Scales are pretty incredible. A collection of notes played in ascending order has the ability to tell a story and convey a mood. Within that linear sequence of notes, there is tension and resolution.
Some music theory courses and curricula would have you think that major and minor are the be-all and end-all of the world of scales. If you’d like your music to sound cheerful and bright, stick to the major scale. If you’re trying to write a melancholy number, minor scales are your best bet. Within the minor scale family, students often learn about the natural, harmonic, and melodic minor, and the distinctive moods each evoke (refer to Portland Piano Lab’s guide for a refresher).
But something gets left out.
Music Theory 101 and practical lessons often neglect to mention that there’s a whole other collection of scales that can evoke moods and atmospheres beyond the cheerful-morose binary.
These scales are called modes.
While some modes certainly sound more cheerful than others and can be divided into “major” and “minor” modes, they each lend a feeling to the music that is more subtle – certain modes can sound haunting, triumphant, mysterious, or jazzy. They can recall music indigenous to a certain part of the world. And, when used in certain ways, they can stir up a cauldron of conflicting moods.
Sound intriguing? It should! Human emotion is complex and multifaceted, so why shouldn’t we show that through the music we make?
In this guide to musical modes, we’ll give you a guided tour of the seven modes found in Western music, how to easily understand and relate them to one another so there’s no confusion, and how you can incorporate them into your improvisation, songwriting, and general understanding.
What is a Mode?
A mode is simply a scale derived from the major scale we all know and love – but we change which notes play which roles, and which are emphasized. This is achieved by changing our starting note.
Huh? Why should that make any difference? It’s the same notes, after all!
It turns out, the order in which you play notes is just as important as which notes you play. Bear with us – this will make sense in a minute!
The Major Scale
Let’s look at our beloved C major scale:
The tonic note, C, holds the scale together and ensures that the scale has a tonal center.
Look at the space between the notes, and you see a string of tones and semitones:
Now, what if we played the C major scale, but started and ended on D instead of C? We’d be using the same notes – all white keys on the piano – with only a minor adjustment.
It turns out, this “minor adjustment” totally changes the relationships the notes have to one another, and the sound of the scale. Take a listen:
Instead of a T-T-ST-T-T-T-ST pattern, we now have a T-ST-T-T-T-ST-T pattern. The C note is no longer the center of the scale’s tonal universe. Something’s changed. The scale degrees have been altered, as we can see if we write out the Dorian mode in C, using the characteristic T-ST-T-T-T-ST-T pattern:
The third and seventh degrees have been lowered, creating a whole new scale. Though Dorian in D uses all the same notes as the C major scale, there’s a huge difference in sound.
Moving the Tonic
If you can understand the concept of getting from the major scale to the Dorian mode, congratulations – you can now easily derive every other mode!
If you play a scale on each of the seven white keys on a keyboard, using only white keys ascending until you reach that same note, you derive the seven modes. Each mode has a distinctive tone-semitone pattern that is responsible for:
- The relationships between the notes in each mode
- The unique mood and character of each mode
Each mode is therefore derived from the major scale we know and love, and can be understood in relation to it. For an aural explanation of deriving each mode from the major scale, tune into Music Student 101’s excellent podcast episode on the topic.
There is another way of deriving each mode from the major scale by lowering certain scale degrees, as the Treble & Bass Project explains. However, for the purposes of this article, we will be going by the all-white-key approach for maximum clarity and understanding.
Let’s dive right in, moving the tonic one white key up each time, and examining how this shift in tonic affects the sound of each new scale we discover.
The Seven Modes of the Major Scale
Time to take a closer look at all seven members of this lovely family. Starting with an unlikely member…
The Ionian Mode
Otherwise known as the major scale.
You read that right! The major scale itself is a mode, and it’s alternately called the Ionian mode. Like all other modes, it has a distinctive tone-semitone pattern, as discussed above, and this pattern gives the mode its characteristic sound:
As goes almost without saying, the Ionian mode sounds bright and happy. Listen to Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”:
No doubt you’ve heard the piece before, but take a listen to the full composition anyway – both because Bach deserves it, and because with a thorough listen, several things become evident.
