Understanding Modes

The modes of the major scale are a great source of musical material for compositions and improvisations, but are often confusing for those who are just beginning to approach this topic. I’m going to try and lay this out as simply as possible.

First of all, you need to understand the major scale and how it’s built. Let’s take the C major scale as an example. The notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Now imagine this same group of notes, but change the “tonic” or starting note to each of the different notes in the scale. What you get is something like this (name of each mode is given at the start):

  1. (Ionian/major) C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. (Dorian) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D
  3. (Phrygian) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E
  4. (Lydian) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F
  5. (Mixolydian) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G
  6. (Aeolian/natural minor) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A
  7. (Locrian) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Notice that because there are seven different notes in a major scale, there are seven possible modes of the major scale. When naming them, you name it from the appropriate new tonic of each mode, e.g. G Mixolydian or E Phyrigian.

Now let’s take a look at the interval pattern of these modes. An interval is the distance between two notes that are measured in units of tones. A tone is the equivalent of a two fret spacing on the guitar. For example, the interval between the notes C and D are a tone, while the interval between E and F are a half-tone.

  1. Ionian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5
  2. Dorian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  3. Phrygian: 0.5, 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  4. Lydian: 1, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5
  5. Mixolydian: 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1
  6. Aeolian: 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1
  7. Locrian: 0.5, 1, 1, 0.5, 1, 1, 1

Where we start to learn the characteristics of each mode is when we start to apply these interval patterns from the same tonic note (C).

  1. C Ionian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
  2. C Dorian: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C
  3. C Phrygian: C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  4. C Lydian: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C
  5. C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C
  6. C Aeolian: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
  7. C Locrian: C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C

Now you can clearly see which notes are the same or different in comparison to the major scale. From here you can categorize the modes as either major or minor modes, which is defined by the the presence of a major 3rd or a minor 3rd. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

If I were to vaguely define the overall feel of each these modes, I would describe them like this:

  1. Ionian: bright, happy, stable
  2. Dorian: a minor scale with a bit of brightness, common in jazz and pop
  3. Phrygian: a darker minor scale reminiscent of Flamenco and Spanish music
  4. Lydian: a brighter major scale with mystical qualities
  5. Mixolydian: bluesy
  6. Aeolian: minor scale reminiscent of classical music
  7. Locrian: weird sound, rarely used outside of jazz

Don’t be too concerned if it still doesn’t make sense to you. At the very least, play the modes in the third list provided and you will immediately HEAR the difference even if you don’t understand why. Try using them in your compositions and improvisations, and let the theory make sense later on!


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