Making the way up the ranks as a guitarist, one could be forgiven early on for feeling as though the modes were another language altogether, one that would evade understanding, like audio-linguistic eels. However, like much of Western music theory, they have much more to do with mathematics and formulas (cue the Pythagorean mode!), so with some dedication in a logical mindset they can be mastered with ease.
What makes modes unique is their ability to relate to one another, and to trigger certain emotions across a whole spectrum of people, perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling. Where scales are ordered sequences of notes that can feel rigid in their ability to express, the modes are permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour.
And this ought to be taken very literally. The Ionian Mode, for example, is the major scale, pure and simple. The Locrian mode, by contrast, is one of the most complex of the modes. It is the chosen major scale with almost all of its intervals, barring the 4th, flattened (diminished). In this way, it is often hard to wrap one’s head around and is thus one of the more misunderstood modes, oft neglected and scarcely grappled with.
What is the Locrian Mode?
In modern practice, contrasting with the ancient Greek usage of the term ‘Locrian’ (a word used to describe the inhabitants of the ancient Greek regions of Locris) the Locrian may be considered to be a minor scale with the second and fifth scale degrees lowered by a semitone. The Locrian mode may also be considered to be a scale beginning on the seventh scale degree of any Ionian, or major scale, the seventh permutation of a simple major scale, with almost all of its intervals flattened.
The formula follows like so:
|Note of the Scale||B||C||D||E||F||G||A|
Its tonic chord is a diminished triad (B diminished in the Locrian mode of the diatonic scale corresponding to C major). This mode’s diminished fifth and the Lydian mode’s augmented fourth are the only modes to have a tritone above the tonic, making this a pretty intense scale, harbouring what would be classically considered the devil’s chord.
The Locrian mode is the only modern diatonic mode in which the tonic triad is a diminished chord, which is typically considered dissonant. This is because the interval between the root and fifth of the chord is a diminished fifth, being so flattened as all of the intervals are. For example, the tonic triad of B Locrian is made from the notes B, D, F. The root is B and the fifth is F. The diminished-fifth interval between them is the cause for the chord’s dissonance.
What Exactly Does This Mean for the Guitar?
Being simply a fretboard of similar-looking notes, approaching and attempting to understand note placement, intervals, and everything in between can seem rather daunting. However, I might argue that this is precisely to your advantage, with the right outlook. This very sameness across the fretboard means that almost any shape can be easily transposed next to anywhere else; once you have learnt the shape or progression of a mode or scale in one area, you can quite simply map this out almost anywhere else on the guitar (granted there are enough frets of course)!
All four of these versions of the Locrian mode have their root note on the C of each subsequent string, moving one octave as they go – see if you can complete a whole tour of the fretboard, up and down, octave to octave, staying in the same key of this same mode!
It is in applying your own intuition to the learning that it will better and more concretely root itself in your mind and studies, and eventually in your fingers and muscle memory too. Therefore, I encourage you to pick a key, any will do and perhaps even picking a random one would be more useful. From this key, use the shapes detailed above and transpose them so that they correspond.
If you find yourself struggling initially, I recommend recording yourself playing the mode, either by video or audio, and see if you can intelligently assess yourself where you are going wrong, thus training your ear and your mind. Good practise anyhow would be to play along to a drone and/or metronome, to best ensure that you are playing in key and in time respectively. So, whether you are struggling or whether you are comfortable with the exercise, it would be fruitful for you to engage with one and/or the other.
While it makes sense to learn the Locrian in its simplest formulation, with the root note on B (to C to D to E to F to G to A), especially since the root tonic chord of the mode is B diminished, it isn’t as though the Locrian mode can’t be moved to every single other note.
Starting with this basis on the B, it might be helpful to choose another root note and move the whole shape along in its various permutations, beginning on the separate root notes on each of the strings.
The easiest logical way to do this is also the longest, to simply look at the notes, and move every single one of them up by the amount necessary to reach the new tonic. For example, if you’re starting on C and want to play the Eb Locrian, then you need to move every note up by a minor 3rd. Take the Db and move to an Fb, the Eb to a Gb, the F to an Ab. Keep going until you’re in the new correct place.
The Locrian Formula
There is another way to transpose on the fly without using such a cumbersome method as above which will no doubt excel your playing and technique. You will, however, need to learn the formula to the Locrian mode.
You will find this very formula below, with the formula for the Ionian mode for comparison:
|Ionian Mode (steps from previous interval)||Half||Whole||Whole||Half||Whole||Whole||Whole|
|Locrian Mode (steps from previous interval)||Whole||Half||Whole||Whole||Half||Whole||Whole|
Now you can theoretically use the Locrian mode anywhere you wish, simply taking the individual root note of your favoured key at a given time and following the formula to work out each and every note, without needing to refer clumsily to a prescribed shape on the fretboard.
