Anyone familiar with classical violin music from the 18th or 19th century but not with Irish folk music written in the same era may be surprised to note many Irish tunes were constructed during that same era with modes other than the Ionian mode. The three modes often used in Irish music are the Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian modes. These three modes correspond to the scales you’d get if you played the white notes of a piano, starting on the G, D, and A keys respectively.
The Ionian mode is exactly the same as the major scale and is the most common – over half the Irish tunes are created in the Ionian mode. But many other Irish tunes were created using the Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian mode. The Mixolydian mode is similar to the Ionian mode but includes a minor seventh. Consider Tom Billy’s Jig, the song was written in the Mixolydian mode of A and has a G natural instead of G#; Cooley’s Reel, is presented in the Dorian mode of E with two sharps; and for another example, The Rights of Man was written in the Aeolian mode of E with a C natural instead of a C# as its sixth degree (note) of the scale.
It was not until the early 20th century that it became commonly known that some traditional Irish music used alternate modes. Additionally, it took time before Irish music was accepted as a sophisticated presentation of how mode degrees (specific notes in a scale) can be can be modified by intervals less than a semitone (quarter tones approximately half-way between the natural and sharp). Additionally, a few Irish tunes were constructed with gapped scales. They have only six rather than the usual seven different notes within an octave. The third degree is missing, for instance, from The Walls of Liscarroll while Brian Boru’s March lacks the sixth degree creating a rather archaic sound.
Clearly, the notion of modal music is not new; using modes in a sophisticated way is not limited to classical music. Irish music and Jazz music both embraced this concept. For me, the outcome of modes produces similar results with little regard to the music style; modes applied to both music styles produce a pensive presentation that is moody and thoughtful, giving the listener time to think about the message embedded in the music.
“I find that music makes people just sit and listen, firstly. Then, they seem to interpret their own emotions with the music and it makes them ponder their own life a lot. And then they start to question: Am I happy in my work? Am I happy in my relationships? What am I striving for?” – Enya