Modes in Music Theory – Spice Up Your Music

By | January 20, 2015

Modes in music theory can be a somewhat tricky concept to fully grasp, because to be honest, it could sound quite intimidating to the average musician. However, they are not that complicated to understand, and when learned, they will enrich the music you write greatly as your ear becomes accustomed to them. Let’s begin, shall we!

A little history

Modal music can be traced back all the way to ancient Greece, followed by the Medieval times and the birth of “church” modes – the name which is derived from the Church of Rome. Later on, by the modern times, the modes became of equal temper. Okay, enough history. Let’s get to business.

Ancient Greece. Photo Credit: Rol247* via Compfight cc

Ancient Greece. Photo Credit: Rol247* via Compfight cc

The “church” modes

Alright, I will list the modes used in Western music below.

  1. Ionian (Major)

  2. Dorian

  3. Phrygian

  4. Lydian

  5. Mixolydian

  6. Aeolian (Minor)

There is also a seventh mode, which is called the Locrian mode. I choose not to include it in this list because it is virtually never used in music. We’ll just stick with the six of them.

 Photo Credit: photosteve101 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: photosteve101 via Compfight cc

You might wonder what the differences are between all of them. You might also wonder why Ionian is called major and Aeolian is called minor. I’ll tell you.

The Ionian mode is the major scale! Yes, the major scale is a mode. Same applies to the minor scale, which in other words is the Aeolian mode. These scales are just the modes accepted as standards in western music.

To put it simply, modes are scales.

The Colors of Modes

Now, for the differences. There are major differences in character of each mode – they sound very different from each other and have their own “flavor”. I’ll use the same list to characterize each a little bit, and hopefully you can make use of it in your music production and songwriting.

  1. Ionian = happy, relieving, energetic

  2. Dorian = dreamy, melancholic, tense

  3. Phrygian = dark, powerful, evil

  4. Lydian = magical, mysterious, anticipating

  5. Mixolydian = praising, majestic, relaxing

  6. Aeolian = sad, sensitive, emotional

As you can see, all modes have their own feeling and uniqueness to them. Next time you’re making music and feeling a bit sad about something that’s recently happened in your life, you might as well take advantage of the Aeolian mode and build your song around it. Neat, right?

But how do I know where to find all these different modes then? How do I get to use them? Follow on and I’ll explain.

Constructing the Modes

Modes are constructed from the major scale. Photo Credit: pni via Compfight cc

Modes are constructed from the major scale. Photo Credit: pni via Compfight cc

The easiest way to think about modes is that all modes can be built from a major scale – the Ionian mode. I’ll refer to the Ionian mode as major scale from now on, as well as the Aeolian mode as the minor scale.

Yes, that’s it. You can create any other mode from just the major scale. Before we go any further, I’ll include yet another list showing the rules that apply to each mode. This time I’ll write down the scale degrees and how they vary in each mode. As you see, in different modes certain degrees are either flattened or sharpened.

The mode formulas:

  1. Ionian – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

  2. Dorian – 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

  3. Phrygian – 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

  4. Lydian – 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

  5. Mixolydian – 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

  6. Aeolian – 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Let’s utilize this list and have an example, where we take C-major and create other modes from it.

  1. C-major (Ionian) – C D E F G A B C

  2. C-Dorian – C D Eb F G A Bb C

  3. C-Phrygian – C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C

  4. C-Lydian – C D E F# G A B C

  5. C-Mixolydian – C D E F G A Bb C

  6. C-minor (Aeolian) – C D Eb F G Ab Bb C

See? Play these scales out on your piano, guitar or whatever instrument you might have to find out what they sound like. The great thing is, we can take any major scale and build any mode from it.

Want to write a song in A-Dorian? No problem!

The A-major scale is A B C# D E F# G# A, and A-Dorian therefore would be A B C D E F# G A.

The Major Scale – how do I get it?

At this point, you might be wondering, “How do I form the initial major scale then?” Here, let me show you. The major scale has a certain formula to it. We’ll have to look at notes chromatically to form it, using semitones and whole tones.

Here’s the formula to the major scale (W = whole tone, S = semitone):

W W S W W W S

For example’s sake, here’s the formula of the minor scale:

W S W W S W W

Okay, you should now be able to form any mode you want, and with little practice, you’ll master them eventually.

