What is the Locrian Mode: A Complete Music Theory Guide

what-is-the-locrian-modeIn the landscape of musical modes, the Locrian mode stands out as the most enigmatic and least utilized.

Characterized by its diminished fifth and minor second intervals, the Locrian mode occupies a unique space in music theory and composition, offering a sound that is both intriguing and challenging.

This comprehensive guide delves into the Locrian mode, exploring its structure, historical background, and the creative possibilities it presents to composers and musicians.

What is the Locrian Mode

The Locrian mode is the seventh and final mode of the major scale, starting from the seventh degree.

Its interval sequence is Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole (H-W-W-H-W-W-W), making it distinct from the other modes due to its diminished fifth interval from the tonic, a rarity in Western music that contributes to its unresolved and tense sound.

For example, the B Locrian mode (derived from the C major scale) includes the notes B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Characteristics of the Locrian Mode

The hallmark of the Locrian mode is its diminished fifth (tritone), which sets it apart from more commonly used scales and modes that have a perfect fifth.

This interval creates a sound that is dissonant and unstable, making the Locrian mode challenging to use as the primary tonal center in traditional harmony and melody.

Additionally, the minor second interval from the tonic adds to the mode’s tense and eerie quality.

Degrees of the Lorian Mode

The Locrian mode, known for its distinctive and somewhat dissonant sound, is built from a specific sequence of intervals starting from the seventh degree of a major scale. Here are the scale degrees of the Locrian mode, characterized by their unique intervals:

Tonic (1st Degree): The root note of the Locrian mode, serving as the central pitch around which the mode is structured.

Minor Second (2nd Degree): A half step above the tonic, this interval contributes to the mode’s tense and unresolved sound.

Minor Third (3rd Degree): A whole step above the minor second, reinforcing the mode’s minor quality.

Perfect Fourth (4th Degree): A whole step above the minor third, providing a sense of stability within the mode’s otherwise unstable structure.

Diminished Fifth (5th Degree): A half step above the perfect fourth, the diminished fifth (or tritone) is the defining characteristic of the Locrian mode, creating a dissonant and unresolved harmonic quality.

Minor Sixth (6th Degree): A whole step above the diminished fifth, adding to the mode’s overall minor tonality.

Minor Seventh (7th Degree): A whole step above the minor sixth, completing the octave and further emphasizing the mode’s dark and unstable sound.

For example, in B Locrian (derived from the C major scale), the scale would be B (Tonic), C (Minor Second), D (Minor Third), E (Perfect Fourth), F (Diminished Fifth), G (Minor Sixth), A (Minor Seventh), B. The Locrian mode’s unusual interval structure, particularly the diminished fifth, sets it apart from other modes, making it challenging but interesting for harmonic and melodic exploration.

List of Lorian Modes

Below is a list of the Locrian modes for all twelve notes in Western music. Each Locrian mode is constructed using the interval pattern Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole (H-W-W-H-W-W-W), starting from its respective root note:

  • C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C
  • C# Locrian or Db Locrian: C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# or Db, Ebb, Fb, Gb, Abb, Bbb, Cb, Db
  • D Locrian: D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D
  • D# Locrian or Eb Locrian: D#, E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D# or Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bbb, Cb, Db, Eb
  • E Locrian: E, F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E
  • F Locrian: F, Gb, Ab, Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, F
  • F# Locrian or Gb Locrian: F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F# or Gb, Abb, Bbb, Cb, Dbb, Ebb, Fb, Gb
  • G Locrian: G, Ab, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G
  • G# Locrian or Ab Locrian: G#, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G# or Ab, Bbb, Cb, Db, Ebb, Fb, Gb, Ab
  • A Locrian: A, Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, A
  • A# Locrian or Bb Locrian: A#, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#, A# or Bb, Cb, Db, Eb, Fb, Gb, Ab, Bb
  • B Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Each of these Locrian modes emphasizes the distinct characteristics of the mode, notably the diminished fifth from the root, creating the mode’s signature tension and dissonance. This quality makes the Locrian mode particularly challenging to use as the primary tonality in composition, but it offers unique opportunities for color and tension in musical pieces.

Historical Background

The origins of the Locrian mode can be traced back to ancient Greece, though its characteristics and usage have evolved significantly over time.

In medieval and Renaissance music theory, the Locrian mode was recognized but seldom used due to its dissonant intervals and lack of a perfect fifth, which was essential for the consonant harmonies favored in Western music.

As a result, the Locrian mode has remained largely theoretical, with few examples of its use in historical compositions.

The Locrian Mode in Modern Music

Despite its challenges, the Locrian mode has found a place in modern music, particularly in jazz, metal, and experimental genres, where its unique sound can be used to create tension and atmospheric effects.

Composers and musicians often explore the Locrian mode for its ability to convey a sense of darkness, mystery, or unease, making it suitable for specific compositional needs rather than as a foundation for entire pieces.

Composing with the Locrian Mode

To effectively incorporate the Locrian mode into compositions, musicians must navigate its harmonic challenges, particularly the diminished fifth. Emphasizing the mode’s minor qualities and using the diminished fifth creatively can yield intriguing results.

For instance, the Locrian mode can be used in modal interchange, providing color and tension within a piece that primarily uses other modes or scales.

Practical Applications and Tips

Musicians interested in experimenting with the Locrian mode can start by familiarizing themselves with its scale pattern on their instrument and exploring chords that highlight its distinctive intervals.

Improvisation within the Locrian mode requires a willingness to embrace its dissonant sound, focusing on creating moods and textures rather than traditional melodic lines.


The Locrian mode remains a fascinating subject within music theory, offering a window into the complexities and possibilities of modal music. While it may not be as readily accessible or widely used as other modes, the Locrian mode challenges musicians to think outside conventional harmonic boundaries, encouraging exploration and creativity.

For those willing to delve into its distinctive sound, the Locrian mode provides a unique palette for musical expression, capable of evoking deep, atmospheric, and sometimes unsettling emotions.

As music continues to evolve, the Locrian mode stands as a testament to the endless pursuit of new sonic landscapes in the art of composition.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is the Locrian mode considered challenging for composing traditional melodies?

The Locrian mode is perceived as challenging for composing traditional melodies because of its diminished fifth interval, which creates inherent instability and tension not easily resolved within the mode’s structure.

This characteristic makes it difficult to establish a sense of tonal center and harmonic resolution, which are fundamental to most traditional and Western music forms.

Can the Locrian mode be effectively used in modern music genres?

Yes, the Locrian mode can be effectively utilized in modern music genres, especially those that embrace dissonance and tension, such as certain types of jazz, metal, and experimental music. Its unique intervals offer a distinct palette for creating atmospheric depth and complexity, allowing artists to explore unconventional sounds and moods.

What role does the Locrian mode play in jazz improvisation?

In jazz improvisation, the Locrian mode is often employed over diminished chords and half-diminished chords to accentuate their inherent tension and dissonance, providing a suitable harmonic framework for solos that explore these qualities.

Although not as commonly used as other modes, it allows musicians to experiment with darker, more complex textures within their improvisations.

How does the Locrian mode impact the mood of a musical piece?

The Locrian mode imparts a dark, tense, and somewhat unsettling mood to a musical piece, primarily due to its diminished fifth and minor second intervals. This mode’s unique sound can evoke feelings of mystery, unease, or eeriness, making it particularly effective for creating dramatic and atmospheric compositions.

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