— 2012 — Nov 25

Harmonic Brightness & Darkness

by Anton Schwartz

Let’s look at the notes of the C major scale, indicated on the circle of fifths:
C Major Scale
The circle around C is bolder than the others to indicate that we are looking at a C major scale rather than, say, a D Dorian scale (which consists of the same notes with a different root.)

Notice how the notes lie together along one stretch of the circle. That’s because if you start on a low F and ascend a perfect fifth six times, the notes you hit are exactly the notes of a C major scale:


Compare the C major scale to the C natural minor (Aeolian) scale pictured here:
C Aeolian Scale
We can see that three notes previously to the right of C have been replaced by notes to the left of C. This gives the scale a darker, minor quality.

In general, we can look at the notes to the left of C as adding darkness to a C scale, and the notes to the right as adding brightness. In fact, within the tonality of C, if we move left (counterclockwise) starting from C, the further we move, the darker the sound of the notes we encounter… and the further right (clockwise) we move, the brighter the notes sound:

Darker & Brighter

This notion of brightness and darkness as directions along the circle of fifths is not anything I’ve seen in the jazz literature, but I find it very helpful for thinking about harmony and sound.

For instance, let’s look at the various modes of the major scale. Let’s start with C Lydian:
C Lydian Scale
Here every note other than the root lies clockwise from the root. Accordingly, Lydian is the brightest sounding of all the modes. We can generate the next brightest scale by eliminating the brightest note, F. In its place, we add a note from those that are darker than the notes in the scale. The least dark of all those notes is F:
Lydian to Major
This leaves us with the major scale. Continuing along, replacing the brightest note (B, the major seventh) with the next darker note (B, the minor seventh), we get the Mixolydian scale:
Major to Mixolydian
And so we continue, our scales growing progressively dark, until we reach Locrian, the darkest mode: Mixolydian becomes Dorian, which becomes Aeolian, which becomes Phrygian, which finally becomes Locrian, as we see here.
Phrygian to Locrian
The darkness of the Locrian sound is manifest in the fact that all the notes are now situated counterclockwise from the root.

Here is the whole process of transforming Lydian to Locrian one note at a time, illustrated in order of pitch rather than on the circle of fifths. At each step in the process, we lower the brightest note one half step:

Incidentally, for many purposes this ordering of the modes is much more useful than the conventional ordering (by the pitch of their roots—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.). For ways to remember them in this order, see my blog post titled “Remembering the Modes”.

On its own, a note is neither bright nor dark.

Only when we consider a note relative to a tonal center – a frame of reference – do the words bright and dark even have meaning. The note C is neither bright nor dark. But it is bright, for instance, in the key of E (C is the major sixth of E) and dark in the key of A (it is the minor third).

Brightness and the Compass

There is a good analogy to be made between dark/bright and east/west.
On its own, a place is neither east nor west. Only when you have a frame of reference – a location to compare to – do those notions apply. If we think of the ourselves looking down at Earth from a great distance above the north pole, with the keys in the circle of fifth laid out uniformly around the equator, then brightness corresponds to west and darkness to east:
East & West

On their own, the notes that make up a scale are neither bright nor dark.

Only when we designate one of them as the root do those notions apply. C Lydian is bright; F Locrian is dark. Yet they are the same set of notes.

On their own, rootless chord voicings are neither bright nor dark.

Take this simple example of a four-note voicing:
Rootless Voicing
The four notes are a voicing for a dark-sounding C7 or, equally well, a bright sounding D711, depending on what bass note is played underneath.

When we show the chord on the circle of fifths and indicate the bass notes, here is what we get:
Rootless VoicingRootless VoicingRootless Voicing
The bass note sets the reference point for our ears: Relative to C, the notes are mostly counterclockwise, so the sound is dark. Relative to D, the notes are all clockwise and, hence, sound bright.

Here is another example. Observe the following two chords:
Two Chords
Notice that each consists of the same six notes. They are simply placed in different octaves. In the first case, the result is a very dark sound; in the second a very bright sound. Observe the two chords indicated on the circle of fifths:
C7alt circleG13#11 circle
The two diagrams are identical except for their reference points. In the first case, the low C of the chord establishes C as the reference point, and we notice that most of the other notes are counterclockwise from the reference, giving a dark sound. Conversely, the low G of the second chord establishes G as the reference point, leaving most of the notes clockwise of the reference, yielding a bright sound.

If you can’t hear the difference in brightness between the two chords, it may be because you’re playing them consecutively and not giving your ear a chance to actually shift reference points. Try putting a long silence between the two, or playing ten seconds of random notes in between.

