How To Use Modes. Part 1

Since I got some positive e-mails regarding the last article, this article will introduce people how to actually put modes into use.

Ultimate Guitar
Let's jump right on the wagon, shall we? Since I got some positive e-mails regarding the last article, this article will introduce people how to actually put modes into use.


I will attempt to explain how to use modes in the most simplistic matter using only SIMPLE examples. I will, at the moment, NOT use actual songs to apply this lesson to as of yet. This is, again, more for the theory and understanding of the usage of modes. And mind you, this lesson is LONG. I recommend if you do not know anything about music theory that you go back and learn the very basics of your note intervals, key signatures, scales and harmony to not get lost, however, I'll try and make this article open for the general audience. Mind you I am also trying to condense over 20 hours worth of material into this article, so prepare yourself! AND, last but not least, I will use a lot of subjective terms. Obviously, what sounds "off" and "not right" is very subjective and relative to what I like hearing, however, I will just say these terms so that you can identify what is different between each note... Each key has it's diatonic chords:
  • I major
  • ii minor
  • iii minor
  • IV major
  • V dominant
  • vi minor
  • vii b5(b7) Look familiar? If you have read the previous lesson, you can see that this list corresponds exactly to the modes and their correspondent major/minor list I made:
  • Ionian (major)
  • Dorian (minor)
  • Phrygian (minor)
  • Lydian (major)
  • Mixolydian (major)
  • Aeolian (minor)
  • Locrian (diminished) So if we combine both lists, we have something that looks like this:
  • I major = Ionian (major)
  • ii minor = Dorian (minor)
  • iii minor = Phrygian (minor)
  • IV major = Lydian (major)
  • V dominant = Mixolydian (major)
  • vi minor = Aeolian (minor)
  • vii 5b(b7) = Locrian (diminished) For this lesson, we'll continue to use the key of A major/minor as our base key. Now then, if we translate these I's into actual chords, we will have this:
  • A major = A Ionian
  • B minor = B Dorian
  • C# minor = C# Phrygian
  • D major = D Lydian
  • E dominant = E Mixolydian
  • F# minor = F# Aeolian
  • G# 5b(b7) = G# Locrian From now on, if I make reference to a chord progression like I - vi - ii - V - I, what I mean to say is play an Amaj - F#min - Bmin - Edom - Amaj respectively. Now then, let us move on to what modes sound like to each chord. The most common misconception that most people have (especially guitarists and bassists) is that just because you're playing, for example, A Ionian when you play an Amaj chord, or D Lydian when you play a Dmaj chord is playing using modes. In fact, that is actually not how you truly use these modes, because when you do this, you are actually playing diatonically within the key of A major. Why? Because when you play F# Aeolian or C# Phrygian and whatknot on top of any chord that fits in A major, you are still playing the same notes of a major. We'll experiment to show you how, so pick up your instrument! Let's take this simple three bar chord progression:


