Modes – They’re Good for You!

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Music/Audio, Personal, Ramblings, Teaching 3 Comments

You may like them in your song,
With a bridge, they can’t be wrong

You may use them choosing chords
Or, in a melody – you won’t get bored.

Try them, try them, you will see
Modes are everywhere – in any key!

Modes are everywhere in the music you hear.  A mode, in the most basic “modern” definition of the term, is a pattern of repeating intervals between seven notes of a scale.  The history of modes and all the different combinations and permutations can fill up textbooks (which, in fact, they do), so right off the bat, I’m going to issue this statement:

This is NOT going to be an exhaustive analysis of modes.  I WILL be leaving out a LOT of excrutiating details.  If you wish to fill your brain up with more than you can imagine on modes, please google: Modes, Scale Modes, Musical Modes or some other variation on that theme.

I’ll just focus on the modes that can be found in the major scale – they’re the modes you hear of the most.  But do keep in mind, there are as many different modes as you can find combinations and permutations of splitting up the octave with seven different notes.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s move on.

Modes Shmodes!

As most of you know, I teach music theory at the Art Institute in Vancouver.  When I first mention the subject of modes in my “102” class, I get a mixture of responses: “huh?”, “…” and “isn’t that a guitar thing?” and everything in between.  I used to have a “whatever” and “I’ll never find a use for them” outlook on modes until I took Hummie Mann’s film scoring program in Seattle.  There, I got my eyes opened to the ways in which modes can be used to help understand and write music.

Just focusing on the major scale modes (I’ll get to them in a bit), you can get better understand what notes will sound decent in a melody over a chord, you can borrow chords from parallel modes without changing the key-center of the music (“modulating”) or just plain write a song using a certain mode.  This last one – using modes as a basis for songwriting – is what I’m going to focus on here.

The Modes – the Big Reveal

You can find what these modes sound like by starting and ending an eight note scale on notes other than the traditional major-scale tonic (or where you’d instinctively start and end the scale).  Each of these “major scale modes” is a combination of tones and semitones derived from the familiar major scale pattern of two whole tones, a semitone, three whole tones and another semitone – essentially, what you get when you play a C Major scale – playing the white keys from C to C forms the major scale pattern:

The major scale is also called the “Ionian Mode” by the way… more on that later…

Now if you start on F and end on F only playing the white keys, you aren’t messing up the major scale, you’re actually playing a mode that is derived from the major scale.  The mode from F to F uses the combination of 3 tones, a semitone, 2 tones and a semitone.  This combination of tones and semitones is the Lydian Mode (in this instance the F-Lydian Scale):

So what are all these modes called?  Well, they have some interesting-sounding Greek names:

  1. Ionian (aka the major scale)
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian (aka the natural minor scale)
  7. Locrian

It’s All Relative

Modes have all sorts of connections to each other.  The most common are parallel and relative.

Modes that are parallel to each other have a common starting note, or tonic (but different key signatures), while relative modes share a common key signature (but different tonic notes).

The order in which I listed the seven major-scale modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) corresponds to the degree (note) of the major scale you use to start and end the indicated related mode.

For instance, the Dorian mode that is relative to C-Major (C-Ionian) can be found by playing from the second (D) to the second (D) degree of the C-major scale.  If you play from D to D using only white keys (in other words, using the C-Major key signature), you have the D-Dorian scale.

The Dorian mode that is parallel to C-Major would start and end on C, but instead of playing all the white keys, you’d have to replace E with an Eb and B with a Bb (use the key signature of Bb major): C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C.

Yeah, So What? (Caution, music writing tip ahead)

Some of these modes will sound more consonant, or “major” than others.  Lydian and Mixolydian sound “major”, Dorian and Phrygian (and Aeolian) sound “minor” and Locrian sounds quite dissonant and is termed “diminished”.   You can use this “unease”  to your advantage if you’re looking for “that different sound” to set your song apart.

Instead of falling back on the ol’ major scale, use a different mode to base your song upon.

What?  That’s weird you say?

Well, here are some examples of songs you may know that have all or part of their basis in modes other than Ionian (major):

Songs in Dorian Mode

Dorian’s got a great “minor” feel, but the “natural 6th” degree adds that bit of spice that sets it apart from the natural minor:

Songs in Phrygian Mode:

Phrygian is another “minor” mode that metal artists love (Yngwie has this all over his stuff) – the “sharp 2” gives the scale a really uneasy dissonant edge:

Songs in Lydian:

Lydian has a “major” feel and retains the leading note (semitone between 7th and tonic) that folks are familiar with in the major scale, but the “sharp 4th” gives the scale an odd “ethnic” je-ne-sais-quoi that keeps the listener engaged:

Songs in Mixolydian:

Mixolydian is another “major” mode that’s used quite a bit.  The “flat 7th” gives the musician access to a more “mellow” substitution for the traditional dominant chord resulting in progressions that play off of I – IV and bVII:

Songs in Aeolian:

Aeolian also known as the Natural Minor scale.  It’s a pretty typical mode to use as the I IV and V are all minor chords, but with the flat 6th and flat 7th degrees, you have the option of choosing major substitutions for the IV and V chords:

Songs in Locrian:

Writing songs in Locrian is a bit of a joke among musicians.  The tonic chord is a diminished chord and the number of deviations (flat 2, 3, 5, 6, 7) away from better known major scales makes the mode quite foreign to listeners ears.  However, the dissonance of the mode has been used to some effect in at least portions of songs:

  • Enter Sandman – Metallica – intro played in E Locrian (F Major key signature)
  • YYZ – Rush – intro in B# Locrian (C# Major key signature … Rush WOULD have to make things ultra complicated).

Well, there you have it – you actually CAN use modes to do something a bit different than normal.  In the next post, I’ll try to address some of the other useful uses of modes in selecting chords and writing melodies.

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Modes – They’re Good for You! | Hatched Productions --

  2. Pingback: IHR #84 (AAC Enhanced) – Modes, Musical Memories, Pro Tools 9 and AES | Inside Home

  3. Hi Dave, loved your Modes segment on IHR. I’ve been playing guitar for a long time, but know very little about the music theory side of things. Every time I pick up a book on the subject I get lost in all the definitions. What I think really works with your explanation is you describe what you can DO with these things. (The musical examples help too, of course.) When reading music theory, it often feels like just a collection of facts. I usually come away wondering, “Okay, but what can I USE that for?”
    But your segment made sense to me and (most importantly) gave me ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.