Modes

A Comprehensive Guide To Musical Modes

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Modes

In modern Western music theory, a mode is a way of ordering the notes of a scale according to the intervals they form with the tonic note. This is why modes provide a vocabulary for a melody.

Modes

The concept of modes in music reflects a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, itself inspired by the theory of ancient Greek music. There are seven modal scales that are related to the familiar major and minor keys in the modern Western music theory. Although they seem like they are a bunch of new scales, we can tell that they are displaced versions of already existing scales.

So we start a scale from its tonic or a point other than the tonic and build the scale normally. We will use mostly major scales as references for our modes. But know that other scales can be displaced in a similar manner too.

How can we build modes?

There are seven unique notes in a major scale. If we start from any of these degrees and build the same major scale on those degrees, we can build modes easily. Although this may seem confusing at first, you will understand that it is actually an easy concept. Let’s learn about all of these seven modes now.

Ionian (I)

Ionian mode is a musical mode that is essentially the same as the major scale of tonal music. If we start building a major scale from its tonic note, we basically build its Ionian mode as well as a major scale. It is the first and the easiest mode to understand. Let’s build an Ionian mode on the note C.

C Ionian
C Ionian

As you can see, it is essentially the same as C major scale. It starts with the tonic note C and continues just a normal major scale. So we can call C major scale as C Ionian too. The sequence of intervals of an Ionian mode is:

Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half 

It is also same as a major scale.

We can describe the mood of Ionian mode as happy, bright and majestic. For example, “Mary Had A Little Lamb”

All Ionian Modes

Now let’s see all Ionian modes we can build.

C Flat Ionian
C Flat Ionian
C Ionian
C Ionian
C Sharp Ionian
C Sharp Ionian
D Flat Ionian
D Flat Ionian
D Ionian
D Ionian
E Flat Ionian
E Flat Ionian
E Ionian
E Ionian
F Ionian
F Ionian
F Sharp Ionian
F Sharp Ionian
G Flat Ionian
G Flat Ionian
G Ionian
G Ionian
A Flat Ionian
A Flat Ionian
A Ionian
A Ionian
B Flat Ionian
B Flat Ionian
B Ionian
B Ionian

As you can see, all Ionian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

Dorian (II)

Dorian mode is the second mode. If we displace a major scale to its second degree and build the same major scale from there, we basically build a Dorian mode. Let’s build a Dorian mode on the note D now.

D Dorian
D Dorian

In this example, you can see D Dorian mode. It starts with the second note of C major scale which is D and continues with the notes of C major scale. In other words, we can call a C major scale starting on the note D as D Dorian mode. The sequence of intervals of a Dorian mode is:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole

The Dorian mode is very similar to the modern natural minor scale. In fact, the only difference between a Dorian mode and a natural minor scale is its sixth degree. While a natural minor scale has a minor sixth interval above the tonic, the Dorian mode has a major sixth above the tonic. This means that other than displacing a major scale to its second degree if we know a natural minor scale, we can build a Dorian mode too. If we raise the sixth degree of a natural minor scale by a half step, we basically build a Dorian mode of that scale. Let’s see an example.

D natural minor scale
D natural minor scale

In this example, there is D natural minor scale. Let’s build D Dorian mode now.

D Dorian
D Dorian

As you can see, if we raise the sixth degree of the D natural minor scale by a half step, we can build D Dorian mode.

We can describe the mood of Dorian mode as sophisticated and jazzy. For example “So What” by Miles Davis.

All Dorian Modes

Now let’s see all Dorian modes we can build.

C Dorian
C Dorian
C Sharp Dorian
C Sharp Dorian
D Flat Dorian
D Flat Dorian
D Dorian
D Dorian
D Sharp Dorian
D Sharp Dorian
E Flat Dorian
E Flat Dorian
E Dorian
E Dorian
F Dorian
F Dorian
F Sharp Dorian
F Sharp Dorian
G Dorian
G Dorian
G Sharp Dorian
G Sharp Dorian
A Flat Dorian
A Flat Dorian
A Dorian
A Dorian
B Flat Dorian
B Flat Dorian
B Dorian
B Dorian

As you can see, all Dorian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

Phrygian (III)

Phrygian is the third mode. If we displace a major scale to its third degree and build the same major scale from there, we basically build a Phrygian mode. Let’s build a Phrygian mode on the note E now.

E Phrygian
E Phrygian

In this example, you can see E Phrygian mode. It starts with the third note of C major scale which is E and continues with the notes of C major scale. In other words, we can call a C major scale starting on the note E as E Phrygian mode. The sequence of intervals of a Phrygian mode is:

Half-Whole-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole

The Phrygian mode is very similar to the modern natural minor scale too. In fact, the only difference between a Phrygian mode and a natural minor scale is its second degree. While a natural minor scale has a Major second interval above the tonic, the Phrygian mode has a minor second above the tonic. This means that we can also build a Phrygian mode by lowering the second degree of a natural minor scale by a half step. Let’s see an example.

E natural minor scale
E natural minor scale

In this example, there is E natural minor scale. Let’s build E Phrygian mode now.

