Basic Theory Made Easy. Part 3: Mostly Modes

This article is about using the major scale to build modes.

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Correction: I must acknowledge joeythedrummer for pointing out a mistake in my previous article, The Why Of Notes. The mistake involved an interval in the F major scale. The correction was with the last interval, E to F. I had written it as a WHOLE STEP, when in fact, it was a HALF STEP. Welcome back to the third installment of my series of basic theory articles. In this article, we will expand upon what you have already learned from the previous two. Modes: What are modes? For all intents and purposes, they are simply scales. Is the major scale a mode? YES!!! It is the Ionian mode. How do we build modes? That is the easy part. Take the major scale (here we go again). Now, follow your basic whole, whole, half, whole, whole whole, half pattern. That mode starts on the FIRST NOTE of whatever major scale you are playing. So in the key of C major, if you start on the FIRST NOTE of that key and play a scale, you are in the Ionian mode. Simple. What about the other modes? There are seven modes altogether. They are based upon each note in the major scale. To make this easy to understand, let's use some illustrations. We already know that the scale starting on C in the key of C is the Ionian mode because it starts on the first note of that key. The NEXT MODE starts on the second note (or SCALE DEGREE). It is D. It is called the Dorian mode. So when we are in the key of C, a scale starting on D is considered Dorian. Let's show the modes and their notes: KEY OF C C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C = Ionian [major](It starts on the first note) D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D = Dorian (It starts on the second note) E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E = Phrygian (It starts on the third note) F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F = Lydian (It starts on the fourth note) G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G = Mixolydian [dominant](It starts on the fifth note) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A = Aeolian [minor](It starts on the sixth note) B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B = Locrian (It starts on the seventh note) Now this is REALLY IMPORTANT: Notice how there are no sharps or flats in these modes. They are MODES OF THE KEY OF C. And if you remember correctly, the key of C has no sharps or flats. How do we construct modes in a key? *First, build your major scale. *Second, remember the sharps or flats in the key. *Third, iterate through each scale degree using ONLY YOUR ORIGINAL KEY'S sharps or flats. Let's try it. 1) Build The Major Scale KEY OF D D to E = whole E to F# = whole F# to G = half G to A = whole A to B = whole B to C# = whole C# to D = half 2) Remember Your Sharps Or Flats If you look, you'll see the D major scale has TWO SHARPS: F# and C#. 3) Build Your Modes KEY OF D MAJOR Use your two sharps for EVERY MODE in D major D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D Ionian [major](It starts on the first note) E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E Dorian (It starts on the second note) F#, G, A, B, C#, D, E, F# Phrygian (It starts on the third note) G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G Lydian (It starts on the fourth note) A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A Mixolydian [dominant](It starts on the fifth note) B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B Aeolian [minor](It starts on the sixth note) C#, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C# Locrian (It starts on the seventh note) Did you catch how the modes on the fifth and sixth scale degrees were also called dominant and minor? (I'll tell you about the dominant later) Even the minor COMES FROM THE MAJOR SCALE!!! It is simply a MODE of the major scale. This is where they get the term "relative minor" because it is RELATIVE to its major counterpart. So what is the relative minor of C major? It is A minor. The relative minor ALWAYS occurs on the sixth scale degree of a major. For instance: C major's relative minor = A minor D major's relative minor = B minor E major's relative minor = C# minor G major's relative minor = E minor A major's relative minor = F# minor and so forth. And lastly for modes, let's explore the step pattern of the minor: KEY OF C MAJOR A to B = whole B to C = half C to D = whole D to E = whole E to F = half F to G = whole G to A = whole So the pattern for any natural minor is: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole This is simply the major step pattern STARTING and STOPPING on a different spot. ************** Enharmonic Notes What are they? They are simply notes that are WRITTEN DIFFERENTLY but SOUND THE SAME. Examples: C# sounds the same as Db D# sounds the same as Eb E# sounds the same as F Fb sounds the same as E F# sounds the same as Gb G# sounds the same as Ab A# sounds the same as Bb B# sounds the same as C Cb sounds the same as B Why are they like this? It's totally for practical purposes. For instance, there is a whole step between D and E. If you raise (or sharpen) the D a half step, you haven't made it to the E. You are now IN BETWEEN them. But your ACTION taken on the D note makes it sharp since you MOVED IT UP. If you start on E and go down (flatten) one half step, you haven't made it to D. You are now in between them and in the EXACT SAME SPOT you were before. But since you LOWERED THE E, the note is Eb. Since there is only ONE PLACE between D and E, that space can be moved UP into or DOWN into. If you move the top note DOWN into it, that note becomes flattened and occupies that space. If you move the bottom note UP into it, it becomes sharpened and occupies that same space. So that note has two names. Which one is used depends on the "how" and the purpose. There are also scalar reasons for using certain sharps or flats, but we won't go into that until later. In the next article, I will talk about the importance of scale degrees and intervals greater than a whole step. Thanks for reading.

