Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
These are the seven basic modes we will attempt to demystify today in this lesson. You will need to know how to play a basic major and minor scale.
Before we begin, lets have a quick crash course in scale degrees, just enough that you understand the actual lesson.
Play a C major scale. I'll wait.
Alright, so the way you played that C major scale was probably this. You started at C and then played up or across, to the pattern of WWHWWWH (If you don't know what this means, you need to go to an article here that explains scales and then come back. There are plenty of great articles here that will explain it. I'll wait again.)
Now then, where was I...oh yeah! You probably played WWHWWWH. Cool. Now this time I want you to play that exact same scale, but count up, starting at 1 (start with 1 on the first note...next note is 2...etc). Stop when you get to 8. That should be the octave, also a C note, but higher pitched.
Ok, now each of those numbers you counted are scale degrees. Every scale has scale degrees, and if you know how they work you can build any scale by just modifying the scale degrees of the major scale.
Case in point, a natural minor scale (what we'll be using as a tool here) is nothing more than the major scale, with the 3rd, 6th, and 7th scale degrees lowered by one half-step.
So where the C major scale looks like this
Note names: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C
Scale degree: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C natural minor will look like this
Note names: C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C
Scale degree: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Got it? Alright! This ends the crash course. Let the real lesson begin!
Modes. There are a couple of ways to figure them out, but I find that this one makes the most sense to me.
First off, you will need to memorize this easy phrase: “I Don't Play Lousy Music Any Longer”.
Just by keeping this simple phrase in mind, you now know the order of the modes.
I Don't Play Lousy Music Any Longer
Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian
By now you may be thinking “Alright, what the heck does this corny phrase mean to me? How does knowing the order of modes help me understand these demented modes?”
Well, there's one way to understand them that I don't really like that much. Perhaps someone else on here has explained this method a lot better than I understood it in class, but here it goes...
Now that you know the order, each of the modes in order is structured in the same way as the C, D, E, F, G, A, and B scales.
Now, that's great if you already know key signatures by heart and can transform them in this way in a flash, but I've come up with a way that works just as good, works faster, and only requires a little bit of memorization of some rules and some basic math.
Once you know the order of the modern modes, picture them going down in a list like this.
Alright, now lets add some definitions to them.
Ionian = Major
Dorian = Minor raised 6th scale degree
Phrygian = Minor lowered 2nd scale degree
Lydian = Major raised 4th scale degree
Mixolydian = Major lowered 7th scale degree
Aeolian = Minor
Locrian = Minor lowered 2nd and 5th scale degrees
So basically what we have here is a list of the modes, in their order, with the definitions added to them.
Turns out Ionian is just another name for the major scale. You've probably been playing it without knowing. Likewise, Aeolian is just another name for the minor scale.
And now you may be thinking, “How the bleep am I supposed to memorize all those rules?”
Well, that's the beauty of this system, you don't have to memorize all of it! You only need to know a few of them, and three rules that govern all modes, and the rest will come through math.
Those rules are:
Aeolian is simply minor and Ionian is simply major. Nothing changed about them.
The only modes based off major scales are the Lydians. (Lydian and Mixolydian) All the rest are minor.
Dorian is the only minor with a raised anything. The rest are lowered.
So, now knowing that, the only modes you need to memorize are Dorian, Phrygian, and Mixolydian.
Dorian, as stated above, is a minor scale with a raised 6th scale degree.
Phrygian is a minor with a lowered 2nd scale degree.
Using the rules, all you really even have to memorize for those are the numbers: 6 and 2. Because rule 2 states the only major scales are the lydians, and neither of these are lydians, so both are minor based. And because rule 3 states Dorian is the only minor with a raised scale degree, you automatically know Phrygian is lowered. See, all you have to remember is the number.
Meanwhile, you have to remember that Mixolydian is major (rule 2 covers this) with a lowered 7th scale degree. Again, all you have to memorize is the number, because it can't possibly be a raised 7th....because that'd just be the same as the octave.
So, with 6, 2, and 7 in mind, lets do the math part of this method.
Ionian = Major (Rule 1)
Dorian = Minor raised 6th
Phrygian = Minor lowered 2nd
Lydian = Major raised 4th
Mixolydian = Major lowered 7th
Aeolian = Minor (Rule 1)
Locrian = Minor lowered 2nd and 5th
The math isn't hard. What's 6 – 2???
And what's Lydian???
Major, raised 4th scale degree.
And Locrian is easily associated with Mixolydian because 2 + 5 is 7. And as we now know, Mixolydian is major lowered 7th.
Then applying rules 2 and 3 to it, Locrian HAS to be lowered scale degrees, not raised, because consulting rule 2, Locrian is not a Lydian of any kind, making it definitely minor based, and due to rule 3, the only minor with a raise is Dorian, all the others are lowered.
So, just by memorizing 1 phrase, 3 numbers, 3 rules, and first grade math, you can easily use and switch between these modes. I hope I made this clear enough to understand, I love this trick, it's saved me many times and makes it so easy on the fretboard.