The Modes Made Simple

Are you confused about modes? So is everyone! There seems to be a whole industry built around mystifying even the most experienced guitar players.

The Modes Made Simple
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Comrades!Are you confused about modes? So is everyone! There seems to be a whole industry built around mystifying even the most experienced guitar players. Check it out hopefully I can clear it up for you. I recorded a quick video with an explanation:
For those of you who prefer to read instead of watch, here's how it works:Simply put, a mode is a variation of a scale. We can get a lot of information from them, and use them in many ways, but today, we'll be concentrating on the framework that you need to get up and running. By the way why should you care? Modes are a great way of finding any note in any key meaning blazin' world ruling guitar solos at the drop of a hat. (And other stuff, too.)There are 12 different notes in the system of western music. Seven of these fall on the white keys on a piano (A-B-C-D-E-F-G) and the other five are the black keys sharps and flats.The scale we'll be using today is the C major scale. If I played just the white keys on the piano, starting on C, I'd end up with this scale. Here's what it looks like on the guitar:
Now, since these notes occur in other places on the guitar, let's say I want to play a bit higher up on the neck. If I move the same shape up two frets to D at the 10th fret, and play it, I run into a problem.I'd be hitting an F# on the 14th fret/6th string, and a C# at the 11th fret/4th string. Remember, there's no sharps or flats in the C major scale, so I need to modify the shape to fit. I arrive at the handy dandy rule:To play the same scale at a different place, I need to use a different shape.This second shape, starting on the note D, but playing all the notes in the C major scale, is called the second mode of C. It also has a technical name D Dorian. It looks like this:
There are seven notes in the major scale, and therefore, seven variations or modes of the scale. Each one of these has a funky cool Greek name. They are as follows:

Ionian (major scale)

Dorian
Phyrgian
Lydian
Mixolydian
Aeolian
Locrian

Here's a fun way to remember the order of the modes. If we take the first letter for each word, and make a sentence out of it, we get:

I Don't Particularly Like Modes A Lot

I think once you start shredding them, you'll disagree. Still, it's a funny way to keep 'em in mind. Let me know if you have any questions I'm always glad to help. Drop me an email at josh@joshurban.com or say hello on Facebook.

We'll get to more theory and detail in the next lesson, but for now, have fun shredding these shapes!









Josh Urban is a guitarist, songwriter, teacher, and self-proclaimed leader of the humorous Revolution to Overthrow Bad Music. His father accidentally dropped a cowbell on his head as a wee lad, so he feels a special connection to Don't Fear The Reaper and the iconic the only prescription is more cowbell line. Friend him on Facebook he's a networking fanatic. www.facebook.com/officialjosh or www.joshurban.com

Copyright Josh Urban 2012, All Rights Reserved.

