Modes Are Easy

Most folks teach modes in a purely theoretical fashion. I believe that music theory, while useful, is an abstract concept which requires an application (music) to reveal its power. In this article I will use an analogy everyone can relate to in order to explain how modes work.

Ultimate Guitar
Remember back in elementary school when your cafeteria, auditorium and gymnasium were all in the same room? Yeah... the all-purpose room. Depending on the time of day that room got used for everything from pizza to dodgeball to latchkey to the sock hop. You could say the room had a few modes... In music, the major scale is like an all-purpose room. We use that freakin' thing to make many different sounds and emotions. It is the basis for everything ever created in western music. Yer good ol' fashioned C major scale has seven notes and thus, seven chords. This is what those chords look like in order:
  • C maj (I)
  • D min (ii)
  • E min (iii)
  • F maj (IV)
  • G maj (V)
  • A min (vi)
  • B dim (vii˚) ...and if you wrote a progression with these chords that went... C maj/A min/D min/G maj (I/vi/ii/V) would have yourself a tidy little progression in the key of C major. Play through this progression and your ears will easily hear the C major chord as "home". That's just chord chemistry - it's been working the same way for centuries. Don't question it. Don't ask why. Just accept it and internalize it. Finished internalizing yet? Ok good. Moving on... Now, let's say you want to put a wonderfully self-gratuitous solo over this progression. You already know that the key is C major so what better scale to use than a C major scale? This scale will work perfectly over all four chords. Why? It works because all these chords are related in the key of C major (also said to be diatonic to C major). So remember how we said the major scale is an all-purpose room for different uses? Well when you play a C major scale over the C major chord in your progression, that scale is functioning in the C Ionian mode because Ionian is the traditional pure major mode. But over the A minor chord, that very same scale will then function in the A Aeolian mode. Over the D minor chord it will be in the mode of D Dorian and over the G major chord it will be in G Mixolydian. If your brain is starting to overheat at this point, take a moment to cool down. You also might be asking yourself "Ok but why complicate life with these ricockulous Greek words?" Think about it this way: If you could get away with playing one scale over four chords instead of four scales over four chords, life would be a heck of a lot easier, right? Hell yes. Not only does it require excessive thinking, changing scales every time there is a diatonic chord change will actually obscure the key center "home base" (in this case C major). An experienced improviser will recognize that all the chords in the progression are diatonic to C major. Therefore, he or she will use the C major scale to play over all four chords (knowing that as each chord changes, the scale will be functioning in a different mode). In this progression, the C major scale (like an all-purpose room) changes its function constantly. The modes it functions in can even be compared to the different uses of a real all-purpose room; we'll call Ionian pizza, Aeolian dodgeball, Dorian latchkey and Mixolydian sock hop. Now before you go off improvising in the ancient and glorious mode of C Pizza, realize that the real power of modes is in knowing how to make your scale choices and ensuing improvisation most efficient. Learn to analyze chord progressions so that you can spot chords diatonic or native to the same key. For many songs, most of the chords will be in the same key. For these chords you would use the same scale for soloing. Here's the complete order of modes over their corresponding chord in any given major key:
  • Ionian (I)
  • Dorian (ii)
  • Phrygian (iii)
  • Lydian (IV)
  • Mixolydian (V)
  • Aeolian (vi)
  • Locrian (vii˚) Using the chords from our nifty progression above: - C maj is the I chord and so the C major scale functions in C Ionian mode when played over it. - A min is the vi chord and so the C major scale functions in A Aeolian mode when played over it. - D min is the ii chord and so the C major scale functions in D Dorian mode when played over it. - G maj is the V chord and so the C major scale functions in G Mixolydian mode when played over it. Here's a different progression: C maj/E min/F maj/G maj (I/iii/IV/V) Our ears and knowledge of key centers and modes tells us that this progression is in C major and all the chords are diatonic to C major. This means we can use a C major scale to blaze over this one too (it's a very straight-laced ditty so blaze gently). The C major scale you play will change modes with every chord change starting in C Ionian and going into E Phrygian then F Lydian and finally G Mixolydian... or G sock hop if you prefer. So the next time you see a progression, analyze the chords to determine: 1) The key and I chord of the progression 2) For all the chords diatonic to this key, use the scale based on that key/I chord (like the C major scale for a C major progression). That's how you use modes. If you are utterly perplexed by this information, reach out and ask for help in the comments section. If you got this stuff down, don't worry; there's more. This is only Part 1 traveler. So until next time, grab your favorite instrument and make some beautiful music. The world is waiting. [For more great tips, tricks and a veritable think-tank of information for your musical journey, head on over to Cool Drifter Music Motel.]
  • 47 comments sorted by best / new / date

      You obviously are very well versed in music theory and the modes and all, but some of us dummies only read tab and are looking for a more simplified tab version of what you are talking about.
      Municipal Waste
      Nice lesson. I just started practicing my modes and scales after years of goofing off and was wondering about how they all worked together.
