As I delve deeper into soloing and scales and building my picking speed and this sort of thing, I'm hearing about and reading about "modes". This is probably completely wrong, but in order to best understand this it would be benefitial to say what I think modes are, so I can be more easily corrected. I think a mode is a scale that is only used in certain keys. So if I were to be playing X mode in E, and I were to move it down to D, it would be a different mode. That's obviously wrong so please correct me.
In an extremely simplified answer: a mode is basically a scale shape rooted at a different note (other people - I know thats not completely technically correct, just trying to make him understand). Say you were playing in in Em, but you put the root on A instead of E, you are actually playing in A Dorian.

Other people on here would be able to explain it better, and McGoogle has some good information on it aswell.
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Quote by chadreed32
In an extremely simplified answer: a mode is basically a scale shape rooted at a different note (other people - I know thats not completely technically correct, just trying to make him understand). Say you were playing in in Em, but you put the root on A instead of E, you are actually playing in A Dorian.

Other people on here would be able to explain it better, and McGoogle has some good information on it aswell.

I'm gonna be really blunt here. Do not listen to this. This is not correct. That's not a slight, but modes cannot be simplified to a one paragraph description.

Modes are a complicated concept. The way I was taught, they're entirely separate from the concept of scalar concepts. Essentially, modes are a flavor, for lack of a better description. Writing a modal passage involves establishing what key you are in and then the tonal center. For example, a chord progression in E minor with the following progression:
A minor - E minor - B minor - D major - C major - B major - A minor
Can be said to have a Dorian flavor. The key is E minor, but the tonal center, the point of resolution, is A.

Now, since you're resolving to a chord that is not the tonic, there's a bit of a "tug", if you will, to resolve to that tonic note or chord as opposed to your tonal center. The feel of that tug is what gives you that modal flavor or feel.

Now, with modes, there are what are I was taught are called "flavor notes". They are what give the mode that feel. Certain intervals provide that feel - for example, in the Dorian mode, there is a minor third and seventh, but a major sixth. Those flavor tones are the tones which you want to explore the relationships between when constructing a modal passage.

When people try to simplify modes, they explain them as scales starting on a different degree. That description completely misses the point. Modes can be related to scales, but they have far more to do with chord progressions than anything else. You cannot play a modal melody, for example, without a modal chord progression, nor can you have a modal chord progression but a tonal melody.

As you can see, modes are far more complicated than starting a scale on a different note. There is a lot of false information out there that claims that that's all modes are, but the reality is much different. Fear not, because there is this: modes are very uncommon in most contemporary music. You'll see suggestions of a modal flavor from time to time (as is the case with the chord progression a few paragraphs up), but you'll very rarely see a truly modal passage. They are usually unwieldy and clunky to shoehorn into music. Outside of jazz, classical, and the occasional rock song, you won't see modes used particularly often.
I doubt this is the best explanation, but here is my two cents.

Modes are one of the most confusing aspects of theory in general; not only are the concepts much more complex than most of the world want to make it out to be (even a book that I used to help write this has some huge mistakes in their discussion of modes), but modes themselves are much more archaic and out-of-use (but nowhere near useless) than anyone is willing to recognize. When the Greeks and Romans created modes, the modes were meant to be used over songs that were much more crazy and unpredictable than your standard pop number. In a modern context, songs are meant to resolve to one tone (a "tonal center") and every other note helps lead back to that note. With modes, the "tonal center" does not have to be where the other notes want to lead it; with the modes, if you want to really emphasize D but instead of using D major you want to use the notes of C major, you can do it if it fits the chord progression behind it. It is much harder to play this way since what notes want to resolve to a tone other than the one you wish to emphasize, but the results can add flavor to your playing.

Although my experience with the modes themselves is limited, I can give you one example with one of the easier modes to use; Dorian. This particular mode is, in regards to construction, a major scale starting at the second note. So D Dorian is constructed like the C major scale with the tonal center at D, A Dorian is like G Major with emphasis on A, and so on. However, much like there are requirements for a certain progression to be in a certain key this mode can't be thrown into any old progression and sound good; Dorian works best in a situation where the tone you want to be your tonal center (your I chord) is minor while your IV chord is dominant. If you know how to harmonize chords off of each tone of a major scale and remember that this particular mode is constructed like a major scale starting on the second note, the reason should be obvious; the ii and the V of a major scale are minor and dominant, respectively, so the chords are the exact same type besides subtracting one from the numbering.

However, I would not recommend using the most "correct" application if you want to get the best grasp of this mode's "feel" and how it is different than the standard major and minor scales. Instead, try improvising using the Dorian mode over a blues backing track and listen to how it sounds. It should give a minor sound (you can blame the minor i and the similar construction to a minor scale), but it should sound less "harsh" and more "jazzy" or "Latin" thanks to the natural 6 (the one difference between Dorian and the minor scale); part of the reason my guitar instructor refers to it as "Jazz minor". Although the previous example is the most "proper" time to use Dorian, the mode can also be used in place of the minor scale to give a line a more "jazzy" sound. This is the effect the modes have on your playing; they are similar enough to the major and minor scale to be used in a modern setting, but if used correctly the subtle differences give your playing a different and more exciting flavor.

Yes this is a bit complex (not to mention that there are 4 more modes besides this mode and the modes that behave like the major and minor scales), but if you ever feel that the standard major and minor scales have gotten stale and you are willing to put in the effort to understand what the modes are and how they are used modes can truly add some flavor to your playing. Don't feel like you have to learn and use modes; you can live a happy and fulfilling life never knowing how to use them. Although I've given just about all I can give you in regards to my modal knowledge, I would be remiss to not point to this set of columns that covers everything you will ever need regarding every mode and how to use each.


Best of luck! Hope this post helps.
Last edited by A_man13 at Jul 28, 2011,
This isnt going to get answered here.

Read the modes sticky in Musician Talk, but I'll warn you , if you don't already have a decent understanding of diatonic harmony then most of it won't make any sense - and in that case you just need to forget about them for a while until your understanding of the basics is up to scratch.


I'm locking this thread as it's not going to go anywhere, but if you have any more specific questions your best asking them in MT as that's where all the theory nuts hang out.
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