insertion at the end of a repeated section to lead back to the beginning of that section—a “turnaround.” This ‘stock element’ becomes the basic unit used to construct Satin Doll. Here’s our table of chords, redone in terms of the key to which each of the “ii-V” progressions belongs:

Mm 1-2: ii-V, key of C (2x)
Mm 3-4: ii-V, key of D (2x)
Mm 5-6: ii-V, key of G(minor); ii-V, key of Db
Mm. 7-8: NA (cadence chord in C)

Ellington—or Strayhorn—begins with a “ii-V” that defines the key as C major. We aren’t given the tonic triad, C major, which helps to sustain the harmonic energy at the beginning of the phrase—a tonic chord always tends to act as a ‘ground’ for that energy when heard, and we don’t want the phrase ‘short-circuited.’

The upward transposition in mm. 3-4—we noted that above—then suggests a secondary key area of D. (Tonicization of “ii” (or “II”) is a strategy that Franz Schubert was rather fond of, by the way; it can be observed in the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, among other works.) Again, there is no tonic function actually heard.

Measures 5-6 give us a new implied tonality, G. Notice that this makes a larger scale “ii-V?” The implied “D” of mm. 3-4 would be “ii’’ in the home key of C, while the “G” of 5-6 would be “V.”

The “minor seven flat five” chord at the beginning of measure 5—also known as a half-diminished seventh—suggests a minor, not major key, since it fits naturally into the minor mode, unlike the minor seventh chords which heard in previous versions of the “ii-V.” I suspect, though, that the chord quality has more to do with preparing what we hear next than with the niceties of chordal implication.

For what we get next is tonally surprising. As the table shows, the final “ii-V” seems to belong to the tonally remote key of Db major. Following the established tonal logic, we might have expected a “ii-V” in the tonic key. It would have made a logical, convincing cadence. Indeed, it’s not hard to rewrite the tune to do that:

Satin Doll Excerpt (Rewritten)

But it would be a disappointing ending, at least in comparison with the ‘real thing.’

It’s easy to understand why this is a musical ‘plot twist’—suddenly we find ourselves in a distant tonal area. It’s perhaps a bit less obvious why it still makes sense.

Jazz, as an art for which improvisation is highly important, and in which individual expression is prized, has developed many techniques by which common (as in ‘shared’) melodies and lines can be expressively inflected by improvisors and arrangers. One is the concept of chord “substitution.” As I’ve explained elsewhere, a common form of substitution involves using third-related chords—for example, an A minor triad might be used in place of a C major triad. This has a certain logic in that two of three tones are common to both chords, yet the effect can be surprisingly fresh.

A bit more exotic is the “tritone substitution.” It, too, goes back to earlier antecedents—it can be found, for example, in Chopin. It consists of substituting for a dominant seventh chord—say, G7—the dominant seventh a tritone away—say, Db7. This may seem arbitrary at first blush, but makes sense upon reflection: the two most active tones in the chord, the third and seventh, are actually common to both chords (if we neglect a little enharmonic respelling.) For example, G7 has for a third “B” and for seventh, “F.” For Db7, the tones switch: “F” is now the third, while “B”—respelled as Cb—becomes the seventh.

In Satin Doll, then, Ellington has applied the tritone substitution to the entire “ii-V” progression, not just the dominant seventh itself. It’s the perfect musical plot twist, as logical as it is unexpected.

The ‘modular construction’ we’ve been looking at also reminds me in a way of Andy Warhol’s pop-art work: everyday objects—for the “ii-V” is as everyday as a soup can—arranged artfully enough become art themselves once again, momentarily liberated from the banal patina of overexposure.

But Ellington did it first, did it less obviously, and for my money had more fun with it—with Ellington, it’s ingenuity, not irony.

Metering “I Hung My Head”

One of the ironies of music genre categorization these days is that Sting’s solo work now tends to be termed ‘soft rock.’

Part one of the irony is that that genre is functionally the successor to ‘easy listening,’ which I think has become more or less extinct.  (Correct me if I’m wrong on that, and it’s merely become increasingly obscure and irrelevant.)

Part two is that Sting has consistently challenged genre boundaries, not only by invoking stylistic types at will whenever they serve the narrative purpose of a song’s lyrics—say, the ‘country music’ style of I’m So Happy—but also by using really challenging musical materials, such as composite meters and complex harmonies.  These, too, are often related to what a given song is about.

