Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Writing in Locrian

In modern Western music, the Locrian mode is built from the seventh degree of the major scale (at a piano, you could start on B and play only the white keys). In this mode, the tonic triad is diminished. This makes it very difficult (or even, according to traditional phrasing practice, impossible) to write in this mode without the result sounding like it's actually in a different key.

The tonic must be continually reasserted as the center, which is challenging because a diminished chord is quite dissonant and does not sound like a place of rest. This chord can be made more manageable, though less distinctly Locrian, by omitting its fifth degree and adding a minor seventh; another option is to "cheat" by raising the fifth degree chromatically only for the tonic chord. In either case, to define a Locrian identity, the modified tonic chord would require balance from the iii and V chords in proper diatonic form, where the true fifth degree of the mode can be voiced more comfortably.

If the fifth degree is raised permanently, the mode becomes Phrygian. This change makes the iii chord major, but more importantly, the V chord becomes diminished, which can be nearly as troublesome as a diminished tonic chord. In both Locrian and Phrygian, the second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees are all minor; they can sound even darker than the Aeolian mode, otherwise known as the natural minor scale, which has a major second. If the pattern of whole- and half-steps in the Locrian mode (HWWHWWW) is reversed, the result is the Lydian mode, which is completely major but features an augmented fourth.

Due to the difficulties inherent in working with the Locrian mode, it has always been extremely uncommon, though a few composers have made use of it. Claude Debussy exhibits the mode in three passages of his last orchestral work, Jeux. It can be done!


  1. Why is writing in Locrian mode considered so difficult? Consider the tune for "Mary Had a Little Lamb".

    1. To write it in B-Ionian (major), a simple way is to play the tune using the notes d#, c#, b, and f#, and accompany the tune appropriately with the B-major and F#-major chords, ending the tune with note b and chord B-major.

    2. To write it in B-Aeolian (minor), a simple way is to play the tune with the notes d, c#, b, and f#, and accompany this sadder tune appropriately with the B-minor and F#-minor chords, ending the tune with note b on B-minor.

    3. To write the tune in B-Locrian, a simple way is to play the tune using the notes d, c, b, and f, and accompany this surreal, sad tune appropriately with the B-Locrian (e.g. B-D-F-A) and F major7 (e.g., F-A-C-E) chords.

    If the first arrangement of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is considered to be in the key B-major, and the second in the key of B-minor, we may consider the third arrangement to be in the key of B-Locrian.

    Our so-called major and minor key compositions (e.g. Beethoven's Appassionata sonata in F minor) may spend quite a bit of time in other keys, but are considered to have a home key or tonality. By analogy, we may compose a piece in a Locrian key that is considered the home key or tonality of the piece, that spends time in other keys or modes. Now, this unusual musical home may sound uncomfortable, restless, or unresolved. But so what? Like much of real life, right?

    Now we can move on to writing "You Are my Sunshine", and maybe even new tunes and larger compositions, in Locrian mode viewed as "home" key.

    Björk's 1995 hit tune "Army of Me" is considered to be in home key of C-Locrian. My new rock tune "Wait It Out" is in B-Locrian. Here's the link to "Wait It Out": https://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/wait-it-out-rock-version-digital-sheet-music/21756181

    Ending progressions using 3-note chords can be done by analogy: Instead of C#m, F#, B to end on B-major, use C, F, Bdim to end on B-Locrian. If you like to use 4-chords, use Cmaj7, Fmaj7, Bm7(b5) to end on B-Locrian. Yes, it sounds surreal and sad. That's the whole point to using Locrian mode!

  2. The example using "Mary Had a Little Lamb" illustrates my point, but for a serious arrangement in Locrian, you might want to change up the tune somewhat, and use other chords, but still return home to Locrian.