Teaching the modes of the diatonic scale: another tack

I have made several attempts to explain the concept of musical modes to people unfamiliar with music theory. (This is not some arcane concept from medieval church music: folk, jazz, rock, pop, and even metal often delve into modes.) The video above, by “Signals Music Studio”, takes another tack and keeps it accessible.

If the Greek names are confusing to you, it may be helpful to just number them by the diatonic step that is the tonic (“home note”). [I personally used to number them by the number of flats they had in C, which is equivalent to numbering along the circle of fifths rather than by diatonic steps.] Thus you get:

  1. natural major mode (Ionian, classical major scale)
  2. “minor-lite” mode (Dorian)
  3. “uber-minor” mode (Phrygian)
  4. “uber-major” mode (Lydian)
  5. “major-lite” mode (Mixolydian, folk major scale, bagpipe scale)
  6. natural minor (Aeolian, modal minor scale, descending melodic minor scale)
  7. diminished (Locrian; not really used much because its tonic chord doesn’t even have a perfect fifth)

The Signals guy picks out “the characteristic note” of each: the note most keen to ‘resolve’, so to speak. That would be (assuming the tonic is C below):

  1. major/Ionian: the lead tone (B) which is a major seventh that wants to resolve to the octave.
  2. minor-lite/Dorian: the major sixth (A) which sets it apart from natural minor.
  3. uber-minor/Phrygian: the flattened second (Db)
  4. uber-major/Lydian: the augmented fourth (F#)
  5. major-lite/Mixolydian: the flattened seventh (Bb)
  6. natural minor: the flattened sixth (Ab)
  7. Locrian: the flattened fifth (Gb)

Note that, when improvising and unsure which mode the other players are in, the ‘poor man’s substitute’ of a minor pentatonic will work  with all three modes 2,3,6 (Dorian, Phrygian, natural minor), while a major pentatonic can fit all three modes 1,4,5 (natural major, Lydian, and Mixolydian)

Of course, the ‘flavor’ each mode has is intimately connected with the chords it implies. If you go by the major/minor character of the “three main chords” I (tonic), IV (subdominant), and V (dominant):

  1. natural major: C, F, G major triads
  2. Dorian: Cm, F, Gm.   Note that both tonic (I) and dominant (V) are minor, while the subdominant (IV) is major. Note also the major chords on the flattened seventh and third: countless rock riffs exploit cadences like Cm-Bb-Eb-Cm or Cm-Bb-F-Eb
  3. Phrygian: Cm, Fm, Gm. Note the characteristic major chord on the flattened second: cadences like Cm-Db just write themselves
  4. Lydian: C, F#dim, G. The most archetypical cadence in Lydian is however I-II
  5. Mixolydian: C, F, Gm. The major chord on the flattened seventh step just begs to be used, though, and you naturally get cadences like (in E) E-D-A/C# (AC/DC’s “Back In Black”)  or (in G) G-C-F-C (Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Woman”).
  6. Aeolian: like Phrygian, all three of the I-IV-V chords are minor. But here the IIIb, VIb, and VIIb are the major chords, so cadences like C-Bb-Ab follow naturall

Note that in common practice harmony as practiced in Western classical music, the minor chord on the dominant was more or less verboten, which led to the development of a melodic minor scale (often explained as ‘sixth and seventh not flattened when the melody ascends’) such that the dominant chord could be major. Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it was still considered dissonant to end a piece on a major chord, so the final tonic chord of a piece would be turned major (a “Picardian third” as this was then known).


5/4: Dave Brubeck Day

Dave Brubeck’s probably best-known composition is the instrumental “Take Five” (for non-native English speakers: colloquial expression for “take a five-minute break”). Like the rest of the album “Time Out” (the first-ever jazz album to go platinum), it explores odd time signatures: in this case, 5/4.

Some jazz aficionados and music geeks, therefore, mark May 4 (or 5/4 in the US abbreviated date convention) as “Dave Brubeck Day”. Herewith, an original video of his quartet performing the composition.


Here’s to Dave. Take five!


Classical crossover delight: “Five” by Tony Banks

Tony Banks, keyboardist of Genesis for their entire existence and one of the band’s chief songwriters, just released a new album of orchestral compositions, “Five”. Somewhat unusually, he released videos of all five tracks on the album on his official YouTube channel. I posted earlier “Prelude to a Million Years” when it was released as a teaser: below are the remaining four pieces.

This is the third orchestral neoclassical album by Banks, and to me the strongest. Echoes of instrumental Genesis passages and of his own solo work are there, to be sure — but also of English Romantic composers (particularly Vaughan Williams), of Ravel, and of Rachmaninoff, plus film composers.

As a bonus, here is my favorite track from his first orchestral album. “Black Down” (named after a geographic feature near his home) was originally written for keyboard (string synthesizer) and then transcribed for orchestra.


Cato the Elder: ancient Rome’s broken record and his famous use of the gerundivum

Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 BCE), generally known as Cato the Elder or Cato the Censor, was a Roman soldier, senator, and statesman at the time of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.

