5 Myths About Modes

This article debunks five popular myths about modes that we often see in books and online. They aren't just wrong: also cause a lot of unnecessary confusion.

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When I was writing the Encyclopoedia I was aware that a lot of guitar students find the idea of modes very confusing. I spent a bit of time working out a sensible way for guitarists (and others) to think about them, and it wasn't that hard. It therefore continues to amaze me that lots of guitarists -- even experienced teachers -- often say things about modes that are either flatly incorrect or only part of the story. Myth 1: The Modes are the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian... Guitarists think this because that's what they're taught: "You've learned the Major scale, now you need to learn the modes". These things called "the modes" seem to really just be scales, don't they? So why are they called "the modes"? It's a mystery, isn't it? Just another one of those weird things about musical terminology, perhaps. The idea of modality doesn't just apply to the Major scale modes most guitarists learn if they want to play jazz or rock. It applies to any scale: well, almost any -- there are a very small handful of exceptions. It's an extremely useful idea, and it's a real shame that most guitarists don't understand it well enough to benefit from it. Myth 2: But "The Modes" Come From Ancient Greece! Stop it with this. The names of the modes are derived from the names of places in ancient Greece. That's about it. If you want to hear some ancient Greek music, check out the sound files at the Australian Academy of Sciences. Beautiful, haunting and strange they surely are, but anything to do with modern Western music they surely are not. For a start, the tunings are all different; you can actually hear MIDI having to rapidly bend the equal-tempered pitches to fit what scholars believe would be the right pitches for Greek music. That aside, the system of pitch-organisation was quite alien to modern music theory too. Modality as we understand it today wasn't even possible until the Renaissance, and was only rarely used as a concept before the twentieth century. Myth 3: Modes are Scales This is half true, but half-truths are dangerous. In modern music theory the word "mode" has a precise and specific meaning. Any scale (with a very small handful of exceptions) has more than one mode. The clue's in the name: a mode has to be a mode of something. Modes don't just float around on their own. It's more correct to the Dorian and Phrygian scales are modes of each other. So are the common Minor and Major pentatonics. So, as a matter of fact, are the m7 and major 6 arpeggios. You can call a particular scale "the Dorian mode" if you like. I prefer "the Dorian scale", because if someone says a scale is a mode I want to ask "what of?", and that's not always a relevant question. But that's just nomenclature: you can call it anything you like as long as you know the difference between a scale and a mode. Myth 4: A Mode is a Scale Played Starting with a Different Note This is a very useful claim because the minute you hear it you immediately know you're dealing with someone who hasn't a clue what they're talking about. Why? Because their theory doesn't match their practice. A scale is the scale it is no matter what order you play the notes in, as the person who just confused you with this claim will prove when they pick up the guitar and show you some licks. A Dorian scale in D is not, repeat not, a C major scale starting and ending on D. If you think it is then I'm afraid someone has lied to you and you need to wash out your brain with a bottle brush. As soon as you see this, walk away. Never listen to anyone whose theory doesn't match their practice, because that's what's called "a bad theory". Anyone who mounts a defence by claiming that this has something to do with mediaeval chant is talking out of their hat, for similar reasons to Myth 2 (see, for instance, this useful introduction to the church modes). Myth 5: A Mode as a Scale Played in a Different Key Oh, sure. You can think of it that way. If you're playing over F# minor and want a Phrygian sound, you can think like this: "Well, the Phyrgian mode is the major scale played an augmented fifth above the root. The fifth of F# is C#, so the augmented fifth is D. So I can play a D major scale here". By this time the band will have gone home. Don't do this. It works in theory; you really will be playing F# Phrygian if you do through this contorted little thought-process. In practice, though, it fails dismally because it requires you to do way too much thinking. So there's five myths about modes that we hear too often, and that confuse students and seasoned musicians alike. The sad thing is that the idea of modality is a fantastically useful timesaving device and a great source of new and interesting sounds. I know I've been a bit negative in this article, so I'll post an explanation of how I believe modes should be thought of in the near future.

