What are modes?
The modes of the Major scale are a concept that many students struggle with on their theory journey due to the many different approaches one can take to view how each mode is formed. To put it simply, modes are really just scales, just like the Major scale, Pentatonic scale or the Natural Minor scale. This title of ‘modes’ is used as all of the modes are related to each other through their intervalic relationship and the notes that are used from one relative mode to the other. The seven modes of the Major scale are:
IONIAN (Major scale)
AEOLIAN (Natural Minor scale)
There is a simple rhyme that students (and teachers!) will often use to remember the order of the above modes, and that is I Don’t Particularly Like Modes A Lot, with the first letter of each mode being used in this rhyme. Out of these seven modes, there are two that we may already know but are given a different name when speaking in the context of the modes of the Major scale. The first mode of the major scale, Ionian, is the same thing as the Major scale itself, although this is its modal name. G Major scale is the same thing as the G Ionian mode. The next mode that we may already know is the Aeolian mode, which is the same thing as the Natural Minor scale. This is the sixth mode of the Major scale.
We previously mentioned that there are many different approaches to understanding the mechanics of the modes. One of these approaches is to think of all seven modes in relation to its relative Major scale. For example in the key of G Major, the relative modes to this key are:
So what does this concept of ‘relative’ mean exactly? This means that all of the notes found in the G Ionian scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#) will also be present in the A Dorian Scale, B Phrygian Scale, C Lydian scale, and so on. You could also approach this as thinking to play an A Dorian scale, play all notes of the G Ionian scale but start and finish on an A note. Or to give a different example, if you play E Aeolian scale by playing the notes of G Major but starting and finishing on an E note.
Although this concept can be helpful for understanding the modes from a purely theoretical stance, this can become confusing when implementing this on your chosen instrument for something such as improvisation. For example, if you’re trying to improvise in the E Aeolian scale but are just playing around the G Ionian scale, you may struggle to differentiate between G Ionian and E Aeolian. This is why it is good to think of the modes as separate entities, since although they are all related to each other, they all have their own distinct characteristics.
An example of how to achieve this more separate way of thinking is to have different ‘boxes’ or positions for each mode on the guitar neck. If you start by playing your G Major/Ionian scale down at the third fret of the low E string, this can be your ‘Ionian box’. If you were to move into the next position of this scale (4th position) and play the same sequence of notes but starting and finishing on an A, this would become your ‘Dorian box’. This process continues up the neck until you have a separate position for each mode.
*NOTE: The Phrygian and Lydian box will be in the same position when using this method, as will the Locrian and Ionian positions.
Another approach to take to understanding the modes of the Major scale is to think of the modes via their formulas from the Major scale or other parent scales. For example to find the A Dorian scale, flatten the 3rd and the 7th of the A Major scale, or to find a D Mixolydian scale flatten the 7th of the D Major scale. When using this method, make sure that you are using this formula from the Major scale starting on the same root note as the mode you are trying to find, NOT its relative Major scale.
G IONIAN: G Major scale no accidentals
A DORIAN: A Major scale b3, b7
B PHRYGIAN: B Major scale b2, b3, b6, b7
C LYDIAN: C Major scale #4
D MIXOLYDIAN: D Major scale b7
E AEOLIAN: E Major scale b3, b6, b7
F# LOCRIAN: F# Major scale b2, b3, b5, b6, b7
What Do The Modes Sound Like?
Each mode will have it’s own specific characteristic or flavour which will be instantly recognisable once you have a more thorough understanding of them. Different modes will be used depending on the chord that you are playing over, or what key you are in.
The Ionian mode, as we know, is just the regular Major scale, meaning the sound of the Ionian mode is exactly the same as the Major scale. This mode has a very positive and happy sound, which is often used to create catchy melodies. This is due to it possessing a major 3rd, major 6th and major 7th intervals. It can also be used for a more scale-lic sound when improvising, and is suitable for use over a major 7th chord.
The Dorian mode is popular among improvisers for its balance of both light and dark tonalities, due to it possessing both a minor 3rd, minor 7th and major 6th intervals. The 3rd of the scale or chord is a very important degree since this will determine if the sound will lean to more major or minor, but since the Dorian scale also possesses a major 6th interval, this will prevent the mode from sounding too dark overall. The Dorian mode is best used over a minor 7 chord, particularly if this chord is followed by a dominant 7 chord a fourth up (e.g. Am7 – D7) as the 3rd of the D7 chord (F#) will be the major 6th of the A Dorian scale. The Dorian scale is particularly heard in jam bands such as Santana and the Grateful Dead, since there are many sonic possibilities of sounds with both the light and dark characteristics of the scale.
The Phrygian mode is instantly recognisable as the ‘Egyptian’ sounding scale, due to the strong sound of its minor second interval between the tonic and b2. The sound of this scale is quite dark overall, although will lean strongly towards notes that are a minor second away from each other. This b2 note is the only difference between Phrygian and Aeolian (Natural Minor), but will give it a very different characteristic. This mode is best used over a minor 7 chord, a minor 7 b9, or a sus4 b9 chord.
Lydian is a scale that sounds almost similar to the Ionian mode, but due to its #4 interval gives it a whole new flavour. The first four notes of the scale are also all whole tones apart which give the scale a slightly more ambiguous sound to the regular Major/Ionian scale, which can be useful when an improviser wants a version of the Major scale that offers a little more tension and release. This scale is best used over a major 7th chord, or a major 7 #11 to accentuate the Lydian sound.
