The Lydian Mode is the fourth mode of the Diatonic Major Scale. Let’s look and listen to it with a bit more detail.
The Lydian mode is often described as the white keys on the keyboard from F-F’. This gives us the following intervallic series:
*w=whole step // h=half step*
And the notation looks like this:
That’s the notes F G A B C D E F’ with no alterations (sharps or flats).
However, since we base a mode’s scales degrees on the Major Scale, and the Lydian mode has a different intervallic series than the Major Scale, we alter the scale degrees, giving Lydian the following:
1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
Another way to write the scale degrees are:
- Root (as is always the case)
- Major Second (2 semitones above the root)
- Major Third (4 semitones above the root)
- Augmented Fourth (6 semitones above the root)
- Perfect Fifth (7 semitones above the root)
- Major Sixth (9 semitones above the root)
- Major Seventh (11 semitones above the root)
Let’s listen to the F Lydian mode against a droned F:
A quick clarification
If you happen to be coming from the article on the Ionian Mode or the Dorian Mode, you may realize that the white keys from C-C’ (Ionian) are the same notes as the white keys from D-D’ (Dorian) and the white keys from E-E’.
Ionian and Lydian are both modes of the Major Scale. C Ionian and F Lydian are both modes from the C Major Scale. This means that, yes, they have the same notes. But their starting points (roots) are different. And this means a lot:
- Their intervallic series is different
- Their scale degrees are different
- Their quality (minor/major/diminished/augmented) is different
- Their inherent chords are different
- Their functionality is different
So even though C Ionian and F Lydian are made up of exactly the same notes, they are different! This is the beginning of modal study.
The modal chords of the Lydian mode
The Lydian mode yields one triad and one tertian seventh chord. Much like the Ionian mode, they are:
- Major triad 1 3 5
- Major seventh chord 1 3 5 7
Other common chords include:
- Sus2 1 2 5
- Sus♯4 1 ♯4 5
- Maj6/9 1 3 5 6 9
- Maj7sus♯4 1 ♯4 5 7
Along with all the extensions beyond the major seventh chord, notably:
- Maj9 1 3 5 7 9
- Maj♯11 1 3 5 7 ♯11
- Maj13 1 3 5 7 13
The Lydian Mode shows up with the IV chord (subdominant) in diatonic harmony.
The subdominant chord often acts as a predominant, as seen/heard in the common chord progression of I-IV-V (1-4-5).
It is argued that the Lydian Mode is the ideal chord to be played over a major seventh chord. Although the Ionian and other scales also fit.
The reasoning behind this claim is that the Ionian Mode has an avoid note in its perfect fourth which clashes with the major third. However, the Lydian’s augmented fourth is not an avoid note since there is no clash with the major third. In fact, Lydian does not have an avoid note.
To me, the Lydian mode sounds amazing and bright over the major 7 chord, and I love using this mode in my playing!
The Brightness of Lydian
If we are to rank the modes of the major scale from brightest to darkest, Lydian would be the brightest mode. Another way of describing Lydian’s brightness is by talking about its upward gravity.
The 1 (root) and the 5 (perfect fifth) create the most consonant interval within any scale or mode. The presence of this interval makes a scale “stable.”
We can say that dark scales have a gravity pulling down to the root and down to the fifth.
By the same token, bright scales have a gravity pulling up to the root and up to the fifth.
Keep in mind that half steps have stronger resolutions than whole steps.
Lydian is bright.
1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
The 7 wants to resolve up a half-step to the root more than 2 wants to resolve down a whole-step. This creates upward gravity to the tonic.
The #4 wants to resolve up a half-step to the 5. This creates upward gravity to the perfect fifth.
The major third and sixth also add to this brightness.
Lydian is the brightest mode of the Major Scale!
The Perfect Major Chord
In their book entitled Modalogy, Jeff Brent and Schell Barkley make a point that stacking thirds in Lydian gives a type 1 perfect chord. A chord that stacks alternating major/minor thirds through its 7 notes.
1 -M3- 3 -m3- 5 -M3- 7 -m3- 9 -M3- ♯11 -m3- 13
A by-product of the perfect chord are interlocked perfect fifth pairs:
We call this a “perfect major chord” because:
- It’s major in quality (3 and 7).
- There’s no real dissonance in the chord.
Let me explain the no real dissonance part. We’ll take Fmaj13♯11 as our example for the type 1 perfect major chord.
So the unstable tritone interval is between F and B’. That’s 9 whole steps away, which decreases the tension effect. On top of that, the five other consonant notes help tremendously to nullify the slight trace of tension between F and B’.
The other type 1 perfect chord is made by stacking Dorian’s thirds.
Dorian is Lydian’s relative minor, similarly to Aeolian being Ionian’s relative minor.
Lydian Chromatic Concept
Although out of the range of this article, I’d like to at least mention George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept.
Lydian is of great interest because we can build it by stacking fifths. Take F Lydian for example.
With F as our tonic, we start moving around the circle of fifths: F C G D A E B are the first seven notes we encounter. Rearrange these notes into one octave starting on the same root and we have F G A B C D E, the F Lydian scale!
By continuing past the first seven notes and going completely around the circle of fifths, we obtain the Lydian Chromatic Scale:
F – C – G – D – A – E – B – F♯/G♭- C♯/D♭- G♯/A♭-D♯/E♭-A♯/B♭-F again.
And from this, George explores many other cool uses of the LCC that helped to shape Jazz and Modal Jazz as musical genres.