62 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    nigeltheginger
    What's an encyclopoedia? Is that a mis-spelling or some obscure musical term I've not come across?
    speeddemon93
    After reading all about what modes aren't, I'd really like to know what they are. I've be really wishing somebody could give me a clear explanation about modes for quite a while.
    yM.Samurai
    ^As opposed to diseases of the non-medical kind? Thought the article was average. No better or worse than 95% of other articles you see on modes. Really kinda waiting for someone to actually light the way on this issue - or for everyone to realise that they're actually kinda basic
    L2112Lif
    Cool article, bro. Too bad it isn't helpful in the slightest... Know what WOULD help more? 5 truths about modes which get buried.
    Skuzzmo
    Sean0913 wrote: This is a poorly done article. I know, because I teach modes. The point of an article should be to educate. It doesn't do this. An statement should summarize the fact, and the back it up with concrete examples which when taken together support that statement. Merely stating "Modes are Dorian, Lydian" as a Myth, is totally useless. The MODES of the MAJOR Scale ARE... Yes there are also modes to Harmonic Minor, whose uses extend well into Jazz situations, but, this is not the same as stating an incorrect assumption, that a Mode is a "Myth". You sir have demonstrated total ignorance and ineptitude by parroting what sounds like your first fresh breath of theory-air and presuming to "enlighten" the masses, which did nothing of the sort. I'll publically take you on in a debate if you so wish. Because each point that you make about a "myth" is actually set up in its staement to be "incomplete" and thus shaped, like a myth. Unfortunately this doesn't set anyone straight, it just makes you come across like you are saying something when really, it's all double talk and served no purpose but to legitimately frustrate others. By the way I teach, I have a guitar school and I teach modes. So, I do know what I'm talking about. If you want to find me, I'm almost exclusively in Musicians Talk, helping and mentoring other players in theory.
    This
    Kortez3000
    nigeltheginger wrote: What's an encyclopoedia? Is that a mis-spelling or some obscure musical term I've not come across?
    It's a newly discovered medical decease.
    Sean0913
    This is a poorly done article. I know, because I teach modes. The point of an article should be to educate. It doesn't do this. An statement should summarize the fact, and the back it up with concrete examples which when taken together support that statement. Merely stating "Modes are Dorian, Lydian" as a Myth, is totally useless. The MODES of the MAJOR Scale ARE... Yes there are also modes to Harmonic Minor, whose uses extend well into Jazz situations, but, this is not the same as stating an incorrect assumption, that a Mode is a "Myth". You sir have demonstrated total ignorance and ineptitude by parroting what sounds like your first fresh breath of theory-air and presuming to "enlighten" the masses, which did nothing of the sort. I'll publically take you on in a debate if you so wish. Because each point that you make about a "myth" is actually set up in its staement to be "incomplete" and thus shaped, like a myth. Unfortunately this doesn't set anyone straight, it just makes you come across like you are saying something when really, it's all double talk and served no purpose but to legitimately frustrate others. By the way I teach, I have a guitar school and I teach modes. So, I do know what I'm talking about. If you want to find me, I'm almost exclusively in Musicians Talk, helping and mentoring other players in theory.
    The_Raven
    Guys...the last sentence "I know I've been a bit negative in this article, so I'll post an explanation of how I believe modes should be thought of in the near future." He SAYS he will be explaining what modes are soon... Good article. Clears up some confusion.
    shred_wizzard
    after reading Plato's "republic", he mentions the modes and goes into some detail. from what I've understood they're based on how we believe they were played in ancient greek times, not simply named after those modes. I'll grant you they're not the exact same, giving the unique tonality of millenia old greek music, but they're by no means unrelated
    SpeedLives
    Damaged Roses wrote: its funny that people are bitching that all this article doesn't teach you how to use modes, that its just a list of myths. if you don't want a list of misconceptions about modes, why would you open a link that clearly states its going to be a list of misconceptions?... You freaking dumbass... because you think it'll say what's the right thing. And this thing just tells you you're wrong, without clearing the path... Fail...
    the word you're looking for is assume. *you assumed* "it'll say whats the right way". YOU were incorrect, its not the fault of the author.