He was famous (or notorious, depending on one’s point of view) for interjecting into every speech, regardless of the subject — even if it were the price of vegetables, so to speak — the phrase:

Ceterum censeo Carthaginem delendam esse

(often slightly ungrammatically misquoted as)

Ceterum censeo Carthago delenda est

In plain English: “Otherwise, I opine that Carthage is to be erased”. Countless Latin students remember this phrase, as it is a memorable example of the Latin gerundivum — a form of the verb that indicates necessity, timeliness, or desirability of an action. Another, more prosaic example: bibere = “to drunk”, nunc est bibendum = “now it’s [time to] drink”.

The phrase “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage is to be erased) would be grammatical on its own, but in the original, the entire phrase is the direct object of the verb “censeo” (I opine, I hold, it is my opinion) and hence has to be in the accusative case.

People who barely remember anything about Cato or the Punic wars may remember two things about the era: Hannibal’s elephants and Cato’s “broken record phrase”. The latter is sometimes paraphrased in jest, as “Ceterum censeo ___ delendam esse” (substitute Barney the dinosaur, Hollywood, …)





Fiction writing fact-check: Can Catholics ever marry non-Catholics in church?

No, this is not a religious screed, but a fact-checking item for something likely to come up when writing romance novels or romance subplots in other fiction genres. (It has come up in both “Winter Into Spring”, and in two works in progress.)

Full disclosure and disclaimer: I am not a Christian and hence am an outsider to intra-Christian doctrinal disputes. The following text attempts to summarize the actual situation in canon law (see also Canon Law Made Easy) and makes no value judgments. It is assumed in the discussion below that the partner does not convert to Catholicism — otherwise, there is no difference with a Catholic marriage other than the conversion itself and all it entails.

Otherwise, the RC Church distinguishes between two broad categories:

• “mixed marriage“: the other partner was baptized in a way that the Catholic church recognizes as such. This is the case for the mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian,…) as well as for the Orthodox Churches. The latter are a special subcase because they are not considered “heretic” but merely “schismatic”, and broadly have the same understanding of marriage as a sacrament.

• “disparity of worship“: the other partner belongs to a non-Christian religion, or to a Christian denomination but never underwent baptism in a way recognized as such by the RC Church. (For instance, LDS/Mormon baptism is not recognized; or the partner may have been raised Baptist but never have undergone adult “Believers Baptism”.)

“Disparity of worship” (Canon 1086) is a “diriment” (separating) impediment in canon law: any such marriage is considered null and void unless a “dispensation for disparity of worship” is obtained.

In contrast, “mixed marriage” (Canon 1124) is merely a “prohibitive” impediment: if, for example, a priest were to marry a Catholic-Lutheran couple without dispensation, such a marriage would be “illicit but valid“. That is, the marriage is forbidden unless a “dispensation for mixed marriage” is obtained, but if the priest were to marry them regardless, the couple are considered married. [Jewish law has a similar situation for a marriage between a cohen — a male direct descendant of the first High Priest Aharon/Aaron — and a divorcée or a female convert to Judaism: the marriage is forbidden by the Torah (Lev. 21:7) but if it were to take place regardless, the parties are married in every respect.]

What is a “dispensation“? In plain English, if a rule is imposed merely by ecclesiastical law rather than by (the Church’s understanding of) natural or Divine law, then in cases where its application would create a hardship, the rule may be relaxed ad hoc by “competent authority”,  “for just and reasonable cause”, while it still remains in force for the community at large. In this context, ‘competent authority’ generally means the diocese in which the marriage is taking place.

We have already mentioned two types of dispensation related to marriage: “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship”. A third that may arise in this context is “departure from canonical form” (Canon 1127), i.e., with a non-Catholic clergyperson (co)officiating at a non-Catholic marriage ceremony. This sample application form illustrates all three forms of dispensation. (The same sample form also states that for Catholic marriage by a priest or deacon, but at a venue other than a Catholic church, a simple request in writing suffices and no dispensation is required.)

For both “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship” dispensations, the Catholic partner has to undertake in the presence of the sponsoring priest and the other spouse to do everything in their power to raise the children as Catholics.

So what does all this mean, “brass tacks”?

(1) Roman Catholic with a member of a Catholic Church of Eastern Rite (Uniate, Greek Catholic, Maronite,…): from a Catholic POV this is a Catholic marriage in every respect. Subtle issues of “jurisdiction” may arise.

(2a) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in an Orthodox Church and ceremony: this is considered a valid marriage even ifythe Catholic partner did not petition for “departure from canonical form”.

(2b) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in a Catholic ceremony: in principle “mixed marriage permission” is required before the priest or deacon will marry you, but the marriage is valid even if he married you without permission. (He may be in hot water with his superiors though.)

(3a) Roman Catholic with Anglican, Lutheran,… or other mainline Protestant, by a Catholic priest or deacon in a Catholic Church: “mixed marriage permission” is required, but the marriage is valid even without. Increasingly, as in this sample application form , the reservation “with disparity of cult granted as a precaution” is added.

