Modes - An Introduction (lesson)

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Modes are a subject that come up a lot on the forums, and in various lessons. The first question most people ask is "What is a mode?" followed by, "What are they good for?" We'll take a look at both questions in some detail in this multi part lesson. In this series of lessons lesson we'll take a look at modes at a high level before diving into detail on each mode (there are 7 of them!)

A Little Bit of History

You can skip this section if you want, but I thought it might be interesting to give you a little bit of history around modes.

Modes were first referred to by the Greeks. Each mode was named after groups of people such as the Ionians, Dorians and Aeolians, or places around Greece such as Locris, Lydia and Phrygia. Greek philosophers believed that not only was the music characteristic of the people or region, but in fact, the very nature of the music affected peoples outlook in those regions. They ascribed emotions such as Sadness to particular modes such as the Mixolydian. The Greek modes and the modes we use today are not comparable. Over thousands of years musical theory and translation errors have shifted meanings such that even comparably named modes are now completely different.

Modes were used a lot in church music in the middle ages, although they were by then already very different from the modes the Greeks used. In particular, the Church modes developed along with Gregorian chants, which use 8 different modes. The modes used in this way work well to give the chants an ethereal quality to our ears as they are different from the major and minor scales we are so used to. In church modes as well, the actual root scale notes in use were restricted, unlike in modern usage.

So What Are they?

I'll put you out of your misery now - a mode is a variation of a scale. As we have learned, each scale be it major, or minor, is characterised by a particular pattern of tones and semi-tones. For instance, our old friend the major scale is built from the formula 2 2 1 2 2 2 1, which describes the gaps between each of the 8 notes (if you are unfamiliar with this formula, check out my Major Scale lesson here before you go any further). A mode of a scale is simply a variation of that scale in which the pattern of Tones and Semitones in its formula is changed. For instance, we might construct a scale like this : 2 1 2 2 2 1 1 (this actually gives us the Dorian Mode of which more later). There are specific rules used to generate the modes of a scale which we'll look at later, but the description above is the essence of what modes are.

What Use Are they?

Just as we use the major and minor scales to create different effects within a song, we can also use modes to change the entire feel of a song. Some modes are very slightly different to scales we are already familiar with, others are quite strange sounding, but all can be used to great effect to alter the underlying way a song sounds, just by using notes from a particular mode to compose your melody from. A song composed using the Dorian, or Phrygian modes will sound very different. Each mode has a characteristic feel and lends a different character to the song.

Now, the good news is that you have definitely used a couple of modes already, and there is a very good chance that you have used a couple of others without really thinking about it. That's the thing about musical theory - a good percentage of it is devoted to describing stuff that you actually do already

What are they really?

In this lesson we are going to describe modes as variations of the Major and Minor scales, and understand that the minor scale is itself a mode of a major scale and can be described as a variation of it. Using this approach, we can group Modes into two main families and think about them in a more practical and accessible way than in the purely theoretical approach presented in the next lesson.

As we know, all scales can be described by a formula - for instance 2 2 1 2 2 2 1 for the major scale. To get the modes of a scale we simply alter the formula in a predefined way to generate a different sounding scale, whilst keeping the root notes the same. Each mode has its own distinctive sound and feel, because of the different selection of notes.

In order to understand this approach you will need to be familiar with how the major scale is put together(here), and also with how we name intervals, described here.

There are seven modes of the major scale, and they are called: Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian Since we are talking about the Major modes in this lesson, we will first focus on the Major scale which is the foundation of the family of scales that we are talking about. Since you all know the Major scale by now, this one is easy, and is in fact our first mode, and is called the 'Ionian' mode (they are the same thing).