There is little tension and no moodiness present in the piece, and each phrase resolves nicely to the tonic of G – and sure enough, the piece is therefore written in G Ionian mode. The piece sounds pleasant, predictable enough, and quite “airy”. Fittingly enough, “Happy Birthday” is also in Ionian mode.
The Dorian Mode
Start on the note D instead of C, play your way up the piano using only white keys, return to D, and you’ve got yourself a Dorian mode. What do you hear?
Gone is the happy-go-lucky tone of the Ionian mode – it has shifted to something a little more serious. The Dorian mode is considered a minor mode, owing to the minor third interval between the first and third degree of the scale.
Remember how we praised the modes for their ability to communicate nuanced emotion? The Dorian mode is a fantastic example of this – it’s not all doom-and-gloom simply because it’s minor. The major sixth interval lends this mode a “brightness” that separates it from sounding the same as a natural minor scale – in fact, if we compare D Dorian to a D natural minor scale, we’ll see that the only difference is that raised sixth degree in the Dorian mode:
Just one of many incredible examples in which a single note changes the whole mood of a sequence!
The Dorian mode is often described as melancholy yet optimistic, and is therefore well-suited for its natural habitats: jazz, blues, and this classic Chris Isaak tune about bittersweet, unrequited love. Pay attention to how that raised sixth degree “bright spot” gives a hopeful feeling to an otherwise sad song:
The Phrygian Mode
Start on E, and play all the way up the piano’s white keys until you hit E again.
Your tone-semitone pattern has shifted again, to become ST-T-T-T-ST-T-T.
This is another minor mode, with the only difference between the Phrygian and the natural minor scale being the presence of a minor second interval in Phrygian:
You might listen to it and be reminded of Flamenco – and rightly so! This scale belongs right at home in that southern Spanish art form.
However, being a minor mode with a minor third interval, it has a dark side, too. Notice the minor second interval – this starts the scale off on a darker note than, say, Dorian, and makes this mode perfect for conveying tension, foreboding, and doom with heavy metal guitar solos:
The Lydian Mode
You know the drill by now: start on your F note, play up the white keys, and finish on F, for a pattern of T-T-T-ST-T-T-ST.
Wait, hold on… what is that floaty, mystical sound?
The Lydian mode is the strange, ethereal sibling of the mode family. You’re listening to something that sounds like the major scale, until that fourth note hits, and suddenly, you’re left floating in space:
There is little tension or direction in the Lydian mode, lending it a sense of perpetual rest and resolve – a welcome respite from the darker, more heavy Dorian and Phrygian modes.
Listen to Elliott Smith’s floaty, relaxed “Waltz #1”:
This mode is well-suited for adding an air of mystery, calm, and floatiness to your music, but can also convey a sense of wonder and grandiosity – so much that the scores of many cult classics like E.T., Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future use the Lydian mode. Just don’t look for this mode in thrillers and horror films – this one is a major mode!
The Mixolydian Mode
G to G on the white keys of the piano yields the Mixolydian mode, another close relative of the major scale – with the one difference being a flattened seventh degree (G major would have that sharpened F):
This flattened seventh degree is what gives the Mixolydian mode both its distinctive sound and its variety of uses in music. Most notably, because the flattened seventh exists in 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th chords, the Mixolydian is beautifully suited to solo over many chord progressions that use these kinds of chords – think jazz, funk, and blues.
To hear the Mixolydian mode in action, we need look no further than the homogenous yet undeniably powerful and anthemic music of AC/DC, a band that takes blues and rips it wide open:
Though undeniably a major mode, the Mixolydian has an edge to it – making it something resembling the major scale’s bratty younger brother with a rebellious streak.
The Aeolian Mode
Prepare for a small serving of deja vu.
Start on A, play your way up as always, and end on A. What do you hear?
That’s right – we’ve arrived at the natural minor scale. Sort of like rediscovering a long-lost friend, no?
If you want pure, undiluted sadness, this is your scale. You’ll hear it in the mournful “Losing My Religion”:
This wistfulness is a great fit for blues, jazz, and downtempo ballads in the genres of rock, folk, country, and pop.
The Locrian Mode
This is the bogeyman of the musical modes – unsettling, odd, and by far the least-used of the seven.