    huevos
    rockingamer2 wrote: For those of you that can't wait, here's a great article on modes (be sure to this one and it's sequel). http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/columns/t... ultimate_guide_to_guitar_chapter_iv_1_scales_-_diatonic_mode s_in_theory.html
    You SOB, you stole my thunder. But if the follow up article is in the same vein as this article, you'd be better off skipping it. Use that time to read up on ZeGuitarist's approach instead. Much more comprehensive and useful. Hell, I'm going through it again myself.
    loaded_
    SpeedLives wrote: Damaged Roses wrote: its funny that people are bitching that all this article doesn't teach you how to use modes, that its just a list of myths. if you don't want a list of misconceptions about modes, why would you open a link that clearly states its going to be a list of misconceptions?... You freaking dumbass... because you think it'll say what's the right thing. And this thing just tells you you're wrong, without clearing the path... Fail... the word you're looking for is assume. *you assumed* "it'll say whats the right way". YOU were incorrect, its not the fault of the author.
    It was the most logical assumption one could make after reading the title.
    iduno871
    Reasons 4 and 5 completely contradict eachother... This article is lames.
    Miniskirt
    Essentially, you're changing the tonal center with using a mode. Don't think of how C Major is the same as D Dorian, but how D major is different from D dorian. Dorian will sound different when you're actually playing in Dorian, but if you're playing "dorian" in major it'll just sound like major.
    Jay Stone
    Yes, Rockstarscat the online lesson is $2.95AU, I am not going to get rich on that (Corn Flakes maybe) and it is avaiable to those who cannot afford much. I have been told by a qualified experienced teacher that I should sell it as a master lesson for $40.00. Rockstarscat, try coming up with a new method then try to promote it. It is like trying to hit a star with a ball bearing, near impossible. At least you have responded. Thanks for giving a small benifit of the doubt ("might be the real deal"). My web site was $3000.00 to build and I have spent many hours over the last 2 years making sure that all aspects of the lesson merge with conventional theory. Just wish you would try it and help spread the word. Never doubt the human brain to come up with new concepts, methods to teach modes have been stagnant for too long. Regards, Ross
    Jay Stone
    Miniskirt's comment refers to the Parallel approach to modes but, learn the Relative approach first. You will notice that most of the above comments and questions relating to modes are explained by these two approaches. The Parallel approach will consolidate the tonal differences between each mode. Regards, Ross. Guitarmodes.
    Jay Stone
    Miniskirt's comments refer to the Parallel approach to modes but, learn the Relative approach first. Most questions and comments relating to modes, listed in this column, may be explained with these two approaches. Parallel approach will allow you to determine the tonal differences between modes. Regards, Ross. Guitarmodes.
    slowlybilly
    You want to know for sure? Create the universe.... Music is art. There are no facts here....let's all just get over our egos, and stop being so negative. That will help you grow as a guitarist. Here's a lesson from me, stop wasting time posting negative comments on someone who is trying to help you, and read more lessons with that time, or practice....I recommend using your cycle of fourths to learn your neck, then go from there with your weaknesses in mind.
    2112by
    First of all,most of you you are all missing the point of this article. lets look at the modes of c major. c ionian C D E F G A B d dorian D E F G A B C e phrygian E F G A B C D f lydian F G A B C D E g mixolydianG A B C D E F a aeolian A B C D E F G b locriaN B C D E F G A all of these modes are modes of c major and are related. guitar players get confused because they see books or have teachers that teach them to play in the ionian position or the dorian position etc. Just because you are playing in a position named after a mode doesn't mean you are playing in that mode.The mode is determined by the chord progression. You can not change the mode of a song by the lead that you play. If you want to understand modes, go back to studying chord progressions. Mode means "mood" in Latin. So we have 7 different moods of each major scale. I personally play out of the aeolian position for almost every song I play. If a chord progression is Am C Am F G, the mode is aeolian because my chord that is the tonic, or gets the most beats, is Am. I can play out of A aeolian. If my progression is C Am C F G, I can still play out of the aeolian position, but I am now playing in the ionian mode because of my chord progression. When playing a lead you need concentrate on landing and resting on chord tones.