E Phrygian
E Phrygian

As you can see, if we lower the second degree of the E natural minor scale by a half step, we can build E Phrygian mode.

We can describe the mood of Phrygian mode as exotic, jazzy, dark. For example “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.

All Phrygian Modes

Now let’s see all Phrygian modes we can build.

C Phrygian
C Phrygian
C Sharp Phrygian
C Sharp Phrygian
D Phrygian
D Phrygian
D Sharp Phrygian
D Sharp Phrygian
E Flat Phrygian
E Flat Phrygian
E Phrygian
E Phrygian
E Sharp Phrygian
E Sharp Phrygian
F Phrygian
F Phrygian
F Sharp Phrygian
F Sharp Phrygian
G Phrygian
G Phrygian
G Sharp Phrygian
G Sharp Phrygian
A Phrygian
A Phrygian
A Sharp Phrygian
A Sharp Phrygian
B Flat Phrygian
B Flat Phrygian
B Phrygian
B Phrygian

As you can see, all Phrygian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

Lydian (IV)

Lydian is the fourth mode. If we displace a major scale to its fourth degree and build the same major scale from there, we basically build a Lydian mode. Let’s build a Lydian mode on the note F now.

F Lydian
F Lydian

In this example, you can see F Lydian mode. It starts with the fourth note of C major scale which is F and continues with the notes of C major scale. In other words, we can call a C major scale starting on the note F as F Lydian mode. The sequence of intervals of a Lydian mode is:

Whole-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half

The Lydian mode is very similar to the modern major scale too. In fact, the only difference between a Lydian mode and a major scale is its fourth degree. While a major scale has a Perfect fourth interval above the tonic, the Lydian mode has an augmented fourth above the tonic. This means that we can also build a Lydian mode by raising the fourth degree of a major scale by a half step. Let’s see an example.

F major scale
F major scale

In this example, there is F major scale. Let’s build F Lydian mode now.

F Lydian
F Lydian

As you can see, if we raise the fourth degree of the F major scale by a half step, we can build F Lydian mode.

We can describe the mood of Lydian mode as ethereal, dreamy, and futuristic. For example “Possibly Maybe” by Björk.

All Lydian Modes

Now let’s see all Lydian modes we can build.

C Flat Lydian
C Flat Lydian
C Lydian
C Lydian
D Flat Lydian
D Flat Lydian
D Lydian
D Lydian
E Flat Lydian
E Flat Lydian
E Lydian
E Lydian
F Flat Lydian
F Flat Lydian
F Lydian
F Lydian
F Sharp Lydian
F Sharp Lydian
G Flat Lydian
G Flat Lydian
G Lydian
G Lydian
A Flat Lydian
A Flat Lydian
A Lydian
A Lydian
B Flat Lydian
B Flat Lydian
B Lydian
B Lydian

As you can see, all Lydian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

Mixolydian (V)

Mixolydian is the fifth mode. If we displace a major scale to its fifth degree and build the same major scale from there, we basically build a Mixolydian mode. Let’s build a Mixolydian mode on the note G now.

G Mixolydian
G Mixolydian

In this example, you can see G Mixolydian mode. It starts with the fifth note of C major scale which is G and continues with the notes of C major scale. In other words, we can call a C major scale starting on the note G as G Mixolydian mode. The sequence of intervals of a Mixolydian mode is:

Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole

The Mixolydian mode is also very similar to the modern major scale. In fact, the only difference between a Mixolydian mode and a major scale is its seventh degree. While a major scale has a Major seventh interval above the tonic, the Mixolydian mode has a minor seventh interval above the tonic. This means that we can also build a Mixolydian mode by lowering the seventh degree of a major scale by a half step. Let’s see an example.

G major scale
G major scale

In this example, there is G major scale. Let’s build G Mixolydian mode now.

G Mixolydian
G Mixolydian

As you can see, if we lower the seventh degree of the G major scale by a half step, we can build G Mixolydian mode.

We can describe the mood of Mixolydian mode as bluesy, rock, and exotic. For example, “Tomorrow Never Knows” by The Beatles.

All Mixolydian Modes

Now let’s see all Mixolydian modes we can build.

C Mixolydian
C Mixolydian
C Sharp Mixolydian
C Sharp Mixolydian
D Flat Mixolydian
D Flat Mixolydian
D Mixolydian
D Mixolydian
E Flat Mixolydian
E Flat Mixolydian
E Mixolydian
E Mixolydian
F Mixolydian
F Mixolydian
F Sharp Mixolydian
F Sharp Mixolydian
G Flat Mixolydian
G Flat Mixolydian
G Mixolydian
G Mixolydian
G Sharp Mixolydian
G Sharp Mixolydian
A Flat Mixolydian
A Flat Mixolydian
A Mixolydian
A Mixolydian
B Flat Mixolydian
B Flat Mixolydian
B Mixolydian
B Mixolydian

As you can see, all Mixolydian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

Aeolian (VI)

Aeolian is the sixth mode. It is essentially same as the natural minor scale of tonal music. If we displace a major scale to its sixth degree and build the same major scale from there, we basically build an Aeolian mode. Let’s build an Aeolian mode on the note A now.

