How To Play Modes

An overview of modes by a studying music student. I am assuming you know how to play a major scale shape to two octaves on at least A major, for this is a theory thread, not just a guitar thread. You may apply this knowledge to any tuned instrument.

Ultimate Guitar
Hello all, I've seen and read a lot of articles trying to explain the use of modes in songs. In most scenarios, I'd like to say modes are used to add more 'flavor' to a song than the conventional use of the songs tonic scale. *WARNING* Modes are always independent of their relative major/minor scale. They all sound different when you know how to apply a mode. I will make reference to a modes relative root scale, but it's only to guide you through the lesson. So I'll hop right to it. There are 7 given modes:
  • Ionian (major)
  • Dorian (minor)
  • Phrygian (minor)
  • Lydian (major)
  • Mixolydian (major)
  • Aeolian (minor)
  • Locrian (minor) For when I learned these modes, I learned that each mode is either a 'major' or 'minor' mode because of each scales third degree (as shown inside the brackets of each mode). Do we all know what the third degree is? When you play a scale (let's take A major), Counting from the root note A, the third note in the scale is a major third away, being a C. So when you play a mode, you will know immediately if it is major or minor depending if the interval between the root note and its third has a major (3) or minor (b3) quality. Next, each scale has a "characteristic pitch" (CP). This means that each scale has one or two notes that "define" the scale. I always compare all modes to its Ionian or Aeolian scale, there I find the characteristic pitch. Here, I will write out the tones for each scale: IONIAN: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (CP: 4) DORIAN: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 (CP: 6) PHRYGIAN: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (CP: b2) LYDIAN: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (CP: #4) MIXOLYDIAN: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 (CP: b7) AEOLIAN: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (CP: b6) LOCRIAN: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 (CP: b2 and b5) Shall we identify why the characteristic pitches are characteristic pitches? Let's play an A major scale. What you just played was an Ionian mode.
    1 2 3  4 5 6 7  
    A B C# D E F# G#
    All major scales, by default, are known to be major firstly and foremost because of the interval of the 3rd degree. It's major if it it's a 3. Assuming you look at your fret board, a major interval would look something like this:
    e|-----------|     e|-----------|
    B|-----------|     B|-----------|
    G|-----------| OR  G|-----------|
    D|-----------|     D|-----------|
    A|-----------|     A|--------4--|
    E|--5--7--9--|     E|--5--7-----|
        1  2  3rd          1  2  3rd 
    Now, going back to A major. If you look at the fourth note you played, which would be a D note, if you sharpen that note to a D# and play the rest of the scale you just played the same, you immediately get an A Lydian mode:
    1 2 3  #4 5 6 7  
    A B C# D# E F# G#
    Rooting back to the A Ionian mode, conversely if you instead look at the 7th note of the A Ionian Mode, being the G#, if you flatten it to a G natural, you get an A Mixolydian Mode:
    1 2 3  4 5 6  b7
    A B C# D E F# G
    So, did you see what I did there? Here's a quick recap: We took the A Major (Ionian) scale, and we changed one note in the scale. You sharpened the A major's 4th degree, and you get an A Lydian mode. You flattened the A major's 7th degree, and you get an A Mixolydian mode. Simple right? The best part is, you can apply this to ANY major scale you can think of. So, take C Ionian, easiest scale to memorize because there are no sharps or flats. If you sharpen the 4th degree, being an F, you get C _________? If you answered Lydian, then you are understanding this long article so far. If not, just scroll up a bit further to see where you got lost. What about F Ionian? How do we change that into an F Mixolydian? If you thought we flatten the 7th degree once, then you are on the right path of understanding. The same principle applies to minor modes. So, let's play an A Minor scale now. What you will have played, is in fact an Aeolian mode:
    1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
    A B C  D E F  G 
    All minor scales, by default, are known to be minor firstly and foremost because of the interval of the 3rd degree. It's minor if it it's a b3. Assuming you look at your fret board, a minor interval would look something like this:
    e|-----------|     e|-----------|
    B|-----------|     B|-----------|
    G|-----------| OR  G|-----------|
    D|-----------|     D|-----------|
    A|-----------|     A|--------3--|
    E|--5--7--8--|     E|--5--7-----|
    Now, back to the A Minor scale. From A Minor (Aeolian), we will only change one note to get A Dorian. If you play your A Minor scale and look at the 6th note you played, which should be an F, if you sharpen it once to an F#, you immediately get an A Dorian scale:
    1 2 b3 4 5 6  b7
    A B C  D E F# G 
    Again, back to A Minor (Aeolian), if you flatten the 2nd note you played, being a B, you get a Phyrigian mode:
    1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
    A Bb C  D E F  G 
    Get it so far? Here's a quick so far for everything I have explained so far: There are two types of modes, Major and Minor modes:
    MAJOR:         MINOR:  
    Ionian         Dorian  
    Lydian         Phrygian
    Mixolydian     Aeolian 
    Each mode has a characteristic pitch which defines the mode: IONIAN: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (CP: 4) DORIAN: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 (CP: 6) PHRYGIAN: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (CP: b2) LYDIAN: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 (CP: #4) MIXOLYDIAN: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 (CP: b7) AEOLIAN: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (CP: b6) LOCRIAN: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 (CP: b2 and b5) For guitarists, try to break away from JUST memorizing the shape of the modes when you play. If you've gotten this far into this article, it's because you probably understand a little music theory. If so, making the extra effort to memorize where each note lies on the guitar is very much beneficial to learning how to use modes, because memorizing the shape of each separate mode is actually harder than memorizing where the notes lay (trust me from experience). If this article gets published and gets some good feedback, I'll thoroughly write more articles regarding music theory first, and its appliance next. So if this article is successful, expect an article entitled "How to USE Modes".