      Finally someone who talks about modes and knows what he is talking about! Great lesson, even though I already 'knew' this stuff in my mind, you have crystallized my thoughts. Keep on making lessons, and cheers
      wow is this ever so wrong. article author: consider that keys supercede scales, and that, functionally, appealing to chord tones within the diatonic scale of the key is doing only that, and in no way functions modally. in fact, i'd consider it in every way counterproductive to understanding chord tones and appealing to the piece in a way that focuses on the needs of the piece rather than 'WAIT THIS SHAPE COMES NOW!' function, in the grand harmonic context, has nothing to do with what series of notes the melody might try to pick and choose from. with a proper understanding of consonance, dissonance, voice leading, and phrasing, a tonal foundation (which for all intents and purposes we'll consider inherent outside of atonality and niche or primitive approaches within the realm of tonality, ie modes) will allow for usage of any of the given 12 western tones over any chord over any progression without detraction from the piece provided the performer/composer has the capability of internalizing music and using that experience to bolster his intuition and musical rationality. if anybody doesn't understand this, go back to tabs until you feel like using your ear and can tell the difference between improvisation and masturbation.
      I'll say this for the article least he wrote in a clear and unpretentious style. Hail, your reply is probably 100% correct but I have no idea what you're talking about or how to apply it.
      Write an article on this topic yourself then. It's easy to criticize.
      Sure it's easy to criticize. It's easier yet to not write an article, particularly when you don't have a proper grasp of the subject you're trying to teach. Having lots of mediocre/wrong articles about modes is not better than having no articles about modes - it's worse; Bad articles spread the misinformation that has blighted guitarists since sweep picking and spandex jumpsuits were invented, and perpetuate the confusion about the subject.
      Look, here's the thing: the lesson is just bad. It's all too apparent that the author doesn't have a clue about modes. Of course he is going to be criticized. But this whole "well let's see you try it" mentally is just plain ignorant. Perhaps he doesn't want to write a lesson on the topic because he... I don't know... realizes that he won't do a good job? And don't give me any of that "well the author tried his best" shit, because that's not how it works in the real world. If you went to a mechanic to get your car fixed, and he completely wrecks your engine, would you take "well, I tried my best" as a valid excuse? Yeah, that's what I thought. Then again, I guess you can't really criticize the mechanic in the first place, since you obviously can't fix it yourself. Wait a minute... that's why you're going to a mechanic in the first place: because you can't do it yourself. The mechanic (or the author of the article as it were) is someone who is claiming to possess knowledge and experience with whatever they are doing, when that is clearly not the case. You don't have to be an expert in the field to tell when someone doesn't really know as much as their self-proclaimed knowledge and experience had initially led you to believe. But I guess since you have to be able to do it yourself in order to criticize, I suppose next time you go to a restaurant and they give you chocolate cake when you asked for coconut, I guess you can't really complain since... well... let's see you make a nice coconut cake?
      Good point. What it comes down to is being vigilant on your research/studies. Im just happy I know how to utilize the modes considering how much confusion surrounds this topic.
      The information is correct. However, the mindset is of limits and not possibilities.
      the information is most definitely not correct... for the last time... EVERY TIME YOU CHANGE BETWEEN DITONIC CHORD..... YOU DON'T CHANGE THE MODE YOU ARE PLAYING IN!!!!!
      Also, let's remember this article is filed under category "Beginners".
      That's the problem. It's giving beginners the completely wrong idea about music theory. And people wonder why self taught guitarists tend to be musically illiterate.
      The biggest question here is this: WHO IS ALLOWING THESE ARTICLES TO BE POSTED ON HERE!? Is there some form of information accuracy check? It's stuff like this that will ruin a site. PS- I'm not saying the article is bad. I'm new to the site. However, I've seen numerous articles/lessons that are just downright WRONG.
      UG provides us a way to rate an article. We should use that. I you find this one wrong, then down-rate this.
      But that doesn't work when most people on this site aren't knowledgeable to know that this is a bad lesson.
      The problem with this article, for me, is 2-fold. 1) The author is NOT separating modal music and tonal music. They are 2 completely different things. In modal music, you are only allowed to play the 7 notes of that particular mode. For instance, if I want to play the Ionian in E, I can only play the notes E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, & D#. Any chords I play cannot contain notes that are not of those 7 I just listed. In tonal music, I can basically play whatever notes I want, as long as it fits the song. 2) As Hail pointed out, keys supersede scales. (I think he summed it up nicely, so I've nothing to add.) We guitar players REALLY need to stop treating modes as some "Holy Grail" and start, instead, emphasizing things like good composition, ear training, etc.
      The people must see the modes as another "tool", and not a as a limitation. Also, I consider ear training(as you mentioned)the best way to understand modes and their functionality as a "spicing tool"
      The information presented in this article is wrong. The author does not understand how modes work.
      louis van wyk
      This article doesn't entirely explain how modes work. If you improvise on the given chord progression it will just be in C major or ionian mode. You can actually play in a different mode for each chord, but once you hit the c major chord again it will be just in c major again.
      steven seagull
      not even that. Changing chords doesn't change tonality - if it's a chord progression that resolves to C major then changing chords doesn't mean squat, it's C major all the way regardless of chords, shapes, patterns, positions or any fancy names you try to throw at it.