A Aeolian
A Aeolian

In this example, you can see A Aeolian mode. It starts with the sixth note of C major scale which is A and continues with the notes of C major scale. In other words, we can call a C major scale starting on the note A as A Aeolian mode. The sequence of intervals of an Aeolian mode is:

Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole

It is same as A natural minor scale. We can describe the mood of Aeolian mode as sentimental, emotional, tragic. For example, “Hotel California” by Eagles.

All Aeolian Modes

Now let’s see all Aeolian modes we can build.

C Aeolian
C Aeolian
C Sharp Aeolian
C Sharp Aeolian
D Aeolian
D Aeolian
D Sharp Aeolian
D Sharp Aeolian
E Flat Aeolian
E Flat Aeolian
E Aeolian
E Aeolian
F Aeolian
F Aeolian
F Sharp Aeolian
F Sharp Aeolian
G Aeolian
G Aeolian
G Sharp Aeolian
G Sharp Aeolian
A Flat Aeolian
A Flat Aeolian
A Aeolian
A Aeolian
A Sharp Aeolian
A Sharp Aeolian
B Flat Aeolian
B Flat Aeolian
B Aeolian
B Aeolian

As you can see, all Aeolian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

Locrian (VII)

Locrian is the seventh mode. If we displace a major scale to its seventh degree and build the same major scale from there, we basically build a Locrian mode. Let’s build a Locrian mode on the note B now.

B Locrian
B Locrian

In this example, you can see B Locrian mode. It starts with the seventh note of C major scale which is B and continues with the notes of C major scale. In other words, we can call a C major scale starting on the note B as B Locrian mode. The sequence of intervals of a Locrian mode is:

Half-Whole-Whole-Half-Whole-Whole-Whole

The distinctive scale degree here is the diminished fifth.

We can describe the mood of Locrian mode as very dark and unstable. For example, “YYZ” by Rush.

All Locrian Modes

Now let’s see all Locrian modes we can build.

C Locrian
C Locrian
C Sharp Locrian
C Sharp Locrian
D Locrian
D Locrian
D Sharp Locrian
D Sharp Locrian
E Locrian
E Locrian
E Sharp Locrian
E Sharp Locrian
F Locrian
F Locrian
F Sharp Locrian
F Sharp Locrian
G Locrian
G Locrian
G Sharp Locrian
G Sharp Locrian
A Locrian
A Locrian
A Sharp Locrian
A Sharp Locrian
B Flat Locrian
B Flat Locrian
B Locrian
B Locrian
B Sharp Locrian
B Sharp Locrian

As you can see, all Locrian modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales.

All Modes

Following table shows you the modes, the relativity of the starting of the modes with the tonic of the major scale, and their interval sequences.

MODE

TONIC RELATIVE TO MAJOR SCALE

INTERVAL SEQUENCE

Ionian

I

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

Dorian

II

W-H-W-W-W-H-W

Phrygian

III

H-W-W-W-H-W-W

Lydian

IV

W-W-W-H-W-W-H

Mixolydian

V

W-W-H-W-W-H-W

Aeolian

VI

W-H-W-W-H-W-W

Locrian

VII

H-W-W-H-W-W-W

Recognizing Modes

So far, we have mentioned that we can build modes by displacing major scales to different degrees. So how can we recognize a mode when we see it? There are several ways to do that. The first thing to know is that each mode has a relative major scale. It is the original major scale which has been displaced to build that mode. If we know major scales very well, we may recognize the modes easier.

As I mentioned before, all modes use the same accidentals of their relative major scales. This is a good starting point for recognizing a mode when we see it. Let’s see an example.

Recognizing Modes By Their Relative Major Scales

Melody in F Lydian

In this example, there is a simple tune in F Lydian. It sounds like major scale but with a brighter characteristic because of the augmented fourth degree. Notice that there are no accidentals on the key signature. This means that this is either in C major or A minor or a displaced modes of them.
 
The melody feels like it is in a major key. It starts and ends with F. It sounds like the note F is of greater importance. But if F was the tonic note here, this tune would have been in F major. Then there should have been a flat on the note B. But there is none. So this tune is in F Lydian. Let’s see and hear how it should have been if it was in F major scale now. So you can figure out the difference clearly.

Melody in F Major

As you may notice, the key signature of this version shows that this is either in F major or D minor. It starts and ends with F again. It sounds like a major scale. But the note B has a flat now. This is the main difference between a mode and a major scale. We write the modes with the accidentals of their relative major scales. They don’t have unique key signatures of their own.

Why do we use modes?

Now that you have learned all modes and their relationships with their corresponding major scales, you may ask this perfect question.
 
We use modes as one way of thinking about melodic lines in music. We can use them as a compliment or an alternative to the usual diatonic way of composing. Modes provide us different alphabets (scales), different orders of letters (notes) that we can use as alternatives. We use them because they make our music more sophisticated. So we use them just as we use spices in our foods. We use modes with altered characteristics such as Phrygian and Locrian in more jazz-oriented music. Lydian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian are mostly used in most contemporary styles. We use minor sounding Dorian in jazz and some fusion styles.

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