Ionian Mode

What we are going to do for each mode is look at how it varies from the Major scale it is derived from. In interval terms, the Major scale or Ionan mode is:

Root Major 2nd Major 3rd Perfect 4th Perfect 5th Major 6th Major 7th Octave

Or more simply:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

The formula for a Major scale as you should know is 2 2 1 2 2 2 1

For each mode we will give an example scale in the key of C. So for Ionian, the scale of C Major, or C Ionian is:


Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian mode is also known as the Natural minor scale and has the following intervals:

1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7

As you can see, there are 3 notes different between the major and minor scale - the b3, b6 and b7.

Formula for the Aeolian Mode is 2 1 2 2 1 2 2

Our C Minor or Aeolian scale is:

C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

The Families

Now we have 2 modes, Ionian and Aeolian. Otherwise known as the Major and Minor scales. The defining feature of Major vs Minor scales is the 3rd note of the scale. The other notes are important but not as important as the 3rd. This means that we can characterize the rest of the modes as being Major or minor in character, based on whether they have a regular 3rd or a flat 3rd. This is extremely useful - moving from a Major or Minor mode to a mode in the same family is not such a big leap in musical terms and can add interest to a composition.

Now we are in a position to look at the rest of the modes, and we will describe them in terms of how they vary from either the minor or the Major scale using those scales as a basis.

The Majors

Lets take a look at the Major family first.


The Lydian mode is a Major scale with a sharpened 4th. In interval terms it is:

1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Formula for the Lydian mode is 2 2 2 1 2 2 1

Our C Lydian scale is:

C D E F# G A B C


The Mixolydian mode is a Major scale with a flattened or dominant 7th. In interval terms it is:

1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Formula for the Mixolydian Mode is 2 2 1 2 2 1 2

Our C Mixolydian scale is:

C D E F G A Bb C

The Minors

Next, lets look at the minor family.


Dorian mode is a minor scale with a major 6th instead of a minor 6th. In interval terms it is:

1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7

Formula for the Dorian Mode is 2 1 2 2 2 1 2

Our C Dorian scale is:

C D Eb F G A Bb C


Phrygian mode is a minor scale with a flattened 2nd. In interval terms it is:

1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7

Formula for the Phrygian Mode is 1 2 2 2 1 2 2

Our C Phrygian scale is:

C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C


Finally we have Locrian. Although the Locrian has a minor 3rd, it also has a flattened 5th, which makes it a diminished scale. So although we will put it in with the minors, it isn't a perfect fit. It is a Minor scale with a flat 2nd and a flat 5th. In interval terms it is:

1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7

Formula for the Locrian Mode is 1 2 2 1 2 2 2

Our C Locrian scale is:

C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C

Mode Comparison

Now that we have listed all of the modes and seen how we can get to them from a closely related Major or Minor scale, it should become obvious how they compare. To make the point clearer, lets look at our example scale all the modes together in one place:


The reason I have laid all the scales out in this way is to illustrate how the modes compare. As you can see, they all Have the same root notes, but differ in the intervening notes. It is a source of confusion to many people how the modes are actually different, and this is usually down to the fact that when learning modes in the first place they were introduced to relative modes before they fully understood what modes are. Relative modes do in fact share the same notes, but this is a realization that is best left until after modes are fully understood. As you can see in the table above, there is no mistaking the fact that modes that share the same root notes are very different scales.

It is a feature of the way that modes are constructed that if you start your scale a note higher, and at the same time shift along one in the list of modes, you will end up with an identical list of notes. For instance, C Major has the same notes as D Dorian. However, C Major and C Dorian are very different as can be seen. Comparison of modes to understand their musical properties and flavour should always be done with identical root notes to avoid confusion. The concept of relative modes whilst extremely important is very often misunderstood and should be put to one side until you fully understand modes.

Oh, and just for fun, since this came up on the forum one time., the Spanish names for the modes are as follows:

In spanish the name of the modes are:

Modos: 1 Jonico (mayor) 2 Dorico 3 Frigio 4 Lidio 5 Mixolidio 6 EĆ³lico (menor) 7 Locrio

In the next modes lesson we will look into the theory of this a little more deeply.

I hope you found this introduction to modes useful, comments on the forum as usual!