Music Theory

Mixolydian mode: famous examples of the Mixolydian major scale in classical and pop music

The Cylix of Apollo with the Lyre
The Cylix of Apollo with the Lyre
In the 17th century, the major and minor scales became the basis for almost all classical music compositions. This evolutionary process is explained by the functional advantage of these seven-note scales over others since both the major and minor work with all three harmonic functions, namely tonic, dominant, and subdominant. Various interactions between these musical functions create tension and organically resolve it, causing a harmonic pulsation and determining the emotional spectrum.
In addition to major and minor, there are five more diatonic scales, including Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, known from ancient Greece, though in modern musical theory they have other meanings. These so-called modal scales are used by classical composers to tie music to a specific area or to reflect the identity of folk culture. In the 20th century, modality also spread into pop music, with some chord progressions specific to modal scales becoming rooted in the entire genres.
The Mixolydian scale has only one alteration compared to the major scale which explains its major sound. But this change is quite significant since it robs the Mixolydian mode of the leading-tone, so the seventh scale degree—called the subtonic—differs from the tonic by a whole tone. This means that the dominant chord is a minor one and its use is minimized, depriving the Mixolydian mode of the very important perfect authentic cadence.
C Mixolydian scale:

The dominant function in the Mixolidyan mode is most often represented by the major subtonic chord, but cadences implemented with it are imperfect. Another option to be used in the final part of a composition is the plagal cadence, also known as the Amen cadence, a name brought by the hymn tradition and the frequent usage of the word amen in the closing part of the verse.
During the Renaissance era, tonal theories were in their infancy, so the modal modes became widespread, as demonstrated by Canticum Canticorum—a famous series of motets published by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina in 1584. In this collection, vocal compositions are written using five different diatonic scales, including eight songs composed in G Mixolydian.
Listen to Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina's Surgam et circuibo civitatem performed by The Sixteen:
A rare example of the Mixolydian mode in Baroque music can be heard in the German Organ Mass, a collection of organ compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach published in 1739. This Bach's most significant and extensive work for organ contains 23 compositions, including a chorale prelude and a fugettha on the Lutheran hymn These are the holy Ten Commandments, both written in G Mixolydian.
Listen to Bach's Fughetta super: Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot performed by Alessio Corti:
Modality received a new impetus of popularity towards the end of the Romantic period when European composers like Edvard Grieg and Claude Debussy turned to folk music in search of national identity and developed new musical forms that could reflect evolving trends which would permeate both art and life of the early 20th century.
In 1925, the Italian post-romantic composer Ottorino Respighi wrote a piano concerto in E♭ Mixolydian trying to express the medieval genre of the Gregorian chant in modern orchestral form.
Listen to Ottorino Respighi's Concerto in modo misolidio - Moderato performed by Saxon State Theatre Orchestra:
Popular music is replete with songs that are either written entirely in the Mixolydian mode or simply contain a characteristic alternation of major chords between tonic and subtonic.
A curious example of a developed chord progression in the Mixolydian mode (as well as its connection to major scale) appears in If I Needed Someone by The Beatles. The harmonic analysis of the song's chord chain denotes scale degrees with Roman numerals, showing the following progressions:
  • A–G–A or I–VII–I for the verses
  • EmF♯–Bm–EmF♯–Bm–E or vVI–ii–vVI–ii–V for the chorus
In the verses, the chords follow a typical Mixolydian alternation, while the chorus starts with a minor dominant, then cleverly follows up with a powerful classical cadence using a major dominant chord. The Em chord changes to E chord through alteration of the seventh scale degree and then switches the Mixolydian diatonic scale to the major scale. In the chorus, the F♯ chord is marked in red since it does not belong to the Mixolydian mode where the chord built on the sixth scale degree should be minor and not major.
Listen to If I Needed Someone by The Beatles:
Seven Bridges Road, the famous 1980s song, written by Steve Young and then arranged by Iain Matthews, reveals another Mixolydian chord progression: D-C-G-D or I–VII–IV–I. Here, the same chord chain is repeated throughout the song, corresponding to the following sequence of the harmonic functions: T–D–S–T or tonic–dominant–subdominant–tonic.
Listen to Seven Bridges Road performed by Eagles:
L.A. Woman, the title track of the 1970 album The Doors, is based on the alternation of two major chords that are built on the first and seventh scales degrees of the Mixolydian mode: A–G–A or I–VII–I.
Listen to L.A. Woman by The Doors:
Mixolydian scale is not confined to the Western music canon—many world cultures have been known to use it since antiquity. Its counterpart in Indian classical music is called Khamaj thaat which is suitable for performing such ragas as Rageshree, Jhinjhoti, and Desh.
Listen to Ravi Shankar perform Raga Rageshri featuring a pentatonic version of the Mixolydian scale:
Close analogs of the Mixolydian scale are also described by Turkish makam and Arabic maqam which are the main melodic systems of the Middle East.
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5 comments so far
  • Joshua Perkins 1 week ago