  • 31 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Pretty sure Locrian is actually diminished, not minor.
      That is very true! I will make sure I correct that in my next lesson, but Locrian is only HALF diminished because it only has a b5, and not a bb7! That's why a vii-(b5)b7 is considered a half diminished chord
      He was referring to the 1-3 interval, so it is minor in that respect.
      Funny thing is, every lessons that I've seen purporting to teach modes teaches them as scalar ideas and doesn't mention establishing a tonal center or how to use chord tones to lead the ear, and none seem to mention modulation particularly often either.
      Frustrating, isn't it? When I think of modes, I don't even think about soloing, but posting about anything else will result in a ridiculous flamewar from people who think there is nothing else but soloing.
      If this article gets enough feedback, I will gladly post another one up on how to use these modes in practice Thank you for the read
      Don't get me wrong; you avoided most of the pitfalls that modes articles tend to fall into. The trouble is that teaching modes as they relate to the major/minor scales rather than how they relate to major/minor chord progressions is presenting an incomplete picture, one which is easily taken to be the full image by people who want to be able to claim they *get* modes.
      Then wait for my next article I promised that this article would only say how to play the modes, and not actually use them in a context of a chord progression. This is merely just so that people know how to take a mode and know the intervals on where to play them, hence the title "How To Play". I have already sent in the next article, so if it's published, do give it a read! I hope it does give a better insight on how to use modes.
      Like I said in my first post, the trouble with that is that modes aren't really scalar ideas as much as sneaky ways to make chord progressions go where they shouldn't. When you play modes, you're more likely than not playing a chord progression as opposed to playing scales. Relating modes to scales helps to organize them for future application, but calling the article "How to Play" is misleading. I'll reserve further judgment until I see another article, until which point my criticism thus far will stand.
      Well it's up! The "How To Use Modes" article is up. Please feel free to read it, and tell me if it's more helpful than this article
      Do it, I'm curious how to use modes.
      Here's how - don't worry about them. Modes, like all other theory, is descriptive, not prescriptive. Knowing how to use modes doesn't mean you need to use them and not knowing them doesn't preclude you from writing intelligently.
      Quite true! You do not need to know how to use modes to know how to apply them, however, I do think it's easier to know how to apply them and to much more effectiveness if you learn the theory behind it! A strong foundation always helps, thanks for the read!
      Heh-heh. Yeah, I do agree with you. I'm working on a piece that got me thinking brushing up on the usage of modes I parrot learnt decades ago would be useful - especially in helping the ears inform the fingers, instead of the other way around. It's all in the quest of freeing up the fretboard!
      Check my profile for the Modal Approach. 10,000 words on the subject.
      Nice one Tom! Many Thanks for the information. Read through your first three column on "The Modal Approach" and it's helping my complete misunderstanding of scales and modes I have (haha) suffered under for so long. Muchly appreciated.
      I wasn't aware somebody already published a great article on modes! In either case, this was just my attempt at attempting on how people can build modes, not use them. In any case, thanks for the read
      For someone who already has a somewhat basic grasp of the theory behind modes, and thus knowing this already I can't rate based on what I learnt. However, well written and will be useful to some. I'd happily read another article by this guy.
      Title's wrong. There's nothing on how to play modally here, just the formula for establishing the modes separately from each other. Yes, I waited until I was mentioned to make comment. I worry I'm oversaturating.
      here's an article: Modes are useless unless you have a very firm grasp on musical theory. Period. Do you know the difference between a major/minor chord progression, or what a secondary dominate is, or how music is generally not module but more major/minor for the last 400~ years?
      It's easy to play the modes, they're just like scales. However it's hard to play modally.
      This is a very good one for beginners who are learning how to play modes.