The Magic Behind Musical Modes

Modes are extremely powerful. Yet even the most experienced songwriters and musicians overlook them. Most people don’t even know exactly what a mode is. They seem intimidated by it all because it sounds like a complex system of codes that only the music theory elite can decipher. Well guess what: We’ll show you how easy they are, how they sound and how you can use them to invoke different emotions and feelings.

What are modes?

Modes are alternative tonalities, also known as scales. They can be derived from the familiar major scale by just starting on a different scale tone. Modes are named after the ancient Greek modes, although they do not share an actual similarity.

For every key signature there are exactly seven modes of the major scale: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. All modes in that key signature use the same notes, but they start on different ones.

Why do modes sound so different?

Next you will learn that all modes are derived from the major scale by starting on a different scale degree. But why does each mode produce a different feeling, although they basically consist of the exact same notes?

Our ears generally latch onto something we think of as the tonal center. The tonal center is the tone your ear expects the melody to return to from time to time and which feels restful when you get there. Then as other notes are used, we accumulate this sense of how intervals within each octave are patterned. That’s what makes a tune feel different. It’s how the human brain perceives music.

Now let’s have a closer look at the different modes to get a better feeling for them.

The Ionian Mode

Music that uses the traditional major scale can be said to be in the first mode of the major scale, also known as Ionian.  Its bright sounding is well-liked in pop, rock, classical, jazz, punk and country:

 

The Ionian scale is made up of seven notes with a characteristic succession of whole and half tone steps, which is referred to as “diatonic”. For example, in the key of C the Ionian scale consists of the notes c-d-e-f-g-a-b-c.

As you probably remember from school, there are naturally occurring half steps between e & f and b & c. If you look at the picture above, you will see that the half steps of this modes are located between the 3rd & 4th and 7th & 8th scale degrees.

Finally, you can produce a bright and happy timbre by playing the Ionian scale over a C major chord for example.

The Aeolian Mode

The other familiar mode is Aeolian. It can be derived by starting the Ionian (major) scale on the sixth scale tone. For example, A Aeolian (a-b-c-d-e-f-g-a) is derived from from the C Ionian scale by starting on its 6th note, hence 6th mode. This scale is commonly known as the natural minor scale, which creates a sad and oppressive timbre:

 

The Aeolian scale consists of the exact same seven notes as the Ionian scale, so what’s the difference? The trick is that the intervals are different.

By starting the scale from a different position, we basically shift the intervals. The naturally occurring half steps are still between e & f and b & c, but their position has changed. Now they can be found between the 2nd & 3rd and the 5th & 6th scale degrees.

Finally, we can create a sad and oppressive timbre by playing the Aeolian scale over an A minor chord for example.

The Dorian Mode

Dorian is the second mode of the major scale. It sounds cheeky, partly sad, but in a hopeful way. It’s prominent in blues, rock, jazz and funk.

 

Many popular are written in the Dorian mode, such as Another Brick in the Wall (Pink Floyd), Get Lucky (Daft Punk) or Radioactive (Imagine Dragons).

By starting on the second note of C Ionian, the naturally occurring half steps are shifted between the 2nd & 3rd and 6th & 7th scale degrees. You can think of this mode as a natural minor scale with a raised 6th, also known as the Dorian 6th.

Finally, we can create a cheeky timbre by playing the Dorian scale over a D minor chord for example.

The Phrygian Mode

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale. It produces a darkly and tension-filled sound:

 

Its Spanish and oriental timbre is much loved in heavy metal, jazz and flamenco music. For example, Metallica wrote the intro of their song Wherever I May Roam in Phrygian. Another popular song that uses the Phrygian scale is Olé by John Coltrane.

By starting on the third note of the C Ionian scale, the naturally occurring half steps are shifted between the 1st & 2nd and 5th & 6th scale degrees. You can think of this mode as a natural minor scale with a flatted 2nd, also known as the Phrygian 2nd.

Finally, we can create an oriental timbre by playing the Phrygian scale over a E minor chord for example.

The Lydian Mode

The Lydian mode is the fourth mode of the major scale. It stands out due to its mystical tone color:

 

Lydian is mainly used in Jazz and appears only seldom in other genres. Despite, there are a few popular songs that use the Lydian mode such as I Overture 1928 (Dream Theater) and The Riddle (Steve Vai).

By starting on the fourth note of the C Ionian scale, the naturally occurring half steps are shifted between the 4th & 5th and 7th & 8th scale degrees. You can think of this mode as a major scale with a raised 4th, also known as the Lydian 4th.

Finally, we can create a mystical timbre by playing the Lydian scale over a F major chord for example.

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The Mixolydian Mode

Mixolydian, identical to the 5th mode of the major scale, is wildly popular in blues, rock, jazz and funk because of the bluesy but also phony sound it creates:

 

One of the most popular examples for the Mixolydian mode is the song Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns n’ Roses.

By starting on the fifth note of the C Ionian scale, the naturally occurring half steps are shifted between the 3th & 4th and 6th & 7th scale degrees. You can think of this mode as a major scale with a flatted 7th, also known as the Mixolydian 7th.

Finally, we can create a bluesy timbre by playing the Mixolydian scale over a G major chord for example.

The Locrian Mode

Locrian, the 7th mode of the major scale, concludes our list of the seven modes of the major scale.

 

Being the most dissonant interval in western music, it creates an unstable and tense sound.


By starting on the seventh note of the C Ionian scale, the naturally occurring half steps are shifted between the 1st & 2nd and the 4th & 5th scale degrees. It is the relationship between the root and the flatted 5th, known as a tritone (i.e. 3 whole tones), which creates this sound. From at least the early 18th century this tritone was described as diabolus in musica (the Devil in music).

Finally, we can create a weird timbre by playing the Locrian scale over a Bmb5 chord for example.

Last but not least, don’t sit down and force a song you write into a certain mode unless you intend to experiment. Modes are a great tool, but you would also not fix a toaster with a spatula. If you want to practice modes and scales efficiently, check out our app Fretello. It helps you to master the major scale and its seven modes within a short period of time.

Florian Lettner
CEO & Co-Founder