    I’m so glad to see a comprehensive article on the history of the Mixolydian scale, well done. I might just add ( although you can’t list them all ) that there are actually a number tunes from the 1960s on up that get over looked as Mixolydian songs. Also I agree the folk aspect is strong, not the least from the British isles that first hit North America a few centuries back. In the 1960s with the folk revival and British Invasion this recharged its presence. One last thing if I may, the fusion of major and minor pentatonic in one tune sort of arrives there as well.

    Thanks for the article and the opportunity to comment.

  • Serg Childed 1 week ago

    Thank you for your input! I just finished another article on the subject when I saw your comment. This one features harmonic analyses of a few more songs from the 1960s and 1970s. I have to admit when analyzing the songs, I generally focus on chord progressions and do not pay attention to the melody, so I am intrigued by your idea of combining two pentatonic scales in one melody, sounds fascinating. Though I don't think I fully grasp your meaning, could you please explain it in more detail?

  • Joshua Perkins 4 days ago

    Thank you I enjoy your articles and the opportunity for such a great conversation and topic.
    If we generalize for a moment, We can look at two real expressive / lyrical folk scales, minor and major pentatonic. All though not exclusive the major is usually thought of as a country / folk scale with Scots Irish roots etc. The minor is often associated with a blues scale from west Africa. As we get into the rock era we begin to hear a more distinct combo of the two scales in one solo. Earlier on its presented as a occasional m3 or m7 in a major key, talking about swing, early R&R etc. I also think as more guitar method books started to become available these patterns were presented as two applications.

    Mixolydian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7b 8
    Major Penta - 1 2 3 5 6 8
    minor Penta - 1 3b 4 5 7b 8 (3b)*
    Incidentally, it isn’t that uncommon in traditional Appalachia, British etc folk to have a shift between Mixolydian & Dorian in one tune.

    Your right about progressions, sometimes the chords and vocal melody are Mixolydian and the solo is Minor Pentatonic.
    I really like the following rock tunes for Mixolydian examples.
    Journey to the Center of the Mind ( The Amboy Dukes )
    Shapes of Things ( The Yardbirds )
    I think Rebel Rebel ( David Bowie )might be one.

    Thank you Sir, I hope I wasn’t to long winded.

  • Serg Childed 20 hours ago

    Hi, Josh! Thank you for such a detailed explanation. 

    Indeed, the necessity to perform the minor pentatonic melody in the Mixolydian mode is a good rationale for using a major chord built in the third scale degree ♭III as shown in Clocks by Coldplay and Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd mentioned in this article.

    I listened with pleasure to the songs you mentioned and found them very interesting. The first two contain explicit Mixolydian sections while David Bowie's Rebel Rebel adheres entirely to Mixolydian harmony.

    I hope we could continue engaging on similar topics in-depth even more in the future!

  • Josh Perkins 4 hours ago

    Hi Serg,
    Thank you for having a listen to my previously mention tunes, also for the analysis. I also want to thank you for pointing out the bIII function against the mixolydian I chord. That I can recall, I don’t believe I’ve thought of the minor pentatonic relationship that way beyond the b3 blue note aspect against a major chord. Of course it’s right there and makes sense. I love when your shifted a bit to see something from a certain angle! But again that is brilliant because we know rock will not just use p5s a m3 apart, but also full major chords. Hey by the way, No Rain by Blind Mellon is a pretty cool mixolydian jam. It does occasionally land on the A Major , but I get a heavy vibe of the E mixolydian in that one.

    P.S. I just got done chilling out to Marquee Moon, been a while, what a jam.

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