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 scales 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 minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor, and the distinctive moods each evoke (refer to Portland Piano Lab’s guide for a refresher).
But something gets left out.
Western 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 music modes. Their names are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, named after ancient Greek modes. They are also sometimes referred to as church modes.
While some music 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 music 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 – Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian – and how they are connected to the major scale and natural minor scale, how to easily understand and relate the modes 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?
Let’s start with a bit of music theory.
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. In fact, we can derive each other mode from a single major scale.
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 bit of music theory will make sense in a minute!
The Major Scale
Let’s look at our beloved C major scale. Remember, C major has a very simple key signature – no sharps or flats!
The tonic note, C, holds the key of C major together and ensures that the major scale has a tonal center.
Look at the space between the notes of C major, and you see a string of tones and semitones, also known as whole steps and half steps:
Every major scale retains this whole step-half step pattern, regardless of its key signature. No matter what key a major scale is in, it will have the same intervals – and these intervals and note relationships give the scale its sound, its “essence”.
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:
Not quite a major scale anymore, is it? 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, as it was in C major. 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:
Definitely not a major scale, let alone a C major scale! The third and seventh degrees have been lowered, creating a whole new scale with new intervals. 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!
We can think of the C major scale as the “mother” of all modes.
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 – Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian – has a distinctive tone-semitone pattern that is responsible for:
- The intervals in the mode, and therefore the relationships between the notes in each mode
- The unique mood and character of each mode
Each mode is derived from the major scale we know and love, and can be understood in relation to the major scale. 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 major scale-derived 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, and how to derive them from our C major scale. Starting with a familiar 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, the major scale or Ionian mode has a distinctive tone-semitone pattern, as discussed above, and this pattern gives the mode its characteristic sound. The C major can also be called the C Ionian scale – the two names are interchangeable.
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 – just like there is little tension in the major scale! Each phrase resolves nicely to the tonic of G – and sure enough, the piece is therefore written in G Ionian mode (a.k.a. G major). 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 (these are still technically the same notes as the C major scale or C Ionian uses!), return to D, and you’ve got yourself a Dorian mode. The D Dorian scale uses all the same notes as the C major (or C Ionian), but sounds quite different from a major scale. What do you hear?
Gone is the happy-go-lucky tone of the C 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 scale degree (C Ionian has a major third between the first and third scale degree).
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 scale degree in the Dorian mode:
Only one of the intervals is different when comparing the two scales. 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 scale degree “bright spot” gives a hopeful feeling to an otherwise sad song:
The Phrygian Mode
The next mode we’ll look at is the Phrygian.
Let’s take the notes of C Ionian as our starting point again. This time, start on E, the third scale degree of the C Ionian, and play all the way up the piano’s white keys until you hit E again.
Your whole step-half step pattern has shifted again from the C major or C Ionian pattern of T-T-ST-T-T-T-ST, to become ST-T-T-T-ST-T-T.
This is another minor mode, with the only difference between the Phrygian mode and the natural minor scale being the presence of a minor second interval in the Phrygian mode:
You might listen to it and be reminded of Flamenco – and rightly so! The Phrygian mode belongs right at home in that southern Spanish art form.
However, being a minor mode with a minor third interval – and being quite a close cousin of the natural minor scale – the Phrygian mode 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:
Phrygian is a great mode to reach for when the natural minor scale doesn’t quite have the “doom” factor you’re looking for.
The Lydian Mode
You know the drill by now: start on the F note, the fourth scale degree of the C Ionian, play up the white keys, and finish on F, for a pattern of T-T-T-ST-T-T-ST. There’s your Lydian.
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”, which nicely makes use of the Lydian mode:
The Lydian 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.
The Mixolydian Mode
Start on the fifth scale degree of the C Ionian. 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 scale degree (the G major scale would have that sharpened F):
This flattened seventh scale degree is what gives the Mixolydian mode both its distinctive sound and its variety of uses in music. Most notably, because the flattened seventh scale degree exists in 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th chords, the Mixolydian mode 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 the 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, the sixth scale degree of the C Ionian, 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? Just as the Ionian mode is another name for our classic major scale, the Aeolian mode is the modal name given to the natural minor scale.
If you want pure, undiluted sadness, you’ll want the Aeolian mode or natural minor. You’ll hear it in the mournful “Losing My Religion”:
This Aeolian mode wistfulness is a great fit for blues, jazz, and downtempo ballads in the genres of rock, folk, country, and pop. The notes of the natural minor are just perfect for conveying pure sadness.
The Locrian Mode
Time to look at our final mode.
The Locrian mode is the bogeyman of the musical modes – unsettling, odd, and by far the least-used of the seven. People generally don’t know what to make of it, and we’re about to hear why.
Start on B, the seventh scale degree of the C Ionian, 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:
Quite a far cry from the natural minor, no?
We’ve talked about intervals, and how they contribute to the sound of a mode. Let’s take a closer look at how the intervals of the Locrian mode contribute to its spook factor.
The presence of a tritone and a lack of perfect fifth make this sequence of notes incredibly dissonant and resistant to resolution. The Locrian mode is technically a minor scale, but sounds so odd that it may deserve a category of its own!
It’s so unstable that our ear has difficulty hearing it as Locrian mode in a musical context – 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 a lack of a perfect fifth – the fifth scale degree is flattened. 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. Additionally, the flattened fifth creates the interval B-F – this is the tritone, the scariest of all intervals. Just try playing it on your instrument.
So where do we find this chilling, unsettling minor scale?
Its creepy quality has occasionally been exploited by heavy metal guitarists, who will build progressions based on the Locrian scale and its intervals (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 minor scale to write a pop hit:
This is written in C Locrian mode. 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!
The Locrian is by no means a common scale in popular music – it is by far the least-used mode, and even “Army of Me” isn’t 100% in Locrian, as its chorus has perfect fifths!
Internalizing the Modes
So there you have it, the seven modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian!
It’s a great idea to memorize or at least become familiar with that order of modes – it’ll be easier to know which note of the C major scale to start on to derive each mode – start Dorian on D and play white keys ascending until you’ve played an octave, start Phrygian on E and play white keys ascending until you’ve played an octave, Lydian on F and play white keys ascending until you’ve played an octave, and so on. So take a moment and say to yourself: “Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.”
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.
Spend more time on the modes that aren’t the Ionian (major scale) or Aeolian (natural minor scale) – those two scales are already at least somewhat familiar to you, and it’s a great idea to spend some time exploring those new modes!
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, playing a simple melody. 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. The Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian are the major modes, while the Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian modes are minor.
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 natural minor or Aeolian melancholia. Simply calling them major scales or minor scales doesn’t do them justice!
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!