MUSIC
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MUSIC
THEORY
FOUNDATIONS

Musical Modes - What are they and how do we use them?

Music Modes are the predecessor to our modern western music scales, the major scale and the minor scale. The word mode comes from the Latin for manner or method. Modes are one of the earliest forms of Western Music and are a type of scale. Modes originated from Ancient Greece and each mode has its own characteristic, feeling and also it's own unique name! The mode names originate from the Ancient Greek language and are named after the different regions of Ancient Greece. It has been said that these greek modes may have been written to represent the people who had lived in these regions and the different characteristics they had.
The modern major and minor scales have an 'all purpose' pattern of semitones and tones that can be applied to create the scale on any starting note. In contrast, modes have a different pattern for each note as we move up in step. 
The modes we use and see in present day are sometimes referred to as 'church modes'. They are most commonly used in pop, rock and jazz music. These modes are given names identical to the musical theory of Ancient Greece. Each mode is made up of a diatonic scale with the compass of one octave and a different pattern of semitones and tones (whole steps and half steps).
How many modes are there in total?

There are seven different modes in total. Some are considered major modes, some are minor and one of them is considered diminished. These are not presented through our modern scales and therefore it is easy to see that as we work down the list of modes we begin starting on a different degree of the scale.

The modes are called:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

There is a handy mnemonic to remember the order:

I Don't Particularly Like Modes A Lot

Let's explore the modes in more detail. Remember, to understand Modes in real detail you need to be clear and understand your Western music major and minor scales. Remember a scale is made up of a pattern of tones and semitones (whole steps and half steps).

You can explore each of these modes using any note but it is easiest to explain it in relation to the major scale. Perhaps it is easiest to travel through the notes of C major. Remember there are seven different notes in C major, C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Ionian Mode

The Ionian mode is essentially our modern music major scale. If this was to start on a C natural, a white key on the piano, we simply would play all the white keys up to the next C. This is the same as C major. The ionian most usually starts on the root of the scale.

The Ionian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

T, T, S, T, T, T, S

By using this pattern you can start on any note and you will always end up with the Ionian mode.

If we write this ionian major scale in the key of c the notes would be as follows: c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c. As you can see this is the same as c major.

Below you can see the C Ionian Mode written out on the piano keyboard!
Dorian Mode
The Dorian mode is very similar to the modern music natural minor scale but with one difference! In a normal natural minor scale the sixth note of the scale is a minor sixth. However, in the Dorian mode the sixth become a major sixth! The Dorian mode most usually starts on the second degree of the scale.

The Dorian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

T, S, T, T, T, S, T

By using this pattern you can start on any note and you will always end up with the Dorian mode.

Let's write out the notes of the D dorian mode/scale - D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D

Below you can see the D Dorian Mode written out on the piano keyboard. 
Phrygian Mode
The third mode is the Phrygian mode. The Phrygian mode is very similar to the modern music natural minor scale, again with one difference. In a normal natural minor scale the second note of the scale is usually a major second but in the Phrygian mode, this second become a minor second! The Phrygian mode most usually starts on the third degree of that scale.

The Phrygian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

S, T, T, T, S, T, T

By using this pattern you can start on any note and you will always end up with the Phrygian mode.

Let's write out the notes of the E Phrygian mode - E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E

As you can see this is very similar to the e minor (natural) scale except with one difference, where the second note would normally be an F# in e natural minor (major second), we actually have an F natural which is a minor second!
 

Below is an example of the E Phrygian mode/scale written out on the piano.

Lydian Mode
The fourth mode is the lydian mode. The lydian mode is very similar to the Ionian mode but with one note different. The difference is the fourth note, in the Lydian mode the interval of a fourth becomes an augmented 4th! The Lydian mode most usually starts on the 4th degree of the scale.

The Lydian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

T, T, T, S, T, T, S

By using this pattern you can start on any note and you will always end up with the Lydian mode.

For now let's continue in our C major example. As the lydian mode is built on the fourth degree of the scale we will write out the F lydian mode. The notes would be as follows F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F.

As you can see this is very similar to our ionian major scale/mode but with one difference. If this was to be an F major scale, the fourth note would be Bb, however this has been raised by a semitone to B natural, making this an augmented fourth!
 
Below is an example of the c lydian mode/scale written out on the piano keyboard.
Mixolydian Mode
The mixolydian scale is also very similar to our modern music major scale but is different by one note. The seventh note in the mixolydian mode becomes a flattened 7th. A flattened 7th is the same as a minor 7th. The mixolydian mode most usually starts on the 5th degree of the scale.

The Mixolydian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

T, T, S, T, T, S, T

By using this pattern you can start on any note and you will always end up with the Mixolydian mode.

Let's write out our Mixolydian mode, as the mixolydian mode is built on the 5th degree of our C major scale we will start on G. The notes would be as follows -

G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

As you can see this is very close to our modern day G major except with one difference. G major would normally include the note F sharp but here we have an F natural. This is our minor seventh as mentioned at the start!
 

Below is an example of the G mixolydian mode/scale on the piano keyboard.

Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian Mode is another one of our minor music modes. It is the exact same as our modern music natural minor scale. The Aeolian mode most usually starts on the 6th degree of the scale.

The Aeolian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

T, S, T, T, S, T, T

By using this pattern you can start on any note and you will always end up with the Aeolian mode.

As the aeolian mode usually starts on the 6th degree of the scale we will write out the Am minor aeolian mode. The notes would be A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A.

Below is an example of the A aeolian mode/scale on the piano keyboard.

Locrian Mode

The Locrian mode is sometimes called the diminished scale. Five notes in this scale are flattened by a semitone/half step. This scale is neither major or minor as because although the third degree of the scale is a minor third the fifth degree is diminished and not perfect. If you need to understand your intervals a little more then do make sure to check out the blog post on intervals. The Locrian mode most usually starts on the 7th degree of the scale.

The Locrian mode is sometimes referred to as the Octatonic scale in jazz music theory.

The Locrian mode also includes a tritone.

The Locrian Modes pattern of tones/semitones is as follows:

S, T, T, S, T, T, T

Finally let's write out the locrian mode. For this we start on the seventh degree of the scale meaning that this will start on a B. So lets write out the B locrian mode.

B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B.

Below is an example of the B Locrian mode/scale on the piano keyboard.

As you can see above all of these modes use no sharps or flats, this is because we were using the ionian major key of C major which does not have any sharps or flats! You could just have easily started building these seven different modes starting on the ionian mode, G. The ionian mode G is the same as G major and so would include an F sharp. 

How to use modes in your compositions

Modes are a great way to add variety into your pieces especially as they are such a close match to our modern day major and minor scales but with a twist!

Why not try using:

  • Lydian or Mixolydian modes instead of a major scale
  • Dorian or Phrygian modes instead of a minor scale
  • Locrian mode instead of a diminished scale

By doing this you will find that you unlock huge potential in your compositions and songwriting! 

Author: Jade Bultitude
Jade is an experienced musician and teacher as well as being the founder of Music Theory Foundations.
 
She has been helping people learn music theory for more than 10 years from pre school children all the way to degree level studies.
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MUSIC
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