One interesting point George raises (that was touched upon earlier in this article) is that Lydian provides the “ideal major seventh chord.” This ideal chord has the extensions 9, ♯11, and 13. Since there’s no avoid note (natural 11) like in the Ionian mode, Lydian is often preferred when improvising over the major seventh chord.
For more info, check out George Russell’s book, Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.
Lydian’s Characteristic Tones
When looking for a mode’s characteristic tone (the tone that gives it its flavor and differentiates it from other modes), it’s a good idea to first look at the tritone intervals and half step intervals. It’s also very important to look at the quality of the third (is it minor or major?)
Relating a mode to either Ionian (Major Scale) or Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale) can help us to determine characteristic tones as well. The reasoning here is that these two scales are so common they’re almost expected. Altering them in any way peaks our attention and tell us we’re in a different mode.
The Major Scale’s modes each have two half step intervals and one tritone interval.
One tritone interval could mean two tritone intervals. For example, B-F is a tritone and F-B is a tritone. Most of the time we’ll look for the [one] tritone interval in the Major Scale modes.
Lydian’s tritone is between its root and augmented fourth. The half step intervals are between the augmented fourth/perfect fifth and major seventh/root. Lydian’s third scale degree is major.
So, the major third tell us that Lydian has a major quality. And the augmented fourth differentiates it the Ionian mode.
Lydian’s most characteristic tone is its augmented fourth! I like to think of it as a major scale with an augmented fourth (sharp eleventh).
Lydian’s Modal Chord
Lydian’s modal chord could simply be formed by its root, characteristic tone, and perfect fifth, creating what I call a “lydian triad:”
1 ♯4 5
Lydian is the only mode of the Major Scale that has that specific chord built on its root. However, let’s investigate some more in order to build another chord that is “more Lydian.”
So we know the augmented fourth (or sharp eleven) is Lydian’s characteristic note. Since we’ll be looking at an extended chord, let’s call it the sharp eleventh instead.
There are only two modes in the Major Scale that yield a major seventh chord: Ionian and Phrygian. Ionian’s modal chord was determined as the major seventh chord, and so we’ll add the extension of ♯11 in order to differentiate the Lydian mode.
Therefore, the Lydian modal chord is the maj♯11!
1 3 5 7 ♯11
When dealing with heptatonic modes, we can only truly get an absolutely “modal chord” when all seven of the notes are present within it (shout out to the type 1 perfect major chord!). But the maj♯11 chords gives us a strong sense of the mode Lydian!
Practicing Lydian And Modal Harmony
As with all modal practice, I prefer the pedal point method.
Pedal (drone a constant tone) the root of Lydian, if you have a polyphonic instrument. And go through each of the scale degrees to hear the intervals they create against the root.
1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
If you have a monophonic instrument, try alternating between the root and each scale degree, one-by-one, to get a sense of each distinct interval.
Once again, pay special attention to the characteristic tone (augmented fourth).
Next, try droning the “modal chord.” In Lydian’s case, the maj♯11 chord. Of course, this is only possible on a monophonic instrument. Although, arpeggios could work on monophonic instruments.
Go through the same exercise of relating every scale degree to the chord and listen to how each one compares.
Next, cycle through all the possible intervals, playing them along with a droning root note. Pay special attention to the half step intervals against the root and the tritone intervals against the root.
Finally, have some fun creating modal chords with any of the Lydian notes played with its root.
An example could be stacking fourths. Stacking fourths a common way to express openness and modality. In Lydian’s case, a stacked fourth tetrad would be:
1 ♯4 7 3
Writing and Composing with Lydian
A quick note on tonal harmony vs. modal harmony
When composing with tonal harmony, we have “circular cadences.” Resolutions that often happen while moving around the circle of fifths (or fourths, depending on how you look at it).
For example, the iii-vi-ii-V-I chord progression in C Major would be:
- Amin7 (or A7 as a common alteration)
Those chords’ roots move circularly counter-clockwise through the circle of fifths.
This is tonal (functional) harmony.
Modal harmony has linear, or lateral cadential movement. Often times the best cadential chord is built on the second or seventh scale degree of the mode.
In modal harmony, we must take great care as to not seek out the dominant V chord, or to play too many chords other than the tonic. Doing so will result in our ears hearing tonal harmony, as it’s so commonly used in music.
We must reference the tonic chord very often to ensure that we are indeed in that specific mode!
In modal harmony, we don’t absolutely need to use all the notes in the mode, but it helps to further specify, unambiguously, which mode we’re in. For example, Lydian without the augmented fourth is the same as Ionian without the perfect fourth.
Lydian’s modal cadences
The most cadential chord in Lydian modal harmony is the II (Mixolydian triad).
Note here that it’s the II triad and not the seventh chord. Playing the dominant seventh chord, with its tritone interval, would bring us into the territory of a 4-5-1 tonal harmony chord progression and remove us from modal harmony.
With that being said, Lydian’s II chord:
- Is a whole step away (lateral movement).
- Has a major third.
- And it contains the characteristic tone as its major third!
The vii(min7) (Phrygian chord) would also be a good choice.
- It’s a half step away (lateral movement).
- The minor third weakens its cadential strength
- But it contains the characteristic tone as its perfect fifth degree
Of course, this is all just for your information and not set in stone, if it sounds good, play it!
I invite you to write a song based on the Lydian mode. For more information, check out my article on writing and playing modally.
Chances are, even if you don’t know the mode, you’ve been using it plenty in writing and playing music. It’s one of my favourites!
Let me know what you come up with while writing with the Lydian mode! And if there’s anything else you’d like to add to the discussion of the Lydian mode, please leave a message in the comment section!
As always, thank you for reading and for your support,