(3b) Ditto, but in a Protestant church or secular venue, with a Protestant minister officiating: both “mixed marriage permission” and “departure from canonical form” are required, otherwise the marriage is invalid. One recent high-profile case was the marriage of the Dutch Crown Prince, presently King Willem-Alexander (Dutch Reformed) to the Argentinian Princess Maxima (Catholic). This case also arises when a brother, father, or uncle of the Protestant partner is a practicing minister of that denomination and wishes to (co-)officiate.

(4a) Roman Catholic with non-Christian or certain special cases (Baptist who never underwent adult baptism, LDS,…), by a priest in a Catholic church: “disparity of worship” dispensation is required, or the marriage is invalid. This dispensation is generally harder to obtain, for obvious reasons.

(4b) Ditto but at another venue, with an officiant other than an RC priest or deacon: both “disparity of worship”  and “departure from canonical form” dispensations are required.

Summary in Table form

RC with: in RC church in non-RC partner’s place of worship
Eastern Catholic Like RC[*] Like RC[*]
Eastern Orthodox mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid
Baptized Protestant mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise invalid
Others (LDS, Baptist without adult baptism, non-Christians) disparity of worship dispensation, otherwise invalid both disparity of worship and canonical form dispensations, otherwise invalid

[*] subtle “jurisdiction issues” may arise that are beyond the scope of this post

Cast a Giant Shadow: David “Mickey” Marcus (1901-1948), the IDF’s first general

Continuing in a Remembrance Day vein, a few words about the American Jewish army officer who ended up being the first aluf (“general”, in modern use Maj.-Gen.) of the IDF.


David Daniel Marcus, known to all as “Mickey” Marcus, was born on the Lower East Side in 1901. Bright as well as athletic, he acquired his higher education in what then (as now) was an unusual fashion for an American Jewish boy: he applied to the US Military Academy at West Point and was accepted in 1920, graduating with the Class of 1924.

After completing his active duty requirement, he went to law school and spent most of the 1930s fighting organized crime as an Assistant US Attorney in New York. In 1940, mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed him Corrections Commissioner, thus placing him in charge of the city’s prisons. Simultaneously, he served in the Army National Guard as the Judge Advocate of the 27th Infantry Division, by now at the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Pearl Harbor and the US entry in World War II made him rethink his judicial career path, and he organized a ranger combat training school on Hawaii. Despite his hopes for a field command, however, he ended up being assigned to the Civil Affairs Division. (The assignment came with a promotion to full colonel.) Among other things, Col. Marcus was involved in drafting the 1943 surrender terms of Italy and the organization of the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences.

Despite having no paratrooper training, on D-Day he jumped with the 101st Airborne Division (he had pulled in a favor from its commander, his onetime classmate Gen. Maxwell Taylor) and informally commanded a battle group made up of stragglers.

After VE Day he was placed in charge of the DP camps in the US occupation zone of Germany. A tour of the Dachau concentration camp shocked him to the core: subsequently, he would head the Pentagon’s War Crimes Division and select prosecutors and lawyers for the major war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

On six different occasions he was nominated for promotion to Brigadier General, the last time together with the position of military attaché at the US Embassy in Moscow. He declined the appointment and promotion and returned to civilian practice in 1947.

Shortly after, Maj. Shlomo Shamir of the Haganah approached him to help him find a military expert to assist in organizing and training what was to become the IDF. Soon, it emerged that Marcus himself was the prime candidate. Marcus flew to the Land of Israel under the cover name ‘Mickey Stone’, where he was the first Jew in 2,000 years to bear the rank of aluf (general).[*] His exploits in organizing the Haganah guerilla fighters into an army, and in lifting the siege of Jerusalem through an improvised ‘Burma Road’, are recounted in great detail here.

On June 10, 1948, the night before the cease-fire in Israel’s War of Independence was to end, this “reverse Lafayette” met his end — through friendly fire. Being unable to sleep, he had gone for a walk, covered in his blanket against the cold. When the sentry saw the ‘Arab in a cloak’ approach, he challenged him in Hebrew. Marcus answered in English and kept coming despite a warning shot. The sentry fired again and killed Marcus. Once he realized what he had done, the sentry tried to take his own life, but his comrades stopped him —  it would not bring their commander back.

Colonel / Aluf Marcus’s remains were shipped to the USA and buried in the West Point military cemetery, as many Academy graduates are. He is, to my knowledge, the only person buried there who fell in a foreign uniform.


His story was turned into a Hollywood movie Cast A Giant Shadow starring Isser Danielovich — better known by his stage name Kirk Douglas, and still alive and kicking at age 101!

The Silver Platter (Natan Alterman)

And the land grows still,
the red eye of the sky
slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises,
Torn at heart but breathing,
To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise,
standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass
and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear,
dirty, shoes heavy with grime,
they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time.
Still bone-weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly,
“We are the silver platter
on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel


[*] in the modern IDF table of ranks, aluf corresponds to Major-General. The highest rank, rav-aluf (corresponding to Lieutenant-General) is reserved for the Chief of Staff (rosh mate ha-clali, or ramatca”l for short), who is the IDF’s overall military commander.