Finding the Ab Locrian, for example, will involve starting with the root note (Ab) then moving up one fret (A), then up two frets (B), followed by another jump of two frets (Db), then up one more fret (D), then finally with two more ascensions of two frets (E to Gb), before one final ascension of two frets to reach, again, cyclically, the tonic root in question (Ab).
In this way you can find the Locrian anywhere you so wish across the fretboard, so long as there are enough frets of course! Apply this same logic to any note you may need to use, and you have a basic understanding of how to form the Locrian mode anywhere you want, and can start to use it in melodies.
The Locrian Mode in Real World Musical Examples
Despite how weird and unsavoury the Locrian can sometimes sound, there are several popular and not so popular examples throughout the annals of Western music that have reared their heads and made themselves known. Many have almost, as a point of principle, taken the Locrian mode for a spin in such a way that they are almost trying to make an example of the mode itself, challenging themselves to implement the mode in such an unforgiving medium as pop music, at least as far as experimentation is concerned.
True, it is less than popular in comparison to all of the other modes, almost certainly the least popular of the modes in fact. It is oft neglected and misunderstood, cast aside as merely decorative and oft used for its darkness in crafting atmospheric and eerie film soundtracks, the underlying tensions sewn within the fabric of the mode and its formula functioning well within the bounds of a folk horror phenomenon.
‘Army of Me’ by Björk
This is one of the more popular and famous examples of the Locrian mode going around, a song in which singer, song writer, multimedia artist, fashion icon, and popular culture lethario Björk Guðmundsdóttir seems to relish the challenge of writing in such a difficult mode.
‘Army of Me’ was written in 1992 by Björk and Graham Massey, during one of the first recording sessions for Debut, along with ‘The Modern Things’, but Björk decided to put the songs on hold and to wait to release them on another release. Even so, Björk performed the songs during some dates on the tour for her debut album, Debut. The singer further explained the song herself: ‘Imagine you’re in a club full of heavy metal types and grunge people; ‘Army of Me’ is like someone’s granny blasting out over the PA and saying, ‘Snap out of it! Stop whining! Wash your hair! Smarten yourself up!”
As revealed by the singer herself, the lyrics of the song are about Björk’s brother and show her daring him to grow up and find a job to keep his life on, and also for him to not fall into bad things, encouraging him to learn how to defend himself:
‘It’s actually written to a relative of mine who had been a bit out of order for a while. I’m not sure why I wrote it. Maybe I felt that Debut had been such a polite, shy album – there was a side of me that was so shy and such a beginner, I was very flattered when everyone loved Debut but also a bit confused because it wasn’t really me. Maybe ‘Army Of Me’ was an attempt to balance it out.’
The song is dominated by a heavy bass line and features prominent use of stylistic synthesizer, the kind that was rather popular at the time in various chill hop and downtempo musical circles. The song’s main drum part, performed by John Bonham, is sampled from Led Zeppelin’s iconic and oft revered track ‘When the Levee Breaks’.
The melody of the verses, as well as the bass line that accompanies them, are written in the Locrian mode, which many contend is unusual for a pop song, and certainly for a pop song that charted so well at the time of release.
‘Sad But True’ by Metallica
What with the inherent harmonic instability ever present in the Locrian mode, it seems only right that heavy metal music should find solace in its dissonant arms.
‘Sad but True’ is a song by American heavy metal band Metallica, released in February 1993 as the fifth and final single from their eponymous fifth album, Metallica, often referred to as The Black Album.
This seminal track is about a person’s darker side taking control. Influenced by the 1978 horror film Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins, the song is a monologue justifying the existence of this darker side, which in the film is symbolized by a foul mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy.
The song has been interpreted as an allusion to addiction, a struggle Hetfield has been more than open about, having previously entered rehab for ‘alcohol and other addictions’, one of these other addictions even including chocolate!
Others have been more inclined to believe that the song is about blind faith in religion and the lengths people will go to to practice their faiths. The line, ‘I’m inside, open your eyes’, for example, might be said to mean that god only exists in people’s heads.
At this point, any listener’s interpretation is valid. This is precisely what makes music so wonderful. Being so an abstract an art form, there is this room for interpretation that any listener can slot themselves in, every individual listener’s interpretation being as valid as any other’s.
In this vein, it might be said that this blind faith is represented by the harmonic instability of the Locrian mode in offering a firm basis for the western classical tradition’s love for returning to a stable home key. We might even say that this stable home key is being referred, in this analogy, to as a sardonic representation of the blind and thoughtless faith many who are religious have in something intangible that they can’t even quantify.
‘Juicebox’ by The Strokes
This song is a great example of a popular song using the Locrian mode tastefully and with limits, alongside other scales to make a more palatable song whose use of the mode is covert and often goes unnoticed. Just using the Locrian mode can make a song quite undigestible at points, whereas if a song is written using a combination of the Locrian and other modes, in this instance alongside the Phrygian, then a more palatable and digestible song can result. The bass line in the intro presents itself as in the Locrian mode, whereas the rest of the song is written in the Phrygian mode.
