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The Lydian and Locrian - A Wonderful Connection

In this article, we want to dive a bit deeper into the emotional relationship between the Lydian and the Locrian. It's quite astonishing how elegant and beautiful this connection is as it opens up some fascinating musical doors for composition that we want to explore further!

The Lydian and the Locrian are part of the seven Church Modes and reflections of one and another, but there's more. They seem to be contrasting as they outline the brightest and darkest end of the emotional order of the Modes, but actually, they have more in common as you might think at first.

Here's the  SECRET right away!

Let me give you the most valuable takeaway from this article right away because it's a fascinating way to think musically. We want you to implement this technique as quickly as possible and build musical confidence so that your writing becomes more original and creative!

If you've picked the Lydian scale for your composition, select all scale tones except the root and put them down by one chromatic step!

You've just switched to Locrian via a simple transposition.

In fact, we can make it even simpler!

Grab the root tone of your Lydian mode and put it up by one chromatic step!

Via the alteration of one single tone, you can switch between the Lydian and the Locrian!

I'm giving a deeper explanation of this connection below, together with musical examples. The truth is that you can apply this concept with a few mouse-clicks to any part of your composition. It's one of the quickest ways to create variations and expand on your initial musical materials without the need for fiddling around with advanced music theory.

Well, if you are an expert in music theory already, even better! Take this shortcut and apply it anyway! It's a straightforward tool but still very handy, and you should take advantage of it.

The Horizontal Formula

So, let's dive a bit deeper into why this works and how it sounds. There's one essential aspect that connects these two Modes exquisitely. Let's have a quick look at the scale tones and their horizontal formula first.

Horizontal Formula (HF): We count the distance between two neighboring notes in chromatic steps or half-steps. This process creates a sequence of numbers that is unique to each of the Modes or scales. We refer to this sequence as the Horizontal Formula.

Below you see the Lydian Mode on a C root tone with its respective horizontal formula. Keep in mind that this formula will be the same on every other possible root tone. As long as you stick to the Lydian Mode, that's the HF you'll get.

Let's see the Locrian scale next to the Lydian so that we can compare the actual numbers.

Depending on the root tone, you might potentially end up with a pretty complex notation using double accidentals, which can be quite confusing. Therefore, let's switch to Interval Theory for a moment and pay attention to the numbers only. Forget about the pitches and their notation for a second, and you'll recognize the simple pattern between the two modes. It might appear a bit abstract to you at first, but it really helps to simplify those relations.

The two sequences almost match perfectly, except for the start and end. Those numbers on the sides represent the movement from and into the root tone.

Let's bring these numbers back to actual notes so that we can see what is happening when we move things around chromatically.

Chromatic Connections

As stated above, there are two ways how we can move from the Lydian into the Locrian and back. First, we can transpose every scale tone (except the root!) down by one half-step.

You can see by the sequence of numbers that we've created a set of tones that matches perfectly with the Locrian mode.

Instead of altering every scale tone but the root, let's do the opposite. Why don't we change the root only and leave all the other scale tones untouched? Here it is!

So, in other words, it's only the root tone that puts all the different scale tones in perspective! And we've just created the Locrian mode very elegantly.

Side-note: Depending on the notation of your root tone, you might end up with enharmonic writing. If we've used Db over C#, we would have run into many double accidentals, which are not handy. We just want to point this out to please and respect all the music theory lovers out there!

The chromatic change of the root tone almost equals musical Judo! :) With little movement only, we can accomplish quite a lot! And here's even some more food for thought for you!

If you wrote some lines on C Lydian but avoided the root, the result can relate to two different tonal centers - C Lydian and Db Locrian. Welcome to the world of Bitonality! You can put a pedal tone below your lines that raises and falls between C and Db using a slow-moving glissando, and it will work.

Musical Demonstrations

Let's get to some musical examples and see how these concepts work in the application for lines and vertical structures.

Important note: You want to think of this technique as some spice that you can add to your existing ideas, and sometimes, it works best if applied to a segment of your composition only. As with everything, it's simple to overdo it, so use your ears and follow your taste when evaluating the musical result.

A single line

As usual, let's start with an unadorned melody as everybody can relate to this easily, and we want to keep it simple for the moment. Please note that we still want to include the root tone as a pedal so that you can experience the emotional context. In the example below, we switch between D Lydian and D# Locrian. You see that only the root tone moves one half-step up, all the other scale tones remain untouched.

Note: On the Locrian, we brought in scale tone -7 next to the root so that scale tone -9 doesn't sound like a bad note. It's still a 13 against the root tone, but scale tone -7 helps to see everything in a more acceptable musical context.

