Klezmer tunes often use groups of notes and musical progressions and harmonies that differ from those common in Western music. We can arrange these collections of notes into patterns of relationships and call them modes to help understand klezmer music better; to become comfortable with non-western tonalities; so we can predict what might happen next in melodies, and perhaps even write our own in the idiom; and to be secure when using micro-improvisation to vary melodies. The most common klezmer modes are represented here like scales, but be aware that notes might occur or change in unexpected ways depending on where in a tune you are, and also that klezmer tunes not only use combinations of these notes and progressions, but also those found in western major and minor scales!
A klezmer mode may be referred to in more than one way. One name is generally the name of a Jewish prayer mode, and the way the modes work in tunes (particular figures, modulation and so on) can reflect the structure of prayers sung/chanted in those modes. Spellings of the names of modes are very variable, as they are transliterations from Hebrew and Yiddish.
Characteristics: this mode has a flatted second degree, then a third degree as in a major scale. This gives it a very distinctive sound. Two notes under the tonic (home note) the sixth degree is as in a major scale, whereas above the tonic it's flatted.
Chords: the home chord (I) is major, and the other most important harmony chords are VII minor and IV minor.
Also called: Ahavo Rabo / Ahavah Rabbah ('Great Love')
Similar to: Hijaz maqam
Manuscript for Galician Sher, by Vladimir Schapiro (Library of Congress, USA)
Characteristics: a third degree as in a minor scale and raised fourth degree are the key features in this mode. The sixth degree, while generally as in a major scale, is flexible, and the fourth degree is also sometimes not raised. Under the tonic (home note) there is a semitone to the next note down, whereas above the tonic the seventh degree is minor.
Chords: the home chord (I) is minor and the other important harmony chords are V major and IV minor.
Also called: Romanian mode, Gypsy mode, (altered) Ukrainian Dorian, Doina Mode, Mishebeyrakh, Mi Shebe(i)rach ('He Who Blesses')
Similar to: Niqriz maqam
Manuscript for Odessa Bulgar, by Abe Schwartz (Library of Congress, USA)
Characteristics: this is a natural minor mode, with a minor seventh degree. The second degree is sometimes lowered on the way down, which some people regard as a sub-mode or variant called Yishtabakh ('It Shall Become Superb'), which also features a flatted fifth degree.
Chords: the home chord (I) is minor. The other important harmony chords are V major and IV minor. When the second is flatted, VII minor comes into play as a chord, as with freygish.
Also called: Minor mode, Natural minor mode, Magein Avot ('Shield of our Forebears')
Similar to: Nahawand maqam
Manuscript for tune recorded as Yidish Khusidl, in the collection of Max Leibowitz (Library of Congress, USA)
Characteristics: this mode is like a normal major scale, but with a minor seventh degree. When it goes over the octave, there is a minor tenth degree.
Chords: the home chord (I) is major, and the other important harmony chord is V major.
Also called: Major Mode, Hashem Molokh, Adonai Malach ('God Rules')
Manuscript for Yasser Bulgar, arranged by Harry Kandel (Library of Congress, USA)