Modes And Diatonic Chord Progressions

An in depth look at scales and their modes and how chords work within the scales, complete with scale charts and a chart of commonly used chord progressions. This lesson is for beginners through advanced.

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Ultimate Guitar
17
Modes have probably been the cause of more confusion and frustration than any other aspect of learning scales, much less when you attempt to throw in diatonic chords and their relation to the scales, so I'm not going to lie to you, this is going to be a tough lesson. We are going to cover alot of ground in a very short time, but I will try and keep it as painless as possible. (I recommend printing the lesson and taking it one piece at a time) Part 1 (Chromatic scale) Let's start at the beginning....the chromatic scale. (For those of you who have read my other lessons, some of this was already covered in "chord building 101") Learn to think of scales in terms of the "distance" between one note and the next note. The chromatic scale is simply all 12 named notes (that's all there are by the way, 12 notes). The distance between each note in the chromatic scale is one half step. A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# and then back to A or A Bb B C Db D Eb E F Gb G Ab and then back to A # is the symbol for sharp (or 1 half step above, higher pitch) b is the symbol for flat (or 1 half step below, lower pitch) The A# and Bb are technically the same note, it just depends on what key you are in as to which it is called. An "A" chromatic scale looks like this on a fretboard
e ----------------------------------
b ----------------------------------
g --2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14--
d ----------------------------------
a ----------------------------------
E ----------------------------------
Part 2 (Major scale) The "major" scale is made up of 7 of the 12 notes of the "chromatic" scale. To learn how to build a major scale, you have to learn the distance between each of the 7 notes. Let's look at a C major scale (since it has no sharp or flat notes in it and it is easy to remember).
"C" Chromatic               C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C
"C" Major                   C    D    E F    G    A    B C
Now, let's break that down. The distance between the C and D notes is 2 half steps, or 1 whole step, the distance between the D and E is 1 whole step, the distance between the E and F is 1 half step, the distance between the F and G is 1 whole step, the distance between the G and A is 1 whole step, the distance between the A and B is 1 whole step, and the distance between the B and C is 1 half step.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h
It does not matter which note that you start on to build the scale as long as the distances between the notes stay the same. Say you want to play a D major scale, then just make the D note the first note and keep the distances the same.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
D   E   F#  G   A   B   C#  D
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h
If you do not understand the chromatic scale and how to build a major scale, stop right here and go back and learn it, or nothing else will make sense. Part 3 (Basic chords) As I said at the beginning of the lesson, I have a lot of ground to cover so I'm only going to cover 4 basic chords and how to build them. Major, minor, augmented, and diminished. All chords are built by using a formula that is based off of the major scale. For example, a "major" chord is built by using the first, third, and fifth notes in the major scale. Let's look at a C major and D major scale again.
       C major                                 D major

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)              1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)          
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C                 D  E  F# G  A  B  C# D
A "C" major chord is made up of the notes C E and G A "D" major chord is made up of the notes D F# and A
  C major                      D major