Start on B, and play your way through to the B above it on white keys. You know you’ve done it right if you feel a sense of what-on-earth-did-I-just-play:
The presence of a tritone and a lack of perfect fifth make this sequence of notes incredibly dissonant and resistant to resolution.
It’s so unstable that our ear has difficulty hearing it as Locrian mode – instead, it is often instead perceived as a major, minor, or Mixolydian scale, depending on phrasing and notes used!
There’s a reason for this: in the modes we discussed above, the tonic typically gives the scale a place to “rest”, or feel natural. In the above example, however, you’ll notice that your ear puts up a great fight against hearing “B” as the tonic note.
This happens because of the presence of a tritone and a lack of a perfect fifth. This creates a root chord of B, D, and F – a diminished triad where the third and fifth are flattened, compared to a major triad. This diminished triad is inherently unstable.
So where do we find this chilling, unsettling minor scale?
Its creepy quality has long been exploited by heavy metal guitarists, who will build progressions on the Locrian scale (albeit usually with a perfect fifth above the root, which takes away some of the spook factor).
Björk, our favourite Queen of Avant-Garde, managed to use this strange, inaccessible mode to write a pop hit:
This is written in C Locrian. And it does resolve to C, as much as it can – though it does bend your ear into all sorts of shapes in the process!
Internalizing the Modes
Now that you have a rough idea of what each mode sounds like, it’s time to test it out for yourself.
Grab an instrument, preferably a polyphonic one. Piano works perfectly, guitar works well, and here’s a virtual piano you can play with your computer keyboard that is perfect if you don’t have an instrument well-suited for this exercise.
Step 1: Create Your Drone
With your left hand, hold down one non-sharpened, non-flattened note (a white key on the piano) so that it is a sustained, consistent sound – use the middle pedal on your piano, if you have one.
The note “D” is a great place to start!
Step 2: Improvise Overtop
With your right hand, improvise overtop of the drone with only the white keys. Congratulations – you have achieved modal improv!
How, you may ask?
Your left hand has established the tonic, and the sustained note serves as a consistent reminder of just where the gravity of your little improvisation lies. The notes you play with your right hand are understood by your brain in relation to the drone.
Step 3: Play Around With Drones
When you were improvising over your “D” note, you were actually improvising in Dorian! See how easy that was? Simply by sticking to the white keys and establishing a tonal center with your left-hand drone, you’ve created some song-worthy melodies.
Now, shift your drone to a different note, rinse, and repeat. This is an exercise that will keep you entertained and learning for hours, as you take note of the unique feel that each different tonal center lends to your composition. Have fun!
Diving Deeper into Modes
Now that you have a basic understanding of what each mode sounds like and you’ve gotten the chance to play around with them, you have the option of furthering your understanding by exploring more of the music theory behind modes, and by applying various learning tools you already know. Here are some ideas:
- Use the solfège system to internalize each mode. Choral Director magazine conveniently lists the solfège syllables you’ll need to sing and understand each mode.
- What are the “special notes” in each mode, the ones that really give the scale their feel? In many cases, there’s more than one! Michael Pitluk explores this topic in his zippy, engaging video tutorial.
- Go beyond simply playing the modes “up-and-down”, and focus on practicing them in a way that really brings out the characteristic sound of each one, as Jeff Schneider explains.
- Learn the chords that go well with each mode – this will add a fantastic new dimension to your composition and songwriting. Anne Crosby Gaudet has created the perfect tutorial to get you started.
Modes and their Flavours
You’ll have noticed that each mode can be described as major or minor, depending on the presence of a major third or a minor third interval.
However, modes are more accurately described as flavours of major and minor – compare the floaty, calm feeling of the Lydian to the driven, positive character of the Mixolydian, or the Locrian’s chilling minor to the Aeolian’s melancholia.
Modes therefore function to add a very human dimension to the music you insert them into; working beyond happy and sad, and exploring some deeper, nuanced emotions. Which one best suits your mood?
As you begin to explore modes, use the modal improv trick to experiment with each one and get a sense of its sound. This will help you internalize it, recognize it in music, and eventually, put it to use in your own compositions!
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