Modes of the major scale – a quick and simple guide

In my day to day teaching, I have come across – and continue to come across – numerous people who have either tried to learn the modes and ended up completely baffled, or have memorised the modes but struggle to use them musically. Handling the modes musically is a topic that I will approach another time, the purpose of this article is to look at the very basic theory of the modes and the names that they have. There will be a little bit of rote learning involved initially, which ordinarily I like to avoid completely. This is to try to minimise opportunities for confusion and maximise your ability to begin to use and understand the scales as quickly as possible.


In this short practical lesson, you can expect to develop;

  1. Knowledge of the basic names of the modes of the major scale in the key of C
  2. Knowledge and experience of the basic sounds of these modes
  3. Knowledge of basic meaning of major and minor
  4. Knowledge of root notes and their importance

You will need;

  1. Your guitar (or a piano, keyboard, or keyboard app if you aren’t a guitarist)

Before we begin, I want to convey the importance of spending a good amount of time playing through each mode and listening to them. Don’t make the same mistake I did when I was learning and just blaze through them as a means of playing fast. You’ll quite probably¬†miss the point of the modes entirely, just like I did. Each scale has it’s own unique colour and characteristics, and it is these unique qualities that I want to¬†help you become able to add to your musical language. More on that later on.

The first thing we need to do is to look at a seven note scale in its most basic form, the C major scale. The reason for choosing C as the starting point is because the scale only uses natural notes, or in other words, the white keys.

To begin with, let’s play the notes C to C, the resulting sound of which is commonly known as the major scale. However, the modal name for this scale is Ionian, more specifically C Ionian because the scale begins and ends on C. This is the parent*, or first mode of the major scale. At a very basic level, Ionian modes (and major tonalities in general) tend to be described as sounding happy. Check out the images beneath, I have highlighted the notes to further help you. It is worth noting from this point forwards that the notes highlighted in red are the root notes, and the notes highlighted in black are the other scale notes. Root means the very first note of the scale which not only functions as the beginning of the scale, but also the logical point to end the scale. Metaphorically, think of the roots of a flower, and how the flower could not grow and prosper without them. This same importance is true of the root of a scale. Without the root, it is impossible to understand how the following notes of the scale will sound against it.

*As a further note, the Ionian scale is known as being the parent scale, because all of the possible modes of the major scale derive from it. This will become more obvious as we continue through the lesson.

Next up is D Dorian, the second mode of the major scale. The way to achieve this sound is to simply take the exact same notes of the C Ionian scale above, but instead of starting and ending on C, you should start and end on D. Check out the images beneath and have a play of the D Dorian mode. You should find that it has more of a minor tonality compared to the Ionian mode. Minor tonalities are very basically characterised as sounding sad.

Next is E Phrygian, the third mode of the major scale. Again, we are going to use all of the same notes as our parent scale of C Ionian, but this time we are going to play from E to E. Similarly to the Dorian mode, this too has a minor tonality, but the fact that the first two notes (E to F) are only a key (semitone) apart gives the scale a much more sinister sound.

Following on from this is the F Lydian mode, the fourth mode of the major scale. Again, we are going to use all of the notes from the parent key of C Ionian (you may be starting to notice a pattern emerging here!) but this time we are going to play from F to F. Similarly to the Ionian mode, the Lydian mode has a major tonality.

The next mode is G Mixolydian, the fifth mode of the major scale. This time, we take the parent key of C Ionian and play from G to G. Similarly to Ionian and Lydian, the Mixolydian scale has a major tonality, too.

Penultimately, we have A Aeolian, the sixth mode of the major scale. This time, we play A to A of our parent scale of C. Similarly to the Dorian and Phrygian scales, Aeolian is also minor. Aeolian is commonly known as the Natural Minor scale.

Finally, the last mode is B Locrian, the seventh mode of the major scale. This scale is played B To B in our parent scale of C. This mode is fairly unique to the other modes in the major scale given that the tonality is partly diminished. This particular mode shares a lot of things in common with the minor modes, however there is a crucial sound in the mode that separates it from being minor.

To summarise, we can see that the modes of the major scale are all quite closely related. They are all derived from the parent scale Ionian, and each mode uses the same notes as the parent scale. The way each mode differs is simply based on the note you begin and end on within the parent scale.

The seven modes are named as follows, and appear in this order:

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian
  7. Locrian

It is also worth remembering the tonalities of each of the modes, this will really help you at a later date:

  1. Ionian is major
  2. Dorian is minor
  3. Phrygian is minor
  4. Lydian is major
  5. Mixolydian is major
  6. Aeolian is minor
  7. Locrian is diminished

Of course, this article only scratches the surface. Nonetheless, I hope to have helped you see that the initial understanding of the modes and how they work isn’t too daunting. I’m going to turn the heat up on the following articles, as we will begin to focus on each of the modes, what major, minor and diminished means and how each mode has it’s unique sound, but more importantly, why. We’ll then take a look at some practical examples that focus on extracting the unique sounds out of each of the modes.

Enjoy!

Jay

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