Whole tones and semitones. Photo Credit: VillegasLillo via Compfight cc

Whole tones and semitones. Photo Credit: VillegasLillo via Compfight cc

The Piano keyboard

Here’s a fun fact. The piano is constructed in the way so each mode can be played using only the white keys. The piano is built around the C-note, which is where we start.

Now, just disregard the black notes and don’t touch them, play only the white notes.

Play a few octaves up from the middle C, and you might notice you are playing the major scale – the Ionian mode. Great. Let’s move on and start from the note D, which is next to C. Now you are playing the Dorian mode. Let’s move on to E. That’s called E-Phrygian. You get the idea?

The piano is an incredibly easy tool to play modes right away, without worrying about flats or sharps. Of course, the white keys only let you play D-Dorian and not C-Dorian for example (because the white keys are built around the C-major scale), in which we would have to use the construction method as I’ve described above.

The modes are hidden within the white keys of the piano. Photo Credit: MPhotographe via Compfight cc

The modes are hidden within the white keys of the piano. Photo Credit: MPhotographe via Compfight cc

With the white keys only, you’ll be able to play the following modes of the C-major scale:

  1. C-Ionian

  2. D-Dorian

  3. E-Phrygian

  4. F-Lydian

  5. G-Mixolydian

  6. A-Aeolian

As you can see, D-Dorian is the 2nd mode of the C-major scale. E-Phrygian is the 3rd mode, and so on.

Aside from the “white keys only” -principle, in the scale of Bb-major (B-flat major), C-Dorian would be the 2nd mode of that scale, and so on. Get it?

Reserve some time for yourself and study the modes. As confusing as they might initially sound, they are not that hard in the long run. As you study them, you’ll begin to hear them in music all around you.

That’s it!

Learn modes and use them to spice up your music and make it genuinely interesting. Modes are great fun to improvise with and provide inspiration – they certainly have brought my music to a whole another level.

Use modes as musical "spice". Photo Credit: Cocoabiscuit via Compfight cc

Use modes as musical “spice”. Photo Credit: Cocoabiscuit via Compfight cc

Perhaps you could impress some people by including modes in your music, as they definitely show maturity and deep understanding of music.

Have variety in your music. As almost all modern music concentrate either on the major or minor scales (the Ionian and Aeolian modes respectively), the usage of not-as-common modes such as Dorian, Lydian or Mixolydian could provide “just that” extra twist needed.

And they sound awesome.

I hope this lesson has been useful to you and my explanations simple enough to understand.

 

 

What do you think about modes? Have you had experiences with them? Let’s discuss! Please leave your questions and comments below and I’ll make sure to get back to you.

Until next time,

-JP

4 thoughts on “Modes in Music Theory – Spice Up Your Music

  1. Chris

    I have always been a lover of music and play Guitar and a little Piano. This site is very interesting as sometimes I find some things go way over my head. This keeps it well within my reach!

    Love your reference to Ancient Greece too and the photo you have there I have visited many times. I really connect with your site.

    Thank you

    Chris

    Reply
    1. JP Post author

      Hey Chris, thanks for the comment. It’s very easy to get confused in music, which is why it’s important to visualize everything in a very simple form. Glad my site helps!

      Reply
  2. Michael

    Hey JP,

    As a hobby guitarist I’ve never really got myself into learning different modes. However, after reading your post I’m quite intrigued and willing to learn more about it.

    Like you mention in the post, I’m like most people and have only been focusing on major/minor. I’ve felt that some of my riffs lack “soul” and perhaps other modes are exactly what I’m looking for. Thanks for this awesome easy-to-understand post! :)

    Michael

    Reply
    1. JP Post author

      Hey Michael, thanks for the input and nice words!

      While there is nothing “wrong” with major and minor scales, you can indeed inject some soul in them by doing some alterations (such as sharpening the 4th in a major scale to get Lydian mode) to your scales.

      I recommend you check out the Dorian and Mixolydian modes on YouTube to hear what they sound like, as I find them particularily “soulful”.

      Hope this provides additional help for you.

      -JP

      Reply

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