Tonal Polymodality in Tool’s Aenima
Episode 22nd February 2023 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:35:43

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In this week's episode Frank Nawrot and Matt Ferrandino analyze three tracks from Tool's 1996 album Ænima that exhibit tonal polymodality, which is the use of simultaneous or juxtaposed modes that share the same tonal pitch center.

This episode was produced by David Thurmaier.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season02/.

Transcripts

0:00

[SMT-Pod opening theme music playing]

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod! The premier audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this week's episode Frank Nawrot and Matt Ferrandino analyze three tracks from Tool's 1996 album Ænima that exhibit tonal polymodality, which is the use of simultaneous or juxtaposed modes that share the same tonal pitch center.

Frank:

Hello, I’m Frank Nawrot.

Matt:

And I’m Matt Ferrandino.

Frank:

Today we’ll be discussing tonal polymodality in the music of the metal band Tool. Tonal polymodality describes music that has a clear tonic and which stacks multiple modes with the same tonic and moves between two or more modes over the course of a piece. When we say “tonal” we are referring to the fact that Tool’s music has a clear pitch center, a tonic, but it is not functionally tonal.

Matt:

Now when we’re talking about modes, we’re referring specifically to modern diatonic modes. We’ll split the modes into two categories, major modes and minor modes. Major modes having a major third above tonic and include Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian. Minor modes having a minor third above tonic and include Aeolian, Dorian, and Phrygian. There are numerous examples beyond Tool, in popular music, that use these modes. For example, “Waterfalls” by TLC makes use of the Mixolydian mode. Frank can you give us a quick playthrough of a Mixolydian Scale?

Music:

[Guitar Scale]

Matt:

So mostly major sounding, but with a lowered scale degree seven. Another example, “Oye Como Va” by Santana uses a Dorian mode. Frank can you play us a Dorian scale?

Music:

[Guitar Scale]

Matt:

Another example is “Voodoo” by the band Godsmack, which makes use of a Phrygian scale. And again Frank can you play us one of those?

Music:

[Guitar Scale]

Matt:

Cool. So that’s what we’re talking about with modes in this context.

Matt:

The polymodal part is worth unpacking at this point, just for some clarification. You may have encountered the term, particularly with Bartok’s music talking about polymodal chromaticism. Jose Oliviera Martins talks about this in Bartok’s music where he’s using layered scales or layered modes, but there isn’t a pitch center as a common element between the modes being used. For Bartok, there is a goal of chromatic saturation rather than a more centered use of different scales and different modes.

Frank:

Yeah and tonal polymodality is not a new phenomenon, it’s present in a lot of, if not most, blues music. For example, in the song “Blues Before Sunrise” by Elmore James, all of the chords here are major chords, or dominant 7th chords, in D major, but the singer and all of the improvised guitar solos generally stick to the D-minor pentatonic scale, resulting in a clash between F# in the accompaniment but an F natural in the voice and improvised parts. Let’s listen to some of that tune.

Music:

[Elmore James, “Blues Before Sunrise” [0:10-0:36]]

Frank:

This also happens in Tool’s music when chords and melody are built on different modes, as in the blues song we just listened to, but because of the riff-based nature of Tool’s music, the interaction between the various modes can be also contrapuntal.

Frank:

I want to talk about how we came to this topic. Maybe four or five years ago, I think I was just bored and decided I was gonna learn some of these songs by Tool from the album Aenima, which is my favorite album of theirs, it’s their best-selling album, and it’s sold four million copies so far.

Matt:

And it was released in 1996 correct?

Frank:

Yeah, ’96. So it’s a widely listened to piece of music. So I sat down and tried learning some of the riffs. I was learning the riffs and even transcribing some of them, transcribing some of the vocal melodies and I noticed that some of the riffs would be in like Aeolian or Dorian or Phrygian in one section and then in the next section they’d be using a new mode, but kind of staying with the same tonic. I noticed sometimes too that the bass would be in one mode and the guitar would be playing in another mode at the same time, or the same thing would be happening between the guitar and the vocals. Different modes happening across time or at the same time across parts, or even in the same parts.

