Root notes are for wimps: An invitation to hypermodes

There are seven major scale modes, which you can think of as major scales built on 7 different tonics suspended over a single root note. So over a C root we can play the notes from C Major (Ionian), Bb Major (Dorian), Ab Major (Phrygian), G Major (Lydian), F Major (Mixolydian), Eb Major (Aeolian) or Db Major (Locrian). But there are 12 notes in music; what happened to the other five? Step inside...

What I'm saying is that over a harmony with a C root note we can, at least on paper, construct melodies and lines out of the notes of any of the twelve possible major scales. Yet we only have special names for seven of those possibilities; we guitarists tend to learn those seven pretty early on, but we almost never even think of playing the other five.

First I should stress that there are perfectly good historical and theoretical reasons why this is. I'm going to disregard almost all this information and just ask what would happen if we did play those major scales, as a matter of intellectual curiosity. Nevertheless, I want to stress for now that hypermodes are not just theoretical fictions -- they're seen in the wild, albeit not (as far as I know) these ones, and not usually in a very sensible theoretical frame of reference.

What Are the Hypermodes of the Major Scale?

Let's start by making a list of the beasts and see if we can figure anything out just by looking at them:

D Major Scale D E F# G A B C#
E Major Scale E F# G# A B C# D#
F# Major Scale F# G# A# B C# D# E#
A Major Scale A B C# D E F# G#
B Major Scale B C# D# E F# G# A#

You may very well notice that just as the modes in C mostly go round the flat keys (the exception is G), these are all clustered around the sharp keys. Visualising this makes it a bit clearer:

Note that this diagram assumes that the root note is C, but when we pick a different root note we can just rotate the shaded segment around to the appropriate position and we're good to go.

There's nothing very mysterious going on here: in all the non-modal major scales one very important thing has happened: the note "C" has been sharpened, meaning there is no root note. The note C, which the harmony or bass or whatever is telling us is the root, is not present in the scale. This is what makes the difference between a mode (where the root is present) and what I'm calling a hypermode (where it ain't).

An aside: since the hypermodes don't contain root notes, on my usual definition of a "scale" they aren't scales. I'm OK with that, and I have something to say about it shortly.

Possible Applications

Time to figure out how we might try using these things. Here's a table of the spelling of each hypermode relative to the underlying root, plus a made-up name for each one and a suggested chord application:

II Major Scale #1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 Hyperlydian Maj 7
VI Major Scale #1 2 3 #4 #5 6 7 Hyperlydian Augmented Maj 7
III Major Scale #1 #2 3 #4 #5 6 7 Hyperlydian Augmented #9 Maj 7

bV Major Scale #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 7 Hyperlocrian Min 7

VII Major Scale #1 #2 3 #4 #5 #6 7 Hyperlocrian Altered Dom 7

We therefore have three hypermodes that are most naturally partnered with Maj7 sounds plus one each for dom7 and min7. I'd suggest trying out one of these at a time over a suitable chord vamp / backing track. If you use a backing track, make sure it only has a single chord, not a progression, since that will make sure you get the hypermode sound all the way through. It takes a bit of time to get the sound into your ear to the point where it doesn't just sound like you're playing in the wrong key, but then you managed to do that with the ordinary modes, didn't you?

One thing I like about the lines you get this way is that they have a floating, unresolved quality because of the absence of a root. To "sell" these ideas convincingly, however, you'll probably find you sometimes have to resolve all that dissonance and land on the root. That's OK; just play the root, or indeed other chord tones, when you want to relieve the tension.

Theoretical Musings

Adding the root back in might give us an idea for how to treat these things in terms of scale theory. The root is always there "really" in the harmony and you may well fell it's implied in your lines even if you're not playing it. So we could just consider these 7-note hypermodes to be the 8-note scales you get simply by adding the root note back in. In other words, these are elements of what I call the 8-spectrum of the Major Scale.

Let's call the 8-note scale we get by adding the root back into a hypermode its "hypermodal completion". So we have 5 hypermodal completions of the major scale:

  • 1 b2 2 3 #4 5 6 7
  • 1 b2 2 3 #4 #5 6 7
  • 1 b2 #2 3 #4 #5 6 7
  • 1 b2 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 7
  • 1 b2 #2 3 #4 #5 #6 7

A bit of analysis throws up the following, possibly interesting information about these hypermode completions:

  • The completions of the Major Scale hypermodes built on the 2 and b5 are modes of each other. The others aren't.
  • The completions of the Major Scale hypermodes built on the 6 and 7 are also completions of Melodic Minor hypermodes.
  • The completion of the Major Scale hypermode built on the 3 is also the completion of a Harmonic Minor hypermode.
  • There are three other completions of Melodic Minor hypermodes and four of Harmonic Minor ones, none of which is a mode of another, but one of the completions is shared: that is, it's the completion of hypermodes of Melodic and Harmonic Minor.

Because of overlaps, altogether this only accounts for ten of the octatonic modal groups. There are 33 others and I wonder whether ideas from the spectral theory might suggest other classificatory approaches to them.

[EDIT: You can now download by free ebook on hypermodes here.]