How To Use Modes. Part 1

author: DarthPew date: 09/20/2012 category: guitar techniques
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How To Use Modes. Part 1
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!
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