    Imaj7 - IVmaj7 - V7 OR (it's the same thing)
    Feel free to use any voicing of these chords that you wish, just as long as you only use the root, third, fifth and 7th of these chords, only! No tensions allowed in this lesson. So go ahead and play four bars of each chord, and just get the sound of these chords stuck to in your head, or in a loop machine if you have one. Or grab a friend and have them play these chords for you. First of all, let me demonstrate what most people mistake as playing "modally" with these three diatonic chords (and for now, simply run each scale up and down, do not just improvise JUST yet): 1. During Imaj7, play in A Ionian 2. During IVmaj7, play in D Lydian 3. During V7, play in E Mixolydian If you've played each note correctly, things shouldn't sound "out of place". I use this term very subjectively because what you all should have just played was just simply the A major scale, but starting on different base notes and positions. This is the major error most up and coming guitarists make. To play more... "interestingly" is to put those characteristic pitches into motion. Let's just change one mode shall we? Using the same chord progression, follow these steps: 1. During Imaj7, play in A Ionian 2. During IVmaj7, play in D IONIAN* 3. During V7, play in E Mixolydian Given that I gave your chords some sort of "context", when you play D Ionian, it should sound a little... off? Well, that's because when you play D Ionian, you are modifying one note in the key of A Major. Let's play a D Lydian mode. Remember the characteristic pitch? It's the #4, remember? What's the difference between Lydian and it's relative major key? It's the #4. So now that we know that, playing D Ionian should be easy, simply because it's just playing a D major scale! So what you are doing now is just simple playing a D major scale over a Dmaj7 chord in the key of A major! Does it make sense? Let me show you... Instead of playing this scale pattern:
    You are playing this one: *This is D Ionian!
    See the fourth note? It's the only different note in the entire scale movement. You want to see how it REALLY is different than just playing D Lydian? Take D LYDIAN and play it over Imaj7 (Amaj7). It sounds pretty in there, right? Nothing sounds out of the ordinary. Now, play D Ionian over the same chord. Doesn't sound that great now does it? And all because of one note, right? That's the difference between playing D Lydian and D Ionian over the IVmaj7 chord! Obviously, if you keep playing a D Ionian over Imaj7 sounds very dissonant, Hence why use it when the IVmaj7 occurs. Now try it out, the same chord progression at Fig. 1, repeat it and this time, try to improvise using said modes. However, when you play over IVmaj7, make sure that when you play D Ionian, you stress out/highlight its characteristic pitch being the natural 4 (or the G note, instead of a G#). Go ahead and try it and listen to the difference in sound it gives the chord progression. Now ask yourself, "Did I understand everything that has happened so far?" If you have understood so far, great! We'll get onto the recap, if not, look back to where you think you got lost, and just slowly to try to let this theory sink in. On to the recap, we played a chord progression of I - IV - V and instead of playing D Lydian for chord IV which fits diatonically within the key of A major, we played a D Ionian scale over it, and it should sound a little different than playing D Lydian. With me so far? Great! Let's get onto the next part of this lesson.

    *WARNING [part2]*

    This first example is nowhere NEAR how most professional people apply modes into their songs. More theory is put into this, as most musicians consider what chord comes next when they are playing their modes. They often play certain modes to fit certain chord resolutions and to avoid certain "avoid notes" within each mode that might affect the sound of a chord. Yes, I will admit, some of this sounds a little awkward and confusing, however, that's REALLY sinking in our teeth into modes. I merely just touched the surface of the ocean with this example. But onto another to see how it relatively works. Next up, we're going to use all the minor chords of the A major key for the sole purpose for you to recognize the difference between using their "home" modes and their "modded" modes.