The example above does not bring in so much change, and it only puts the Lydian emotion into a more fragile context. Now, let's listen to the opposite approach, which is sticking to the root and moving all the other scale tones one half-step down.

You hear that it's different from the first one. As the composer, you will have to make the decision about which one to choose, and you can even combine them.

See how this musical idea can work as a motor already? It's a pretty powerful technique that you should take advantage of in your compositions, especially in textures, engines, and pedals!

Multiple Lines

Let's dive into a short composition based on various moving lines. First, we want to listen to the version based on the Lydian mode.

We've color-coded all the tonics in the piece so that you know which notes to alter next. Let's start by transposing all the scales tones (but the tonic) down by one half-step. The emotional effect when switching to the Locrian is more impactful this way.

Just for the sake of demonstration, here's the other version based on the shifted root tone.

The real character of the mode change comes to life clearly at the end when we go into the final chord structure. Since the Locrian uses scale tone -5, the tension in there is considerably higher.

Just for the fun of it, let's create a combination of both versions to get you an idea of how you can insert some colors into your writing.

Those subtle emotional changes work beautifully, and you know by now how effortlessly we got there.

Vertical Structures

When we build chord progressions on the Locrian mode, we always run into one big problem. Because of scale tone -5, we can't construct the authentic cadence to the tonic; neither can we play a perfect fifth to the root.

For the audience, this might be a bit unsatisfying, but for the composer, it becomes a valuable tool for musical storytelling. Tension and release are lovely elements that help the story move forward, so make 'this trick' become a part of your palette.

Remember, it's still the root tone against all the other tones that create dissonance or tension. Let's hear a basic progression using triads only, all based on a C Lydian tonality.

Next, let's shift either the root tone up or all the other tones down, all by one half-step. You might want to play these two versions against the original progression on Lydian to hear the emotional differences.

But how does this concept work with more complex chord structures, like 9ths or 13ths? As usual, we want to put it to the test and see what comes out of it. 

The application of a technique is not a substitute for using your ears to evaluate the musical outcome!

In the following example, we left the idea of using an overall tonality. Instead, we want to consider every root tone as a temporary tonal center, but the Lydian mode remains our constant throughout the whole progression.

Let's transform the whole line into Locrian by raising all tonics by one half-step. As you can see, we haven't touched any tones in the treble, and for the sake of an easier visualization, let's use an enharmonic notation.

You notice those little rubs showing up here and there. That's a beautiful way to bring in "controlled dissonance" into your Lydian chord progressions. But our intention is not to replace the whole Lydian flavor but to give ourselves some musical options to choose from. So, let's create a mixture of both versions by merely following our taste and emotional decision-making. And keep in mind that there are no wrong decisions here!

This little sketch sounds very musical already, but let's develop it a bit further and use the strings section to replace the sound of the piano. Let's get rid of these blocky shapes and re-write those into lines that weave together instead. We can bring in Diatonic passing tones (DPTs) or even alter a note chromatically in case we want to leave the mode.

So, here's a quick development of the sketch. We've followed the same color-coding from above so that you notice the original materials that started the sketch.

If you've followed this article up to this point, the whole process of how we got to this short strings piece should be quite simple and clear. We've picked a chord progression based on the Lydian mode and replaced some of the steps with the Locrian pendant. The development uses only scale tones, that's pure Diatonic writing, but does it sound Diatonically to you?

Imagine, we would have started our journey by asking you to write such a piece on your own without any further information or instructions, would you have been able to do this? - You don't have to answer because NOW YOU ARE!

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Knowing those 'little tricks' is essential to experience musical freedom and avoid dead ends in your writing. The connection between the Lydian and Locrian is fascinating and an excellent source of inspiration to create so much beautiful music, from romance to action to friendship to mystery.

So, as usual, here's a short summary of what you should remember:

  • The Lydian and the Locrian are connected via chromatic relation
  • Move the root tone of the Lydian up by one half-step to change to the Locrian and vice versa
  • Bring down all the scale tones of the Lydian (but the root) by one half-step to move into the Locrian and vice versa
  • The Horizontal Formula (HF) of the Lydian and the Locrian are very similar
  • You can apply this technique to a portion of your composition only to add color, spice and variation


The chromatic shift of the root is not limited to Lydian/Locrian, but those are the only ones that keep you within the seven Church Modes, and sometimes, that is what you want. Write something on the Lydian first (a line, or a chord progression), and then move scale tone 1 up to change everything to the Locrian. Now, you've given yourself great material to work with. You can use a mixture of both versions to spice up your Lydian composition!

Et voilà!

Frank Herrlinger

Co-founder and instructor at Music Interval Theory Academy