A lot of guitarists have trouble coming to understand the modes of the major scale, I know it took me many moons to come to grips with it, but once I finally unravelled its mysteries, I realised how simple it really is. The word mode sounds so ambiguous and lame, I prefer to use the word mood, as this word accurately describes what modes really are. Now, describing modes is easy, but using them musically is a bit trickier, however, knowing what they are is the first step. First of all, before you even read this, make sure you know how to play the major scale. It isn’t called the mother of all music theory for nothing. At the very end of this article is a quick little primer on the major scale that might be of some help. Also, for convenience sake, I will be referring to the C major scale, as it is the only major scale that contains no sharps or flats. Also, remember that the chromatic scale is the scale which contains every single note, the word chromatic coming from the word chroma (meaning colour), so the chromatic scale contains every single colour. Scales are simply notes, or colours taken from the chromatic scale, and added to a musical palette. There are literally hundreds of scales, and musicians like Allan Holdsworth have even made up their own. But I am getting off track here. Now before you begin, make sure you know the major scale! I have written a guide on the major scale which you can use as a resource.
This guide is in no way trying to be thorough or extensive, instead I am explaining the concept of modes in its simplest and rawest form. Because, after all, it is very simple, and the last thing I want to do is scare you off with encyclopedic jargon and walls of text. Alright, here we go..!
There are 7 modes (moods) to the major scale, in order they are:
- Ionian (the major scale)
- Dorian (minor bluesy sounding mode, characteristic note is the maj 6th)
- Phrygian (minor spanish sounding mode, characteristic note is the flat 2nd)
- Lydian (major sounding mode, characteristic note is the augmented 4th)
- Mixylodian (major bluesy sounding mode, characteristic note is the flat 7th)
- Aeolian (the (natural) minor scale – flat 3rd, flat 6th, flat 7th)
- Locrian (very unstable sounding mode, it’s characteristic notes are the flat 2nd and flat 5th)
A cheesy mnemonic to help you remember the order is:
I Don’t Particularly Like Modes A Lot
Let’s take a look at the C major scale (Ionian), the notes in this scale are CDEFGABC, if we play the C major scale and instead of focusing the tonality on C (the root note) we focus on the second note of the scale (D) then we have a completely different sounding scale – the D Dorian scale – which looks like this: DEFGABCD, we are still playing the same notes of the C major scale but we are getting a completely different sound by concentrating on the D as the root note instead of the C. This is how modes are constructed; if we concentrate on the 3rd note of the C major scale (E) then we have an E Phrygian scale – EFGABCDE – and so on… in this sense it’s best to think of the modes as an anagram of the major scale (change the letters around and the word has a completely different meaning, in this case, change the root note around and the sound/mood changes radically) A good analogy to describe how modes work can be found in conversation, by emphasizing certain words in a sentence the meaning behind the sentence is changed. The best example of this i can think of is found in an episode of Seinfeld ‘The Mom And Pop Store’:
- ELAINE: Well, I talked to Tim Whatley…
- JERRY: Yeah…
- ELAINE: And I asked him, “Should Jerry bring anything?”
- JERRY: So…?
- ELAINE: Mmmm…and he said, “Why would Jerry bring anything?”
- JERRY: Alright, but let me ask you this question.
- ELAINE: What?
- JERRY: Which word did he emphasize? Did he say, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” or, “Why would Jerry bring anything?” Did he emphasize “Jerry” or “bring?”
- ELAINE: I think he emphasized “would.”
I know this sounds confusing, so i made some diagrams to make the learning process a whole lot easier (VISUALISATION IS KEY!)
Now putting modes into practice is a different beast altogether, it is a tool used by jazz guitarists mainly to colour their solos based on the chord progression. For example, in a typical jazz chord progression of II V I in the key of C major the chord progression would be Dm7 G7 Cmaj7.
Seeing as how the key of the progression is C major a guitarist could choose to simply play the C major scale (C Ionian Mode) over the entire progression, but if you decide to emphasis the D note instead of the C note whilst the Dm7 chord is playing and the G note while the G7 chord is playing and finally the C note while the Cmaj7 chord is playing, you would be playing the exact same C major scale throughout but you will be using three different modes of the same scale (D Dorian, G Mixolydian and C Ionian) over their respective chords in the progression.
This would mean that you have endless soloing moods to tap into, both major and minor by using the same scale. Here’s a good video to showcase an excellent (Australian!) guitarist using modes of the C major scale to create different moods.
Notice how Frank Gambale is playing the C major throughout the song, but by emphasizing different notes of the scale he creates different moods? The intro sounds triumphant (Lydian), the chorus is very major sounding (Ionian), and the solo is very minor and bluesy (Dorian)!
|I||Ionian||1 2 3 4 5 6 7||C D E F G A B||Cmaj7|
|II||Dorian||1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7||D E F G A B C||Dm7|
|III||Phrygian||1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7||E F G A B C D||Em7|
|IV||Lydian||1 2 3 #4 5 6 7||F G A B C D E||Fmaj7|
|V||Myxolydian||1 2 3 4 5 6 b7||G A B C D E F||G7|
|VI||Aeolian||1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7||A B C D E F G||Am7|
|VII||Locrian||1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7||B C D E F G A||Bm7b5|
Above is a chart which contains the 7 modes in the key of C major. From the very left we have the numbers 1-7 and their corresponding mode. I is always Ionian (the major scale) and VI is always Aeolian (the minor scale) just as II is always Dorian etc etc. The order never changes, it’s just the way it is, and that’s cool because it makes learning music theory a lot easier for us! the numbers next to each mode is the scale formula. The formula for the major scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7, this is because the major scale contains 7 notes. The corresponding modes also have 7 notes, because they are the same scale as the major scale, the only difference is some of the numbers are flattened (shown by the b symbol) to compensate for the fact that they don’t share the same root note as the Ionian mode (C). Don’t worry yourself too much about this, it’s all very simple and you will get your head around it.