Frank:

So that’s how I was like “Ok, I maybe there’s a paper here.” It was really just me learning some music that I had always loved and finally learning how to play it on my guitar and bass. And then finding out something really cool that I think was worth analysis.

Matt:

Right. Now Frank, you’re a composer and your dissertation actually unintentionally utilizes some of this tonal polymodality, correct?

Frank:

Yeah, so, I swear it was not on purpose, I wasn’t trying to emulate Tool but it sort of, it’s bound to happen when you write music. The music you create is sort of a synthesis of all the music you’ve heard, so in my case some Tool is gonna come out!

Matt:

Right So this is interesting that Frank didn’t even realize this really until we started doing these analyses in more detail and structuring them and putting them together. So can we actually just start off by listening to an excerpt from Don Henry, your opera?

Frank:

Yeah, so What we’re about to hear is just the very beginning of a track, let’s listen to it and then we’ll explain what’s going on.

Music:

[Don Henry excerpt]

Frank:

So in this excerpt the overall tonic is A, but the bass is playing sometimes in A Aeolian sometimes though it’s playing in A Phrygian. So the difference between Aeolian and Phrygian is that Phrygian has a flat two scale degree, so the first three notes would be A, B-flat and C, and in A Aeolian you have A, B-natural and C. So it moves between those two modes. Sometimes the guitar clashes because the guitar is consistently in A Aeolian, so the guitar is playing consistent B-naturals while the bass will sometimes play a B-flat. So that clash there is an example of tonal polymodality, which I accidentally stole from Tool, you know, don’t sue me.

Matt:

And that Phrygian aspect occurs at the end of the bass riff, so maybe we can listen to just that really quick, the bass ostinato one more time?

Frank:

Yeah, and I can play it on my guitar really quick. There are times where the B-flat and the B are really close in proximity, but because of the range difference between the bass and guitar that separation and the separation over time it doesn’t sound crunchy. So here’s what the bass part sounds like.

Music:

[Bass ostinato on guitar]

Frank:

And then here’s what the guitar part sounds like.

Music:

[Guitar arp]

Matt:

In this particular example from Frank’s piece, we are hearing simultaneous different modes. Another way that tonal polymodality can occur is to juxtapose different modes, moving from one mode to another over the course of a section, but retaining the same pitch center.

Frank:

Yeah and to orient our ears to this phenomenon, to juxtaposed modes, let’s listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” In this excerpt the opening horns and chords are in E-flat Aeolian, which then shifts to E-flat Mixolydian when the verse begins.

Music:

[Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" [0:17-1:04]]

Matt:

Before we talk about tonal polymodality in Tool’s music it’s worth mentioning that there’s really not a lot of Tool scholarship out there. Kevin Osborn and Brad Osborn take a look at the album Aenima from a production angle, looking at how the album was produced, how it was recorded, what equipment and processes and techniques were used, but they don’t really focus too much on the compositional components of the track.

Matt:

Recent metal scholarship in general tends to focus more on rhythm, Olivia Lucas’s work on the band Meshuggah in particular. from a broader cultural perspective, Lori Burns has looked at aspects of agency and performance in heavy metal music videos. With regards to pitch, Ciro Scotto has presented a method of analyzing riffs in metal music using pitch-class set analysis. Our approach considers riffs and melodies in Tool’s music in the context of combining different modes that share the same pitch center.

Frank:

Yeah, so now that we’ve given you this sort of broad overview of what tonal polymodality is, I think it’s time we listen to some Tool.

Matt:

Let’s do it.

