For a FREE downloadable and printable .pdf file of this lesson, click here and sign up for my free guitar newsletter.
Pay close attention to the next paragraph! Modes are not a hard concept to understand, but are many times learned in the wrong way which can lead to confusion.
A mode is when notes (or chords) are taken from a parent scale and are rearranged into a different order. The term "parent scale" simply refers to the scale being used as the starting point of reference. So for example, the C major scale is based on the note "C" being the central most important note of the scale (the tonic). If we take the C major scale, and we instead begin and end the scale on the note "D" we are in the key of "D Dorian." So the key of "D Dorian" uses all of the same notes as C major, except that "D" is now the most important note of the scale. The chord progressions used will revolve around the note "D."
C major = C D E F G A B C
D Dorian = D E F G A B C D
The following chart lists the common modes of the major scale:
1st mode: Ionian (Major)
2nd mode: Dorian
3rd mode: Phrygian
4th mode: Lydian
5th mode: Mixolydian
6th mode: Aeolian (A Minor)
7th mode: Locrian
Example: Using C major as the parent scale
1st mode: C Ionian (C Major) - C D E F G A B C
2nd mode: D Dorian - D E F G A B C D
3rd mode: E Phrygian - E F G A B C D E
4th mode: F Lydian - F G A B C D E F
5th mode: G Mixolydian - G A B C D E F G
6th mode: A Aeolian (A Minor) - A B C D E F G A
7th mode: B Locrian - B C D E F G A B
Example: Using A major as the parent scale
1st mode: A Ionian (A Major) - A B C# D E F# G# A
2nd mode: B Dorian - B C# D E F# G# A B
3rd mode: C# Phrygian - C# D E F# G# A B C#
4th mode: D Lydian - D E F# G# A B C# D
5th mode: E Mixolydian - E F# G# A B C# D E
6th mode: F# Aeolian (F# Minor) - F# G# A B C# D E F#
7th mode: G# Locrian - G# A B C# D E F# G#
The following chart lists the chords used in the common modes of the major scale:
Example: Using C major as the parent scale
st mode: C Ionian (C Major) - C Dm Em F G Am B C
2nd mode: D Dorian - Dm Em F G Am B C Dm
3rd mode: E Phrygian - Em F G Am B C Dm Em
4th mode: F Lydian - F G Am B C Dm Em F
5th mode: G Mixolydian - G Am B C Dm Em F G
6th mode: A Aeolian (A Minor) - Am B C Dm Em F G Am
7th mode: B Locrian - B C Dm Em F G Am B
For guitar players (and other instrumentalists) modes seem to split into to categories:
Scales and Chord progressions. This is where confusion commonly arises.
Chord Progression Perspective
The main idea of modes is that for music to be considered "in a mode" the music must center itself around one specific note or chord. For instance, a progression in the key of C major (Ionian Mode) will be centered around the pitch of "C" (and the chord of C major). This is why we say it is in the key of C major. In order for us to make this into a different key (mode) we must either change the notes in the key, or change the tonal center to be something other than "C."
1. Key of C Major (Original Progression)
C Major - D Minor - E Minor - G Major - C Major
2. Key of C Lydian (Changing the notes of the key)
C Major - D Major - E Minor - G Major - C Major
3. Key of D Dorian (Changing the tonal center)
D Minor - E Minor - A Minor - G Major - D Minor
People become confused many times because they associate modes only with scale patterns on the guitar, but not with the above mentioned concepts. This leads to questions like: "How do I play in X mode over a progression in Y key. "If I play the scale of X mode in Y key, am I playing in X mode or Y key?"
When playing a mode scale pattern over the chords in a key, you will need to think about what notes you are playing. Here is an important concept to pick up on: If you are to play the scale pattern for a mode by itself (with no chords or anything underneath), it WILL have a distinct sound that characterizes that mode.
However, it is very rare that actual songs and music are made of only a scale by itself. The notes of the scales you play all represent a way to put emphasis on one single note. For instance "A Major" puts emphasis on "A," "D Phrygian" puts emphasis on "D," etc. So that being said, the notes of the scale on a larger level actually represent the chords of a song.
When you are playing in an actual song (and not just the scale by itself), you will be either playing chords, or playing a melody of some kind that is played over chords. So it is important to understand that the chord progression and tonal center are what determine the key (mode).
