Music Theory for Cellists Part Two: Modal Scales


By Miranda Wilson

I love to multi-task, which is why I've started to compose fundamentals exercises for my students in the University of Idaho cello studio that reinforce the fundamentals they learn in Theory I-IV and Aural Skills I-IV at the same time as building their proficiency in the principles of cello playing.

A couple of years ago, I wrote three posts on creative ways to practise scales (click on the links to read The Multifaceted Gift of Scales Part One; Part Two; Part Three). 

This post is specifically about scales in the diatonic modes. I'll leave it to the music historians to explain why their names are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The short explanation is that modal scales are major scales that may not start on the tonic of the key signature. Ionian is the common major scale, and Aeolian is the natural minor scale, and the others all bear various resemblances to other scales -- Dorian has a lot in common with the minor scale, for example.

There are two ways to label modal scales using moveable-do solfege: the "start on do" method, which involves altering degrees of the scale accordingly, so the Lydian scale, for example, would be spelled "do re mi fi sol la ti do." Another method, which I prefer, is to keep the solfege of the Ionian (major) scale and simply say that each mode starts on a different scale degree. By this method, the Lydian scale would be spelled "fa sol la ti do re mi fa."

I've noticed that a lot of college students arrive in Theory I without having heard of the modal scales. I believe it's never too early to teach theory concepts -- in an age-appropriate manner, of course -- and that near-beginners can easily master them. Here's a way of explaining modal scales for a student who isn't yet shifting. (For a free, higher-resolution download with complete instructions, click here.)

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Advanced players can combine the theory of modes with their daily thumb position work. In my chapter on how to practise in Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I demonstrated how a difficult scalar thumb position passage in Beethoven's A major sonata could be made easier through practising it in modal scales. Below is an exercise I use every day in practice and lessons to keep our thumb position in good shape -- and improve my students' recognition of the diatonic modes. (Click here to download a free PDF of the full exercise complete with instructions.)

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In Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I strongly advise against the concept of unthinking mechanical practice, or "mindless practice," as I called it. When we combine the fundamental principles of how music works with those of how cello playing works, the building bricks of expressive cello playing are literally at our fingertips