Frank:

The first song we’re going to be talking about today is the song “H.” And again, all these tracks are from Tool’s album Aenima. Let’s discuss the first method of using tonal polymodality, which is juxtaposed modes. And with this method it’s quite simple, it’s exactly what it sounds like, it’s simply one mode then another, where the tonic stays the same. The main thing here is that you’re having one mode followed by another, either between parts or within the same part. For this song, the tonic is D, and let’s just listen to the first excerpt we’re going to be dealing with and see if we can hear the change of modes between the initial guitar riff and the voice and guitar parts that follow.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 1, Verse]

Frank:

So that pre-verse guitar riff is centered on D but it includes a B natural. Let’s listen to that isolated guitar part.

Music:

[“H” Verse Guitar Riff]

Frank:

So with a D tonic that includes a B natural, and a minor third above the tonic, that’s D Dorian. When the vocalist enters, the guitar part changes mode and plays some B-flat ornaments while the vocalist sings B-flats. With those B-flat ornaments you’re gonna hear [Guitar demo], that changes us to D Aeolian. So now we have a B-flat instead of a B-natural, we’re moving from D Dorian to D Aeolian. This is an example of tonal polymodality with juxtaposed modes.

Matt:

Can we listen to the riff in context one more time?

Frank:

Yeah, let’s listen one more time.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 1, Verse]

Matt:

Next, let’s listen to the prechorus, where we get a guitar riff that’s basically in D Aeolian. Let’s start with the isolated guitar riff.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 2, Guitar Riff]

Frank:

So here’s is our method for labeling modes when we only have four or five notes, an incomplete collection to work with: we look for either a major or minor Third above tonic to determine quality of mode - then we will look for characteristic tones, for example a raised 6th scale degree in a minor mode would be Dorian - If there are no characteristic tones, we will default to a major or minor (Ionian or Aeolian) label.

Matt:

Right, so we’re calling the guitar riff we just listened to D Aeolian in this case. Returning to the prechorus, something interesting happens when the vocals come in. The singer actually sings some C-sharps on top of this D Aeolian Riff. While this isn’t necessarily a different mode he does do a similar technique by adding the C-sharp in, which could be heard as the leading tone to D, so let’s give a listen to the excerpt now.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 2, Prechorus]

Frank:

So here we’re hearing very clear juxtaposed modes, different modes happening between sections. Now, let’s talk about the chorus of this song. In the first chorus the bass and guitar perform in tutti with the vocalist and all the pitches fit within a D minor pentatonic scale, which fits into the Aeolian scale. So let’s listen to the first chorus.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 3, Chorus]

Frank:

What’s really cool and perhaps, to me at least, the coolest thing that happens in this song is the fact that the final chorus of the track, the vocal melody gets repeated as we just heard, but with a Phrygian reharmonization. Instead of playing in unison with the vocalist, the bass and guitar now perform a rising pattern through the first four power chords of the D Phrygian scale. And we just heard the chorus, so let’s just listen to the isolated guitar from the last chorus. So this, what we’re going to be hearing now, is that Phrygian reharmonization.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 4, Last chorus guitar]

Matt:

So we hear the Phrygian lowered scale degree two pretty clearly in that isolated riff, so can we listen to it now layered with the original vocal melody from the first chorus?

Frank:

Yes, absolutely.

Music:

[“H” Excerpt 4, Last Chorus]

Matt:

The three excerpts we just listened to from the track “H” all had kind of different uses of juxtaposed modes, all with more or less the same tonic center, or the pitch center staying on D. And it stays pretty much on D the entire track, right?

Frank:

Yeah.

Matt:

Let’s move on to another track “Stinkfist.” Similar to “H,” This track also utilizes some instances of juxtaposed tonal polymodality. In particular we get some juxtaposed modes within a guitar riff now. This occurs later on in the middle of the bridge section. So let’s listen to that first.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 1, Bridge]

Frank:

So now let’s listen to the isolated guitar part from the part of the bridge that we just listened to. The tonic of this track is E, and what you’re going to be hearing is parallel ninth chords, that have the root, fifth, and major 9th, so no thirds. You’re going to be hearing a C9, a D9, by a B9. So the C chord that we hear, has a C in it. and then the last chord that we hear, the B9, has a C# in it. In this instance of juxtaposed modes we’re getting the characteristic 6th scale degrees of both the Aeolian and Dorian modes (natural 6 and raised 6th respectively). We wanted to share this example because it uses juxtaposed modes in a chord progression rather than in riffs. So let’s listen to that isolated guitar part.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 1, Guitar riff]

Frank:

So at the end there, those arpeggios were the C9, the D9, and the B9.