A case in point is I Hung My Head, the second track on the 1995 album Mercury Falling, which, Wikipedia tells us, “marked Sting’s transition from heavier jazz-inspired rock to the adult contemporary* genre.”  Although the narrative is set in the old American West, the musical style is anything but 19th century:  the original setting of the song is built around a heavily distorted electric guitar riff—one whose rhythm is strangely elusive and unsettled.

The Wikipedia article on the song describes it this way:

The song is written in compound time 9/8.  The curious offbeat rhythm has the effect of alternating 5-beat and 4-beat bars. The drum beat is syncopated, on the 3rd and 8th beats.

I conceptualize it a bit differently.  Nine-eight time is normally (as the article says) a ‘compound’ time signature, meaning that the beat unit is not a simple note value such as a quarter note or half note, but rather a dotted note value—in nine-eight, the dotted quarter note.  The implication is that the measure consists of three beats, each further subdivided into threes:  “ONE two three FOUR five six SEV’N eight nine”—or “ONE and-a TWO and-a THREE and-a.”

That’s a very different beast from the ‘curious offbeat rhythm’ we hear in I Hung My Head.  My interpretation proceeds partly from the ‘drum beat’, which evokes the familiar rock and roll “back beat” drum ‘hits’ on beats two and four:  “one TWO three FOUR.”  Here, though, we’ve got an extra eighth note inserted into beat three:  “one and TWO and three and-a FOUR and.”  Thus the meter becomes a ‘distorted four.’

Transcribed in the resulting ‘composite’ meter, the vocal melody looks like this:

I Hung My Head--melody (excerpt)

It’s really unusual.  Even in styles where composite meter is fairly normal—say, the Rumanian folk music whose melodies Bela Bartok famously collected, and which so influenced his compositional style—it’s much more common to have the ‘augmented beat’ (the one with three subdivisions) fall at either the beginning or the end of the measure, where its tendency to create an accent makes a great start or ending.  Inserted in the middle, it’s unsettling, destabilizing.

It’s also appropriate.  Like the narrator, we listeners wait for clarity—we, too, have “time to kill.”  (An innocent-sounding phrase with a sinister double meaning—“Early one morning/With time to kill” starts first and last verses, framing the entire song.)  That ‘time to kill’ is inserted right into the middle of each and every measure for us.

But there’s more.  Consider the bass line in conjunction with the melody:

I Hung My Head--Melody & Bass (Excerpt)

That bass line is part of the guitar riff mentioned above, performed on the lowest two strings of the guitar.  (The higher bits of the riff are omitted from the transcription for clarity.)  The accented quarter notes ending each bar help to stabilize the meter, setting up the coming downbeat.

But if focused upon—if the listener concentrates on the bass and lets the melody recede into the perceptual background—those quarter notes can induce an alternative metric scheme, a whole new meter.  It’s still composite, but now it’s one in which the second beat is the augmented one, and “beat three” arrives not on the 8th  eighth note of the measure, but on the 9th.

You might say that beat three of the ‘distorted four’ is perpetually disrupted, torn apart, by this conflict between different layers in the musical texture.  Again, it’s unsettling, disruptive.

And again, it’s appropriate:  the whole song revolves around a moment which, ‘inserted’ into the narrator’s life, disrupts it—in fact, utterly derails it.  And the metric structure I’ve been describing gives us a compelling analog for that—one that helps us feel imaginatively what is felt by the narrator.

In setting a musical text, it doesn’t get much better than that.

*”Adult contemporary is rather a continuation of the easy listening and soft rock style that became popular in the 1960s and 1970s with some adjustments that reflect the evolution of pop/rock music.”  –Wikipedia

Sting’s performances of I Hung My Head:

The 1995 original:  (Mercury Falling version)  (Click on links to navigate to Youtube videos.)

A 2010 performance with the Royal Philharmonic in Berlin:  (Royal Phil)  (Many other performances from this tour are also online.)

You can really pick out the bass line; the whole symphonic bass section is playing it.  And that guitar riff is still there, if much farther back in the mix.  There are a couple of good shots of Dominic Miller, Sting’s long-time guitarist and collaborator, flat-picking it on his white Les Paul.

Johnny Cash version:

A very interesting alternate version is Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover.  In that recording, the characteristic meter is changed to straight 4-4, and the harmonies are simplified as well.  Some listeners prefer it; Sting is said to have considered the cover an honor.  My take on it is that the unsettled, disrupted quality removed by these changes is taken on by Cash’s vocal performance.  Readers here can judge for themselves, if they wish.

2002, American IV:  The Man Comes Around: (Johnny Cash version)