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.

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62 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    loaded_
    I agree with most people here, it would've been nice if you actually clearly said what modes are.Telling me a beer isn't the same as milk doesn't teach me what beer is.
    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.
    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
    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.
    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: 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.
    BlouPontak
    I'm with MNasti on this. Make the next one the ten commandments of modes or something plz.
    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'
    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.
    AxeHappy
    It's all true. Myth 3 and 4 confuse people all the time. Myth 3 really seems to confuse people because as you pointed it it is perfectly fine (Good even) to call modes scales but you have to understand what it means.
    Silverpack
    MaXiMuse wrote: 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...
    How true ! When you work a lot on the modes, it comes naturally just like the easy pentatonic licks.
    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...
    MagicsDevil
    loaded_ wrote: I agree with most people here, it would've been nice if you actually clearly said what modes are. Telling me a beer isn't the same as milk doesn't teach me what beer is.
    +1 I believe the person that wrote this article, and i'm not crying because I was proven wrong, but this is a half article, I feel like I have no idea about anything related to modes... =( It's like you told me that water isn't a liquid and then yelled at me for being an idiot and not knowing that. Now I have no idea what water is or what a liquid is.
    vIsIbleNoIsE
    i feel like some of the "myths" here (#4) are just nitpicking on semantics, especially the way it is written here. definitely needs a lot more explaining, because the apparent incorrectness of these myths are quite vague. i guess my main beef is that "myth" implies something completely wrong.
    krypticguitar87
    I agree with this not being a full article.... I really wan't to know what modes are, not necesarily what they aren't.... I've always understood that cmaj and d dorian are just the same key esentially... I don't understand what the benefit of calling it D dorian when it sounds exactly the same as C maj, every lick you can write in D dorian can be played in c major so why even call it two different things.... When I learned modes, it was from my guitar instructor, I was taught to just think about them in terms of positions on the fretboard starting on cerian degrees of the scale, so later when I would come on here and seenall this "Dorian scale is created by taking the major scale and..." i was confused.... I mean the dorian mode starts on the second degree, and moves in steps across the fretboard without changing positions, and if you write a riff, using the dorian mode in the key of cmaj, then you transpose it to another key by using the dorian mode (starting on the second degreee)... at least thats what I was taught modes were used for, not just another way to say a key.... I guess I want to know if there is a benefit to calling Cmaj D dorian, and not just Cmaj? they sound the same and look the same, the only difference is the formula...
    BABYjoey
    yeah..i agree with everyone's negativity. Your that ***** who thinks he is so knowledgeable in music, and make my life filled with annoying girls screaming incoherence. i wish i could kill the author of this article because hes just..****ing stupid. how about: what is a "mode", what are some common ways to incorporate modes into our guitar playing, and what are some modal patterns in theory? ****ing idiot.
    Metal_Master_0
    This information does help me quite a bit, but instead of being a tease, hit us with everything next time
    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.
    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...
    SpeedLives
    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?...
    huevos wrote: The last sentence states that there will be a follow up. What I've learned about modes is this:... -You must not play any notes outside of the "new" modular scale, lest you compromise it's harmonic integrity ...
    he probably hasn't written the follow up yet, which would explain why its not pasted onto the end of this one :o you are correct on that one i know, that you can't use other notes. the chords you use have to contain only the notes of the mode you're trying to use.
    jof1029
    I almost find it easier to think about modes as to how they differ to a scale/mode with the same tonic. for example: D Ionian (major): D E F# G A B C# D D Dorian: D E F G A B C D You notice that the dorian mode has a flat/minor third and flat/minor seventh. So we now have our tonic as minor, but we want to differ from the typical minor scale (aeolian mode). so we see that is D minor (aeolian): D E F G A Bb C D So to emphasize that we are in D dorian we frame our tonic as D minor and make sure to emphasize the major 6th as well. It takes more than just knowing the notes and differences, you have to know how to move from one to the other and how create tension and resolution.
    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.
    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
    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.
    jasonstatement
    Myth 4: C major C D E F G A B C D dorian D E F G A B C D according to the article, (i dont know my modes really) wouldn't this be C dorian?
    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.
    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.
    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.
    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.
    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
    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.
    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.
    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.
    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.
    Flibo
    Disregard the haters, I enjoyed this article and it was refreshing compared to the other lessons regarding modes.
    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.
    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