Matt:

We’ve heard several examples of juxtaposed modes in Tool’s music but there are also instances where modes occur simultaneously. This is essentially something that happens when instead of moving from one mode to another, we’re getting two modes happening in two different voices at the same time. So for example the guitar is playing in one mode and the vocals are singing in a different mode at the same time within the same section, but they share the same pitch center still. So let’s listen to an example of this from the chorus guitar riff followed by the vocals that come in on top of the chorus. As we listen, see if you can identify the modes being employed by the different instruments. Note that both share an E center, and we’ll start by listening to the chorus riff isolated from the context.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 2, Chorus Guitar riff]

Matt:

You may have noticed that there’s a halfstep or flattened scale degree 2 above that tonic E, this makes it Phrygian since we also get a minor third above E, g natural. It’s primarily minor with a flat two so we’re in Phrygian. Frank can you play the riff a little more slowly to emphasize where that F occurs.

Frank:

Yeah, and I’ll turn off the distortion as well so you can hear it a little better [Demo]. So right there at the end is where you get that F ornamentation [Demo]. And you know it’s brief but it’s there, you’re getting that F natural, that’s very indicative of the Phrygian mode, that’s one of those characteristic tones, that flat two. If you’re writing music and you want to sound like you’re in the Phrygian mode you gotta do that.

Matt:

Now let’s listen to the chorus excerpt and see if you can identify what mode the vocals are in.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 2, Chorus]

Matt:

So the vocal line, particularly on the lyrics “we belong together,” has a pretty clear F# in it. We’re still in the minor mode but we get an F natural at the end of that guitar riff, making it E Phrygian, while simultaneously the vocals sing in E Aeolian, with that natural scale degree two, F-sharp.

Frank:

So now, can we talk a little bit about the spiciest part of the song, the prechorus.

Matt:

Yeah the prechorus is fun. So we’re going to listen to the excerpt from the track and we’ll unpack it a little bit and we’ll kind of guide you through the listening, but we’re going to ask you to do some work here as well. Particularly, we’re going to be listening for what two modes are being used simultaneously and again this is going to be between the instruments, the guitar and bass riffs, against the vocals. So we’re isolating them that way. But let’s listen to the excerpt for context first.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 3, Prechorus]

Matt:

Since we’re going to separate this out into Guitars vs. vocals, let’s listen to the isolated guitar riff on its own and see if we can identify the mode.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 3, Guitar Riff]

Matt:

We don’t get a lot of pitches here but we get enough to make a pretty good assumption of what the mode is. It’s primarily minor, we get that minor third above the E pretty clearly, and really we don’t get many other characteristic tones, right?

Frank:

Yeah and you know, what you’re getting is an E power chord [Demo] and then a G major triad. So the overall harmony is like an Em7 chord. and then you get that lowered seventh back up to tonic [Demo].

Matt:

So we can put an Aeolian label on it. Now we’ll play the vocal pitch while the isolated riff is going on. We’ll listen to it out of context, and Frank you’ll play the vocal pitch on the piano while we’re listening or do you want to sing it?

Frank:

Yeah, I’ll just sing it. So you’re getting this Em7 chord in the guitar and the bass, all the while the singer is singing [Demo]. So with that E pitch center, and the descending vocal line ( G# F# E D ), that would indicate Mixolydian. In the riff we hear clear G naturals while the vocalist sings G#s. What we’re getting here is Aeolian in the guitar and bass, and Mixolydian in the voice simultaneously during the chorus.

