What are Musical Modes? Enrich Your Songs with Modal Color


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Musical Modes

Cover Photo by Nadiia Ganzhyi


In Western music, a mode is a permutation of a scale. To play a mode, we reorder the notes of the scale such that you begin and end on a note that isn’t the tonic. This rearrangement yields an entirely new scale – a “mode” – with its own unique combination of half-steps and whole-steps. In this chapter, we will explore the seven common modes of the major scale.

The term “modal music” refers to a composition that uses a mode. Modal music usually does not rely on functional harmony*. Instead, we are free to meander from one chord to another without the obligation of following traditional chord patterns (most notably, the Ⅱmin → Ⅴ → Ⅰ resolution).

Brief History of Modes

Music modes have a long and complex history beyond the scope of this book. The seven modes we use today were originally named after regions in and around ancient Greece, where they were developed. They were later adopted for western sacred music in the Medieval and Renaissance period. Today, we recognize modes in everything from Gregorian chant, jazz, funk, heavy metal, and music for film and games.

Tips) Functional Harmony
Functional harmony is the idea that all the chords within a key play a role, breaking down into one of three families of harmony: tonic, dominant, or sub-dominant. Typically, in a major key, chords belonging to the tonic family (Ⅰ, Ⅲmin, or Ⅵmin) move toward a sub-dominant family of chords (II min or IV). These propel toward the dominant family for tension (Ⅴ or Ⅶdim) before resolving back to one of the tonic chords.

Finding Modes

Let’s begin by looking at Fig. A, where we have a G major scale, followed by two of its modes, A Dorian and E Aeolian. Each scale/mode contains the same collection of notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, and F♯. The only difference between them is the starting note (tonic).

Fig. A

For instance, A Dorian starts and ends on the second note (A) of the G Major scale. For this reason, we say that A Dorian is the second mode of the G Major scale. The Dorian mode is neither major nor minor; it is its own scale.

E Aeolian is the sixth mode of G Major, since E is the sixth note of the G Major scale. In fact, if you’ve ever learned about a major scale having a relative minor scale, then you might know more about modes than you think. E Aeolian is essentially an E minor scale, which is the relative major of G Major.

Each scale/mode in Fig. A differs in its half-step and whole-step pattern (indicated by “H” and “W”). These differences result in each having its own musical personality. In chapter 4, we examine a variety of scales, each with its own unique half/whole-step pattern.

Creating a Mode Quickly

The numbers underneath the notes in Fig. A describe how we could create that mode by modifying a major scale. It’s a bit of a mental shortcut to use a major scale as a reference point and simply alter a few notes to re-create the mode in question.

For instance, to make A Dorian, we could simply take an A Major scale and lower (or flat) the 3rd and 7th degrees (see Fig. A-2). It simply happens to work out this way due to Dorian’s half-step and whole-step pattern. In another example, we can play E Aeolian (or E Minor) by taking an E Major scale and flatting the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees.

Fig. A-2

In Conclusion

We may use any one of the seven notes in a major scale as a tonic for a mode. Our seven-note scale system gives us seven different starting points (and therefore seven different modes) to explore, each one with its own color and mood. As composers, we can use this variety to explore new melodic and harmonic possibilities.

Overview of the 7 Modes of the Major Scale

3 Major Modes, 3 Minor Modes, and 1 Diminished Mode

Each note of a major scale can serve as the tonic of a mode. Since the major scale has seven scale notes (thus, seven different starting points), we have seven diatonic* modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. We can organize them as follows:

3 Major Modes are Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. Each mode contains a major 3rd interval between the tonic and the 3rd scale degree.

3 Minor Modes are Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian. Each mode contains a minor 3rd interval between the tonic and the 3rd scale degree.

1 Diminished Mode is Locrian, which contains a minor 3rd interval between the tonic and the 3rd scale degree. In addition, the 5th scale degree is lowered, making the tonic chord diminished.

Theory In-Depth) Diatonic 
The term “Diatonic” means using only the notes within a scale. For instance, a diatonic chord is formed solely from the notes of a scale (within the key signature). Non-diatonic melodies and chords use notes outside of the scale/key signature.

A Mode for Every Mood

The major modes (Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian) generally have a bright and positive quality. In contrast, the minor/diminished modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian) seem to have a darker and perhaps more somber quality. We can compare them in Fig. B.

Of course, interpreting a mode/scale as bright or dark is fairly subjective, especially in a piece of music. Different people might perceive certain modes to feel darker or brighter than this chart indicates. For example, some may feel that Ionian sounds brighter than Lydian. In this chapter, we have taken the liberty of associating each mode with a few adjectives that describe its typical usage. We hope you find these descriptions more helpful than limiting as we explore.

Fig.B  Seven Modes of the Major Scale – Character Note(*) 

In Fig. B, the numbers in the rightmostright most column help compare the mode to a major scale pattern, which is standard practice. The numbers in bold with an asterisk represent the character note* of the mode. For instance, Lydian is just like Ionian, except the fourth note of its scale is raised (♯4). 

Tips) Character Note
The character note of a mode is a defining note that helps us distinguish one mode from another. Due to the ubiquitous use of major and minor keys in Western music, Western listeners are somewhat conditioned to the sounds of major and minor scales. Therefore, when we hear a mode, we may hear them in relation to the major and minor scales that we already know so well. For instance, we tend to hear Lydian as a major scale with a raised fourth, making the ♯4 the character note of that mode. We also hear Dorian as a minor scale with an unexpectedly natural sixth; thus, ♮6 is the character note for Dorian.

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.