Where bright meets dark

The brightest note of the brightest mode, Lydian, is the 11. Interestingly, that note is also the darkest note (the 5) of darkest mode, Locrian. How can that be? In the same way that India is both East and West of the United States. In the context of a Pacific Ocean voyage, India is far west. Yet we speak of it as “The Far East” because of the European origins of our nation’s founders. In much the same way, F is equally clockwise and counterclockwise from C, so knowing that we are in the key of C is insufficient to tell us whether F will sound bright or dark; instead we rely on the context of other notes. In the context of C Locrian, F is just slightly counterclockwise from (darker than) any other note, making it the darkest of many dark notes; in C lydian it is the brightest of many bright notes.

The darkest note of dark Locrian (b5) = the brightest note of bright Lydian (#11). #HarmonyIsCircular Click To Tweet

Terminology of “bright” and “dark”

Bright and Dark, as I use them, may be a bit misleading. Many people associate high pitches with brightness and low pitches with darkness, but the notion of brightness/darkness I’m going for is independent of high or low pitch.


An alternative might be “majorness” and “minorness”. Interestingly, those notions too are independent of pitch, and yet people learning to identify them often mistake high pitched chords for major and low pitched chords for minor… so in that way they resemble brightness and darkness. But if we used the words “major” and “minor” for the notions of bright and dark I’m presenting here, we would run into trouble: “more major” and “more minor” would be at odds with standard musical usage. We can say that one dominant chord is brighter than another, but it is confusing to say that one is “more major,” since, by convention, the concepts of major, minor and dominant are mutually exclusive.

Related Posts

Updated Nov 19, 2018: Added the “Successively Darker Modes of the Major Scale” diagram.

16 Responses

  1. Jeff Taylor says:

    Hi Anton,

    This article caught my eye since the bright-to-dark continuum is taught in Gary Burton’s Berklee jazz improv class (lesson 2 – “Seven Modes from Bright to Dark”).

    Breifly, he states “As improvisers, we are going to find it more useful to think of the modes a little differently than the technical explanation described above…” (ie learning/applying them in a scale degree based way I ii iii etc).

    “What is important to us as improvisers is the sound of the scale and the type of harmonic coloration suggested by the mode…is it brighter or darker? Consequently, it is more logical to think of the modes in this order: from brightest to the darkest…”

    “View the notation and listen to the audio for each mode. Remember, the goal is to form a visual image of the shape and pattern of each scale and imprint an aural memory of the scale sound.”

    He then plays each of the modes in this “new” order and allows the student to hear these evolving “colors” in context to one another.

    I appreciate your examples and the how you derived their order using the circle of fifths. To me this drilled the concept even more succintly.

    Small Note: I thought regarding spelling one ex. Cm7:

    “On their own, rootless chord voicings are neither bright nor dark.
    Take this simple example of a four-note voicing: The four notes are a voicing for a dark-sounding Cm7 or …”

    I would hear that as a Cm11 but it’s a small detail and perhaps that’s the “dark” you wanted to illustrate..

    thanks Anton…I intend to take some of your classes as time permits!

    • Thanks for the Gary Burton anecdote, Jeff! As for the voicing… you’re absolutely that it’s a Cm11. Players use that one as a standard quartal voicing for Cm7. It’s sometimes called a “So What” voicing. To my ears, if you want to make it really sound like a Cm11 you place the 11 up high rather than at the bottom. In any case, it’s a bit academic because Cm11 voicings are just a subcategory of Cm7 voicings, just like all C9 voicings are C7 voicings too. :)

  2. Hi Anton, fab lesson! I’ve never seen this approach to showing modal brightness/darkness in terms of the circle of fifths, especially applied to modal harmony. Really fascinating insights!

    I did notice an error on your C aeolian chart. A-natural should be A-flat shouldn’t it?

    • Thanks for the catch, Klaviersonc! Indeed, I said Aeolian but I illustrated Dorian. Fixed now.

  3. Adam Kleczewski says:

    Are you familiar with the work of W.A Mathieu? His book “Harmonic Experience” deals with many of the same ideas you are talking about here (i.e. a geometric map of harmony with regions of harmonic brightness and darkness). One major difference being that the map he draws is a two dimensional plane with perfect fifths on one axis and major thirds on the other rather than a one dimensional line (in the shape of a circle).


    • Thanks for the tip, Adam. I know of Mathieu is but I’m not familiar with “Harmonic Experience.” I look forward to checking it out!

    • UPDATE: “Harmonic Experience” is absolutely brilliant. Thank you for turning me on to it, Adam. I bought it shortly after your comment and have been enjoying it ever since. Highly recommended!!