    Rockstarscat
    Have none of you realized that this guy is trying to sell a book. And why on earth would someone just tell you what it is there trying to sell you. You have to pay if you want to play. this guy might be the real deal. But you will never know, you must buy a ticket to see the show. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
    Flibo
    Disregard the haters, I enjoyed this article and it was refreshing compared to the other lessons regarding modes.
    onedarkened
    So. I've always understood modes as being the same scale played over a different chord in that key. The g major scale played over its second degree, the A minor chord, results in the dorian mode. That's at least the way I understand it.
    TsarBomba
    Honestly, the only way to approach modes that's worked for me is to internalize the sound each one conveys. If I want something dreamy, I immediately think Lydian. If I want something 'Spanish' sounding, I think Phrygian. Obviously, this kind of thinking leaves a lot of to be desired, but it certainly helps to think of modes as 'sounds' before you worry about the semantics.
    Jay Stone
    The discussions above indicate a huge need for a book that lists each individual question with an appropriate answer. Ask your guitar teacher to explain Parallel and Relative approach to modes. It is the only explanation you will need. With this knowledge you will be able to ask the right questions and understand the answers. Learn the copyright GM formulas to play across the fretboard in one lesson. This is most important to understanding all lessons and articles that you may come across. I hope Ultimate Guitar may consider my method a resource and not in opposition to their web site. The frustration of not comprehending modes is over. The only frustration left for me is getting everyone to go to my web site. Bruce Arnold did and he left a Critique as well. Thank you Bruce. Looking forward to communicating with anyone who is interested. Regards, Ross
    Damaged Roses
    its funny that people are bitching that all this article doesn't teach you how to use modes, that its just a list of myths. if you don't want a list of misconceptions about modes, why would you open a link that clearly states its going to be a list of misconceptions?...
    You freaking dumbass... because you think it'll say what's the right thing. And this thing just tells you you're wrong, without clearing the path... Fail...
    RockInPeaceDime
    Dream Floyd wrote: MaXiMuse wrote: Myth 4: C major C D E F G A B C D dorian D E F G A B C D So why isn`t this correct? If you prove me wrong I shall gloriously admit it... Just because two people look exactly the same from the side doesn't mean they're the same person.
    It's generally a bad idea to make analogies between music and personhood.
    Leather Sleeves
    Dream Floyd wrote: Firstly it would be about the note that feels "home". Then about the intervals you use compared to your home note.
    Ok, and I honestly don't mean to pick on you particularly, but this is what I mean. Just because you know something's wrong doesn't validate attacking people if you don't know the answer yourself. You obviously understand it better than most people, I too know that the mode has more to do with resolution with the root note than the order, but I don't "know" exactly how it is determined and neither do you. Again, I'm just using you as an example cuz no one else has posted much yet, but the "feel" of something isn't a sound empirical way of determining something.
    Dream Floyd
    Leather Sleeves wrote: If you play a lick in a certain key, (we'll use the 0 sharps, 0 flats for example), what determines which of the 7 western/major you're playing in? Let the flaming and non-answering of this question begin!
    Firstly it would be about the note that feels "home". Then about the intervals you use compared to your home note.
    Dream Floyd
    Leather Sleeves wrote: Ok, and I honestly don't mean to pick on you particularly, but this is what I mean. Just because you know something's wrong doesn't validate attacking people if you don't know the answer yourself. You obviously understand it better than most people, I too know that the mode has more to do with resolution with the root note than the order, but I don't "know" exactly how it is determined and neither do you. Again, I'm just using you as an example cuz no one else has posted much yet, but the "feel" of something isn't a sound empirical way of determining something.
    That's because there is none. There are no true ultimatums in music. It's all about the way you view it. Music is an art, it's all subjective in the end. Take your pick of the answer you want.
    MNasti
    So... really all I've learned from this is "I'm wrong". That's about it, I feel like you should have waited to post this along with the explanation of what they are. You can just walk up and tell someone "Everything you know is wrong!" without an explanation man, just isn't right.
