Musical Modes Explained!
What is a musical mode?
As we already mentioned before in “The Major Scale Explained” article, a scale is just a certain sequence of notes. What differentiates scales from one another is the pattern in which the notes are positioned.
A mode is a subset of a scale. Meaning that if we play a scale from any of its degrees (each note of the scale is called a degree) all the way one octave up, we will get this degree’s mode. We can repeat this process from any degree of the major scale and get 7 different modes.
Modes vs Scales
There are a few differences between modes and scales. First, we have to understand that the modes approach is a much older musical method, dating back to the renaissance era. This method transformed over the years into the major-minor approach used today. Both methods are used today in a hybrid way and you can even find both of them in one song!
The sound differences between the major-minor approach to the modal approach can be highly noticeable in some cases. Some modes share much more “definitive” colors which can sound older or culturally far to our modern ears. On the other hand, some modes survived the test of time and are being used even in today's pop music.
So… How many modes are there in music?
Well… a few answers to that question. The answer that you are probably looking for is 7. There are much more than only 7, but the 7 modes of the major scale are the most “basic” modes in music and are the ones best to start with when beginning to digest the concept of modes.
As mentioned before, a mode is a subset of a scale, therefore, the major scale has 7 modes (its 6th mode is the minor scale). Melodic and Harmonic minor scales can also be dismantled into 7 modes each, but this is a more advanced lesson.
In this article, we will examine the major scale and break it down into modes. The major scale has 7 notes, C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Pick any note, play it all the way, one octave up and you will get a specific mode (with a specific pattern and sound).
The names and patterns of the 7 major scale modes (Ex: C major):
|Ionian||played from C to C||1-1-½-1-1-1-½|
|Dorian||played from D to D||1-½-1-1-1-½-1|
|Phrygian||played from E to E||½-1-1-1-½-1-1|
|Lydian||played from F to F||1-1-1-½-1-1-½|
|Mixolydian||played from G to G||1-1-½-1-1-½-1|
|Aeolian||played from A to A||1-½-1-1-½-1-1|
|Locrian||played from B to B||½-1-1-½-1-1-1|
The most popular musical modes ⭐️
The most used modes in today’s popular music are the 7 modes of the major scale. The melodic and harmonic minor modes will be usually used in jazz and classical music and are a little more advanced concepts. You can find examples of modal use in popular modern music in the next sections.
Out of the 7 modes of the major scale, the most popular ones are the Ionian and Aeolian, but that's obvious... These are the major and minor scales. The most popular mode, other than these two, is probably the Mixolydian. This mode is very popular in Rock music and there's a tone of songs from band and artists like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, and many more that are written in this mode.
The Use of Modes in the Music World 🌍
As mentioned before, the modal approach is being used today alongside the minor-major concept, sometimes separately and sometimes together in one musical piece. We will use modes when we want to have a distinctive modal sound.
This soundscape is mostly different from the popular international sound we all know today although some modes are still popular as the major scale. We will often associate the modal sound with non-western cultures and older scenes of humanity.
Modal music can often be found in film scoring. When a composer is asked to write music for a medieval movie scene, he will probably use modes. Modal music will often be found in nature documentaries and in films in general. As said before, the modal sound can be much more “descriptive”.
Be sure to listen to all of the examples, this is really the best way to start assimilating the concept of modes into your musical toolbox.
Many non-western genres use modes much more frequently than popular mainstream music, both from and major scale and the melodic and harmonic minor.
Conclusion: USE MODES! Whether you’re a singer-songwriter or a professional composer! Modes can be used in popular music like Billie Eilish (uses the Harmonic minor quite a lot) as well as in a classical piece by Mozart.
The Types of Modes in Music
Many times we will face problems when trying to describe the colors of different modes. The term “happy” can describe Ionian, Mixolydian, or Lydian for example. These definitions are simply too broad.
A great way of describing modes is by darkness and brightness. We measure this by looking at the amount of sharp or flat notes found in the mode when Ionian is our natural position.
For example, the Ionian mode doesn't have any sharp or flat notes. The Lydian has a sharpened 4th degree, therefore, it is brighter than Ionian.
Mixolydian has a flattened 7th note therefore, it is a little darker than major (but would still fall under the “happy” category).
A great video on this subject by David Bennett Piano:
The 7 modes of the major scale
Each mode has its own characteristic sound defined by a specific note pattern. Let’s go over each one of them and compare their character, use, and pattern.
1. Ionian (major scale)
Defining notes: Neutral
Defining notes: Major 6th
Defining notes: Flat 2nd
Defining notes: Sharp 4th (#4)
Defining notes: Flat 7th (b7)
Defining notes: Flat 6th (b6)
Defining notes: Flat 5th (b5)
The Use of Modes in Music
We use modes in 2 main ways, when composing and when improvising.
When improvising, using modes is a good way to emphasize the current harmonic movements because this approach is more oriented towards a certain degree.
For example, let’s take the Dm7-G7-Cmaj7 chord progression. All of these chords come from the C major scale, so we can simply improvise over it using the C major scale.
When using the modal approach, meaning playing D Dorian on Dm7, G Mixolydian on G7 and C Ionian on Cmaj7, you’ll notice that the color of every chord in this progression is much more distinctive even though these are all modes from the C major scale.
You can, of course, use modes when improvising in much more creative ways but that’s a Jazz improvising method that usually involves the Melodic and Harmonic minor as well.
* For more information om Jazz improvisation, check out the Melodic and Harmonic minor articles (will be up soon).
The second way we use modes is when we compose. We can write a whole song using only one mode or we can use various scales and/or modes in one song.
Writing and Composing with Modes
Writing modal music is first and foremost - FUN!
A good way of capturing the modal sound is through the melody. It might be easier to start with a melody while emphasizing the characteristic notes of every mode (you can find each mode's characteristic note on the list above).
In this example, we will compose a melody using the C Phrygian mode. The characteristic note of this mode is the flat 2nd (b2), which is Db in that case.
Notice how the melody emphasizes the Db note while making sure to locate the "home base" on the C note.
Now let's write a melody using the C Dorian mode, remember, the characteristic note of the Dorian mode is the major 6th, which is A in this case. Notice how we get a sense of "uplifting" when the A note comes, this is very common Dorian sound, the mixture of sad (Cm as the root) with an uplifting flavor.
For our last example, let's try something interesting! Here is the exact same composition but written in the C Aeolian mode. The characteristic note, A, is lowered into Ab affecting both the melody and harmony.
How to Identify Modes in Music 🤔
In order to identify modes, you have to get familiar with each one of them. You need to be able to play them on various scales and know the harmonic structure of every mode.
1. When analyzing a musical piece, you always need to first search for the “home-base” feeling, the most “comfortable” area of the music, and the spot you feel a musical resolution. This will usually help you capture the root chord of the scale/mode.
2. Examine the relations between the root chord and the other chords of the musical piece. Keep in mind that every mode has its characteristic notes and they must be used in order to get the modal feeling.
For example, a movement from Gm (root) to Ab can indicate a Phrygian movement as its characteristic degree is the flat 2nd. A movement from Gm (root) to C can indicate a Dorian movement as its characteristic note is the major 6th which alters the 4th degree from minor to major.
Examples of Modes in Popular Music
"Let it be by" The Beatles (Ionian)
"Oye Como Va" by Santana (Dorian)
"Wherever I May Roam" by Metallica (Phrygian)
"Here Comes My Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Lydian)
"I Can't Get No Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones (Mixolydian)
"A Woman's Worth" by Alicia Keys (Aeolian)
"Army Of Me" by Björk (Locrian)