e --0--  E 3rd             e --2--  F# 3rd
b --1--  C 1st (root)      b --3--  D  Root
g --0--  G 5th             g --2--  A  5th
d --2--  E 3rd             d --0--  D  Root
a --3--  C Root            a -----
E -----                    E -----
The numeric formula for a major chord is 1 3 5 Minor chords are made by lowering the 3rd note 1 half step. A "C" minor chord is made up of the notes C Eb and G A "D" minor chord is made up of the notes D F and A The numeric formula for a minor chord is 1 b3 5 A diminished chord is made by taking a major chord and lowering the 3rd and the 5th 1 half step each. A "C" diminished chord is made up of the notes C Eb and Gb A "D" diminished chord is made up of the notes D F and Ab The numeric formula for a diminished chord is 1 b3 b5 And an augmented chord is made by taking a major chord and raising the 5th 1 half step A "C" augmented is made up of C E and G# A "D" augmented is made up of D F# and A# The numeric formula for an augmented chord is 1 3 #5 Part 4 (Diatonic chords) Simply put, diatonic chords are chords that are made up entirely of notes found in the root chord's scale (or the key of the song). Once again we'll use the C major scale as a reference.
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
If you were to play each tone as a chord rather than a single note, the first tone would be played as a C major chord since all 3 notes in the chord fall within the C major scale. The second tone, or the D, could not be played as a D major chord since as we learned above, the third note of a D major chord is F#, which is not in the 1st tone's (root) scale. Also as we learned above we can lower the 3rd 1 half step to make the chord minor, and by doing that, we get an F note, which is in the root's scale. So we play the second tone as a minor chord. Same principle with the 3rd tone, the E major chord has a G# for it's 3rd tone, so the the E would be played as minor chord. The 4th and 5th chords can both be played as major chords. The 6th tone is played as a minor chord. And the 7th tone has 2 sharp notes in it, the 3rd and 5th, so we need to lower both notes and we get a diminished chord. And again it does not matter what key you are in, the principle stays the same.
 1    2    3    4    5    6    7    8(1)
Maj  min  min  Maj  Maj  min  dim   Maj
Part 5 (Chord Progressions) I'm sure a lot of you have heard at some point or another someone mention something like a 1, 4, 5 progression. Basically what that means is that they are playing the 1st, 4th, and 5th diatonic chords from whatever key they are in. And you guessed it, I'm using the C major scale for my example again.
1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
We already know that the 1st, 4th and 5th are all played as major chords, so a 1, 4, 5 progression in C major would be Cmaj Fmaj Gmaj Pretty simple right? Another common progression is a 2, 5, 1 progression (used a lot in jazz). In the key of C major, a 2, 5, 1 progression would be Dmin Gmaj Cmaj or Dm G C Here are some other common chord progressions
(1, 5)         (1, 6, 2, 5)
(1, 4)         (1, 6, 4, 5)
(1, 6)         (1, 6, 2, 7)
(1, 4, 5)      (1, 6, 4, 7)
(1, 2, 5)      (1, 6, 5)
Here are a few possible substitutions 3 instead of 1 4 instead of 2 7 instead of 5 Hopefully what's been covered so far alone is enough to open lots of doors for creative composition, but we're just getting warmed up. Part 6 (Modes) Hmmm? Where to start? Let's learn the names of the modes of the major scale first. 1 Ionian (major scale) 2 Dorian 3 Phrygian 4 Lydian 5 Mixolydian 6 Aeolian (natural minor) 7 Locrain Big fancy names right? Don't let the names scare you. As you see Ionian is just a fancy way of saying major scale. We already know how to build a major scale, but how do we build the other modes? One way to look at modes is the major scale has 7 notes in it right? To play the modes of the major scale you simply shift the root note up to each of the 7 notes. If we make the first note the root note, then we are playing an Ionian mode, if we make the 2nd note the root, we are playing the Dorian mode, make the 3rd note the root and we are playing a Phrygian mode, and so on. Let's look at C major again.
               1  2  3  4  5  6  7  
1 Ionian       C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

2 Dorian          D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D

3 Phyrigian          E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E

4 Lydian                F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F

5 Mixolydian               G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

6 Aeolian                     A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A

7 Locrian                        B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B
Now you see, all of the modes have the same notes in them, they are all relative to each other, but that does not mean that they are the same scale! What happens when you shift the root (or the focal point of the scale), is you are changing the distances between each note, so the modes all have very different formulas and they all function very differently. For instance, look at the 6th mode (aeolian), it is also known as a natural minor scale, let's look at the distances between each of the notes in an A aeolian, compared with a C major.
   C Ionian (major)               A Aeolian (natural minor)

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8(1)
C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C            A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A
  w  w  h  w  w  w  h               w  h  w  w  h  w  w
As you can see, the distances between some of the notes change. Another way of looking at modes, which is my personal favorite, is by comparing the numeric formula to the major scale, since that is how we build chords, it only makes sense to build scales the same way. The major scale sets the standard for the numeric formula, everything is compared to it. That's why I told you earlier to stop and learn how to build it. Let's compare numeric formulas
Ionian   1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8(1)
Aeolian  1   2  b3   4   5  b6  b7   8(1)
Basically what this means is that the aeolian mode is just a major scale with a flat 3rd, 6th, and 7th.
C Ionian (major)   C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C
C Aeolian (minor)  C   D   Eb  F   G   Ab  Bb  C
Let's look at the formulas for the rest of the modes
1 Ionian         1   2   3   4   5   6   7
2 Dorian         1   2  b3   4   5   6  b7
3 Phyrigian      1  b2  b3   4   5  b6  b7
4 Lydian         1   2   3  #4   5   6   7
5 Mixolydian     1   2   3   4   5   6  b7
6 Aeolian        1   2  b3   4   5  b6  b7
7 Locrian        1  b2  b3   4  b5  b6  b7
(If the scale has a b3 in it, it tends to have a minor feel to it) Part 7 (Tying in diatonic chords with modes) The diatonic chords work the same way with the modes. Match the number of the mode to the number of the tone in the major scale and the corresponding diatonic chord.
            1   2   3   4   5   6   7          

