Tonal Colors Simplified

A lot of music music theory is best derived from
actual practice, by using the ear. If we observe
closely what is happening when we listen to music
we can garner great insight.


Tonality is no different. Our ears just tend to
arrange things in a certain way. We tend to hear
sets of musical notes (music) in relation to a
“Tonic” note. This all relates to the idea of

It also relates to color in a purely tonal sense.
We tend to hear certain collections of notes as
dark, and others as bright.

The quickest way to relate this to something that
makes any kind of sense is to relate it back to
the seven modes.

The “major” modes, or ones that sound brightest
(to varying degrees) certain distinctions.

The major modes are:


Ionian is the same scale as “major”. This is one
most people have agreed to be the definition of
“bright” sounding, or bright colored.

The Lydian mode is a major scale with a #4. This
is from a parallel viewpoint (comparing a “major”
scale with a Lydian scale with the same tonic).

In relative terms, if you treat the 4th degree of
a major (or Ionian) scale as Tonic, you will have
a lydian scale.

Mixolydian is a major scale with a flat 7 (in
parallel terms). Relatively, a mixolydian scale
is a major scale from the 5th degree, or treating
degree 5 as Tonic.

You decide which of these is brightest, but most
people sense that each one has its own unique
tonal color. This is where we get terms like
“blue” ultimately, I think.
The “minor” modes are:


In parallel terms, aeolian is a major scale with
a b3, b6, and b7. Relatively, aeolian is a major
scale from the 6th degree, or treating degree 6
as Tonic.

Dorian is major with a b3 and b7. Since it has
the natural 6 of the major scale most people
agree it sounds a little brighter than aeolian.
From a relative viewpoint dorian is a major
scale from the 2nd degree.

Phrygian is a major scale with a b2, b3, b6, and
b7 degree (parallel-thinking). In relative terms
phrygian is a major scale from the 3rd degree, or
treating degree 3 as Tonic.

Locrian has the distinction of having a b2, b3,
b5, b6, and b7. This makes it sound quite dark,
and diminished.

So, on a sort of scale from bright to dark:


(Some disagreement about the placement of
Lydian… It’s like so bright it’s dark or
something? You decide…)

In parallel terms (again, in terms of starting on
the same “tonic”)

Lydian #4
Mixolydian b7
Dorian b3, b7
Aeolian b3, b6, b7
Phrygian b2, b3, b6, b7
Locrian b2, b3, b5, b6, b7

And in relative terms


4 Lydian
1 Ionian (major)
5 Mixolydian
2 Dorian
6 Aeolian (minor)
3 Phrygian
7 Locrian

(* = of major scale to treat as Tonic…
relative = related)

Confused? Write me, Chris Miller

Some ideas

There are seven modes, right? There are 12
chromatic notes, right? How many modes total
does this make?

It is not infinite after all… just very large!