Measure for Measure: Hello Darkness

Old-school crazy: You’re sittin’ on a barstool in Austin waitin’ for your fourth round of beer-backed tequila when someone queues up “Crazy” on the jukebox. Suddenly the blowsy blonde by the pool table begins morphing into Jennifer Lawrence before your very eyes. As her biker boyfriend heads your way, clenching a pool cue in his fist, you take an existential moment to gaze out the window at the parking lot. “Yep, gettin’ drunk out there,” you mutter to yourself.

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New-school crazy: You’re sittin’ on the couch for the seventh month in a row, watching cat videos and trying to muster up the courage to go to the grocery store. Protesters are on the march, the economy’s tanking, Congress is gridlocked, Siberia’s burning, and oh, by the way, the Pentagon admits that UFOs are real. “Gettin’ dark out there,” you mutter under your face mask.

Yeah, the times they are a changin’. But who’s got the soundtrack for the new kind of crazy?

All Them Witches might. The Nashville-based trio, profiled elsewhere in this issue, has distilled an antivenin for the current malaise from a brew of post-punk, psychedelic desert rock and mythic lyrics. Their extended instrumentals lie on a continuum between “Calling Elvis” and Black Sabbath, which brings us to our musical topic du jour: modes.

Scales and modes are like parents and children. For example, if C major (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C’) is the parent scale, then the second mode of C, D Dorian, will be the same notes played from D to D’ (D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D’). The third mode of C will be E to E’, and so on.

The most important feature held in common by scales and modes is tonality, the sense that the first tone in the scale or mode is home base. For example, if you sing “Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol, Sol-Fa-Mi-Re-Do,” “Do” becomes the home base, or tonic, and the chord based on “Do” (“Do-Mi-Sol”) becomes the tonic chord.

Modes have moods we can grade from light to dark, as shown in the list below. All Them Witches prefers the darker modes, particularly Aeolian. (Greek names were adopted in medieval times.)

To keep it simple, all examples use “C” as the tonic, but note that any tone can serve as the tonic. It is the distances, or intervals, between tones that determine the character of the mode.

1. Lydian: C-D-E-F#-G-A-B = 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7

Chords: CM-DM-Em-F#dim-GM-Am-Bm; I-II-iii-ivo-V-vi-vii. 

Cadence: I-II-V (CM-DM-GM)

Songs: “Dreams,” Fleetwood Mac; “When We Dance,” Sting; “Freewill,” Rush; “Here Comes My Girl,” Tom Petty; The Simpsons theme; ET theme

Comment:  Lydian has a bright, dreamy, agitated quality, making it ideal for film scores. See YouTube music guru Rick Beato for in-depth lessons on this mode.

2. Ionian: C-D-E-F-G-A-B = 1-2-3-4-5-6-7

Chords: CM, Dm, Em, FM, G7, Am, Bdim; I-ii-iii-IV-V7-vi-viio. 

Cadences: ii-V7-I (Dm-G7-CM), IV-V7-I (F-G7-C)

Songs: “Crazy,” Willie Nelson; “Joy to the World”; “La Bamba,” Ritchie Valens; millions more

Comment: Renaissance composers realized the power of the Ionian mode’s naturally occurring V7 chord, or dominant 7th, to nail the tonic. This caused tonal harmony to branch away from modal harmony, leading to the major/minor key system used in pop music today.

3. Mixolydian: C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb = 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7

Chords: CM-Dm-Edim-FM-Gm-Am-BbM, I-ii-iiio-IV-v-vi-bVII. 

Cadence: I-bVII-IV (CM-BbM-FM)

Songs: Pretty much anything by AC/DC; “Clocks,” Coldplay; “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lynyrd Skynyrd; “She Said She Said” and “Norwegian Wood,” Beatles; “In God’s Country,” U2

4. Dorian: C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb = 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7

Chords: Cm-Dm-EbMFM-Gm-Adim-BbM, i-ii-bIIIIV-v-vio-bVII. 

Cadence: IV-i (FM-Cm), bVII-i (BbM-Cm)

Songs: “Oye Como Va,” Santana; “Scarborough Fair,” Simon & Garfunkel; “So What,” Miles Davis; “Purple Haze,” Jimi Hendrix; “Wicked Game,” Chris Isaak; “Eleanor Rigby,” Beatles

Comment: The i and v chord are minor, giving this mode a somber mood.

5. Aeolian: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb = 1-2-b3-4-5-b6b7

Chords: Cm-Ddim-EbM-Fm-Gm-AbM-BbM, i-iio-bIII-iv-v-bVI-bVII. 

Cadence: bVI-i (AbM-Cm), vmi7-i (Gmi7-Cm)

Songs:Blood and Sand,” “The Children of Coyote Woman,” “Diamond” and “Saturnine & Iron Jaw,” All Them Witches; “I Kissed A Girl,” Katy Perry

Comment: To retain the austere simplicity of Aeolian, All Them Witches avoids the V7-i cadence and employs a drone note to remind us of the tonic. Then they toy around with other notes in the mode. “Diamond,” for example, is in D Aeolian, but begins on F#, a major 3rd above D, and slithers ominously, Space Odyssey-style, to the minor 3rd (F), then confirms D as the tonic with a bone-chilling C-E-D melodic turn. Minor pentatonic rock and blues scales often punctuate their instrumental breaks. 

6. Phrygian: C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb = 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6b7

Chords: Cm-DbM-EbM-Fm-Gdim-AbM-BbM, i-bII-bIII-iv-vo-bVI-bVII

Song: “White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane

Comment: Phrygian mode is exotic and emotionally dark, perhaps a little too much so for popular music. “White Rabbit” shows that the mode has possibilities.

The seventh mode on the list, Locrian, has an inherently unstable diminished chord for the tonic, so examples are rare.


You can borrow a chord from another mode, even for a couple of beats, and adjust your melody to great effect. Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose,” for example, is in G major, but borrows Eb (bVI) and F (bVII) from G Aeolian (“tow-er a-lone on the sea”). Here’s a list of all the modal alternatives to garden-variety C major chords discussed above: CM, CM7, C7, Cm, Cmi7, DbM, DM, D7, Dm, Dmi7, EbM, Eb7, Em, Emi7, FM, FM7, F7, Fm, Fmi7, GM, G7, Gm, Gmi7, AbM, AbM7, Am, Ami7, BbM, BbM7, Bb7, Bbm, Bbmi7, Bm, Bmi7, Bdim, B-half-dim7.

Photo by Francisco Moreno on Unsplash

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