1 Ionian   Maj min min Maj Maj min dim

2 Dorian       min min Maj Maj min dim Maj 

3 Phyrigian        min Maj Maj min dim Maj min

4 Lydian               Maj Maj min dim Maj min min

5 Mixolydian               Maj min dim Maj min min Maj

6 Aeolian                      min dim Maj min min Maj Maj

7 Locrian                          dim Maj min min Maj Maj min
Part 8 (Scale charts) This is what you've been waiting on. And without further hesitation. 2 examples of each mode.
Ionian mode (examples A Ionian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          -------------1-2-
d -----------4-6-7-          ---------2-4-----
a -----4-5-7-------          ---2-4-5---------
E -5-7-------------          -5---------------

Dorian mode (examples A Dorian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -----------4-5-7-          ---------2-4-5---
a -------5-7-------          ---2-3-5---------
E -5-7-8-----------          -5---------------

Phyrigian mode (examples A Phyrigian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -------------5-7-          ---------2-3-5---
a -------5-7-8-----          ---1-3-5---------
E -5-6-8-----------          -5---------------

Lydian mode (examples A Lydian)

e -----------------          -----------------   
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          -------------1-2-
d -----------4-6-7-          -------1-2-3-----
a -----4-6-7-------          ---2-4-----------
E -5-7-------------          -5---------------

Mixolydian mode (examples A Mixolydian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -----------4-5-7-          ---------2-4-5---
a -----4-5-7-------          ---2-4-5---------
E -5-7-------------          -5---------------

Aeolian mode (examples A Aeolian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -------------5-7-          ---------2-3-5---
a -------5-7-8-----          ---2-3-5---------
E -5-7-8-----------          -5---------------

Locrian mode (examples A Locrian)

e -----------------          -----------------
b -----------------          -----------------
g -----------------          ---------------2-
d -------------5-7-          -----------3-5---
a -------5-6-8-----          -----3-5-6-------
E -5-6-8-----------          -5-6-------------
Look at my lesson called "Learning the Fretboard" to learn to move these scale shapes across the strings without a lot of memorization. Part 9 (Harmonic major, Harmonic minor, Melodic minor and their modes) I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here, but I will give you the scale, it's modes, and the diatonic chords. First up, the Harmonic Major scale and it's modes
1. Harmonic Major   1    2    3    4    5   b6    7
                   Maj  dim  min  min  Maj  aug  dim

2. Dorian b5        1    2   b3    4   b5    6   b7
                   dim  min  min  Maj  aug  dim  Maj

3. Phyrgian b4      1   b2   b3   b4    5   b6   b7
                   min  min  Maj  aug  dim  Maj  dim

4. Lydian b3        1    2   b3   #4    5    6    7
                   min  Maj  aug  dim  Maj  dim  min

5. Mixolydian b2    1   b2    3    4    5    6   b7
                   Maj  aug  dim  Maj  dim  min  min

6. Lydian #2        1   #2    3   #4   #5    6    7
                   aug  dim  Maj  dim  min  min  Maj

7. Locrian bb7      1   b2   b3    4   b5   b6   bb7
                   dim  Maj  dim  min  min  Maj  aug
Next, the Harmonic Minor and it's modes
1. Harmonic Minor       1    2   b3    4    5   b6    7
                       min  dim  aug  min  Maj  Maj  dim

2. Locrian(natural 6)   1   b2   b3    4   b5    6   b7
                       dim  aug  min  Maj  Maj  dim  min

3. Ionian augmented     1    2    3    4   #5    6    7
                       aug  min  Maj  Maj  dim  min  dim

4. Dorian #4            1    2   b3   #4    5    6   b7
                       min  Maj  Maj  dim  min  dim  aug

5. Phyrigian dominant   1   b2    3    4    5   b6   b7
                       Maj  Maj  dim  min  dim  aug  min

6. Lydian #2            1   #2    3   #4    5    6    7
                       Maj  dim  min  dim  aug  min  Maj

7. Ultralocrian         1   b2   b3   b4   b5   b6   bb7
                       dim  min  dim  aug  min  Maj  Maj
And finally, the Melodic Minor and it's modes
1. Melodic Minor        1    2   b3    4    5    6    7
                       min  min  aug  Maj  Maj  dim  dim

