The modes of the Major Scale can be intimating to learn. There’s a certain cloud of confusion surrounding the modes. I know I had a difficult time grasping their function in music. It’s one thing to know what they are, and another to put them to use in writing. This article will look at 5 different ways to understand the concept of modes so that we can better use them in our music!
The 5 effective ways to think about the modes of the Major Scale are:
- Modes have all the same notes as their parent scales, just with different starting points.
- Modes have unique scale degrees.
- Scale degrees make chords out of modes.
- Modes in the context of functional harmony.
- Creating modal harmony.
Modes have all the same notes as their parent scales, just with different starting points.
This is modal study 101. Let’s take C Major for example:
C D E F G A B C’
This first mode, Ionian, is built starting on the first note of the Major Scale. The first mode of C Major is C Ionian.
The second mode, Dorian, is built starting on the second note of the Major Scale. The second mode of C Major is D Dorian.
The third mode, Phrygian, is built starting on the third note of the Major Scale. The third mode of C Major is E Phrygian.
There are 7 notes in the Major Scale, and therefore 7 modes with different starting points. Keeping with the key of C Major, the modes are as follows:
- C Ionian: C D E F G A B C’
- D Dorian: D E F G A B C D’
- E Phrygian: E F G A B C D E’
- F Lydian: F G A B C D E F’
- G Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G’
- A Aeolian: A B C D E F G A’
- B Locrian: B C D E F G A B’
Notice that none of the modes of C Major contain any notes outside of C Major. This is the first effective way of thinking about the modes of the Major Scale. This basic concept is how modes are often taught, which can be problematic. Why should we even study modes if they’re the same thing as their parent scales? Well, let’s look at the second effective way of thinking about modes.
Modes have unique scale degrees
The starting points (we’ll call them roots from now on) of the modes are important, they give the modes unique scale degrees. Scale degrees tell us two things:
1. The number of scale tones above from the root
For example, take C Major
C = first scale degree
D = second scale degree
E = third scale degree
F = fourth scale degree
G = fifth scale degree
A = sixth scale degree
B = seventh scale degree
The scale degrees of the Major Scale are listed as:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
**All other scales and modes are written as alterations (sharping or flatting) the scale degrees of the Major Scale. This is the basis of all scale theory!
2. The interval made with the root
Before we get into the discussion of root-to-scale-degree intervals, let’s rewrite our modes with the intervals between each scale degree:
- C Ionian: w-w-h-w-w-w-h C D E F G A B C’
- D Dorian: w-h-w-w-w-h-w D E F G A B C D’
- E Phrygian: h-w-w-w-h-w-w E F G A B C D E’
- F Lydian: w-w-w-h-w-w-h F G A B C D E F’
- G Mixolydian: w-w-h-w-w-h-w G A B C D E F G’
- A Aeolian: w-h-w-w-h-w-w A B C D E F G A’
- B Locrian: h-w-w-h-w-w-w B C D E F G A B’
w = whole tone h = half tone
Here are C Major’s scale degrees complete with the intervals between them:
1 -w- 2 -w- 3 -h- 4 -w- 5 -w- 6 -w- 7 -h-
Now let’s compare the scale degrees of the Major Scale and the Dorian Mode:
Notice the third of the Major Scale is an interval of 2 whole tones, whereas in Dorian the third has an interval of 1 whole tone + 1 half tone. Similarly, the seventh of the Major Scale is an interval of 5 whole tones + 1 half tone, whereas the seventh of the Dorian mode is an interval of 4 whole tones + 2 half tones (or 5 whole tones).
The third and seventh scale degrees have been flatted in the Dorian mode. These alterations are what make the modes unique. Thinking of modes in terms of their scale degrees gives more information than thinking in terms of their parent scale. The degrees help us to contrast the modes and see them as independent scales. Remember that the scale degrees of a scale or mode are unique to that scale or mode!
Below the modes are written in terms of their scale degrees:
- Ionian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
- Dorian: 1 2 ♭3 4 5 6 ♭7
- Phrygian: 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
- Lydian: 1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
- Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7
- Aeolian: 1 2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7
- Locrian: 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7
Remember that these scale degrees are in reference to the root of their respective modes. The 1 can be any note, and the intervals will relate back to that note.
Below is a chart displaying the scale degrees found in the modes of the Major Scale with their interval names:
Thinking of modes in terms of their scale degrees will help us differentiate them from their parent Major Scale. It also allows us to better understand chord-scale relationships, which brings us to the next effective way to think about the modes of the Major Scale.
ModES create chords with their scale degrees
Chord-Scale relationships are important to understand when creating melody and harmony in a purposeful manner. It’s good to know the modes of the Major Scale, but how useful are they if not applied in writing music. A very effective way of thinking about modes is in asking yourself “what chords can I make with this mode?”
Chord theory is another beast to understand, so I’ll leave that for another article. For now, I will list only the triads and seventh chords found in the Major Scale:
Let’s say we’re thinking Lydian: 1 2 3 ♯4 5 6 7
Lydian create a major seventh chord. It also creates a major seven sharp eleventh chord (major seventh with its ♯4 added). Lydian is the only mode of the Major Scale that has that chord! Try thinking of the modes in terms of what chords they can produce. This is an effective exercise not only in developing an understanding of the modes but of using them in compositions as well.
Let’s look further into chord scale relationship with the next effective way of thinking about modes.
