Fourth Mode of Limited Transposition


It has been a while, but I have returned, dear reader. No need to skip another beat – the remaining modes of limited transposition (modes 4, 5, 6 and 7) each have six transpositions – more than the first three modes, but less than your usual major/minor scale. To quote the master himself:

“One point will attract our attention at the outset: the charm of impossibilities…. This charm, at once voluptuous and contemplative, resides particularly in certain mathematical impossibilities of the modal and rhythmic domain. Modes which cannot be transposed beyond a certain number of transpositions, because one always falls again onto the same notes; rhythms which cannot be used in retrograde, because in such a case one finds the same order of values again – these are two striking impossibilities.”      -Olivier Messiaen, The Technique of my Musical Language

More transpositions means that they are slightly less impossibly charming… it is more difficult to produce the timelessness typical of Messiaen’s style with these modes, but that’s not really a big deal since nobody will ever surpass Messiaen in his Messiaen-y-ness.  Any such attempt would be a futile waste of time, and this is of little concern to composers looking to write new, different music. I continue to encourage anyone who does indeed use these to employ them differently than Messiaen did – for the love of God, don’t use them together with non-retrogradable rhythms. Many composers avoid these modes like the plague for fear of sounding too much like Messiaen, but the point is to reinterpret them in a new light. My Ouroboros Miniatures were based loosely around the third mode, and they sound absolutely nothing like him. Messiaen writes: “We shall not reject the old rules of harmony and of form; let us remember them constantly, whether to observe them, or to augment them, or to add to them some others still older (those of plainchang and Hundu rhythmics) or more recent (those suggested by Debussy and all contemporary music).”

The fourth mode of limited transposition employs the following pattern of half-steps and minor thirds:

h h h m3 h h h m3

And the fretboard diagrams with the scales in standard notation for each of the transpositions:

Fourth MLT, first transposition

Fourth MLT, first transposition

Fourth MLT, second transposition

Fourth MLT, second transpositionFourth MLT, third transposition

Fourth MLT, third transposition

Fourth MLT, fourth transposition

Fourth MLT, fourth transpositionFourth MLT, fifth transposition

Fourth MLT, fifth transpositionFourth MLT, sixth transposition

Fourth MLT, sixth transposition

As per usual, many tonal triads are present within the mode, but they lack their usual harmonic function in a major/minor system. It’s not difficult to find them, so I’ll leave it up to you rather than writing them all out again. This mode (along with the remaining modes 5, 6 and 7) is symmetrical along the tritone. This means that the pattern between frets 0 and 6, will be the same as the pattern between 7 and 12, and so on (see the diagrams for clarification). This makes them really easy to learn on guitar- you basically only need to memorize two positions to cover the entire fretboard. Seriously, just take one hour to learn one of the transpositions (I prefer the fourth and fifth transpositions because they have the most open strings in standard tuning), it will open your mind to amazing new possibilities.

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