2. Dorian b2            1   b2   b3    4    5    6   b7
                       min  aug  Maj  Maj  dim  dim  min

3. Lydian augmented     1    2    3   #4   #5    6    7
                       aug  Maj  Maj  dim  dim  min  min

4. Lydian dominant      1    2    3   #4    5    6   b7
                       Maj  Maj  dim  dim  min  min  aug

5. Hindu                1    2    3    4    5   b6   b7
                       Maj  dim  dim  min  min  aug  Maj

6. Locrain natural 2    1    2   b3    4   b5   b6   b7
                       dim  dim  min  min  aug  Maj  Maj

7. Super Locrian        1   b2   b3   b4   b5   b6   b7
                       dim  min  min  aug  Maj  Maj  dim
See, I told you we were going to cover a lot of info and hopefully I kept it fairly painless and you were able to learn something. I know that I kind of flew through some things, so if you have any questions, feel free to post your comments.

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

    hounddogmusic12
    Since there seem to be several people who refuse to take modes past the very simplest point (which I explained by the way) I will further clarify. Playing modes is not just starting on another note, if you play a B dorian over an A major chord you're doing absolutely nothing different than playing an A major scale. Learn the formulas, if the formula has a 3rd note that is 2 whole steps above the root, then you can play that scale over the root's major chord. For example, try playing an A mixolydian, or an A lydian over an A major chord. That's where the differences come in, not just starting on another note of the exact same scale. If the scale has a b3, then try playing that scale over a minor chord, or diatonic progression in that key. Come on guys, don't limit yourself to saying that you can play an A natural minor (aeolian) over a C major. Get out of that box.
    LaGrange
    jamsking wrote: jasonstatement wrote: how about telling us WHAT is wrong with it if you're playing modes in the key of A they all have a different starting point ex. dorian starts on B if your playing A dorian and i don't want want to write an article so that's all i'm givin ya scales and modes are friggin garbage there are only twelve notes pick the one that creates the sound you want
    U mad?
    AeolianWolf
    jamsking wrote: if you're playing modes in the key of A they all have a different starting point ex. dorian starts on B if your playing A dorian
    now THAT'S wrong. simply put, you DON'T play modes in the key of A. that's why you're in the key of A. modes aren't involved unless you modulate or borrow chords. i saw nothing wrong with the lesson, hounddog, but i don't quite understand your most recent post. modes aren't about playing over major/minor chords - they're about a completely different type of harmony. using tertian harmony to build chords from modes is a comparatively recent concept. in most cases, playing A mixolydian or A lydian over an A major chord wouldn't really be playing modally, because the way people would normally apply this, it would just be A major with an accidental. if applied correctly, however, then it would definitely be modal. but relatively few people know how to really apply modes.
    slowlybilly
    The A aeolian does sound great with the cmaj....or even just the Am pentatonic with a Cmaj7 E-type barre chord...great for blues, but I really enjoyed the lesson. It is hard to find any info on modes past the first seven major modes, so thank you mucho!
    poland
    People I read your statements and THEN MY BRAIN IS ABOUT TO EXPLODE. I will try and keep what I write SIMPLE. Ok 5 modes started with G on 6th string (3rd fret next 5th fret) A string (4th, 5th and 7th frets) follow. Last of the 5 modes is 6th string (12th, 14th , 15th fret same for A string follow. Now I mmemorized these 5 modes for G major. AM I on the correct track b/c you guys (or girls) got me close to brain dead of whether it is right or not. They do sound (by ear) right to me. Just tell me idiot you are wrong and direct me correctly or just give me the step to go from next please. peace out
    backtothe70s
    hounddogmusic12 wrote: Since there seem to be several people who refuse to take modes past the very simplest point (which I explained by the way) I will further clarify. Playing modes is not just starting on another note, if you play a B dorian over an A major chord you're doing absolutely nothing different than playing an A major scale. Learn the formulas, if the formula has a 3rd note that is 2 whole steps above the root, then you can play that scale over the root's major chord. For example, try playing an A mixolydian, or an A lydian over an A major chord. That's where the differences come in, not just starting on another note of the exact same scale. If the scale has a b3, then try playing that scale over a minor chord, or diatonic progression in that key. Come on guys, don't limit yourself to saying that you can play an A natural minor (aeolian) over a C major. Get out of that box.
    This is what I've been looking for! =)
    AeolianWolf
