Modes & How To Use Them

Weekly Newsletter #45

June 16, 2022

You’ve probably heard of modes before, but do you really know what they are, how they work and when to use them? 

If not, this is going to be an eye-opener for you. 

Most of the time when people refer to “modes” they are referencing the major scale and those modes associated with it. However, there are other scales that can be used to derive modes as well, but today we’ll focus on the major scale modes. 

In order to understand modes it’s important you have a sense of familiarity with the major scale, enough that you can understand the scale degrees and the intervals within the scale. 

What Are Modes? 

Essentially a mode is when you begin a scale on any note other than the root note of the scale. Since there are seven different notes of the major scale you can derive seven modes from one major scale. 

The names of the seven modes are: 

-Ionian 

-Dorian 

-Phrygian 

-Lydian 

-Mixolydian 

-Aeolian 

-Locrian 

We’ll get into each of this in a moment. 

To outline this discussion we’ll use the C major scale as an example. 

C-D-E-F-G-A-B 

Obviously this scale starts on the root note C, however if you instead started the scale on D you would be using the second mode of the C major scale (Dorian). 

All the notes would remain the same but with a different starting note: 

D-E-F-G-A-B-C 

This probably seems like a distinction without a difference. Who cares what note you start on if it’s just a C major scale right? 

Wrong. 

The implication of modes has a lot to do with the harmony of the music you’re playing. But before we get to that it’s important that we outline the scale degrees of the major scale so we can then compare it to the modes. 

Understanding Scale Degrees 

The C major scale written out in degrees looks like: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. 

Compare that to the relative A minor scale, which would look like: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7 

Notice that three of the scale degrees of the A minor are “flatted”. This is an important distinction because the major scale is always considered the default scale and any deviation from that must be notated with a sharp or flat to signify the difference between that scale and the major scale. 

When applying this to modes it outlines very important differences between each mode and the parent major scale from which it is derived. 

As I said there are seven modes of the major scale, but luckily for you two of them should be pretty easy. 

The first mode is technically just the major scale itself since it begins on the first note, or the root note of the major scale. This mode is called Ionian (but most people will just call it a major scale instead since the terms are interchangeable). 

The second one you already know is the sixth mode because that is the relative minor of the major scale. This mode is called Aeolian, but just as with Ionian most people will simply refer to the minor scale instead of calling it by it’s modal name. 

Modes Can Be Major Or Minor 

Each mode will either be a minor mode or a major mode, and will be determined by the third scale degree of that mode. 

As noted, Ionian is major (since it’s the major scale itself) and Aeolian will be minor (since it’s the minor scale). 

Let’s take a look at the second mode, Dorian. Beginning on D it would be spelled as: 

D-E-F-G-A-B-C 

The third of this mode is F, and in relation to the D, that F is a minor third, meaning that this is a minor mode. Now let’s compare D Dorian to a regular D minor scale and see what the difference is. 

D minor: D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C    (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) 

D Dorian: D-E-F-G-A-B-C    (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7) 

Notice that the difference between these two is that in the D minor scale there is a flat 6th (Bb) while in the Dorian mode there is a natural 6th (B). 

This raised 6th is the hallmark of the Dorian mode and one that will be vital to understanding it’s use. 

Applying This To Playing 

Let’s say you are playing a solo over two chords: Dm7-G7. 

The Dm7 has the notes D-F-A-C while the G7 contains: G-B-D-F. 

Dm7 is clearly the home chord and many players would simply use the D minor scale to solo. But if you did that you’d be using a Bb (as outlined above). When you get to the G7 chord that Bb would clash against the B found within the chord. 

To solve this problem, using D Dorian would be the best solution because it shares all of the notes of the D minor scale but has a B instead of Bb. You could use that mode to play over both chords without having to change scales from one chord to the next. 

You might say well that’s just the C major scale. Not really. 

Since you are using D Dorian you would be treating the note D as the root note, ending phrases on that note and highlighting that note differently than if you were to play the C major scale with C being the root note. 

In fact learning how to convert the minor scale you can already play to a Dorian mode (simply by raising the 6th) you can treat your licks the same way and end them on the correct note but be more accurate with the chords you’re playing over. 

Each Mode Has a Unique Note 

Each mode has a unique note that distinguishes it from its parallel major/minor scale. 

As we discussed Ionian is just the major scale, and Aeolian is the minor scale. 

Dorian we found out has a raised 6th. But what about the rest? 

The 3rd mode, Phrygian is spelled: E-F-G-A-B-C-D. 

This is a minor mode because the G is a minor third from E. Comparing E minor to E Phrygian: 

E minor: E-F#-G-A-B-C-D (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) 

E Phrygian: E-F-G-A-B-C-D (1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) 

You can see that the difference between E minor and E Phrygian is that E Phrygian has a b2. This is its unique note and can often be seen in Spanish music. Many times you’ll see Em-F in a chord progression, which signifies E Phrygian. 

The 4th mode, Lydian is spelled as: F-G-A-B-C-D-E 

This is a major mode because the A is a major third from the F. 

F major: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E (1-2-3-4-5-6-7) 

F Lydian: F-G-A-B-C-D-E (1-2-3-#4-5-6-7) 

The hallmark of Lydian is a raised fourth. 

The 5th mode, Mixolydian is spelled: G-A-B-C-D-E-F 

This is a major mode because the B is a major third from the root note G. 

G Major: G-A-B-C-D-E-F# (1-2-3-4-5-6-7) 

G Mixolydian: G-A-B-C-D-E-F (1-2-3-4-5-6-b7) 

The signature of Mixolydian is the flat 7th, which spells out a dominant 7 chord (G-B-D-F). Mixolydian is considered the dominant mode because it is a major scale with a flat seven and contains the dominant 7 chord within it. It is most commonly used over dominant 7 chords, for example in blues music. 

The 7th mode, Locrian is spelled as: B-C-D-E-F-G-A 

This is a minor mode because the D is a minor third from B. 

B minor: B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A (1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7) 

B Locrian: B-C-D-E-F-G-A (1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7) 

In this case there are actually two signature notes, the b2 and the b5 that distinguish this from the minor scale. This is because the seventh chord of the major scale is a diminished chord. Since Locrian is the seventh mode it must necessarily have the b5 as found in the diminished chord, but it also has the b2. 

There is certainly a lot of information here and it can easily seem overwhelming. In order to make this more manageable I suggest becoming familiar with the more common modes to start with. 

Dorian and Mixolydian are the most frequently used modes and should be the top priority for you to learn to use correctly. 

As I mentioned earlier, mapping out the harmony of the chords you are playing over will tell you what notes are to be found within the chord progression. Simply because you know what the home chord is doesn’t mean that the entire progression comes from that major/minor scale. As shown with the D Dorian example, it is very common to have chord progressions built from modes and the major or minor scales themselves. 

Alternatively you can write chord progressions that are built from modes rather than searching for progressions that already exist. You could, for example, take a Mixolydian mode and map out the 1-3-5-7 of each note within that mode and you will have a series of chords that you could combine to write a song using that modal harmony. 

Modes are a very expansive subject and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Do not feel discouraged, but rather I hope you see this as a wide new expanse of musical terrain that you can begin to explore with intrigue and curiosity. 

As always, please reach out with any questions and I will happily clarify anything that seems confusing. 

-Max Rich