Unsettling Tones: Locrian Mode Unveiled

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Introduction

Locrian is the seventh and final mode of all 7 major modes. 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. This makes Phrygian and Locrian the only modes that have 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. 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. (See Fig. H)

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.

Quick Facts

  • Mode Structure: 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7 (Fig. H)
  • Character Note: ♭2nd & ♭5th Degree
  • Seventh Mode of Major scale
Locrian Mode figure

Fig. H Locrian Modes and Diatonic Chords
*The audio plays C Locrian mode and its diatonic chords

As mentioned earlier, because the Locrian Mode is harmonically unstable, it’s not a common choice for composers to create a piece exclusively in this mode. In the examples below, we’ve collected a few songs where the Locrian Mode serves as the primary harmonic background or as a device to be used interchangeably with other modes.

Björk, “Army of Me”

John Kirkpatrick, “Dust to Dust”

Green Velvet, “Genedefekt”

Here’s another example piece we created, focusing on the Locrian mode and highlighting the 2nd and 5th scale degrees. We’re sharing only the first two pages of the music, but you’ll get the idea as it’s just a melodic variation over a repeating main motive.

Locrian mode
Ex. 3-11 Measures 1–4
Ex. 3-11 Measures 5–8

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.