    AeolianWolf wrote: i'm also usually very picky about modes, because there's so much understanding.
    make that misunderstanding. damn lesson posts and their clear lack of an edit function.
    AeolianWolf
    hounddogmusic12 wrote: I appreciate your input aeolianwolf
    haha, i hope so. i'm normally the first to pick apart lessons here on UG (at least the ones that contain incorrect information). and i'm also usually very picky about modes, because there's so much understanding. but i found nothing wrong with your lesson. the only thing is that you didn't give context with the scale patterns, so it could be easy for a beginner to misunderstand. that said, you also didn't say that over a Dm-G7-Cmaj progression, you'd play D dorian, G mixolydian, and C ionian/major, so i don't see where people are pulling that from. well-written, informative, and continent of correct information. only problem is the lack of context, but i'm still giving this a 10/10.
    hounddogmusic12
    I appreciate your input aeolianwolf, and i agree, my last post was just to try and simplify a starting point, this lesson really is geared more towards beginners.
    Colohue
    Like most articles on here, everything written on modes here is wrong past section 7.
    HellFury
    Part 6 is where you lose me... Maybe it would be a better idea to start by teaching the minor scale as well, and then add the other 5 scales?
    Bluesrocker5150
    Dream Floyd wrote: SilverSpurs616 wrote: Made sense to me :S It doesn't matter that you understood, the information is wrong.
    Every article I've ever read on UG about modes gets a good few people saying that all the information is horribly wrong.
    jamsking
    jasonstatement wrote: how about telling us WHAT is wrong with it
    if you're playing modes in the key of A they all have a different starting point ex. dorian starts on B if your playing A dorian and i don't want want to write an article so that's all i'm givin ya scales and modes are friggin garbage there are only twelve notes pick the one that creates the sound you want
    Ggz
    For those interested, I recommend this site: http://www.all-guitar-chords.com/. You can find all scales, chords and progressions. The site doesn't explain these concepts (like this article does), but it will give you the scales and indicate the intervals and bring up scales at different positions. The interactive fretboard is very useful. I use that site about as much as I use this one. Again, it helps if you read this article first or get some other basic theoretical concepts down.
    poland
    I guess this site has some good stuff. Any good book recommendable? (Can't sit more than 10 minutes more B.S. do not want to talk about due to physical problems).
    poland
    Can anyone recommend a scales site or book that would be a useful tool? I am basically STARTING OVER AT 42 I am disabled with ataxia BUT I am STARTINNG BACK (IN THE LATE 80'S YES I WOULD SAY I WAS INTERMEDIATE SELF TAUGHT NOW I WOULD LIKE to understand. As long as I put in mega time I can make a dent just can't look back or I get frustrated as hell. Sorry for the B.S. but besides my SLOW ABILITY I just want to get better and understand what I am learning not like before.
    SilverSpurs616
    Dream Floyd wrote: SilverSpurs616 wrote: Made sense to me :S It doesn't matter that you understood, the information is wrong.
    FuruiShin wrote: Ok...so make better article then! You can't? Nothing unusual huh ;]? Lesson is great and it's for sure best lesson about modes here ;D. Thanx!
    ^ this
    FuruiShin
    Ok...so make better article then! You can't? Nothing unusual huh ;]? Lesson is great and it's for sure best lesson about modes here ;D. Thanx!
    Dream Floyd
    SilverSpurs616 wrote: Made sense to me :S
    It doesn't matter that you understood, the information is wrong.
    SilverSpurs616
    [quote][b] Colohue m : Like most articles on here, everything written on modes here is wrong past section 7./quote] Made sense to me :S I liked that the writer included the harmonic minor modes, that's something I've been interested in lately (Viking Kong, anyone?). I thought the article was easily digestable and I'm sure I'll be coming back for quick reference in the future.
    bkachaylo
    Great job explaining an otherwise difficult subject set! For anyone that found it too difficult and therefore could not quite grasp it, I'd recommend going back and strengthening your knowledge of major scale scale & chord construction & progressions. Chances are that your not entirely solid (to the degree necessary) regarding something within those topics. Once you've gained an adequate knowledge-base in those topics, this will make much more sense. The author, in my opinion, did a very fine job of explaining (and tying together) the topics outlined herein -- certainly not an easy task; neither adequately describing, nor tying together in a seamless way are tasks easily accomplished. That is, there is no set way of doing either, unlike doing so within most other genres (e.g., science, grammar, math, etc.)-- despite the existence of solid rules upon which to build one's tutorial. GREAT JOB!