Matt:

Can we listen to the excerpt again, just to put it back into context now. Again we’re listening for Aeolian versus Mixolydian inflections or characteristic tones. Definitely Something major against something minor going on.

Music:

[“Stinkfist” Excerpt 3, Prechorus]

Frank:

Cool, yeah so like you said, minor mode in one, major mode in the other, very cool very hip, very 1996.

Matt:

Right, so that’s “Stinkfist.” Let’s move on to our third track then, which is “Eulogy.” Similar to “Stinkfist,” this track uses a mix of simultaneous and juxtaposed modes, both within and between sections. Also like “Stinkfist,” E is again our tonic for this track.

Frank:

This one’s probably our most complex example. We really encourage you to listen to all these songs, but this one, it’s a longer song first off, but it also has just so many instances of this tonal polymodality we’ve been discussing. And if you’re having trouble hearing the polymodal nature of this music. That’s ok! For me I only became consciously aware of it when I actually learned the music, when I learned how to play it. When I started playing the riffs, transcribing some of the melodies. and This example we’re about to go through is again, probably the most complex so far, so just be patient with yourself, and if you can’t hear what’s going on right away, learn the riffs, listen to it, transcribe it if you want to be a nerd like me, but it’s kind of tricky to hear, so be patient with yourself.

Matt:

It’s also worth reiterating that we are making some assumptions in labeling modes. We’re not getting the full scales in some of these excerpts, but you know we’re sort of deducing what the characteristic scale degrees or chromatic alterations from our usual major and minor scales are for those modes, and using that as kind of a guiding point as well.

Frank:

Yeah, so let’s talk about the song “Eulogy”.

Matt:

As you may recall from our previous case study of “Stinkfist” the last section we listened to, which was the prechorus, had this instance of a major vocal line going on over a more minor guitar riff. And we get a really similar thing in the bridge section, or one of the bridge sections of “Euology,” it’s kind of a multipart bridge thing at the end of this piece. But we get a similar thing where we get a Phrygian guitar riff and a G# in the vocal melody. So let’s listen first to the guitar riff.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 1, Bridge Guitar Riff]

Frank:

Here we’re getting a Phrygian guitar riff, just like in the previous example from “Stinkfist.” It’s in Phrygian, which is one of the minor modes

Matt:

And in the vocal part we’re getting G# a lot, suggesting a major mode with an E tonic.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 1, Bridge]

Frank:

Now let’s listen to another part of the bridge and here you’re going to be hearing the bass start, and the bassist will be playing in one mode, and then, spoiler alert, the guitar will come in playing in a different mode. So let’s practice trying to hear what these modes are. Is one in a major mode or a minor mode? If you can start to hear that, then you can narrow it down from there. And if you hear chromaticism that can help you, if you’re hearing half-steps that shouldn’t be there between the two parts, then that will give you some clues as well. So let’s listen to this excerpt from another part of the bridge from “Eulogy” and we’ll unpack it together.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 2, Bridge2]

Matt:

It may be a bit hard to hear in context, so let’s take them out and isolate them as bass and guitar riffs and listen to them separately. Let’s start with the bass and see if we can identify the mode.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 2, Bass Bridge2]

Matt:

Alright, maybe you have something in mind but before we go and do the big reveal let’s go ahead and listen to the guitar part, also on its own. see if you can come up with a mode for the bass and a mode for the guitar and then we’ll go through what they are.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 2, Guitar Bridge2]

Matt:

If started out by thinking both are sort of minor-y, then you’re on the right track, that’s great! They are both minor-inflected modes. Frank, what did you get for the bass?

Frank:

For the bass, it’s a little tricky cause there’s some, just like in functionally tonal music there’s some chromaticism that muddies the water a little bit, but I’m hearing a Phrygian bass line here. I’ll play that a little bit on my guitar cause if you’re listening on your phone or something you’re not going to be getting all those low frequencies, so here’s what that bass riff sounded like, but on guitar, an octave higher [Demo]. So I’m saying Phrygian because you’re getting that E, and then it walks up to F, up to G. And then at the end it sort of turns around on this D#, which is that chromatic note within that E Phrygian mode. So the D# leads us back into E, pretty cool, but that D# definitely muddies the waters, but very much a Phrygian riff.

