The Locrian Mode : Explained

By Mike D. Schmitt

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What is the locrian mode in music?

The locrian mode is the seventh mode of the diatonic scale. It is the only mode with a flat fifth scale degree, also known as a diminished fifth. This mode is commonly referred to as the “devil’s scale” due to its unsettling and tense sound.

The locrian mode is rarely used in Western classical music and is more commonly found in jazz, metal, and rock music. It is often used to create a sense of tension or dissonance within a piece of music.

Examples of musical pieces written in locrian mode

While the locrian mode is not commonly used, there are some famous classical and contemporary pieces that incorporate this scale. Here are a few examples:

  • J.S. Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” features the locrian mode in the Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E-Flat Minor.
  • Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite “The Planets” features the locrian mode in the movement “Neptune, the Mystic.”
  • “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath is a classic example of a song that uses the locrian mode.
  • Other examples include “Deathrider” by Anthrax and “Creeping Death” by Metallica.

It’s important to note that just because a piece of music features the locrian mode, it doesn’t mean the entire piece is written in this mode. It’s common for composers to incorporate multiple modes or switch between modes within a single piece of music.

Why is the locrian mode so rare in classical music?

The locrian mode is rarely used in classical music because of its diminished fifth scale degree. In Western classical music theory, the fifth scale degree is considered to be a stable and important interval. When it is diminished, the interval loses its stability and creates a sense of tension that can be difficult to resolve.

This instability makes it challenging to use the locrian mode in traditional classical harmony, which tends to rely on stable and predictable chord progressions. However, this same instability makes the locrian mode a popular choice in genres like metal and rock, which embrace dissonance and tension in their sound.

If you’re interested in exploring this scale further, I encourage you to listen to some of the pieces I mentioned and see how composers have used this unique mode to create different moods and emotions within their music.

The Locrian mode has a dark and unstable sound that is often described as unresolved or incomplete. Its diminished fifth interval between the tonic and the fifth degree of the scale, also known as the tritone, gives it a dissonant quality that creates tension and unrest.

Due to its unstable nature, the Locrian mode is not commonly used in popular music, but it is often found in jazz and metal music, where its dissonant sound can be used to create tension and suspense.

Now, let’s take a look at some more examples of musical pieces that use the Locrian mode:

  • “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” by Tchaikovsky is a well-known classical piece that features the Locrian mode. In this piece, the Locrian mode is used to create a mysterious and dark sound that fits the whimsical and magical tone of the ballet.
  • “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Debussy is another classical piece that uses the Locrian mode. In this piece, the Locrian mode is used to create a haunting and otherworldly sound that fits the dreamy and mystical tone of the piece.
  • “Scarlet Begonias” by the Grateful Dead is a contemporary song that uses the Locrian mode in the guitar solo. In this song, the Locrian mode is used to create tension and suspense, adding to the psychedelic and improvisational nature of the song.
  • “Tom Sawyer” by Rush is a classic rock song that features the Locrian mode in the bassline. In this song, the Locrian mode is used to create a dark and ominous sound that complements the driving rhythm of the song.
  • “Demonic Possession” by Death is a metal song that uses the Locrian mode throughout the entire piece. In this song, the Locrian mode is used to create a dissonant and unsettling sound that fits the dark and aggressive tone of the music.

The Locrian mode is a unique and interesting musical mode that is characterized by its dark and dissonant sound. While it is not commonly used in popular music, it can be found in various classical, jazz, and metal pieces. Its use can add a sense of tension, suspense, and unrest to music, making it a valuable tool for composers and songwriters.

By Mike D. Schmitt

Mike is your 'Go-To-Guy' for all things music and pro audio. Engineer, musician, luthier, and quite possibly the biggest gear head on the planet. With over 30 years of industry experience in the studio, and on the road, we turn to Mike and his expertise for those hard hitting music and pro audio questions.

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