Musical Variables: Modes and Instruments

Changing the mode or instrument for a tune can affect how it is perceived. This Demonstration offers seven different modes, several instruments, different starting notes, and varying tempos. Additionally, there is a "random" button that randomly selects different options for each variable when clicked, so that you can easily create new listening experiences with the click of a button.
  • Contributed by: Berwin Xie and Kevin Krout
  • Based on a program by: John Kiehl
  • Special thanks to: the University of Illinois NetMath Program and the Mathematics Department at William Fremd High School


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Modes in music are determined by the semitones (the distance between notes) of the music. If you imagine a piano keyboard, every key is a semitone different from the ones next to it. The Ionian mode, or major mode, is the basic and most common mode. It has an interval sequence of 2-2-1-2-2-2-1, where the numbers are the number of semitones between consecutive notes in the scale of the piece. Deviating from the more consonant Ionian mode by changing the relations between the scale notes makes pieces sound very different; for example, "Good Morning to You" sounds much darker when it is in the Locrian mode.
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