Next to the numbers we have the notes that correspond to the numbers, the numbers are just memory devices to help us remember what notes belong in the scale. And finally on the very left we have the appropriate chords that each of the respective modes belong to. It is best to play the modes over their respective chords. So for example, over a Cmaj7 chord we could either play C Ionian or C Lydian. While over a Dm7 chord we could either play D Dorian, D Phrygian or D Aeolian.
Now look at the chart again, I hope it looks less alien to you now. It’s really important that you begin training your ears to hear the major scale and it’s modes, a good way to do this is to play the chords that correspond to each major scale, so to ear train the C major scale and it’s modes you would play these chords: Cmaj7/Dm7/Em7/Fmaj7/G7/Am7/Bm7b5. When you play each chord be mindful of what mode belongs to it, and what character or mood that mode embodies. Try to do this for each major scale; eg the G major scale has the chords: Gmaj7/Am7/Bm7/Cmaj7/D7/Em7/F#m7b5. If you have someone to jam with, create some chord progressions out of these chords and take turns practicing the modes to the progressions. Here are some progressions to get you started:
Ionian: I – IV – V – I
Dorian: ii – iii – IV – I – ii
Phrygian: iii – ii – vi – IV – iii
Lydian: IV – vi – V – iii – IV
Mixolydian: V – IV – I – V
Aeolian: vi – V – IV – V – vi
I haven’t included the 7th mode (Locrian) as the vii chord is difficult to resolve to in a chord progression. For the sake of user-friendly-ness and to help you start playing straight away, I will translate those above modal progressions into the key of C major, but I encourage you to do the same for the rest of the major scales yourself!
C Ionian: Cmaj7 – Fmaj7- G7 – Cmaj7
D Dorian: Dm7 – Em7 – Fmaj7 – Cmaj7 – Dm7
E Phrygian: Em7 – Dm7 – Am7 – Fmaj7- Em7
F Lydian: Fmaj7 – Am7 – G7 – Em7 – Fmaj7
G Mixolydian: G7 – Fmaj7 – Cmaj7 – G7
A Aeolian: Am7 – G7 – Fmaj7 – G7 – Am7
Above is a very helpful chart I made to help you practice the modes of the C major scale. Each mode shows it’s main box position, at both sides of the guitar (fretboard repeats itself at the 12th fret), and it also shows it’s respective root note. All modes also show the root C note, so you can remember how they all relate to their parent scale. By learning all of these positions and keeping in mind the C root, you will have successfully learned the major scale (Ionian mode) across the entire fretboard, and you will have the ability to play each of it’s modes as well. In the next lesson on the modes of the major scale I will teach you how to branch off from playing modes like this, to actually learning each individual scale on it’s own. This way in the key of C you would be able to easily play C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phryigian, C Lydian, C Mixolydian, C Aeolian and C Locrian, rather than being confined to only being able to play modes within and not without it’s parent major scale.
Below is an example taken from the legendary zentao.com which allows you to hear the differences between all of the modes in C, but not the modes derived from C. (C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phryigian, C Lydian, C Mixolydian, C Aeolian and C Locrian) Click the name of the mode to hear the scale being played and demonstrated over a C pedal tone.
- Ionian – Very clean sounding, almost to the point of sounding sterile. Your Grandma would love this one.
- Dorian – Can sound smooth and soulful or hip and bluesy, depending on how you use it.
- Phrygian – Has a very Middle-Eastern or Spanish sound.
- Lydian – Very clean, like Ionian, but the #4 gives it a more spacey, unresolved quality.
- Mixolydian – “Funky” or “folky”, depending on how it’s used. This mode has been used for everything from old sea chanteys to a lot of 70’s rock tunes.
- Aeolian – Dark and sad like those old cowboy songs, or tough and mean as used in a lot of heavy rock songs.
- Locrian – The real ear-twister of the bunch. Can sound Spanish like Phrygian, but much darker and more unresolved.
Here is a list of all of the major scales, and their notes/respective mode. Use this as a reference, until you commit them to memory. Don’t pay any attention to the red/black colours, they’re only there to visually distinguish the main major scale keys from the flat ones.
Finally I’ll list each of the modes in order from “brightest” to “darkest”:
- Lydian – 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
- Ionian – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
- Mixolydian – 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
- Dorian – 1 b2 b3 4 5 6 b7
- Aeolian – 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
- Phrygian – 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
- Locrian – 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
In case you missed the link, you can download Frank Gambale’s instructional DVD on guitar modes here, it taught me almost everything I know abut modes (the clip above comes from this dvd). Finally I have uploaded a bunch of modal backing tracks into a zip file which you can download here, these tracks will be a great asset to your learning of the modes!
Anyway enough of me, happy playing!
Be sure to check out the other guitar guides scattered throughout the site!
- Chord Guide: Pt I – Open Chords
- Chord Guide: Pt II – Barre Chords
- Chord Guide: Pt III – Chord Progressions
- Song Lesson: The Girl From Ipanema
- The Mother of All Music Theory – The Major Scale
- Jazz Guitar – Bebop Scales
- Natural, Harmonic, and Melodic Minor Scales
- Modes of the Melodic Minor Scale