    Fig. 2

    Imaj - vi min7 - iii min - V7 - ii min - Imaj
    Again, use any chord voicings you feel comfortable with (for the advanced players: preferably use inversions of these chords with little bass movement. For me, it gets the best effect when you play these modes) Again, make sure you only play the root, third, fifth and seventh (when asked for) for all these chords. No tensions allowed! Got these chords on loop or stuck in your head? Good, just remember to play each chord four times in succession at a regular 4/4 pulse just so you can get an easy groove (alternatively, when you get to chords V7 and ii min, you may play V7 3 times and ii min once only to provide a better resolution to the chord progression. Just try it out!)! Proceed into playing these instructions (if you feel like you are comfortable improvising everything, go right ahead, you'll only need to improvise in the key of A major since all these modes fit diatonically, just remember to accent each modes characteristic pitch, I'll go ahead and annotate what they are!): 1. During Imaj, play A Ionian (CP: 4 [the D note]) 2. During vi min7, play F# Aeolian (CP: b6 [the D note]) 3. During iii min, play C# Phrygian (CP: b2 [the D note]) 4. During V7, play E Mixolydian (CP: b7 [the D note]) 5. During ii min, play B Dorian (CP: 6 [the G# note]) 6. During Imaj, play A Ionian (CP: 4 [the D note]) Alright, things should sound pretty regular and normal. From the above instructions, can you sort of tell why it sounds regular and colourless (colorless for you Americans :) !)? Most of the characteristic pitches are always that darned D note (except for Dorian). So it doesn't sound THAT special. Now then, let's really screw things up. Following the same chord progression, follow these instructions (again, if you're willing to improvise, go right ahead, but for this example I will tab out an example for you to follow! And remember to highlight those characteristic pitches): 1. During Imaj, play A Ionian (CP: 4 [the D note]) 2. During vi min7, play F# Dorian (CP: 6 [the D# note]) 3. During iii min, play C# Dorian (CP: 6 [the A# note]) 4. During V7, play E Mixolydian (CP: b7 [the D note]) 5. During ii min, play B Dorian (CP: 6 [the G note]) 6. During Imaj, play A Ionian (CP: 4 [the D note]) *This here is an example of a Dorian arpeggio that I normally like playing over modal excercises* For vi min7! This is an example of an F# Dorian arpeggio:
    This is an example for a C# Dorian arpeggio:
    The progressions sounds significantly differently, right? Well, it only changed melodically! Not harmonically. By simply changing these characteristic pitches, the progression has a different feel to it, right? Well, at least in my opinion, it does! Want to make things sound even more... "weird"? Take chord ii min (Bmin) and make it a Bsus4 chord. So play it like so:
    Just for fun, we're gonna now change the set of instructions a tiny little bit: 1. During Imaj, play A Ionian (CP: 4 [the D note]) 2. During vi min7, play F# Dorian (CP: 6 [the D# note]) 3. During iii min, play C# Dorian (CP: 6 [the A# note]) 4. During V7, play an E Lydian** b7 (CP: #4 [the A# note]) 5. During ii sus4, play B Mixolydian (CP: b7 [the A note]) 6. During Imaj, play A Ionian (CP: 4 [the D note]) **To play a Lydian b7, it's simply what the name states. Just simply play an E Lydian mode, but instead of play the natural 7 which is a D# note, we're keeping this note diatonic and playing a b7 instead, which is a D note)**

    *WARNING [part3]*

    I do recognize I'm throwing all these modes at you, and even introduced this weird one (Lydian b7), however, I'm assuming you read my last article named "How To Play Modes" and have a decent grasp of it. I will not go over what I covered last topic on this one. [by the way, kudos for reaching the near end of this lesson!] Now then, this progression now sounds VASTLY different. If you were able to play this progression and its given modes, I congratulate you! It's not easy, most would not get this all on the first run through. If you are one of those people who got lost, please just scroll up to see where you got lost! You should hear something that does not sound entirely diatonic to A major. Doubt me? Play any of these last modes I gave you over an Amaj chord. Sounds freaky, doesn't it? I'm just trying to prove to you even further that modes are INDEPENDENT of their relative major or minor scales, however, they provide an interesting and different colour (color for you Westerners!) to the chord progression. Two long examples huh? Well, we'll keep the rest until next time. Try and just focus on going over these two examples and really listening to the difference each mode makes. As a recap for this lesson, I gave you the frame of two different chord progressions and what to change and what to do with it. I do not expect you to now know how to apply modes to ALL chords just yet. No, that was not the point of this lesson. I just hope that I opened a new doorway of understanding and comprehending of what modes can POTENTIALLY do to a song MELODICALLY. So then, what you should have learned from this last example is that by altering a chords' chord quality (from when we changed the Bmin to a Bsus4), you can play around with the modes that you can use. Why? Because we changed the HARMONY of the chord progression, and that my friend we will cover in the second part of this "How To Use Modes" next time. What I hope you leave with after this article is that you can interpret modes into any chords that you like! However, not all combinations of modes and chords will actually sound nice, depending on the chord progressions' context. So for now, just use my examples, and just practice over them. First practice over the key of A major, and after that, when you're more comfortable, change to a different key! To C major, or B major, whatever suits you, just make sure that you also change the modes to their respective key, and after that, experiment with the exact changes to each mode that I have given in the examples above. Hope you enjoyed the lesson, again, if this article does get positive feedback, I'll post up the next lesson entitled "How To USE Modes [Part 2]". *INFORMAL NOTES BY THE AUTHOR* I'd like to give a shout out to the UG staff members for editing the post with the bold letters and quirky boxes around my examples! And thanks to the community for the feedback for the first article. Let's see if we can keep the feedback oncoming!
  • 33 comments sorted by best / new / date

