Use Your Words - posted on January 26, 2014 by

Messiaen Modes

I’ve always been incontrollably drawn to composers and improvisers who have managed to deconstruct music down to its most basic building blocks and reassemble them into something that is truly new. Olivier Messiaen was such a composer. His work features a language containing, among other things, elements of tweaked Hindustani rhythms, symmetrical scales, a deep appreciation of spirituality, and an embracing of the new and unexplored.

This post is to be the first in a series focusing on Messiaen’s Modes of Limited Transposition. I’ll be focusing on two of the modes in particular, for reasons that I hope will become evident as time goes on. But first, a brief primer on what these modes are, peppered with my own commentary.

The term “limited transposition” refers to the fact that the intervallic relationships of the notes of these modes will repeat themselves – yielding the same “mode” over and over again – after a few transpositions. The number of transpositions depends upon which mode is being used. Mode 1, for example, is built entirely upon whole-step relationships, and is referred to outside of Messiaen’s world as the “whole tone scale”:


The mode consists of six pitches, exactly half of the twelve notes available to us from our basic harmonic and melodic pallet. Because of their symmetrical whole-step relationship, this mode will yield the six pitches over and over again, independent of which note you start on:


If we transpose any of these modes by half-step, this will result in the other six pitches:


So, it can be said that the number of transpositions for this mode is limited to two.

From a conceptual standpoint, and from where I stand, a limit of two transpositions can be thought of in the same way as a limit of twelve transpositions for the chromatic scale, or for any of the more common major or minor scales. For this reason, I’m not a fan of using the term “limited transposition”. While it serves to set these modes apart from traditional tonality, and also allows Messiaen to put his own stamp on his harmonic language, all scales and modes, symmetrical and otherwise, are limited by some number of transpositions.

Messiaen’s list of which symmetrical modes are included and which are not is arbitrary, and based largely upon his own likes and dislikes. The use of symmetrical modes did not originate with Messiaen, and can be found within the works of previous composers, more notably Debussy’s use of the whole tone scale (Messiaen’s Mode 1) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s use of the octatonic scale (Messiaen’s Mode 2). In addition, symmetrical modes are not specific to classical music. Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and many others make significant use of Mode 1 and Mode 2. There are volumes written on these two modes in particular. It is my intention in these articles to focus instead on two others, with an exploration of how they may be used both in composition and improvisation, with examples. See the next post for more.

Me on a recent visit to Église de la Sainte-Trinité, where Messiaen was organist for over 60 years.

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