Locus Alienus

Occasionally during Song-A-Day, someone will throw out a challenge of some sort. The standing one is that February 22 is always cover day, where we’re challenged to cover one of the other songs that have been posted during the month.

The most direct challenge I’ve received was from Derek Greenberg who challenged everyone during the wrap gathering in 2017 to get out of our comfort zones and try writing things we’d never done before. I took that on and 2018 was definitely a strong year for me. There were hits and misses, but it was definitely an inspirational assignment.

But sometimes, the challenges are more spontaneous and direct. And most of the time, they come from another participant, Paul Ivey. In 2017, Paul decreed that February 20 was going to be “Disco Monday,” which led to Gonna Funk All Night, which is one of my favorites. This year, Paul threw down the modal gauntlet: Locrian Friday.

  1. Locus Alienus Ray Toler 2:56

Modes are part of music theory, just like key signatures. But theory has never been a strong point for me. I learned to read music as a child, and understand a lot of the basics, but for almost 40 years now, I’ve been almost exclusively a play-by-ear musician. Like English grammar, I don’t always know why something is correct, I just know that it sounds right.

So modes are one of those things that I know the basics of, but have no idea how to use them. In fact, locrian mode was one that I didn’t even remember the name of, and I had to go look it up. Which led me to Youtube.

For all of its faults (and there are many), Youtube has radically changed how self-education happens. In the past, I would have gone to an encyclopedia or maybe the library to read about locrian mode, then I would have gone to the piano to try and figure it out. While Wikipedia is still one of my first stops, Youtube is a treasure trove of applied science. I can watch dozens of videos with people demonstrating it, explaining it, and even writing songs in it.

I watched a few, and got a much better understanding of the technical aspects of locrian, but many of the videos did as much to show me how little I really understand modes as they did to educate me. Even when some of the tracks were being demonstrated and explained, I still didn’t fully get why certain notes over one chord were in one mode, but in a different mode over other chords, even though the key hadn’t changed.

Whatever. I only have so much time in the day, so it was time to try and write. And there were many false starts. One of the main “features” of locrian mode is that the the majority of the notes in the scale are flattened. This gives it a strange feel, and it’s one of the least used modes for western music. In fact, many of the Youtube videos had titles like “Composing with the Worst Scale Ever” and “Making the Locrian Scale sound Good?”

I finally decided to pull things way back and start with just a piano to simplify the process before adding other instrumentation. And the first bit that you hear in this track is what I played. I liked the swaying feel of it, and the repetition worked. I kept working in this fashion, writing 4 bars, repeating it, writing another 4 bars, repeating it, and it kept getting more and more hypnotic. Once I had found that first thread, the rest of the writing process was actually very fast.

Once I had finished it, it was time to add some additional instruments. The problem was that nothing added to the piece. Everything I added was a distraction or diminished it (that’s an unintentional theory pun, by the way). After trying five or six different things, I realized that this was just a piano piece. I had already selected a piano patch with a very strong affected identity, so I didn’t need to do any additional production to it.

I probably spent another 45 minutes trying to decide if anything else was needed, and the answer kept being “no.” So there you have it. As many notes as it required and not a single thing more. There’s a nagging part of my brain that says this is little more than an etude for advanced beginners – it certainly reminds me of pieces out of those old “learn your scales” piano books I used to play from, but at the same time, it feels more solid to me.

One little side note on production – this is a good example piece of not being entirely sure about what volume level I should master to. For most things, I’ve been trying to land the overall loudness level in the -16 to -14 LUFS range, which is what the major streaming services require. For quiet pieces like this, though, being as loud as a pop song might not be the right thing. Whatever You Pour I’ll Drink from 2019 is a good example – it’s at the same loudness as the rest of the tracks, but it’s way too loud for the material. I’ve never gone back and adjusted it, but it bugs me every time I listen to it. I opted to make this one a big quieter so it’s more consistent with the rest of what I’ve written so far this month. It still may be a bit loud, though.

I still have no idea if this piece is actually in locrian mode or not! It uses the appropriate scale, the correct notes, but I don’t know if that’s enough. To paraphrase the old saying, though, I don’t know if it’s locrian, but I like it.


  • Piano: Omnisphere
  • Mastering: Ozone 9

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