Weekly Workout: Modes Demystified – A Guide to the Seven Modes of the Major Scale

Learn the major scale’s modes and how to use their distinctive sounds to create melodies and chords on acoustic guitar.

Ever since the Middle Ages, modes—certain types of scales—have been an important component of Western music. The concept of modes dates to the ancient Greeks and was a central part of their music theory. Used heavily in Gregorian chant, modes were also the basis of European art music for over a thousand years.

More recently, modes have been employed in all kinds of music—everything from folk songs to modern jazz to blues and rock and beyond, and in the work of guitarists like Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana, and many others. In this lesson, you’ll meet the major scale’s seven modes—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian—and learn how you can use their distinctive sounds to create more interesting melodies and chords.

Week One: Examine the Modes

A useful way to think of modes is as scales within a scale. Example 1 depicts all of the modes in the C major scale, which is written in two octaves: Ionian (from C to C), Dorian (D to D), Phrygian, (E to E), Lydian (F to F), Mixolydian (G to G), Aeolian (A to A) and Locrian (B to B).

Although these seven modes share the same seven notes, each one has a distinct sonic identity because every mode begins on a different degree of the scale. Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian sound major, while Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian sound minor; Locrian sounds diminished. Also, Dorian is often described as “jazzy,” Phrygian as “Spanish,” Mixolydian as “bluesy,” and so on. Be sure to play through all the modes to make your own associations, and keep in mind that Ionian and Aeolian are identical to the major and natural minor scale, respectively.

The measures in Example 2 offer a more direct comparison of the seven modes, as they’re all based on the tonic note of G. The numbers above the standard notation depict each mode’s construction relative to the major scale, and the letters between the standard and tab lines convey the patterns of whole (W) and half (H) steps. Memorizing these formulas will help you build and identify modes and modal compositions.


Before you move on to the next week’s exercises, try building the seven modes of the major scale on various other root notes: Spell out all the modes within other major scales—the D major scale (D E F# G A B C#), for instance, contains D Ionian, E Dorian, F# Phrygian, etc.—and on single pitches (like in Ex. 2), as well.

Beginners’ Tip #1

Try playing each mode with a corresponding root-note drone. For example, play the notes of a D Dorian mode over a ringing open fourth string, an E Phrygian mode over the sixth string, etc. This will help your ears get accustomed to each mode.

Week Two: Popular Modal Melodies

Many popular melodies are modal. Example 3, for instance, depicts a passage from “Scarborough Fair,” an English folk song that was also a hit for Simon & Garfunkel. The tune is in the key of A minor, and though most of the melody is drawn from the A natural minor scale (A B C D E F G), in bar 7, the appearance of the raised sixth (F#) suggests the A Dorian mode (A B C D E F# G).

In Example 4, you’ll find a bit of the classic folk song “Old Joe Clark.” Although the key signature indicates A major, each odd-numbered measure has a G natural, so you can think of the melody as coming from the A Mixolydian mode (A B C# D E F# G).

To reinforce your understanding of each mode’s distinctive sound—and to hear the effect that even a single note can have on a melody—try playing an F instead of F# in “Scarborough Fair,” or a G# in place of G in “Old Joe Clark.”

Beginners’ Tip #2

Take the time to create basic melodies with as many modes as you can. It can be helpful to begin with the tonic (first note) of each mode you are using so that you get acquainted with its distinctive sonic identity.

Week Three: Relating Modes to Harmony

This week, you’ll learn how the modes of the major scale relate to harmony. Remember that when harmonized in stacks of thirds, the notes of the major scale form triads (three-note chords). Example 5a shows all the triads that occur naturally in the C Ionian mode/C major scale. Uppercase Roman numerals stand for major triads (1 3 5) and lowercase represent minor triads (1 b3 5); dim is short for diminished (1 b3 b5).