  4. […] from C, which indicates that they are bright sounding notes relative to C. (See my post about brightness & darkness.) Hence the majorness of the […]

  5. Anthony D'Agostino says:

    I think this is a great way to look at modes. For me, the greater number of ways I can look at a map of musical experiences, the greater my ability to recall them later and use them expressively. Have you encountered any material where individuals arrange the Harmonic Minor & Melodic Minor modes from light to dark? I guess you could arrange the different qualities of seventh chords like this also.

    • Great question. The harmonic minor & melodic minor are a bit trickier to talk about in terms of brightness/darkness because they have less tonal focus than the modes of the major scale. (For instance, they each contain not one but two tritone pairs, which are pairs of notes at opposite ends of the light/dark spectrum.) But I suggest you take a look at them and give it a shot—it’ll be informative!

  6. Maria says:

    I love to observe a good debate.

    I’m a guitarist so I think in semitones not tone and semitones sequences and see the chromatic scale as the starting reference when describing something not the traditionally used major scale description comparison.

    By using 12 boxes, numbered 1 to 12 (repeating the 12 if you need higher octaves). and comparing any scale mode or chord to that, the intervals don’t need to have a key or a name, just a DNA string of on or off notes. Using my viewpoint a major scale using a moveable Doh that I will call the key of X my description would be a formula like this:

    X major scale. 1,3,5,6,8,10,12,1.

    Therefore descriptions become easier because I’m using numbers not words (interval names like major minor or perfect) or letters with # or b As in pitch names.

    Guitar Grimoire illustrates theory in 12 boxes, worth a read even if you aren’t a guitarist. If you see the 12 chromatic boxes as three dimensional cubes you can turn the face of the cube to either on or off.

    • What you describe is the concept of Pitch Class. I agree it’s a super important tool for thinking about scales and harmony!

  7. Kraig Adkins says:

    I think about brightness often in terms of modulations, such as going from C to D, or C to G (both brightening the sound), or C to Bb, or C to F (both darkening the sound). By this approach, when we modulate from C to G, we are really going from C Ionian to C Lydian, which is a brighter mode.

    Also, more of an addendum, but interesting nonetheless: If we try to brighten the Lydian mode more, we find that the note to sharpen should be 1, making the scale #1 2 3 #4 5 6 7, which could be respelled as 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 – the Locrian mode, a semitone higher. So modulating from C to D is really going from C Ionian to C Uber-Lydian.

  8. […] The reason a major chord tends to have a happy or uplifting sound is because of something known as brightness. Brightness in music is based on the relative size of intervals in a chord or a scale. A wider […]

  9. Jeffery Branham says:

    Hello. I’m a music composer and music theorist (have been for 10 years now). Although this is an incredibly interesting and possibly working theory about the modes (much better than simply viewing them as scale degrees like the academics do), I feel like there could be one huge improvement to this theory.

    As another commenter mentioned, this theory doesn’t examine the following modes: Harmonic Major, Melodic Major, Double Harmonic Major, Harmonic Minor, and Melodic Minor to name a few. There are more heptatonic modes than that, but I digress. Here’s the way we can investigate and fix that problem…

    For your theory of brightness and darkness to be improved, it needs to be a theory that can examine ANY heptatonic scale, not simply the standard modes. As we know, the 7 traditional modes all happen to be 7 note scales (heptatonic), but again, heptatonic scales outside of this system aren’t examined.

    That’s the only missing component in your theory. I personally think this is a rather revolutionary way to view the 7 traditional modes. I commend you for pioneering this theory. It also coincides with the “circle of fifths” theory. I’ve created a different sort of model that maps each mode, including those you excluded (Melodic Major, Double Harmonic Major, etc.) by their triads.

    If my hypothesis is correct, I think I can combine your theory of brightness/darkness with the examination of triads to expand your theory so that it can be applied to all heptatonic scales. Imagine one theory that can examine any heptatonic scale… that would be groundbreakingly useful for any composer or performer (especially improv performers).

    As it stands, it looks like Dorian Mode is the medium mode, neither bright nor dark. To my ears (pun definitely intended), when I hear something in Dorian Mode, calling it neither bright nor dark sounds like an accurate description to me.

    We can do email correspondence about this. I’d like to expand your theory. First, I’ll test modes outside of the 7 traditional modes, using your theory, and see if it holds water with the more exotic heptatonic scales.

    Kind Regards,
    Jeffery Branham

  10. John DeMouy says:

    _Twentieth_Century_Harmony_ (1961) by Vincent Persichetti, a noted composition instructor at Julliard and Philadelphia Conservatory back in the day, mentions this phenomenon almost just in passing but offered a short piece in which to tonic remained consistent while the melody moved through all the modes, going from darkest to brightest. I’m going by memory here but he also discussed options and difficulties in harmonizing modal melodies,coming at it from the opposite direction of jazz improvisation as commonly taught.

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