Thinking of modes in the context of functional harmony
Functional Harmony basically just means that we’re playing music in a major key (using the major scale). Most western music uses functional harmony, where each chord has a function. We won’t go too deep into functional harmony in this article. For now, we will just look at the chords of the Major Scale.
Much like the modes, there are chords built off each of the Major Scale degrees. We touched on these earlier, but here is a more specific table to bring everything together:
So let’s say we’re playing a I-vi-IV-V in the key of C. We’re using all seventh chords, so the chord progression is:
C major7 – A minor7 – F major7 – G dominant7
All these chords are in the key of C Major, so we could think C major and build melodies that way. Or we could think modes of C Major and apply C Ionian over I; A Aeolian over vi; F Lydian over IV; and G Mixolydian over V. This is more challenging than just playing C Major (even though it’s all the same notes), but it will improve your understanding of the modes and will result in more thoughtful melody writing and improvisation.
These are all fantastic ways to think of the modes of the major scale.
Now let’s step away from function harmony and look at modal harmony, the last effective method of thinking about the modes.
Thinking of modes in the context of modal harmony
I saved the best for last here. Studying modal harmony is really when modes ‘clicked’ for me.
Thinking of modes over chords in functional harmony is important, but the chords themselves have a sense of motion toward the I chord (the key of the song). If the modes are following the chords, and the chords sound like the Major Key, then the modes kind of end up just sounding like their parent Major Scale.
To really get into the beauty of the modes and their unique sounds. I suggest another type of harmony: modal harmony.
In modal harmony, we aren’t as concerned with chord progression per se. We focus on creating a new “tonic” chord based on the 1 of whatever mode we are using. A useful device when writing modally is the pedal point (otherwise known as a drone). Pedalling the 1 note in a mode and playing the scale degrees against that 1 note really allows the flavour of the mode to be heard.
Chord changing is permitted, of course, but the idea to keep in mind (and in the listener’s mind) is to instill a sense that 1 is indeed the tonic. This is most easily done with a pedal point. If chord changes are being used, try to return to the 1 shortly after moving away from it.
2 questions to ask when thinking of modes and modal harmony are:
- What is the quality of the mode? In other words, what triad and seventh chord does the mode create?
- What further defines the mode against the other modes with similar qualities? Hint: Look for the tri-tone interval!
Here are the each of the modes based on C. Give them a listen and hear the intervallic flavours:
C Ionian against C pedal point: C D E F G A B C’
Ionian gives us a major quality. It has a major triad and major seventh chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 4th and 7th degrees.
Ionian is different from Lydian due to its perfect fourth vs. Lydian’s augmented fourth. It’s different from Mixolydian due to its major seventh vs. Mixolydian’s minor seventh.
C Dorian against C pedal point: C D E♭ F G A B♭ C’
Dorian gives us a minor quality. It has a minor triad and minor seventh chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 3rd and 6th degrees.
Dorian is different from Mixolydian due to its minor third vs. Mixolydian’s major third. It’s different from Aeolian due to its major sixth vs Aeolian’s minor sixth. Pay special attention to the major 6th when using Dorian.
C Phrygian against C Pedal Point: C D♭ E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C’
Phrygian gives us a minor quality. It has a minor triad and minor seventh chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 2nd and 5th degrees.
Phrygian is different from Aeolian due to its minor second vs. Aeolian’s major second. It’s different from Locrian due to its perfect fifth vs Locrian’s diminished fifth. Pay special attention to the minor 2nd when using Phrygian.
C Lydian against C Pedal Point: C D E F♯ G A B C’
Lydian gives us a major quality. It has a major triad and major seventh chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 1st and 4th degrees.
Lydian is different from Ionian due to its augmented fourth vs. Ionian’s perfect fourth. Lydian is the brightest mode of the Major Scale. Pay special attention to the augmented 4th when using Lydian.
C Mixolydian against C Pedal Point: C D E F G A B♭ C’
Mixolydian gives us a dominant quality. It has a major triad and dominant seventh chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 3rd and 7th degrees.
Mixolydian is different from Ionian due to its minor seventh vs. Ionian’s major seventh. It’s different from Dorian due to its major third vs Dorian’s minor third. Pay special attention to the major 3rd and the minor 7th when using Mixolydian.
C Aeolian against C Pedal Point: C D E♭ F G A♭ B♭ C’
Aeolian gives us a minor quality. It has a minor triad and minor seventh chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 2nd and 6th degrees.
Aeolian is different from Dorian due to its minor sixth vs. Dorian’s major sixth. It’s different from Phrygian due to its major second vs Phrygian’s minor second. Pay special attention to the minor 6th when using Aeolian.
C Locrian against C Pedal Point: C D♭ E♭ F G♭ A♭ B♭ C’
Locrian gives us a diminished quality. It has a diminished triad and minor 7 flat 5 chord. Its tri-tone interval is between its 1st and 5th degrees.
Locrian different from Phrygian due to its diminished fifth vs. Phrygian’s perfect fifth. Locrian is the darkest mode of the major scale. Although rarely ever used, pay special attention to the diminished 5th when using Locrian.
Whether you’re just learning about the modes, or have been studying for a while, I sincerely hope this article provided some insight into a better understanding of the modes of the major scale. It took me a while to really comprehend what they were all about. But now I base a lot of my playing a writing on them. They have become an indispensable tool in my musical toolbox, and I hope they become valuable to you, too!
Do you have a favourite mode? My personal favourite (at the moment that I’m writing this) is Lydian. That ♯4 can be so bright and so heavy at the same time.
As always, thank you for reading and for your support,