Modes are probably the scariest and least understood aspect of music theory.
So, in order to keep the confusion to a bare minimum, I’m going to try to explain what MODES are and then try to explain in excruciating detail the differences between the two most common ways MODES are used.
This page has the following sections:
- Why Learn Modes
- What Are Modes
- Mode Naming Convention
- A Closer Look
- Parallel Modes
- The Moods of Modes
WHY LEARN MODES?
SCALES and MODES are so intricately intertwined that it makes no sense whatsoever to try to split them apart. As a matter of fact, I personally believe that teaching mode theory should replace teaching scales. Why teach people MAJOR and MINOR scales only to revisit the subject at a later date to explain that a MAJOR scale that starts on the TONIC is in IONIAN mode and that the SUB-MEDIANT of that scale will always be the TONIC for that scale’s RELATIVE MINOR or AEOLIAN mode?
Why not just learn the various mode connections and patterns from the start?
It’s not like there are a gazillion modes – there are 7 commonly used MAJOR modes (some will argue that point)! And of that 7, only the first 6 are really worth investing time to learn. The 7th mode (Locrian) might be useful for something dark, brooding and discordant, but unless you’re chasing the jazz improv monster, you’ll probably be better served using your time to learn the other 6 and what they sound like.
They are, in order:
- Ionian (MAJOR)
- Dorian (minor)
- Phrygian (minor)
- Lydian (MAJOR)
- Mixolydian (MAJOR dominant)
- Aeolian (minor)
- Locrian (diminished)
Given a little context, MODES really aren’t that hard to understand.
Unfortunately, there’s an awful lot of gobbledygook floating around the Internet that would lead you to believe that they’re reserved for only the most gifted of musicians – not true! I’m going to show you everything you need to know to get started with modes. Including the 2 main ways they’re used and why they confuse the crap out of people!
Once you understand the process, it’s yours to use forever.
WHAT ARE MODES
At their most primitive, a MODE is simply a child scale whose starting point is located within a parent scale. Which basically means it uses the same notes (is ENHARMONIC) and is therefore in the same KEY thus making them RELATIVE.
IMPORTANT! Just like scales, MODES are simply patterns of INTERVALS. Nothing more, nothing less. Get them right and you’ll always be perfect.
From the graphic below, you can easily see that if you were to play the C MAJOR scale starting from its TONIC that you’d be playing the IONIAN MODE. If you were to start on D you’d be playing the DORIAN MODE of C. If you were to start on E you’d be playing the PHRYGIAN MODE of C and so on.
Did you also notice that if you went from C to C in either octave that the half-tone interval pattern starting from the TONIC was 2-2-1-2-2-2-1? And if you then went from D to D (starting on the SUPERTONIC) that the half-tone interval pattern changed to 2-1-2-2-2-1-2? These patterns are the very basis of ALL scales and MODES.
MODE NAMING CONVENTIONS
An important note on MODE naming conventions: they’re kinda weird.
When describing a mode, the proper terminology is to state the note, then the mode.
For example: C Mixolydian
This doesn’t mean that you count forward 5 scale degrees (Mixolydian is the 5th mode of C MAJOR – C,D,E,F,G). and start on G. Fat chance – that would be too easy and make far too much sense. Instead, you have to subtract 5 scale degrees from C to get the root of the parent scale (C,B,A,G,F).
A CLOSER LOOK
Notice how in the following graphic the SCALE DEGREE and MODE names repeat from OCTAVE to OCTAVE or in the example below C to C. It doesn’t matter if the ROOT note was C, D, E or A – this is a constant. Also note that the DEGREE EXTENSIONS don’t change – and why should they? In the 2 octaves shown, they’re always going to refer to 2 HEPTATONIC SCALES for a total of 15 degrees. 2 HEPTATONIC scales (7 each) plus the middle TONIC (I).
So the math is 7 + 1 + 7 = 15 scale degrees (including extensions).
On the other hand, the SCALE DEGREE quality (represented by Roman numerals), NOTES and half-tone INTERVALS will change depending on the SCALE or MODE. For instance, in the following graphic of D DORIAN notice the changes.
It uses the same notes, and is therefore still in the KEY of C, but it now starts and ends on the 2nd note of the C MAJOR scale (D) and creates a completely different set of CHORD QUALITIES! The chord qualities of IONIAN MODE (I, IV, V or C, F, G) are all MAJOR whereas the chord qualities of D DORIAN (i, IV, v) contains 2 minors and 1 MAJOR (Dm, G, Am).
Now for the tricky part!
For my money, this is where it’s easiest to hear the differences in the various MODES. It’s also where the vast majority of people get absolutely lost. While the RELATIVE method keeps you in the same KEY by shifting the ROOT from note-to-note, the PARALLEL method uses a singular ROOT note and rotates the INTERVAL patterns around that note or one of its associated CHORDS.
Now, it should be a “duh!” moment (or DOH! if your name is Homer) that if you start from the same ROOT note and change the INTERVAL pattern that the notes are going to change as well – which they do. As a matter of fact, you’re not just changing notes – you’re also changing KEYS!
In the following example, this is how the KEYS would change if you were to use C as the ROOT note and then rotated the MODE patterns around that note.
C D E F G A B C
C D Eb F G A Bb C
C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C
C D E F# G A B C
C D E F G A Bb C
C D Eb F G Ab Bb C
C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C
C D E F G A B C
Check out Parallel Mode Finger Patterns for more information.
THE MOODS OF MODES
Modes create moods.
For the most part, MAJOR MODES will be fairly bright and happy whereas the minor modes will be dark and brooding. Ironically enough, even though IONIAN is considered the first mode, it is not the brightest mode. For that, you’d have to look to LYDIAN. The reason is simple. LYDIAN contains no flats and a single sharp (as evidenced by the above patterns). Next would be IONIAN with no sharps or flats and then MIXOLYDIAN with a single flat. So basically, all of the MAJOR modes have a lighter/brighter feel when played.
It doesn’t take too much imagination as to the direction of the minor MODES.
In order from light to dark:
- LYDIAN (1 sharp / MAJOR)
- IONIAN (0 sharps, 0 flats / MAJOR)
- MIXOLYDIAN (1 flat / MAJOR)
- DORIAN (2 flats / minor)
- AEOLIAN (3 flats / minor)
- PHRYGIAN (4 flats / minor)
- LOCRIAN (5 flats / diminished)
If you take away anything from this section, it should be this: MODES are SCALES and SCALES are MODES. They’re both based on INTERVAL patterns and create melodic moods over chord based harmonies.
Learn the patterns and you’ll always be right!