      Can't upvote this comment enough. Modes over individual chords is the most irritating, annoying mistake about modes that I hear people propound.
      Wow this is a great article on the C major scale and how to call it lots of different names for no particular reason. No modes present here people, please move along.
      What I don't understand, Alan, is that it's apparent to me that mods (like you and steven) seem to know their modes well. Don't you guys have any say in what gets published here and can't you do something to make sure that only legitimate, correct material gets put up, especially on the front page? Just a genuine query, and definitely no sarcasm intended. It's pretty apparent that you guys do know what the actual deal is.
      I second this. There really needs to be sharper editing of 'informative' articles and lessons, otherwise we're perpetuating the idea that the information gleaned from the net is usually wrong.
      Unfortunately we have no say in relation to articles/lessons.
      Well, you do, in the same way that any user has. A Mod can write an article clarifying the subject. And, if anyone reading this is confused as to why some of us are disagreeing with the article, I suggest you read the article relating to scales written by AlanHB;
      I don't know why people are jumping on this bandwagon of criticism. To me, the only thing that was wrong with this article was that it may have been too complicated for beginners, but it was theoretically correct (mostly, anyway). Just to point out, the modes don't change every time you change chords... It is the starting chord that determines the mode (if it was C, then C major Ionian).
      yes it does determine the mode... it controls the ways your ears pick it up. if you start on a ****ing c in c major then its ionian. If you start on a d in the key of c then its dorian mode... if you disagree then please at least explain your view.
      If the key is C major as determined by the chords and tonic, then the notes you play over this will be heard as some form of the C major scale because C is the tonic. It doesn't matter what note you start on. So if you have a progression that goes C G F you can just play D forever over it and it will just be the C major scale, listen and it will want to go to the C, because C is the tonic. No dorian. You can also have progressions that don't start on the tonic chord. For example a progression that goes Dm G C is in the key of C major despite starting on Dm. Play what you want, start on any note you like, its the C major scale. The simple way to determine whether youre playing the C major scale is to ignore whatever note you start on, and use your ears. In the key of C major, the notes of the C major scale will sound like the C major scale. Sit back and listen. If you play a D first do the chords now want to resolve on D? Or does that C F G progression still want to end on C? If it still wants to end on C then you playing a D note had no bearing on the harmonic context and you are still playing the C major scale, not D dorian.
      Please correct me if I'm wrong, but the way you've worded this is implying that by what I have said I am assuming that D dorian is not in the c major key/scale? Of course it is, as they are the same notes. Key of C- all naturals, C D E F etc. C- Ionian D-dorian. Still the same key and scale (intervals the same, all the same notes). If I'm wrong, then how do the modes come into this and how can you determine what mode you are playing in? (I know one thing sounds right and another doesn't, but I'd just like to expand my purely theoretical knowledge here).
      But if the starting note is the super tonic, in this case the D minor, and you solo over it with the C Major scale, you are playing in the key of C but in the dorian mode, right?
      Hey Mickel--thanks for asking! Think of the C,Am,Dm,G progression this way: The key of this progression is C Major because the C chord is audibly "home base." Then, to solo, you would obviously play a C Major scale across everything since all the chords are diatonic to that key. Now, if you were to analyze the sound of the C Major scale over each of the chords, you would see that over C it is in C Ionian mode, over Am it's in A Aeolian mode, over Dm it's in D Dorian and over G it's in G Mixolydian mode. The reasoning behind this is that a C note (or any note in the C major scale) will sound different when played against a C chord versus Am chord versus Dm chord versus G chord. That is why even though the whole progression is said to be in C Major, the notes played over it will determine what mode the C major scale is functioning in. Hope that helps!
      Nope. It doesn't matter what note you start on or what chord is behind it, if the key is C major, you're playing in C major. You have the right idea about playing the C major scale over a certain chord will give you a modal sound (though it has to be pretty static), when playing a chord progression in the key of C major , modes are irrelevant. To play modes you are quite limited as to chords you can play, so much so that the term "modal chord progression" is almost an oxymoron.
      Yes, the key is C major and it can be said you are soloing in C major. If there was a key change via a secondary dominant or a chord from the parallel minor key etc., then you would have to change scales obviously. If you threw an additional C minor triad chord in there and you switched to the C minor scale over that chord, you would be playing in C minor at that moment. Now, the particular mode that the C minor scale would be functioning in (e.g. aeolian, dorian, phrygian...) would depend on artistic preference since the minor triad is contained in all three of those modes and upper extensions have not yet been defined. At this point the progression still can be analyzed as being in the key of C major with a key change (C minor). Modes are just a way of going deeper to explain and weave commonalities between chords in a progression.