For example, let's say you are going to play a melody over this chord progression:
C Major- D Minor - G Major - F Major.
All of the notes in this progression use the notes of the key of C major. If you use the C major scale as the parent scale, then you will have 6 other options for modes to choose from (if you want to only use notes from the key of C major). However, by playing these modes over this progression, it will not necessarily make the progression sound as if it is in a different mode. This is because you are only using notes that are all from the same key signature. This approach puts the less emphasis on each chord on more emphasis on the entire chord progression (and what note it centers around). To give an entire progression a modal sound, you will either need to make the chord progression based around a certain mode, or use phrases in your melodies that emphasize a specific tonal center or modal characteristic (taregting specific half steps). More on this in "Modes Pt. 2 When to Use each Mode."
Now, again let's say you are going to play a melody over this same chord progression:
C Major- D Minor - G Major - F Major.
This time, you decide that you want to use the modes to play phrases over each individual chord. Ultimately, what you are doing is putting emphasis on each individual chord to make it its own tonal center. This is how you can begin to give each chord (and ultimately the entire progression) a unique sound. When choosing what mode to use, you can use any notes from any key as long as the mode uses the same tonal center as the chord you are soloing over. With this in mind, it is important to note that the modes are made to work best with a certain chord (i.e. major or minor). So although you can use any mode, there are some modes which are better suited for certain chords. For example, you would not choose to play a C major scale over a C minor chord. Why? Because the notes would clash and sound bad (in this case the major and minor 3rds).
Ionian (Major) - Major type
Dorian - Minor type
Phrygian - Minor type
Lydian - Major type
Mixolydian - Major type
Aeolian (Minor) - Minor type
Locrian - Diminished type
I will discuss the topic of why these modes are major or minor more specifically in Modes Pt.2 (you can download the free 10 page printable pdf. by signing up for my free newsletter here).
So for the above example, here are some modes that you might choose when playing a melody over the chords:
1. C Major (Using only modes from C major):
C Major (C Ionian Mode)- D Minor (D Dorian Mode) - G Major (G Mixolydian Mode) - F Major (F Lydian Mode).
2. C Major (Including modes which use notes from other keys):
C Major (C Lydian Mode)- D Minor (D Dorian Mode) - G Major (G Lydian Mode) - F Major (F Ionian Mode).
Notice that the more modes you use from other keys, the more unique sound it will give the progression that you are playing the melody over.
Adding More Options to Your Playing with Modes
Now I am going to discuss using modes in order to give yourself more options in your playing. Let's use the chord C major as the chord we will be playing over. The C major chord contains the notes C E G, and if we are using the C major scale, we can also use the notes D F A B as non chord tones (notes not used in the spelling of the chord) to create tension when playing a melody over this chord. By using modes, we gain more non chord tones that we can use to create different moods and feelings. For example, when we are making a melody to play over a C major chord, we can play the C major scale, or we can also use the notes from C Lydian, or C Mixolydian. These modes both use "C" as the central note, and both contain the same chord tones as the C major chord (C E G).
Here are the notes of C Lydian and C Mixolydian-
C Lydian: C D E F# G A B
C Lydian contains the non chord tones of D F# A B. C Lydian is the 4th mode from the parent scale of G major.
C Mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb
C Mixolydian contains the non chord tones of D F A Bb. C Mixolydian is the 5th mode from the parent scale of F major.
So if we take the C major, C Lydian, and C Mixolydian scales, that gives us the following non chord tones to choose from when we play over a C major chord:
D F F# A B Bb
As an exercise, try this:
1) Record a yourself playing the C major chord for a minute or so.
2) After recording, improvise slowly over this chord by using either C Lydian, or C Mixolydian. Then, try using a mix of C Lydian, C Mixolydian, and C major. Can you see how this increases your options for creating a new feel in the music?
Keep in mind that this concept can be used with any key/ parent scale. There are even more possibilities that you can find by using the minor key modes. I'm going to stop here for this lesson. In Modes Pt.2, I will talk more about understanding modes, good chords to use for each mode, and how to use them to create different feels in your music. You can download the free 10 page printable pdf. on "Modes Pt.2 When to Use each Mode" (and this lesson) by signing up here.
(C) 2010 Ysrafel