17 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Jonthecomposer
    @TheDissident: Thanks. I'm the same way. I understood them the day they were shown to me. Not to condescend either, but I was in grade school at the time. But that was well after I learned the steps in the major scale.
    TheDissident
    I've never understood all the confusion around modes (though I don't mean to condescend those who find it difficult, different learning patterns I guess) but this article is just another clear and easy to follow presentation of an interesting subject. Great stuf
    Jonthecomposer
    @Fallen_Seeker: Thanks! I'd rather teach the "mechanics" of building the major scale FIRST because everything else is relative to that, even the circle of fifths. Besides, if you learn to build it, you don't have to memorize anything.... well, except how to initially build it For the record though, I DO recommend everyone learn to read at some point even if at an elementary level. It is a GREAT tool for musical communication and it just may land you a gig some day.
    Metalloy
    Jon...I Salut u! I liked all ur articles...u knw what u are talkin abt...keep it up man \m/
    Jonthecomposer
    @Deeker: Again, thank you. I should be putting another one or two out before the end of the week. I've been pretty busy lately, so the frequency of my writing, no pun intended, hasn't been what it usually is.
    Deeker
    Thanks jonthecomposer, another excellent article i look foreword to the followup on it because this is as far as my musical knowledge goes, but it's a great review and i still learn from all this
    Jonthecomposer
    @Hab Fan: I understand your concern. But I take the "Jeff Berlin" approach at implementing modes.... and I am not trying to sound harsh here. I don't think modes should really be implemented as way to harmonize. Get to know your chord tones FIRST. Those are the most important things for harmonizing. Then, once you understand where the mode fits into that particular chord progression and melody, use it to "flavor" what you are playing. I could go on and on about how this is a better approach. In order to REALLY understand how a mode harmonizes, you must also understand pretty much ALL the diatonic (naturally forming) chords that are related to that mode. It is also important to HEAR the mode as a separate scale and be able to identify each interval and scale degree. It's not hard, but it takes a lot of practice. If you hang around for the next two or three articles in this series, I will undoubtedly cover most of what you will need to know to be able to implement what I have said. I will also keep that in mind for a future article.
    Fallen_Seeker
    It's about damn time someone takes a break from the typical "learn to read music" and "memorize the circle of fifths." I know those will be required sooner or later, but right now, this article has helped me more than all my music teachers. Great job, keep up the good work.
    ajreciever14
    modes are basic. thats still first semester music theory 101. if you think they're not, you have no idea how far theory actually goes.
    Jonthecomposer
    @Myshadow46_2 Those are good points. But this article fits with the flow of my previous articles. Instead of going into reading actual notes first, I showed how to build a major scale in any key. All you have to do is read the previous articles and you'd understand. Also, the basic modes are not advanced once you learn how to build a major scale from scratch. Finally, I "announced" in my previous article what the content of this would be.
    guitar-girl21
    thanks for posting these! I've been playing for 3 years and never cared to learn theory until I realized how important and useful it is. These are great, but sometimes confusing, but thats understandable. By far the best theory lessons on this site. (: please keep posting
    MWriff
    Years of playing and reading and I still cant figure out what a bloody mode is
    Hab Fan
    I've been studying theory since I started playing guitar a year ago and this article is clear to understand, as many across the internet. The problem as a beginner though is that all these articles explain the theory but don't explain how to put it into practice. I can build a mode in any key on paper but I can't visualize fast enough in my head to put it into use while on the guitar. Any suggestions as to how you would take this and add it to your practice routine?
    Jonthecomposer
    @MWriff: In some people, the concept is really something that just has to "soak in" over time. I would recommend reading the previous articles if you haven't. I'd be happy to address any questions you'd have. @guitar-girl21: Thanks! If you have any problems, I find the best thing to do at that point is just to learn each thing one at a time until it is stamped onto your brain. Play with the concept and get to know it. Then move on to the next part as it builds from the previous.
    Myshadow46_2
    Basic theory and Modes shouldn't be put together. Modes are far from basic and the problem with a lot of players is that they think modes are necessary to understand when, in actuality, a solid understanding of tonal theory will get them much further in their effort to understand music. Also, you tack enharmonics onto the end. Surely you should have discussed enharmonics in an earlier column.
    UGVGURU
    Modes are pretty basic if you learn them right. I think this is the wrong way to learn them. The intervals for the major(Ionian) scale is W,W,H,W,W,W,H. The Major modal scales are just the intervals moving up. The next scale in the sequence is the Dorian scale. The intervals are W,H,W,W,W,H,W. Now compare the intervals for the Dorian scale to the Ionian scale. See a pattern? This goes through all the modal scales. Well anyhow, thats how i see them. Also, you should learn the modal scales based on the harmonic minor scale, the melodic minor scale, the neopolitan, the pentatonic, and the diminished scale. Keep in mind that it's alot easier when you learn the intervals. Plus memorising the notes on the fretboard makes it so much easier.