The major scale modes

When you first set out to learn your scales, it can be discouraging. There are so many of them, and their names are so bewildering. The good news is that when you learn one scale, you get a bunch of other scales “for free.” This is because many scales share the same pitches, just in different orders. Scales that are related in this way are called modes.

To understand modes, picture a set of Scrabble tiles. Say you have seven Scrabble tiles that spell the word RESPECT. You can take the first two letters off and stick them on the end to get SPECTRE (the British spelling of specter.) In music theory terms, SPECTRE is a mode of RESPECT; conversely, RESPECT is a mode of SPECTRE.

Now imagine your Scrabble tiles spell ABCDEFG. If you treat the letters as note names, this is a scale called A natural minor. If you take the first two letters off and put them on the end, you get CDEFGAB, the C major scale. C major and A natural minor are modes of one another; learning to play one gives you the other one for free.

This post will walk you through all of the modes of C major. To find a mode, pick any white key on the piano and play to the right to get the mode starting on that note.

Each mode goes with a chord, so I’ve listed those too, along with real-world examples.

C to C – Ionian mode

Ionian mode is just the regular old major scale. You only see the Greek name used in music theory textbooks.

Scale: C D E F G A B
Chord: C E G B D F A -- Cmaj7

Examples include everything from “Jingle Bells” to the William Tell Overture. See my major scale post for more.

D to D – Dorian mode

Same as the D natural minor scale, but with a natural sixth. Dorian is fabulously useful for jazz and funk.

Scale: D E F G A B C
Chord: D F A C E G B -- Dm7

So What” by Miles Davis uses Dorian all the way through, in D on the main part and in Eb on the bridge. The ninth, eleventh and thirteenth in D dorian are E, G and B. These notes form an E minor triad. If you play E minor and then D minor, you get the distinctive “So What” riff.

Other examples of tunes in Dorian, from Wikipedia:

E to E – Phrygian mode

This mode has a distinctive flamenco vibe. It’s the same notes as E natural minor with a flat second.

Scale: E F G A B C D
Chord: E G B D F A C -- Em7(b13)

Outside of flamenco, Phrygian doesn’t get much action, but Samuel Barber uses it in his Adagio for Strings. Rightly so — with its flatted second, third, sixth and seventh, it’s pretty much the saddest of all scales. On a less somber note, this tune also uses Phrygian.

F to F – Lydian mode

This beautiful, somewhat otherworldly scale is the F major scale with a sharp fourth.

Scale: F G A B C D E
Chord: F A C E G B D -- Fmaj7 (#11)

Lydian is great for dream and fantasy sequences. Björk uses it for “Possibly Maybe,” starting on the line “Much as I definitely enjoy solitude.”

The extended tag ending of Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Middle” goes to the IV chord and stays there long enough that it begins to feel like a freestanding modal section on Lydian.

G to G – Mixolydian mode

The same as the G major scale, but with a flat seventh.

Scale: G A B C D E F
Chord: G B D F A C E -- G7

Mixolydian is one of the defining sounds of blues and rock. Examples:

  • Just about every blues tune
  • “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Day Tripper,” the “Nah nah nah nah” section of “Hey Jude” and many other songs by the Beatles
  • “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Björk again! “Big Time Sensuality

A to A – Aeolian mode

This mode is better known as A natural minor — Aeolian is another one of those Greek names no one really uses.

Scale: A B C D E F G
Chord: A C E G B D F -- Am7

Natural minor is the basis of the whole minor-key universe and is a blog post unto itself. Use it whenever you need tragedy. Example: “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquín Rodrigo (as played here by Miles Davis.)

B to B – Locrian mode

A very dark, strange scale. Like B natural minor with a flat second and fifth.

Scale: B C D E F G A
Chord: B D F A C E G -- Bm7(b5)

The flat second and fifth make Locrian very unstable, and I can’t think of any tunes based entirely on it. The main thing you need Locrian for is a minor-key chord progression that you see all the time in jazz:

Bm7(b5)  E7      Am
ii       V       i

Over Bm7(b5), you play B locrian (or A natural minor, however you prefer to think of it.) Over E7, you usually play A harmonic minor. Over Am, you can play any A minor scale of your choice.

One of my favorite jazz tunes is “Whisper Not” by Benny Golson, which is mostly made up of minor ii-V-i in various keys.

Locrian doesn’t get much usage outside of the minor ii chord, but Björk uses it in the verses of her classic “Army of Me.”

Learning the modes

The best way to learn any music theory concept is in the context of actual music. “So What” teaches you Dorian mode better than any teacher can. That said, a good teacher can help you connect the various scales to specific pieces of music. Ideally, you should be studying songs that you already know and like.

Music theory takes a lot of memorizing, but it doesn’t need to be tedious. Even if you’re just systematically running the scales up and down, put a good drum machine beat on and try to get them to sound like music. If you’re in New York City, contact me and I’ll be happy to get you pointed in the right direction.

You might also enjoy a more general post about scales and emotions.

8 thoughts on “The major scale modes

  1. I learned to play basic piano about a decade ago at quite an advanced age then stopped. You have really helped me ‘remember’ most of what I had forgotten….thanks a lot….June…uk

  2. Man, I have just discovered your site and it’s EXACTLY what I have been researching in my spare time these past 6 months or so. From modes to drum programming. Are you my twin or something? This is weird.
    Anyway, really enjoy your writing. Keep the posts coming!

    BTW – was trying to find your Drum Loop app in iTunes and it wasn’t there (n the UK iTunes shop at least). Is it out yet?

  3. phrygian gets used a lot on the heavier end of rock music (and i’m not talking about the wanky showoffy kind). the minor second makes it perfect for a dark and heavy sound. tool, for one, use it almost exclusively.

  4. One more thing – if you want to figure stuff out from recordings, let me recommend a useful piece of software called Transcribe:

    It lets you loop certain sections of a recording at half or quarter speed, and can even identify specific notes and chords. Pretty cool.

  5. To figure out the modes, you need to attack from two angles, theory and experience. On the theory end, learn the scales and chords, practice them a lot, and try writing your own music with them. On the experience end, learn a lot of music by other people. Get a good music teacher to lay out all the scales and chords in the music you like. Then you can identify scales and chords by process of elimination: Is it major or minor? Does it have a flat or natural seventh? A regular or sharp fourth? And so on.

    I had a jazz group that played “Possibly Maybe.” The singer just learned it by ear, but I had to make charts for the rest of the musicians. I could tell that one part of the song was minor and the other part was major just by inspection. I recognized the lydian mode quickly, because that sharp eleventh has such a characteristic feeling to it. The minor part took a little longer because I had to write the whole melody out and figure out what scale it belongs to by “brute force.”

  6. How do you know which modes are being used in a song? For instanace, Lydian mode in Bjork’s song? It would be great if you can describe the process of finding out.

Comments are closed.