Matt:

Before we move on to the last section for this track let’s listen to the two isolated parts we just listened to together.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 2, Guitar and Bass Bridge2]

Frank:

So the Last thing we’re gonna to talk about from “Eulogy” is its chorus. Let’s first listen to the isolated guitar part, and again let’s see if you can identify what mode we’re in. I will say that this one is pretty clear, but again, but be patient with yourself, if you’re having trouble hearing it that’s ok.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 3, Guitar Chorus]

Frank:

Ok, so the guitar riff we just heard was pretty clearly in Aeolian, E Aeolian, you’re getting E power chords, B power chords, A and G power chords. Now let’s talk about the vocal melody–what’s cool here is that the vocal melody is doing some juxtaposed modes within its own line, while simultaneously performing modes other than those in the guitar part. So lets’ go ahead and listen to the excerpt, and try to identify what’s going on, try to identify that on your own, then we’ll unpack it together.

Music:

[“Eulogy” Excerpt 3, Chorus]

Frank:

So if you weren’t sure what was going on with the vocal melody there, that’s ok, it’s pretty tricky to hear what’s going on there.

Matt:

It sounded like major-y thing then minor-y thing combined, or happening within that vocal melody.

Frank:

Yeah, so in the vocal melody of the chorus we’re hearing the juxtaposition of E-Mixolydian and E-Aeolian. Sometimes you’re getting that major third above tonic, the G# and sometimes you’re getting the minor third above tonic, G-natural

Frank:

This song in particular is the most complex one in terms of tonal polymodality. So please do listen to the whole song and see what little gems you find, and see if these concepts make more sense after unpacking it a little bit more on your own.

Frank:

So to recap, tonal polymodality refers to music that is tonal, has a clear pitch center, but also uses juxtaposed or simultaneous modes. This also describes a lot of blues music, which has a clear pitch center and uses different modes. In the Tool examples we listened to, we encountered tonal polymodality happening simultaneously between guitar riffs and vocal melodies as well as juxtaposed between sections. This approach can be useful for considering pitch content not only in Tool, but in other music as well.

Matt:

Yeah, we’ve looked at a bunch of examples by Tool, but this does happen in other music as well. So far we’ve found it most often in genres or popular tracks that are riff-based or use some sort of layering technique.

Frank:

Yeah so like hip-hop or EDM.

Matt:

Right, we’re gonna end our episode today with something for you to ponder, one track we’d like you to listen to and see if you can identify some instances of tonal polymodality.

Frank:

The track is “Mumbo Jumbo” by Tierra Whack, we’ll play a little bit of it for you just to get your interest piqued, but please go and listen to it, it’s a really cool song and we believe it uses tonal polymodality, and if you can do some analysis of your own to either confirm or deny that theory, that would be really fun. Thanks for listening today and have fun listening to “Mumbo Jumbo” by Tierra Whack.

Music:

[“Mumbo Jumbo” Excerpt]

Frank:

[Spoken over closing music:]

We would like to thank Jennifer Beavers and Megan Lyons for their role as editors for SMT-Pod. We would also like to thank Anna Rose, our production team member, for her help with permissions and navigating us through the creation and production process.

Our sincerest thanks to Ciro Scotto for his supportive comments and critical suggestions to our early draft of our script, his input helped us solidify and clarify our episode.

SMT:

[Spoken over closing music:]

Visit our website smt-pod.org for supplemental materials including information about the audio excerpts used in this episode. On our website, you can learn how to submit your own episode proposal. Join in on the conversation by tweeting your questions and comments about Matt and Frank's episode or about publication through SMT-Pod @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Thanks for listening!

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