A Guide to Major Modes

This guide to the major modes introduces some deep dark music secrets. Get inside one of the more complex and mysterious precepts of music theory.

Modes are an advanced concept in music theory that gives birth to exciting and diverse scales. These sounds blow your musical possibilities wide open. Their diversity can be overwhelming, but they all share the major scale’s essence. 

Let’s get into how modes work and then break down each of its seven variations. 

The major scale.

The major scale is a series of seven notes with specific ratios between them. The degrees of the scale are from one to seven. You can apply their intervallic pattern of tones and semitones to create a major scale starting on any note. This is the formula, with examples in C, G, and D major:

What are modes?

Modes are what you get when you play the notes of a major scale starting from a different degree of the scale. For example, a C major scale starts on D, a G major scale starts on E, and so on. 

When you play the notes of a C major scale but hear D as the root note or “one,” it has a different sound. This is because the intervallic relationships change. It doesn’t sound like D major because a D major scale has different notes. But, modes are one of those things that you have to visualize to grasp, so let’s dive straight in.

The major modes.

Ionian

Ionion is just another name for the major scale. (‘Nuff said.)

Dorian 

Dorian is a major scale that starts on the second degree of the scale. Take a look at what happens to the intervals and to the numbers of the scale, when you play the notes of C major starting on D:

Why have numbers gone flat? 

Because they’re flat in comparison to D major. The scale above would be called D Dorian. It has a beautiful minor sound with a gentle twist. It’s got the b3 and b7 of a natural minor scale, but the 6 is major. This is a great example of the emotional nuance you can achieve using modes. 

Listen to the beginning of  Miles Davis’ trumpet solo in So What to get a glimpse.

Phrygian

Try not to phryg out. This is a weird one! Welcome to the third mode of the major scale. Phrygian is what happens when you play, for example, a C major scale starting on E:

The Phrygian sound is dark and ominous, used chiefly in heavy jazz and dramatic film soundtracks. But like everything in music, it has many applications. 

Want to hear it in action? Check out Only 1 by Ariana Grande– the vocal run she sings in the chorus is a Phrygian scale! 

Lydian 

This magical mode makes you feel like you’re arriving at the other end of a rainbow. Lydian is the fourth mode, and has only one note different to the major scale. Check it out in C:

Lydian is sort of just a major scale with a kiss on the lips. The #4 sound, in particular, is dreamy and gentle. A great example is in Runaway by the Corrs—the instrumental riff throughout the song has a very major sound. 

In the outro, they make the riff Lydian by sharpening(#) the 4 and achieve incredible simplicity and power.  

Mixolydian 

Here’s another major scale with a subtle tweak–the fifth mode goes with the dominant 7 chord because of its b7. 

Dominant 7 is usually the sound of a five-chord in any key. You’ll understand it in a second when you see a C major scale starting on G:

You can play Mixolydian over so many different chord progressions. The interval of a tone between the seventh and first degrees of the scale creates a vibe that is easy to jam on because it doesn’t cry out for resolution like a natural seven does. 

Aeolian

This one will look familiar to you. Aeolian is the sixth mode but it is really just another name for the natural minor scale. This is what you get when you play a C major scale starting on A:

Aeolian will always be the relative minor of whichever scale you derive it from. This means that the sixth degree of any major scale is its relative minor. 

Locrian

If one flat loves another flat, sometimes they have lots of flat babies. (Or something like that.) 

This is Locrian– every degree of the scale is flat except for the four! Locrian is beautiful and clean because it has five sharps which have all become natural. Here it is, a C major scale starting on B:

How to practice major modes.

We know this might be a lot to take in, so don’t expect yourself to be casually tossing major modes into your songs by tomorrow evening. But there are some systematic and engaging ways to practice major modes that will help you improve rapidly.

  • Play them—In every key, slowly, with a metronome on 60 or 70bpm. Get accustomed to their sound; their energy. Maybe take one mode a week for seven weeks as a project.
  • Use a chord progression—Start with something simple like I–IV–iv–V. Try improvising using the modes to see if you can superimpose their sound onto the progression. This means playing phrases in such a way that makes a different degree of the scale sound like the root note. For example, in the key of C, you might play an E Phrygian on these chords: C–F–Am–G.
  • Try a whole song—Print out the chords, and divide them into small sections, perhaps every three or four bars. See which modes could apply to each section and then improvise your way through the whole piece. 
  • Write short melodies or ideas using modes–This is the best way to get cozy with them. Make sure you emphasize the important notes–for example, the 6 in Dorian, the #4 in Lydian, or the b7 in Mixolydian. 
  • Listen for them in songs—Active listening will take you far. This means sitting down to listen to music attentively, and even stopping and rewinding if something catches your attention.

Don’t explode.

They’re only modes! While they are fascinating and sophisticated, they are not the be-all and end-all of music. Often, you will find yourself using them without even realizing it. But if you’re hungry for more musical sounds and knowledge, this is the perfect challenge or project. 

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