      Well since we're on the topic of modes... I know, I know you all probably recognize me as an anti-mode crusader, but I'm not gonna go there today. Have you ever noticed that the natural minor scale is only one note different from each minor mode (Dorian and Phrygian? If you haven't then observe: 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - b7 Dorian 1 - 2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7 Natural minor 1 - b2 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b6 - b7 Phrygian Notice how the only notes seperating the 3 scales are the 2 & the 6. Anything special about the 2 & the 6? Of course! They're the notes left out to make the minor pentatonic scale! So whenever you play your minor pentatonic it is inherently ambiguous as to whether it is natural minor, or Phrygian, or Dorian. That's why in the key of A minor you can play either D minor pentatonic or E minor pentatonic and still be in key, you're just leaving out the notes that make the mode different. What I've been experimenting with lately is to play pentatonics as sort of a skeletal framework then add in whichever missing note from whichever mode I want to create that "outside" or "chromatic" sort of sound. Just remember to pay attention and most importantly of all LISTEN to what it is you are playing.
      Really interesting. I wouldn't have recognized it or thought of it that way. I'll try it. So, for example - a blues song in A minor - over the IV chord rhythm, you would play D minor pentatonic notes, but play with adding in the 2 and/or b2 and 6 and/or b6? Any shortcuts, or is it trial and error per song?
      Well, think of it this way. Chord IV would be D7 of a blues song in the key of A minor in the traditional I - V - VI - I progression. Seeing as D minor consists of a 1 b3 5 b7, any notes that you can fit in between would work. Of course, not every combination of notes would actually sound nice, but in theory it works. It's just up to you on how you make it sound like.
      I did it again... D7 consists of 1 3 5 b7. So any notes around that would work just fine in THEORY!
      I gave you shit about your last article. I'd like to do the opposite - this is much better and addresses modality as a matter of chord progression as opposed to scalar ideas. I didn't give it a particularly thorough read, so I might have missed something, but I feel like you could have dedicated some time at the beginning explaining how to establish a tonal center even if that tonal center doesn't fit neatly into the usual major/minor paradigm. Besides that, good work.
      Another article about modes that jumps right into soloing over chords. A little disappointing. Good information for adding flavor to leads though.
      Thank you, Thank you Thank you. Finally the explanations surrounding modes I've been looking for. Like the way you presented it. Starting to make more sense now. Eagerly looking forward to the rest.
      After reading this article, my understanding to correctly use a 'mode' is to change the characteristic pitch based on the major/minor tone of the underlying chord? e.g an A Maj chord could utilize either a #4 (Lydian) or a b7 (Mixolydian) Also, once a characteristic pitch has been defined by using a mode, is that the only mode that can be used throughout the progression? (aside from the basic diatonic scale) Cheers!
      Yep! The correct word you used there was "COULD UTILIZE". It depends on your ears if you think it's right, or even depends on where the chord is in the middle of the progression. It's something that I am finish writing up, and I will include in the next lesson And no, any mode can be played within any given time, given that you obey some harmonic rules that I will include in the next lesson!
      Terrific lesson. I look forward to your next lesson. For me, it even got me thinking modally when playing melodically over the progression - even when I was just playing the A major diatonic scale notes. In other words, when the progression moved to the IV (D Major 7), I started thinking D Lydian (instead of playing A Major notes). Same when moving to the V (E Dominant 7); I was thinking E Mixolydian instead of just more A Major scale notes with an emphasis on the E note. I know this isn't really your intent with this lesson, but it seemed to keep me grounded on where I was within the song better than I have been able to accomplish prior. One possible suggestion: could you embed a link to where you played the rhythm and related arpeggios yourself? Finally, Please take a look at the following mistake (I think): Just prior to your F#min and C# Dorian arpeggio examples you state: 5. During ii min, play B Dorian (CP: 6 [the G note]) *I don't think that B Dorian contains a "G" note. Shouldn't this be a "G#" note?
