Mixolydian mode

The Mixolydian mode or musical color dates from the dawn of our civilized western world and today continues to enjoy great popularity in the music we love. Dig the blues? Irish fiddle tunes from a distant past? Both are oftentimes Mixolydian based and still swing with force that makes ya want to get up and dance a bit right? Tap the toes a might? Generate some energy and joy to spare ...?

Coming to us as one of the original Greek modes, the Mixolydian mode today is one of the three modes contained within our equal temperament system that creates the major tonal environment. The other two being the Ionian and Lydian modes. A close cousin of the Ionian / major scale, the Mixolydian colors uniqueness stems from the minor or blue seventh interval created between the root and seventh scale degree, lessening the tonal gravity in regards to key center ( no leading tone ) and adding a taste of the blues color. What we gain in unusual color we potentially loose in tonal stability. Lets look at the intervalic construction of the Mixolydian color using C as the root. Example. 1

scale degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
interval from root root major 2nd major 3rd perfect 4th perfect 5th major 6th minor 7th octave
Mixolydian mode pitches C D E F G A Bb C

Here is the sound of the Mixolydian scale. Example 1a.

mixo1.TIF (8024 bytes)

So why is this Mixolydian mode important in American music? First perhaps in that the Mixolydian tonal environment has been combined with the 12 bar blues form to create the favorite "storytelling vehicle" among blues players for the last 100 years or so. So many of the cool jazz / blues tunes we love are written in this simple combination of 12 bar form and Mixolydian color. This "12 bar Mixolydian blues form" then went on to provide the basic vehicle for the emergence of "rock and roll" in the 1950’s, after which, things just weren't the same in American music, right? There are other blues forms and tonalities and endless variations, but the 12 bar Mixolydian blues has really withstood the test of time for composers and still gets played about a gillion times every Saturday night all over the planet, well almost...

Second, that historically this Mixolydian grouping of pitches has been at the heart of the character sound in the folk music of the British Isles, and thus, early American music. Now a days this music includes many genres, oftentimes referred to as "folk", bluegrass", "newgrass", "fiddle tunes" and Celtic music etc. Third, that a common use of this Mixolydian group is to create melodies over dominant type chords within the Ionian tonality / major scale tonality. The chord built on Five, the dominant, is Mixolydian based and is all important to the workings of the equal tempered system. We take a peek at this important "dominant" color below and a thorough look both melodically and harmonically in the application section.

I regards to creating a tonal environment, the Mixolydian mode, as used in the blues styles, is a world unto itself. It is at the core of all indigenous American music. In all of the other American styles; jazz, rock, pop, folk and classical, a cool and well placed blues lick is always welcome and never out of place. Why? Well I think it is because big parts of many of these styles were initially based in the simple 12 bar blues form and evolved from there, especially the styles of jazz and rock. That, and just the nature of American society I think allows for some potentially unconventional combinations. 

Anyway, a part of what makes the blues the "blues" is the tritone positioning of the tonic chord created from the Mixolydian mode. The tonal environment created is major, but never completely "stable" due to the tritone dissonance created between the combination of the third and seventh of the chord, the degrees which determine chord quality or type. Lets hear the tritone, then add it into a dominant seventh chord, a principle chord color of the blues. Example 2.

  tritone leap   C 7   tritone   C 7

mixo2a.TIF (6606 bytes)

The 12 bar blues in a major key relies on this Mixolydian color for its three principle chords, the One, Four and Five chords. Endless variations to these principle harmonies exist in the 12 bar blues, but these root positions, with Mixolydian colors built upon them, define the basic 12 bar blues in the major tonality. Here is an original 12 bar mostly Mixolydian blues titled "KB’s Blues" by Joe Craig 2000, based on an arpeggiated figure shown to me by my friend KB. Example 2a.

mixokbblue1a.TIF (24460 bytes)

This pairing of a minor blue note ( bars 10 and 11 ) in the melody with major triad / dominant seventh chords creating the harmony is something which we all sort of take for granted. Theoretically it is rather unusual from a European classical perspective. I think of it as the blues magic. Other tunes written in a similar manner as the one above? Check out Thelonius Monk's "Straight No Chaser" for starters.

