In Western music, most compositions use either a major or minor diatonic scale. But within the diatonic system are seven musical modes based on seven differing scales. These modes include Ionian, Phrygian, Dorian, Aeolian, Locrian, Lydian, and Mixolydian scales, named after specific regions in Ancient Greece.
The Ionian scale is considered the primary major scale because of its overarching structure that combines the three primary harmonic functions of tonic, dominant, and subdominant in a universally appealing manner.
The Lydian mode primarily uses the same notes as the Ionian mode, except for the fourth note of the scale, which is raised by a half step, giving the scale its bright tone.
This article will examine various works composed using the Lydian mode throughout history, from medieval pieces to modern pop music, including examples from YouTube.
Quick Recap: What is the Lydian Mode?
The Lydian mode is the 4th mode of the major scale and is named after the language of the people living in the Iron Age kingdom of Lydia in Ionia of Ancient Greece.
In Greek, Lydia means ‘beautiful one’ or ‘noble one.’
Songs written in the Lydian mode generally have a bright, happy sound due to the scale’s super-major nature.
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras considered the Lydian mode to be the most optimistic and hence an ideal scale for promoting human goodness and uplifting the spirit.
To play a Lydian scale, you use this formula of whole steps and half steps between each of the notes:
W – W – W – H – W – W – H
Which in the key of C, would use the notes: C – D – E – F# – G – A – B – C
Now that we’ve established what it is, it’s time to look at some examples of music that uses the Lydian Mode.
1. St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney – Hymn To St. Magnus
In the 13th century, this song in F Lydian was written for the Earl of Orkney, later St. Magnus, who was murdered in 1116 by his Norwegian cousin, Hakon.
The song has a decidedly uplifting feeling compared to many other post-mortem commemorative works of the medieval era.
Unlike a traditional requiem, this memorial song uses the bright Lydian mode to express gratitude for the Christian works and guidance the Earl provided his fellows during his lifetime.
2. Guilielmus Messaus – Nato nobis Salvatore
Flemish composer Guilielmus Messaus (1589-1640) was famous for his cantiones natalitiae, or Christmas songs.
The Nato nobis Salvatore has proved an enduring example of the church’s fondness for songs written in Lydian mode.
The Lydian mode was particularly favored in religious songs around the festive Advent, Christmas, and Easter seasons.
3. Ludwig von Beethoven – String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor Op. 132
After recovering from an illness that he feared would mean his death during the winter of 1824-1825, Ludwig von Beethoven wrote the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor Op.132.
His near-death experience is immortalized in the third movement of this piece, which bears the inscription, “Song of Thanksgiving to God for recovery from illness in the Lydian mode.”
Widely considered one of the most significant movements Beethoven wrote, the Lydian piece resonates with a journal entry he made during his illness stating, “for God, time absolutely does not exist.”
Despite the song being composed in a minor key, this third movement effectively incorporates the Lydian mode to give the third movement a decidedly cheery feel in contrast to the more somber entirety of the work.
4. Charles-Valentin Alkan – Allegro Barbaro
“Allegro Barbaro” is one of the most intriguing piano works composed in Lydian mode, penned by French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) as part of his collection, 12 Etudes in All the Minor Keys.
This Op. 35 is the fifth of Alkan’s etudes, written sometime in the mid-1840s and published in 1847.
Despite the title of his collective work, this rondo is written and performed using a nominal F major Lydian scale, playing only white keys throughout.
5. Claude Debussy – L’isle joyeuse (The Joyous Island)
20th-century composer Claude Debussy is known for his unconventional take on classical romantic music, bridging the musical worlds between the romantic and impressionistic musical eras.
Debussy’s use of modalities was as flexible and relaxed as his rhythmic fluctuations.
In L’isle Joyeuse, Debussy uses the Lydian scale to create a bridge between whole-tone and diatonic scales, using A Lydian, in contrast to the F Lydian scale predominantly favored by classical composers before him.
The solo piano piece begins in a whole tone scale, transitioning into a Lydian scale in bars 15-21 by adding a G natural tone and keeping a Lydian A major with the addition of Lydian D sharp tones before returning to a transposed whole tone scale and resolving in a pure A major by the end of the song.
