A Beginner's Guide to Modes & Their Characteristics

author: Chris Zoupa date: 01/11/2014 category: scales
rating: 8.8 / votes: 36 
A Beginner's Guide to Modes & Their Characteristics
Since the dawn of time, modes have freaked people out. The pretentious and pompous musicians have used their modal knowledge to look down smugly and dismissively from their pedestal. I'm here to tell you that a mode is nothing more than a scale or family of notes that will work over certain chord progressions and situations. In layman's terms: "Play these notes here and it won't sound s*%t!".

Let's take a look at every mode relative to the key of "C" so that we're only dealing with natural notes (no sharps or flats). I want to look at Ionian and Aeolian first as they are the most common and will help with the learning of the other modes.

Mode 1: Ionian

"C" Ionian: C D E F G A B C (standard MAJOR scale)

Mode 6: Aeolian

"A" Aeolian: A B C D E F G A (standard NATURAL MINOR scale)


Have a play through both of these scales, The reason why I wish to go over these 2 modes first is that you've probably heard or played them many times before. They're the most common of modes we hear in music today and are the main staple for our basic "happy" and "sad" sounding modes. We'll be using both of these "more common sounding" modes, and comparing them to the daunting and more interesting modes, to hear the nuances and characteristics that differentiate them from each other. Let's look at these other 5 modes relative to "C".

Mode 2: Dorian

"D" Dorian: D E F G A B C D (MINOR scale with sharp 6th)


You'll notice the raised 6th in the Dorian scale is a lot more positive sounding than the 6th note of the Aeolian scale.

"D" Aeolian: D E F G A Bb C D


The straight minor 6th from Aeolian is a lot sadder and darker. Below are some references to some Dorian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!

Some Dorian songs:
  • "The Extremist" - Joe Satriani
  • "Whatta Man" - Salt N' Pepa
  • "Mad World" (chorus) - Gary Jules
  • "Classical Gas" (chorus section) - Williams Mason

Mode 3: Phrygian

"E" Phrygian: E F G A B C D E (MINOR scale with flat 2nd)


You'll notice the flat 2nd in the Phrygian scale is a lot more tense and evil sounding than the 2nd note of the Aeolian scale.

"E" Aeolian: E F# G A B C D E


The straight minor 2nd from Aeolian is a lot more neutral and less abrasive. Below are some references to some Phrygian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!

Some Phrygian songs:
  • "Symphony Of Destruction" - Megadeth
  • "Wherever I May Roam" - Metallica
  • "Over the Wall" - Testament

Mode 4: Lydian

"F" Lydian: F G A B C D E F (MAJOR scale with a raised 4th)


You'll notice the raised 4th in the Lydian scale is a lot more tense and somewhat quirky sounding than the 4th note of the Ionian scale.

"F" Ionian: F G A Bb C D E F


The straight major 4th (or perfect 4th) from Ionian sounds a lot more neutral and typical. Below are some references to some Lydian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!

Some Lydian songs:
  • "Curve" - John Petrucci
  • "Flying in a Blue Dream" - Joe Satriani
  • "The Simpsons Theme" - Hans Zimmer
  • "Dreams" - Fleetwood Mac

Mode 5: Mixolydian

"G" Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G (MAJOR scale with a flat 7th AKA dominant 7th)


You'll notice the flat 7th in the Mixolydian scale is a lot more rocking and fist raising then that of the regular major 7th note of the Ionian scale.

"G" Ionian: G A B C D E F# G


The straight major 7th from Ionian sounds a lot more coy and unresolved. The flat or dominant 7th sound from the Mixolydian scale has more of a stadium rock sound and can sometimes also sound Celtic or even a bit Elvish! Below are some references to some Mixolydian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!
  • "Nothing But a Good Time" - Poison
  • "Glasgow Kiss" - John Petrucci
  • "Sweet Child O' Mine" - Guns N' Roses

Mode 7: Locrian

"B" Locrian: B C D E F G A B (MINOR scale with flat 2nd and flat 5th)


You'll notice the flat 2nd and flat 5th in the Locrian scale sound evil, darker and basically just more gross then that of the regular 2nd and 5th note of the Aeolian scale. Think about all those evil chords or notes (generally flat 5ths) in Metallica and Black Sabbath riffs, then add the semi tonal evilness and tension of the "Jaws" theme.

"B" Aeolian: B C# D E F# G A B


The straight minor 2nd and 5th from Aeolian are obviously less evil and have a more naturally sad sound. Keep in mind that this is the least common or used mode. It's use generally results in pretty yucky sounding riffs and chord progressions. Below are some references to some Locrian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work (gross as they may be)!
  • "Raining Blood" (chorus section 1:39) - Slayer
  • "Painkiller" - Judas Priest
  • "Like a Surgeon" (chorus section) - Ciara
I hope this has got you guys on the right path to begin your modal musical journey. Happy shredding!


By Chris Zoupa
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