As a resource for both the melody and the harmony, the Mixolydian color creates a cool, unique and ageless tonal environment for so much good music. Lets bring forth the Mixolydian color by sounding the first phrase of the traditional folk melody of "Old Joe Clark." Example 3.

mixo3.TIF (7930 bytes)

Dig out the rest of the tune as time permits. Other Mixolydian melodies? Interesting perhaps is that jazz guitar great George Benson has two big Mixolydian hits from the 1980’s, "On Broadway", a 60’s pop cover tune and "Breezin", which was at onetime the theme for the worldwide (?) morning news show "Today." Mr. Benson plays way cool on both selections, both of which are Mixolydian mode at heart.

With dominant chords within the major tonality created by the Ionian mode / major scale, the Mixolydian sound is "built right in" diatonically. By adding the dominant seventh to the Five chord, we created the "tritone" interval between the 3rd and 7th degrees as in example 2 above. This is the diatonic dominant tension that looks to "resolve" towards the tonic. If your not hip to what is being discussed here, these next few bars form the basis of creating tension and its release within the equal tempered system. First lets resolve the tritone interval, then encapsulate it within a dominant seventh chord and resolve it to it's tonic. Example 4.

  resolving tritone tension dominant to tonic

( G7 to C major )

mixo4.TIF (6132 bytes)

Measure 13 and 14 show the pitches of the tritone interval each resolving by half step in contrary motion. Measures 15 "encapsulates" the tritone dissonance into the G 7 dominant chord which resolves to its tonic, the C major chord. Depending on your ear and experience, the amount of tension created in the above example may seem slight, and to a certain extent it is, but the above chordal motion is definitely a "square one" or first step in the scheme of tension / resolution, harmonic cadences etc. The above harmonic motion is what folk players oftentimes use in telling their stories, also in children's songs, so it does have its place, and that place can be a very important one, depending on one's artistic approach and direction. In the jazz world, the tritone tension facilitates the modulating from one key to another, becomes the foundation for a number of different approaches to harmonic and melodic systems of substitution and is a big part of creating the Mixolydian blues environment.

We also find the Mixolydian / dominant chord color in non-resolving musical situations, oftentimes called a vamp. This Mixolydian color is a important component on "Funk" players palettes globally. Oftentimes the basic chord color is extended to include it's 9th, as in the example below. Here is a typical funk groove using the Mixolydian colors. Example 5.

mixo5.TIF (9010 bytes)

Check out "Bootsy and the Rubber Band" / "Captain Funkadelic" / George Clinton for some funky grooves.

Another theoretical aspect of the Mixolydian mode is in the upper extensions of it's dominant chord's arpeggio. There is a vast amount of non-diatonic colorings so loved by many jazz players. See upper structure. Also, that the way extended arpeggio progresses can be rather interesting for the advanced learner. See overtone series experiments / dominant chord type if you are curious. 

Here is a chart spelling out the Lydian mode as created from the 12 pitches of the chromatic scale, using the cycle of fourths as an organizer. Example 6.

C Mixolydian C D E F G A Bb C
F Mixolydian F G A Bb C D Eb F
Bb Mixolydian Bb C D Eb F G Ab Bb
Eb Mixolydian Eb F G Ab Bb C Db Eb
Ab Mixolydian Ab Bb C Db Eb F Gb Ab
Db Mixolydian Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb Cb ( B ) Db
Gb Mixolydian Gb Ab Bb Cb ( B ) Db Eb Fb ( E ) Gb
B Mixolydian B C# D# E F# G# A B
E Mixolydian E F# G# A B C# D E
A Mixolydian A B C# D E F# G A
D Mixolydian D E F# G A B C D
G Mixolydian G A B C D E F G

Here are the above groups written out in standard musical notation. Example 6a.

C Mixolydian

mixo6.TIF (9322 bytes)

F Mixolydian

mixo7.TIF (9516 bytes)

Bb Mixolydian

mixo8.TIF (9440 bytes)

Eb Mixolydian

mixo9.TIF (10134 bytes)

Ab Mixolydian

mixo10.TIF (10066 bytes)

Db Mixolydian

mixo11.TIF (10428 bytes)

Gb Mixolydian

mixo12.TIF (10562 bytes)

B Mixolydian

mixo13.TIF (10186 bytes)

E Mixolydian

mixo14.TIF (9820 bytes)

A Mixolydian

mixo15.TIF (9552 bytes)

D Mixolydian

mixo16.TIF (9384 bytes)

G Mixolydian

mixo17.TIF (9254 bytes)

Got these under your fingers? Same pitches as within the major scale / Ionian mode yes?

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