      Yes! That was my mistake... No excuses for me! That one's a biggy, but yes, B Dorian has a major 6th interval, witch would be a G#. Don't know what I was thinking! And I would record things, but I'm saving up for a good microphone and driver equipment to use for recordings. So maybe in the near future! Thank you for the suggestions Your comments help me make my articles!
      Major,Major,Major,Major scales again and again.... But how about Rock and Metall stuff that's usually played in minor? I feel I'll strugle a lot with applying this article to the such kind of music.
      Most rock and metal isn't modal, and the kind of complex chords (read: not powerchords) that are used to establish modality don't work well with distortion effects. The truth is that modes are nifty and all, but you can write excellent music and never once worry about them. I never use modes; I just learned about them for shits and giggles.
      ..."the kind of complex chords (read: not powerchords) that are used to establish modality don't work well with distortion effects..." Ever looked at some of the chords Tosin Abasi uses? Or the guys from After the Burial, Fallujah, or Periphery? Set your tone correctly, and you can clearly play anything you want with distortion.
      This isn't explaining mode's it's explaining how to "play the changes" or essentially play over each chord as if it was it's own key rather then looking at the hole picture diatonicly. Still very well written though I dig it.
      Awesome lesson. Made me go and search for my scales over chords book. I need a refresher because everything I was doing was sounding too much alike.
      Thats a great explanation. 2 questions that may seem stupid, but would be very helpful cause ive been trying to understand this for ages. if im playing in Cmajor this prrogression. C - F - G - C i could hypothetically play a C lydian scale over the Cmaj chord which will consist of the F# note even though this isnt in the scale?? and it is this F# that will add a new sound to the progression. secondly how do you know what modes you can play over which Chords. e.g. over a Cmaj chord could i play a C Locrian?... C Phrygian? F Dorian?...
      Very good! You have understood thus far. No worries though, your chord questions will be resolved in the next issue. It's a big one, so prepare yourself, I'm sure it will satisfy your chord needs And again, "HYPOTHETICALLY" is the right word to use. You can use it if you really were inclined, but that doesn't mean it will sound good in any case.
      "This is an example for a C# Dorian arpeggio: e|-----| B|-----| G|-----4--3-----| D|-----6 -----5-----| A|-----4--7-----7--4-| E|-----| The progressions sounds significantly differently, right? Well, it only changed melodically! Not harmonically." What's the difference between a melodical change and a harmonical change? Can someone who really knows what's meant here explain?
      Harmonic changes have to do with a chord progression and the chord's quality. And melodic changes have to do with any changes in the mode or scale of the melody line (solo or main melody) being played.
      Ulric von Bek
      Excellent article, very well structured, and it nicely complements Part 1. I agree with a previous post about missing out on establishing a tonal center. Nicely done.
      Lessons like this made me wish I understood basic music theory. It all just seems to go over my head and I feel it's the primary factor that's holding me back in my guitar playing.
      I propose you learn the following things first: how are the major and the minor scale built (where are the half-steps), and how do you play it on guitar (take a look at the pattern). Where can you find an E, A, C, G, D, F, B on your fretboard - you don t have to know the whole fretboard by heart, just look at some chords you know, the root note (the lowest note of a chord) usually gives the chord it's name, for example G chord, lowest note which is on the 3rd fret of the E String is a G). Later on try to improvise to a fitting backing track (if it's a track in C apply Major pattern with a C as the root note (the lowest note)). You can find backing tracks on youtube. You will notice that you can also play an Am pattern because it consists of the same notes as the C scale. Have a look at the circle of fifths and you ll see which minor and major scales fit together (wich means they use exactly the same notes). Don t think about modes, for the beginning major and minor is enough. If that was to theoretical for you, you could just go to a website that helps you learning, for example "justinguitar"