Music & Entertainment

What Are Musical Modes?

Written by MasterClass

Apr 5, 2019 • 5 min read

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Learning music theory is an important step in any instrumentalist’s career; musical modes are one small, yet integral, part of music theory that enable aspiring musicians to perfect their craft and expand their creativity.

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What Is a Musical Mode?

A mode is simply a scale pattern that can begin on any note in the scale, not just the root. Modes are variations on scales, which are one of the fundamental elements of tonal music. To understand how modes work, you must first understand how scales work.

What Are Musical Scales?

In Western music, scales are divided into 12 equal increments. Notes 12 increments apart from each other are said to be an octave apart. For instance the note G5 is an octave above the note G4, and there are 11 equally spaced notes in between them.

Moving from one of these 12 notes to the next is a half step. Moving up or down in 2-note increments is moving in whole steps.

To create most Western musical scales, pick 7 of the 12 possible notes, which are spaced apart in half step and whole step increments. That specific pattern of 7 notes is what gives a scale its unique sound.

The fundamental scale of western music is the major scale, and it consists of 7 notes. Starting from the lowest note, and going up, they are:

1 - the “root” of the scale
2 - a whole step up from the root
3 - a whole step up from the 2nd
4 - a half step up from the 3rd
5 - a whole step up from the 4th
6 - a whole step up from the 5th
7 - a whole step up from the 6th

Then, with one more half step, arrive back to the “root”—only now an octave higher than before!

A natural minor scale is similar to a major scale, but with a few half steps where there were previously whole steps.

1 - the “root” of the scale
2 - a whole step up from the root
3 - a half step up from the 2nd
4 - a whole step up from the 3rd
5 - a whole step up from the 4th
6 - a half step up from the 5th
7 - a whole step up from the 6th

And then one final whole step to get back to the root—but again it’s an octave higher than before.

The 7 Major Musical Modes

Major modes are present throughout Western music. Jazz giants like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were proponents of modal playing. Heavy metal and progressive rock bands are fond of modes—especially the “minor sounding” ones. Classical music and film scores are full of modal harmony.

As such, it is useful to know the major modes, how they are constructed, and what they sound like. They are as follows:

  • Ionian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the root. Therefore a C major scale and the C Ionian mode have the same exact set of notes: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. This means that “Ionian mode” is just a fancy way of saying “major scale.”
  • Dorian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the 2nd degree. The Dorian mode is a cousin to the minor scale and is quite popular with guitarists — from jazz greats like Pat Martino to shredders like Kirk Hammett.
  • Phrygian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the 3rd degree. The Phrygian mode also has a minor tonality and tends to evoke the Arabian music of Spain and North Africa.
  • Lydian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the 4th degree. The Lydian mode is closely related to a major scale and tends to evoke a “lifting” sensation. It’s popular in inspirational film music like John Williams’ score for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial.
  • Mixolydian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the 5th degree. Also closely related to a major scale, the Mixolydian mode is heard all over rock, blues, and fusion. Listen to the guitar solos in Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” for some fantastic Mixolydian playing.
  • Aeolian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the 6th degree. This is actually the same exact note pattern as a minor scale, so like the Ionian mode, saying “Aeolian mode” is just a fancy way to say “minor.”
  • Locrian Mode - A major scale pattern starting on the 7th degree. The Locrian mode is dense and thorny and rarely used. Sometimes jazz soloists use it over diminished chords, but it doesn’t sound pleasing in long passages.

What’s the Difference Between Scales and Modes?

To put it in the simplest possible terms, modes are created from scales. In Western music, the most common modes are ones built off of the major scale. This means they follow the same interval patterns as a major scale, but they can start at any scale degree. Because there are 7 intervals in a major scale, there are 7 modes built off it.

One can also build modes off of the minor scale. This is less common in Western music. Minor modes are also more complex, because there are actually three different minor scales that are used in western music — natural minor, harmonic minor, and melodic minor. Each of these minor scales has 7 intervals, and a mode can be built off of each interval. Therefore there are a total of 21 modes derived from minor scales, and most are barely ever used.

How Did the Musical Modes Get Their Names?

All of the major scale modes are named from regions or cultures in ancient Greece. The Dorian mode refers to a group of people referenced throughout ancient Greek culture, including in Homer’s The Odyssey. The Locrian mode comes from a region in central Greece. Other modes, like Lydian and Phrygian, are named for neighboring regions in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).

Minor scale modes have denser names (such as Lydian Augmented or Super Locrian) and tend to be modified versions of the major scale modes.

How to Incorporate Modes Into Your Playing

Modal harmony is an exciting way to add variety to your own music. Rather than default to major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, or blues scales, consider trying one of these 7-note modes to introduce new tonalities.

  • In place of a major scale, try using Lydian or Mixolydian modes instead.
  • Instead of a minor scale, try Dorian or Phrygian modes.
  • Instead of a diminished scale, try Locrian mode.

By studying and mastering these modes, you’ll unlock a whole new vocabulary for your improvisations and your formal compositions.