The Mixolydian mode is a scale that can be heard in many different contexts. There is only one difference between the Major scale and the Mixolydian mode, that difference being the flat 7th degree, which gives the scale a more ‘blusey’ feeling overall. The Mixolydian scale can be used over a standard 12 bar blues progression to give a sort of hybrid between the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales off of the tonic. This is because if you combined all notes of both these scales, and removed the minor 3rd of the Minor Pentatonic scale, this would give you the Mixolydian scale. It can also be used over a static dominant 7th chord to give a more scale-lic or modal sound.
Aeolian is a mode that is widely heard across many genres such as rock, pop, latin and funk. This scale is often used over a minor chord, either triad or 7th, and gives a much more melodic tonality to the Pentatonic scale. Both of these scales can be interchanged when improvising in this context to show two different approaches to the same backing. It can produce a more ‘epic’ sound in a rock context, as the more variety of notes compared to the Pentatonic can give a players improvisations more build and payoff.
The Locrian mode is probably the least familiar to most people due to its slightly more tense sound, but can be an interesting flavour to use in some situations! This scale gets its tense sound due to the intervals used to build the scale, two of these ambiguous sounding intervals being the b2 and the b5. This mode is best used over a minor7b5 chord.
Which Modes Do We Hear More Often?
When talking about the context of popular music, that is the type of music that the majority of people would hear on radio, playlists, or at live concerts (spanning across multiple genres), there are some modes that are definitely heard more often than others. Some of the modes as mentioned above produce a fairly tense sound due to the intervals used to build the scale, some of these modes being the Phyrgian and Locrian modes in particular. Due to their tense nature, they are not used as much in popular music and instead are reserved more for genres that value a large amount of tension and release, which is a popular improvisation concept in jazz and other more avant-garde
As mentioned previously, two of our modes are actually very popular scales given an alternate name when speaking of them in a modal context, that is the Ionian (Major) mode and the Aeolian (Natural Minor) mode. This means that these two scales are very commonly used in all genres of music, and when talking about the Major scale could be considered along with the Pentatonic scale the backbone of modern popular music.
This then leaves us with the Dorian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes, which although are heard more often than the Locrian mode, still don’t get as much time in the spotlight as the Major scale. Sometimes melodies or hooks may add in the key note of one of these modes for additional flavour to engage the listeners ear, for example using the natural 6th of the Dorian scale around other Minor Pentatonic notes, which can be a great way to spice up what could be a regular pedestrian or boring sounding motif.
Examples of Modes in Popular Songs
So we’ve talked about the mechanics of the modes, but where would we have actually heard them before? Any melodic rock/instrumental rock guitar fans would have no doubt heard Eric Johnson’s epic “Cliffs Of Dover”, which is a four minute shred-fest through the G Ionian mode! This track is a great example of using the bright and happy sound of Ionian in an improvisational or rock context, to show off its melodic personality.
Dorian is a sound that snuck into a lot of music in the 1960s and 1970s, one example of this being Carol King’s 1971 hit “It’s Too Late”. The verse of this song comprises of a chord progression that the Dorian loves, A minor 7 to D7, highlighting the natural 6th of the A Dorian scale throughout the track in different guitar riffs and other melodic ideas. This can particularly be heard in the guitar solo after the second chorus of the track.
As we have already discussed above, the exotic sound of the Phrygian mode is one of the lesser heard sounds in popular music, but does get its occasional time to shine. One place that this is heard is on Pink Floyd’s 1968 track “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”, which is employing the sounds of E Phrygian. The main riff of the tune revolves around the tonic, flat second and flat seventh degrees of the scale, before it moves up a fourth to jump into the A Phrygian scale for a moment, before settling back into E Phrygian. The play between the tonic and flat second interval is what gives the tune its overall dark quality, and is the main flavour of the Phrygian mode.
The Lydian mode is the one example in here where we will be referencing a television theme song, and that is The Simpsons Theme song! The first three notes of the vocal melody, where “the simpsons” is sung, is actually the tonic, sharp fourth and the fifth of the C Lydian scale, giving us the Lydian flavour when landing on the #4. The next riff bounces around the Lydian scale to highlight most notes in the scale, which really showcases the flavour of the mode.
The Bb Mixolydian can be heard in many songs of the blues genre, as mentioned previously since the mode accesses notes from both the Major and Minor Pentatonic scales off of the tonic. In Chuck Berry’s well known blues classic “Johnny B. Goode” the intro of the tune is Bb Major Pentatonicbased, with a couple of extra notes thrown in such as the b7 to suggest a Mixolydian sound.
As we now know, using the Aeolian mode can lead to a more melodic and expressive sound in the context of rock music, which is most definitely the case for legendary rock guitar icon Slash of the band Guns N’ Roses. Slash is an avid user of the Natural Minor scale, and their most popular track “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is no exception to this. The intro and solo of the tune, as well as other interlude fills, all use the Eb Aeolian scale to bring out Slash’s expressive musical personality, playing melodic lines that are singable as if there were in fact the vocal melody.
Definitely a lesser-heard mode in the context of popular music, the Locrian mode will occasionally make an appearance. This mode can be heard on the track “Juice Box” by The Strokes, highlighting the first five notes of the scale which includes tense intervals such as the b2, b3, 4 and b5. This tension is resolved when the riff lands back on the tonic at the beginning of each bar, to give some release after the tense nature of the mode.
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