In modern Western music the `major' scale breaks the octave into seven whole- or half-tone intervals. The order of the intervals, starting at the tonic of the scale, is 1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1, 1/2. Different starting notes will give us different `keys': One key will not use exactly the same notes as another, but the intervals will be maintained in the same order. So, for instance, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C gives us a C-Major scale, while F, G, A, B-b, C, D, E, F gives us an F-Major scale.
The `minor' scale uses a different sequence of intervals: 1, 1/2, 1, 1, 1/2, 1, 1. For instance, the minor scale starting on C will use the notes C, D, E-b, F, G, A-b, B-b, C. Music which uses a major scale sounds different, to the accustomed ear, than music which uses a minor scale.
These are the predominate scales used in modern Western music, and modern performers have a tendency to force all music into these scales. In fact, though, if you wish to break an octave, as evenly as possible, into seven whole- and half-tone intervals, there are seven possible scales which would appear to do the job equally well, and all of them have seen at least some use. These are the modes. They are named for the classical Greek modes, though they no longer represent the same scales - the Ionian mode, the Mixolydian mode, the Dorian mode, the Aeolian mode, the Phrygian mode, the Locrian mode, and the Lydian mode. Each mode has a different and distinctive sound to the accustomed ear.
Here is the scale, in the key of A, for each of the seven modes:
Readers will recognize the Ionian mode as corresponding to our major scale and the Aeolian mode as corresponding to our melodic minor scale. Traditional ballads use these, but also make extensive use of Mixolydian and Dorian scales. (Relatively familiar balladic examples are the modern versions of "Silkie" (Child #113) and "Scarborough Fair" (Child #2), for the Mixolydian and Dorian modes, respectively.)
Also common in traditional song are the `gapped' pentatonic and hexatonic scales that span these modes. Consider the A-Dorian scale shown above: It differs from the A-Aeolian scale only in having a sharped F - so if we leave out the F, we have a hexatonic scale that falls `between' Aeolian and Dorian. Similarly, the only difference between the A-Dorian scale and the A-Mixolydian scale is the sharped C - so if we leave the C out, instead, we have a hexatonic scale that falls `between' Dorian and Mixolydian. What if we leave out the F and the C? We have a pentatonic scale that spans three modes - Mixolydian, Dorian, and Aeolian. For every successive pair of modes depicted above, we can construct a hexatonic scale by omitting the single note that differentiates between them. For every three adjacent modes, we can construct a pentatonic scale by omitting the two notes that differentiate them.
(Caveat time: This discussion applies to modern Western music. Other cultures use other scales. Even Western cultures have used quarter-tone intervals. Further, although the same mode names have been in use for over two thousand years, we do not use them in the sense that was applied to the medieval ecclesiastic modes, and the medieval theoreticians did not use them in the sense used by the Greeks who named the modes. Finally, this brief discussion completely ignores the vexing issue of `accidentals'.)
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