The same triads within the C Ionian mode are found in D Dorian (Example 5b), but because the keys are different, the mode’s functions are different. For instance, C major is I in C Ionian, but VII in D Dorian; Dm is ii in C Ionian, but I in D Dorian. Take some time to write out the remaining modes of the C major scale—E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and B Locrian—in triads to see how these chords will function in relation to each individual mode.

Spend just a little longer with the chords that are found within modes. Example 6a shows triads derived from the G Dorian mode, and Example 6b depicts those from G Mixolydian. For good measure, take a stab at determining the triads in G Ionian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, too. Writing them out and playing them will help you develop a deeper understanding of how these chords support the sound and feel of each mode.

Just as modes can be used to generate melodies, so too can they be used to create chords and chord progressions. The G chord in “Old Joe Clark” from Ex. 4, for instance, is the bVII (rather than the viidim), which comes straight from the G Mixolydian mode. Example 7a demonstrates a typical chord progression drawn from the E Dorian mode. Note that although the iv chord in the key of E minor would normally be minor, the E Dorian’s raised sixth (C#) makes for a major IV chord. In Example 7b, you’ll see the same concept at work with the E Phrygian mode. Here, that mode’s second note, F, makes for a bII chord.


Beginners’ Tip #3

Pick any mode, stack its notes in thirds (as in Examples 5a–6b), and then select a few chords, beginning with the tonic chord, to create your own modal progression.

Week Four: Put it All Together

Example 8 puts together all of this lesson’s concepts in a 12-bar etude, which changes modes every four measures. Although the key signature in bar 1 suggests B minor, the C natural notes give the first four bars a B Phrygian feel. Similarly, the C# notes in measures 5–8 convey the E Dorian mode, and the A naturals in 9–12 lend those measures a B Mixolydian feel.

The modes in the etude affect not just the way the melodies behave, but the chords, too. In bars 1–4, instead of the iidim (C#dim) you would expect in the key of B minor, you get a II chord (C/Cmaj7). Likewise, in bars 5–8, there’s an F#m chord rather than the F#dim chord you would expect in the key of E minor. And in bars 9–12, there is a bVII (A major) chord, instead of the viidim (A#dim) you would normally have in the key of B major.

Keep in mind that while this lesson covered the seven modes of the major scale, modes can be found in any and all other scales, including the harmonic minor, ascending melodic minor, and so on. Composing within the modes, even just those found within the major scale, can create endless possibilities for new melodic and harmonic colors.

Beginners’ Tip #4

Create a basic two-chord vamp using a mode of your choice—I–IV (Gm–C) for G Dorian, for example. Record the vamp, then try improvising over it using only notes found within the given mode.

In the 1950s, jazz composers like George Russell and Miles Davis popularized a style known as modal jazz when they began using modes, rather than standard chord progressions, to generate harmonies. Pianists like McCoy Tyner often play chords in stacks of fourths, and the concept works quite well on the acoustic guitar, as shown in the colorful voicings here, all derived from the D Dorian mode. Try using voicings like these the next time you play a piece with a D minor-type chord for four or more measures.


Songs à La Mode

Ionian: “Let It Be,” the Beatles; “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison
Dorian: “Eleanor Rigby,” The Beatles; “Scarborough Fair,” traditional
Phrygian: “White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane; “Space Oddity,” David Bowie
Lydian: “Maria,” Leonard Bernstein; The Simpsons theme song
Mixolydian: “Norwegian Wood,” the Beatles; “Lay Lady Lay,” Bob Dylan
Aeolian: “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin; “All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan
Locrian: “Army of Me,” Björk; Jeux, Claude Debussy

Now that you have some inspiration, try composing some of your own melodies based on the mode or modes of your choosing.

Playing modes on guitar music lesson music notation examples 1–4


Playing modes on guitar music lesson music notation examples 5–8
Playing modes on guitar music lesson music notation example 8 and next level

weekly workout - get your fingers moving with a series of interesting technical exercises
Tim Bertsch
Tim Bertsch

Tim Bertsch is Seattle-based guitarist, composer, and educator, as well as the founder of Sound Academy of Music.

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