6. Frederic Weatherly – Danny Boy/Londonderry Air
English composer Frederic Weatherly wrote Ireland’s favorite folk song in 1913 to the original tune of the Irish “Londonderry Air.”
Although the song’s lyrics express the feeling of homesickness and hopelessness that makes the music sound sad, the soaring melody over a chordal progression in a C minor Lydian scale combining gives the song an uplifting lilt in contrast to a melancholy verbal expression.
The origins of the original melody remain a mystery, but the song’s composition is sometimes attributed to a blind Irish harpist named Rory Dahl O’Cahan in the mid-1500s.
Legend has it the harper fell with his harp on his way home in a drunken stupor.
After some time, the harpist became aware of a magical melody wafting across the breeze and began to play it on his harp.
From there, the song took on a life of its own and endures to this day, with Elvis Presley eventually stating centuries later, angels wrote the song.
The melody is now played on stages across the globe by the most acclaimed musicians in the world.
7. Fleetwood Mac – Dreams and Landslide
Two of the band Fleetwood Mac’s most popular songs make use of Lydian scales and harmonics.
Although written are in different keys, the sister songs share a general feeling that resonates with audiences similarly.
If you like the song dreams, you almost certainly love the song Landslide as well.
However, there is a noticeable difference in feeling, caused mainly by the differences in tempo and key.
Dreams is written in a simplified F Lydian scale, using only two notes – F and G, or I and II, along with a speedier tempo to create the song’s upbeat nature.
Landslide uses a C major scale in Lydian mode with a much more complex chord pattern and a slower tempo to convey the song’s more melancholy feel.
These comparison/contrast of these two songs provide an excellent example of how changing the key and tempo of a mode can change its overall texture.
8. Super Mario Galaxy
The soundtrack for Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy video game could be considered the epitome of modern Lydian mode songs.
It’s often lilting, sometimes dramatic, but always uplifting instrumentals lend an inspired backdrop to the game that keeps players engaged for hours.
The game’s sweeping soundtrack is so inspiring, it has spurred many a high school concert band and college orchestra to learn and perform various episodes from the soundtrack.
9. Legend of Zelda
We can’t mention Lydian mode in gaming soundtracks without crediting the Legend of Zelda soundtrack.
Arguably the first gaming soundtrack to include an immersive soundtrack, despite the low quality of the sound compared to modern gaming soundtracks.
The original RPG’s running theme is written mainly in Lydian mode, and it showed future game developers how important an inspiring motif is to keep young players engaged.
10. Ancient Greek Music Ensemble Synavlia – The Bee
Stefania Gatsakou, Petros Tabouris, and Petros Tampouris comprise the modern musical collaboration, Ancient Greek Music Ensemble Synavlia.
Their song, “The Bee,” written in Ancient Greek Lydian mode, presents a fine example of what the original Lydian songs may have sounded like using era-appropriate instrumentation and composition.
This piece includes the lyre, a stringed instrument that was the ancient precursor to the modern acoustic guitar, the seistron, a type of rattle, musical chimes, and the aulos, an ancient version of a clarinet or oboe.
11. Danny Elfman – The Simpsons Theme
One of the Western world’s most recognizable ditties, The Simpsons theme song is also the most famous composition of Danny Elfman’s career.
While many people consider The Simpsons theme song to be composed in Lydian mode, the 12-note motif is more Lydian dominant than true Lydian, thanks to the quirky opening arrangement.
12. Comp. Steve Porcaro Ft. Michael Jackson – Human Nature
Initially penned by songwriter Steve Porcaro, the song Human Nature was recorded and popularized by pop star Michael Jackson.
The song’s use of the F Lydian scale embodies everything Lydian – upbeat, lilting, fresh, moving.
The song uses mainly F and G chords in verse, adding an Em and Dm in the fourth line of each section before evolving into a more complicated chorus structure.
We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the world of Lydian mode music.
We’ve covered a long history of Lydian mode’s use in compositions from medieval to classical to folk to pop and modern thematic stylings.
We hope you’ll be able to recognize Lydian modes more easily when you listen to music in the future.