Difference Between Modal And Tonal Music? (Explained)

Difference Between Modal And Tonal Music?
Written by Corey Morgan

How do modal and tonal styles of music differ from one another?

This article will make an effort to explain how modal and tonal styles of music differ from one another in such a way that is as clear and concise as is reasonably possible given the potential for misunderstanding.

To begin, know that the history of tonal music is brief. In reality, the emergence of tonal music may be traced back to the Renaissance (1400 to 1600).

Tonal music is the umbrella term for any musical style that is based around a tonal center, also called a root note, and modal music is a subgenre of tonal music that employs modes, which are scales other than the basic major and minor keys.

Since every mode is just another variation of a tonal scale, the two terms modality and tonality are inextricably linked. Although the major and minor scales are technically modes as well, the term “modal music” typically refers to scales other than the major and minor scales.

Indeed, the word “mode” itself comes from the Greek for “way” or “method,” demonstrating that modal music has been around for a very long period—at the very least, since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Let’s dissect the two frameworks to see how they compare.

Modal Music

Modal music uses recurring melodies and/or phrases to create a specific atmosphere or emotional response. Modal music is played using scales, but in a fashion that is distinct from tonal music. Scales are not classified as major or minor in modal music, but rather as moods.

The modes, which here refer to the modal scales, are synonymous with states of mind. These states encompass the full range of human emotion, from elation to melancholy (and beyond, as we shall discover).


  • C Lydian
  • C Ionian
  • C Mixolydian
  • C Dorian
  • C Aeolian
  • C Phrygian
  • C Locrian

The cheeriest mode as well as the happiest is called Lydian, and it is followed by modes that sound progressively more melancholy until we reach Locrian, the darkest and saddest of them. Dorian, the middle mode on the list, has an expressive sound that can only be characterized as balanced. If you look at the hierarchy of the modal moods, this makes sense.

This method provided the backbone for all mediaeval music. It was not the purpose of music at the time to convey a narrative or to follow a specific key signature. Music was employed to portray a certain emotion, utilizing the mode that is most similar to the atmosphere that is being attempted to be created through the music.

Modal Music in Modern Times

There are always special cases, as is the case with just about everything. In the 1960s, several musicians began experimenting with modal music, giving rise to the progressive rock movement.

Modes were utilized by bands such as The Doors and Jefferson Airplane in order to establish a new sort of popular music that was based on a melodic formula that originated in Ancient Greece. This new kind of popular music was referred to as “space music.”

The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana are just a few artists who have dabbled in modal territory on individual tracks. An excellent example of a modal solo in a prog rock song is “The End” by the Doors.

Tonal Music

As opposed to modal music, the majority of Western music has been mostly tonal ever since the Renaissance period and continues to be so now (with some exceptions).

The majority of music, from classical music all the way to mainstream music, is tonal. When we say “harmonic progression,” we mean that the melody and chords build off of a tonic note.

Tonal music is characterized by its limitations, one of which is that nearly any melody can be used as long as it is suitable for the harmonies that return to the root notes at any time.

This constraint is one of the characteristics that defines tonal music. Both the major and minor scales provide the crucial tonal feel, which is why they are the basis for the majority of tonal music in the Western tradition.

Tonal music, on the other hand, can be more rigid at times than the modal system, despite the fact that it can be more flexible at other times.

In comparison to the modal scale, which always leaves out certain notes from performances, the chromatic scale allows for greater versatility because all twelve notes can be performed.

This is in contrast to the modal scale, which always leaves out some notes. It is more restrictive due to the fact that any melody must adhere to the progression of the chords.

The Convergence Point of Modal and Tonal Music

For those unfamiliar, the blues is a musical genre that fuses elements of of tonality and modality in its composition.

The I, IV, and V chords are the fundamental building blocks of the chord progression in any blues song. It is characterized by a tonal structure.

Western African modal scales, such as the pentatonic and blues scales, are often played in tandem with these chord progressions.

The blues is special among musical compositions because it represents a meeting of two musical traditions that developed separately over thousands of years but eventually found common ground in the 20th century.

Why is it important to have an understanding of the differences between modal and tonal music?

For any guitarist or keyboardist it is necessary to have a solid understanding of the differences between tonal music and modal music.

In Western music, at least, the foundation of any song you might play is the ability to play chords (tonal). You’ll need knowledge of the modal system if you wish to solo over those chords and have your playing stand out from the crowd.

What are the several ways to play modal music?

Modal music requires the use of a scale that is different from the major and minor scales that are most commonly used. While it is true that they can be termed modes in a formal sense, the sound that is typically associated with modes is that of the alternate scales of Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Locrian.

Learning how to play modal music can be accomplished in a number of ways, one of which is to commit to memory the note placements of each of these scales. However, if you want to have a comprehensive understanding of how modes function, this is not the way that you should use.

Studying the relationship between modality and the C major scale is the most effective method for acquiring the skills necessary to play modal music. Because it can be easily demonstrated using only the white keys on the keyboard, the C major scale is by far the most common scale taught by private music instructors.