Composing in Locrian Mode


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group of person playing violin

Cover Photo by Samuel Sianipar

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the ScoreThe full video and text lesson on the Locrian Mode can be found here.

What is Locrian Mode?

– Mode Structure: 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7 (Fig. H)

– Character Note: ♭2nd & ♭5th Degree

– Seventh Mode of Major scale

Locrian is the seventh and final mode of this chapter. It is the most harmonically unstable (and perhaps the darkest) of all the modes we’ve studied. Of the seven major scale modes, Locrian is the only one with a lowered fifth (♭5) scale degree. However, both the ♭2 and ♭5 are considered character notes. Phrygian and Locrian are the only modes with a ♭2.

The tonic chord has been either major or minor in every other mode. In Locrian, the ♭3 and ♭5 degrees make the tonic chord diminished, contributing to its distinctive and somewhat unstable quality. It’s often challenging to convey a sense of home/rest on such an unstable tonic chord. If we’re not careful, chord progressions in Locrian may sound like a transition away from the tonic. Consequently, it’s usually challenging to sustain a true sense of Locrian for a long period of time.

Here, we have not labeled any of the diatonic chords of Locrian as “cadence chords.” This concept becomes a bit problematic in Locrian. A cadence chord includes a character note, and it’s supposed to resolve toward the tonic. However, the tonic chord of Locrian contains the ♭5 character note. Therefore, we omit cadence chords altogether.

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Most Western tonal music features a stable tonic chord. By contrast, the tonic chord of the Locrian mode is diminished (Ⅰo), due to its lowered 3rd and 5th degrees. Locrian is rather harmonically unstable, making it an uncommon choice for many composers. Some composers opt to use Locrian as a transitional element for harmonic color.

In this video, we provide a more in-depth explanation of what the Locrian Mode is and demonstrate how we composed a complete piece utilizing this mode.

Songs written using Locrian Mode

Björk, “Army of Me,” from the album Post (1995) 
John Kirkpatrick, “Dust to Dust,” from the album Mazurka Berzerker (2001)
Green Velvet, “Genedefekt,” from the album Whatever (2001)

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