Like ‘Juicebox’, a song by American rock band the Strokes, written by singer and frontman Julian Casablancas and produced by frequent collaborator David Kahne. The song was released by RCA Records as the lead single from their third studio album, First Impressions of Earth, the single being released in late 2005 and the album coming the following year.
In the United States, the single was released in October 2005, while in the United Kingdom and Australia, it was released in December. Casablancas was quoted as having this to say about the song: ‘I remember people saying this track’s ugly, I think it’s got a great personality.’ At a time of reckless internet abandon, the track was leaked long before its scheduled single release, forcing the band and managers to release it as a single in iTunes format far earlier than previously planned, along with the B side, ‘Hawaii’.
The track was originally called ‘Dracula’s Lunch’, but the band changed the named because ‘the title just sounded like a cool word.’ When asked about the meaning of the song, Casablancas told NME:
‘The single could be about a proper relationship, a casual friendship or whatever you want really. It’s one of the more fun songs. He later expounded upon this elsewhere: ‘It was a tongue-in-cheek reference to blood-suckers, so when the image of people as juiceboxes (poppers) of blood came into the picture, it stuck.’
‘Dig Me Out’ by Sleater-Kinney
This seminal release by American rock band Sleater-Kinney serves as the eponymous title track from their third studio album, Dig Me Out, released on the 8th of April 1997, on the Kill Rock Stars, familiar to many as the label who released much of Elliott Smith’s greatest work. They are thus a force to be reckoned with, and Kill Rock Stars are not bad either!
The music on the record was influenced by traditional rock and roll bands, while the lyrics deal with issues of heartbreak and survival, though both are always in some way concerned with the place of gender roles within these areas of life, the way they can affect one’s place within the creative arts and one’s relationships with the people they love. In this way, the album cover is an homage to The Kinks’ 1965 album The Kink Kontroversy, acting as a way to offer an obvious visual link between the rock and roll bands of past and present.
Guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein recounts the day the band played the song for the first time:
‘Corin and I had some new songs we’d been playing on a West Coast tour with Toni, but only one stood out, and it felt like a good one with which to audition [the new drummer] Janet [Weiss]. The song was built around my guitar riff: fast and careening, a skid into a crash, then it reset. Corin’s vocals were desperate and angry – even in the relatively quiet bits there was a viciousness. The tune was an outsized, fevered version of me, of us. We called it ‘Dig Me Out.”
In this way, we can even think of the Locrian mode’s use throughout the song as a way for singer, songwriter, and vocalist Carrie Brownstein to dig her way out of the oft outmoded channels which contemporary rock music has been known to move in from time to time. The Locrian, so alien to western classical tastes after the banning of the tritone some centuries ago for religious reasons, is therefore an act of rebellion against polite taste and suppressed feelings, as well as conforming to prescribed gender roles.
Well, there it is, a comprehensive and, I hope, helpful guide to the Locrian mode and its place within the annals of western popular music, all collected in this neat online package. For further research, and for those especially interested, I recommend investigating the music of other theoretical cultures, whether of the popular realm or the classical sphere.
In South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African music, for example, the Locrian mode is in full force, alive and well, in common use in both popular and more traditional areas. Hear, for particular instances, the folk melodies of Egyptian of Persian music. There is a whole world out there, outside the rim of our collective unconscious, which is perhaps why so much of it is included under the umbrella othering term ‘world music’.
Go and see it for yourself, and make your own judgements. One of the main reasons the Locrian is not in such regular usage in the western world is owing to the tritone within, which for centuries and centuries was considered too taboo to compose with, classed as it was as a dissonance. Because it was banned several times over, largely for religious reasons, this mode saw little to no use and now, thus, feels alien and unexplorable to the modern ear.
Do not let the man tell you what to do, how to hear, nor what to think…
FAQs Locrian Mode
In modern practice, contrasting with the ancient Greek usage of the term ‘Locrian’ (a word used to describe the inhabitants of the ancient Greek regions of Locris) the Locrian may be considered to be a minor scale with the second and fifth scale degrees lowered by a semitone. The Locrian mode may also be considered to be a scale beginning on the seventh scale degree of any Ionian, or major scale, the seventh permutation of a simple major scale, with almost all of its intervals flattened. Thus, a Locrian mode in music is simply another dialect through which to express one’s own musical intentions.
Locrian is certainly used, though admittedly not nearly as much as many of the other modes. This is largely owing to the inherent dissonances and harmonic instability of the mode itself. Sowed within the seven intervals of the mode are six diminished (flattened) intervals; the only interval that is not diminished or flattened is the fourth, which is most unusual. These kind of dissonances rarely find regular use in popular music because they can not only be unfamiliar to the ear of the popular music consumer, but can also be unruly to compose songs with. In this way, many composers favour more simple modes or scales, or elide thinking about scales altogether, an ever more popular occurrence what with the advent and boom of digital recording technology in the last few decades.