    Myshadow46_2
    Leather Sleeves I too know that the mode has more to do with resolution with the root note than the order, but I don't "know" exactly how it is determined and neither do you. Again, I'm just using you as an example cuz no one else has posted much yet, but the "feel" of something isn't a sound empirical way of determining something.
    If you understand the relationship between notes you can determine where a piece of music resolves to without listening to determine the 'feel'
    BlouPontak
    I'm with MNasti on this. Make the next one the ten commandments of modes or something plz.
    Leather Sleeves
    Again, nothing explained. I challenge anyone to explain this one question people will still have after reading this or anyother self-indulgent theory article on this site: If you play a lick in a certain key, (we'll use the 0 sharps, 0 flats for example), what determines which of the 7 western/major you're playing in? Let the flaming and non-answering of this question begin!
    Dream Floyd
    MaXiMuse wrote: Myth 4: C major C D E F G A B C D dorian D E F G A B C D So why isn`t this correct? If you prove me wrong I shall gloriously admit it...
    Just because two people look exactly the same from the side doesn't mean they're the same person.
    jm911
    didnt really learn much since you only said what they werent and that left me with a very vague idea of what modes are. i hope that second article comes soon.
    TheThunder
    Pretty much a half-article. All we read here "this myth is wrong" with lots of "anyone who thinks this is an idiot" thrown in. Meanwhile, the reader is no closer to understanding modes than when they started reading.
    MaXiMuse
    Myth 4: C major C D E F G A B C D dorian D E F G A B C D So why isn`t this correct? If you prove me wrong I shall gloriously admit it... Myth 5: I`ve written songs in D mixolydian and D locrian and it doesn`t require too much thinking. If you are willing to make a good song then you are also prepared to think about a melody or solo. If your band is leaving by that time I suggest you go search for other bandmates...
    crazysam23_Atax
    MaXiMuse wrote: Myth 4: C major C D E F G A B C D dorian D E F G A B C D So why isn`t this correct? If you prove me wrong I shall gloriously admit it... Myth 5: I`ve written songs in D mixolydian and D locrian and it doesn`t require too much thinking. If you are willing to make a good song then you are also prepared to think about a melody or solo. If your band is leaving by that time I suggest you go search for other bandmates...
    I think you missed the whole point. And everyone quit whining about your wrong assumptions being proven wrong.
    Reisgar42
    So you told all of us who were incorrect how we were wrong, but gave us no information on how to be right. A constructive journalist, you are not.
    nico42
    Nice idea, but everyone's basically right...if those things are false...what's true? The lack of some truly useful explanations reduces this to a smart-ass 1/10 article, although the initial idea might be good.
    huevos
    The last sentence states that there will be a follow up. I don't see why he didn't just post that section here (unless there happens to be a character limit on articles). What I've learned about modes is this: -The modes gain a "new" tonic while playing modularly (not a word), -You must not play any notes outside of the "new" modular scale, lest you compromise it's harmonic integrity (meaning that it reverts back to the original scale you were playing), -A "shift" in intervals. It's not exactly a new set, but just as you start out with a new tonic, you get a "new" (sub)dominant, leading tone, and such. This gives the music a different type of tonality, as your chords are affected by the interval types. Just as likely, you melodies will be affected by the new constraints. -This one I wasn't 100% on before this article, but I guess you do have to start with an "original scale" to be playing in modular form (you need an a variable before you can make it to the b variable). I could be wrong on all these points, but it's what I've learned from various sites and a flesh-and-blood instructor about modes. I feel that it's all correct, but I wouldn't be able explain with technical efficiency.
    Metal_Master_0
    This information does help me quite a bit, but instead of being a tease, hit us with everything next time
    Ebucra
    -This one I wasn't 100% on before this article, but I guess you do have to start with an "original scale" to be playing in modular form (you need an a variable before you can make it to the b variable).
    This. He says that it would be just so wrong to say that a mode is derived from a scale, when that's what I've thought it is the whole time. Sure, it could be a scale, but its much more easily classifed as a mode of a certain major scale... This is just an article with so many confusing claims that has no real explaination as to why...