69 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Theophillis
    The secret to using and understanding modes lies in chord progressions and using the mode to improvise over it.... eg to understand D Dorian, play one bar of the Dm chord followed by one bar of the G major chord. Then improvise using D dorian over this. This is a modal harmony that doesn't quite fit the Natural Minor scale, and definitely doesn't fit the major scale. To use G mixolydian, play one bar of the G major chord followed by one bar of the F major chord, and cycle between the two. Then use G mixolydian to improvise over this. These techniques will train your ear, apply the scale, and improve phrasing all in one, and is more relevant to teaching how the modes sound, which is a little more important (but not by much) than knowing the theory behind them.
    AlanHB
    northbeach wrote: I just realized I've been using modes for a good year and a half now, all without learning it and without knowing what it was, I've just found them by myself happy day
    Look what you've done Josh Urban. I hope you're happy!
    Colohue
    When I tried to tackle this particular problem, the place I had to start was in dispelling popular myth, which is basically the myth presented here. Now you know your stuff Josh. I know this. I know you'd eventually get there, but you haven't alluded to eventually getting there, and in doing so you've managed to alienate the people who are already there. What you've got to understand is that misinformation is the biggest problem when it comes to modes. I'm well known for coming into these articles and blasting people. It made me very unpopular and, in my absence (I used to get there first) the mod team are doing what they can to avoid misinformation. You know music, Josh. Look a little deeper. Show people what they need instead of what they want, or you won't be helping any.
    Geldin
    None of this is modal. This is all tonic theory. Modes are completely separate from tonic theory, though you can relate the two. The rules of proper modality are very strict and structured.
    AlanHB
    ^ This lesson is completely incorrect, and a bad lesson is a bad lesson. Modes have nothing to do with where you play on the fretboard. We have the CAGED system to address things like that.
    pncoutts
    mmmmm, not bad, but there's a lot more to it in the sense of actually USING modes, and that's the point in which everyone gets lost. Essentially, all that was done here was show some fingerings... There are still other fingerings and an explanation on actual modal harmony would've been useful.
    AlanHB
    If anyone is truly lost as to why this article is incorrect, or would like to learn some theory, feel free to pass by the Musicians Talk forum where theory is discussed all day, every day.
    Hydra150
    Right, now I'm pissed off. On that Youtube video someone commented asking how they sound different if they have the same notes. Fair question as all he had basically taught was some different shapes for the C major scale. I replied and answered his question, typing a response that was four full comments long (because there is a 500 character limit on YouTube), explaining a bit about tonal centres, accidentals and alluding to the actual uses of modes and pointing out that this video expounded the confusion/myths that it set out to set straight by providing no musical context or ways to practice this concept to understand the sound. I check the video again to find that my four posts and the initial question have been deleted. WTF, Josh? Can't take criticism? Dont be a dick, Josh. I feel sorry for the guy who asked the question in the comments, now he is left with your lofty metaphor about racing over a hill rather than my answer which I feel actually addressed his question.
    AlanHB
    ^ Nope your article just tells us how to use the C major scale and nothing more.
    Myshadow46_2
    WTF! You are a teacher and you teach players that modes are shapes. Good job; you shouldn't be a teacher.
    kratos379
    I liked Tom Colohue's lessons. I got a pretty good understanding from them. Just look them up. They're on this site.
    AlanHB
    JoshUrban wrote: What's the best way that you've seen modes explained? What made it click for you?
    Luckily I only encountered modes for the first time after I had a firm grasp on keys and harmonisation. When I was introduced to them, it was in a similar fashion to your article and I immediately asked "isn't that just the C major scale?". If I didn't have the pre-requisite knowledge beforehand to be able to ask this question, I'd just go off and play the C major scale and then call it a mode, which is what a lot of people on the internet seem to do, and what some people will now do because you've put this article up.
    Metal_Master_0
    Why do people insist on putting the terms 'beginner' and 'modes' in the same sentence? The two just don't mix! Essentially what you are teaching people here are seven different scales. If Ionian was a mode, then why is it just another name for the major scale? Modes require a tonal center, you can't just razzle-dazzle them out. I'd go into detail, but I'm not writing an article.
    SilverSpurs616
    This seems like yet another article that misinforms people that modes are "like scales, but moved up a bit". It's articles and lessons like this that kept me confused for years. Sure, this is only an introduction but it's also a wildly inaccurate one that gives people the wrong impression about modes.
    Hydra150
    Seriously, I may have criticized the way you were presenting the information but I wasn't disrespectful. Deleting the words of someone expressing their views, while helping out someone who asked for help, is nothing but disrespectful.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Simply put, a mode is a variation of a scale
    Umm...no, it's not. The modes are meant to be used modally. They are not scales, as scales belong in the TONAL realm.
    AlanHB
    ^ Half way there, but no, there's more to it than that. If you applied the same rules of harmony as a key to this, derived whatever chords you wish, chances are you're just going to end up with a song in D minor, and it will be in the key of D minor, not the mode of D dorian. This is because modes are a different form of tonality from keys. If this doesn't make sense, it's because it's not a "simple" topic, by any stretch of the imagination. So why are modes "so alien compared to major or minor"? Well it's because they're not major or minor. Now there are applications of modes to songs in keys, but that's a little different, and still not what this article is explaining. An understanding of everything is required to really "get it", and most people skimp and are left with incorrect knowledge.
    JoshUrban
    Woah, fellas! Sure, sure, modes are super deep - we'll get there! This is for guys who don't even bother to touch them. Obviously, you folks understand the topic already. I've found that people need to get information in a series of steps. This is step one of a topic that obviously has many, many more, and is a small slice of a much bigger picture. But, don't just comment - inform the interwebs! What's the best way that you've seen modes explained? What made it click for you?
    shreddymcshred
    The responses here are too critical. This is an introductory lesson meant to get the feet wet. Hopefully the author will deal with application in the following lesson(s). A topic this broad cannot be completed in one article alone.
    The jazz Man
    Yeah but what's the point of this? You use certain modes for certain flavourings a lot of the time and to get you out of the one simple box position. Not to emulate the same scale over and over otherwise all solos/melodies would sound the same in your chosen key. (A minor in this case). ...."you want to go home and rethink your life"
    steven seagull
    that's just it though, they AREN'T "scales that are formed from other scales", they're scales in their own right.
    Theophillis
    I think this does a good job of explaining what modes actually are. They are not scales in the traditional sense, but scales that are formed from other scales. The way they're explained here leads on to the next step of forming modes from Harmonic Minor and Jazz Melodic Minor scales. The actual use of them isn't covered, but as a step one, it's effective, and can be extrapolated onto other types of scale, such as those mentioned above, and six and eight note based scales. What made them click for me was recognising songs that are modal, such as Sympathy For The Devil (E Mixolydian, if my memory serves), and then using the mode to improvise over them. That's how I recognised the tonality of the mode, and started to treat it as a viable harmonic structure in it's own right, rather than as an inversion of it's parent major scale.
    steven seagull
    the problem is that all the information you've provided is pretty much irrelevant without context, it's the exact same misinformation that you say you're trying to dispel in your first sentence. Where you start playing from, the order you play things in, the shape you use - all those things are completely irrelevant to modes, there's no point bringing those factors into the discussion and it's certainly not the place to start. Part of the problem is you can't really make modes "simple", because you need to have a certain amount of underpinning knowledge before they'll sense - you can only simplify matters so far.
    Theophillis
    that's just it though, they AREN'T "scales that are formed from other scales", they're scales in their own right.
    This is incorrect. They are other note arrangements that arise out of a parent scale. That's why the term 'relative scale' and 'mode' is used instead of just 'scale'. They have their own harmonic structures and the chord functions are different (which may be what you mean by referring to them as scales in their own right), but they ARE essentially inversions of a parent scale. The story cannot be left there though, as they cannot be used in the context of a parent scale. The tonality of the mode needs to be explored, and the ear trained to recognise them, and reference to the C tonic when using G Mixolydian (for example) is confusing and does nothing to help modal education. But they ARE scales formed from other scales, which is why we have modes from Melodic and Harmonic minor, and from other six and eight tone scales.
    rockingamer2
    Wow, this lesson is bad. The material presented is given without the context that is required when talking about modes. It might be an intro, but it gives no hints at the bigger picture, just like almost all other lessons on modes that, like he ironically mentioned at the beginning, only serve to confuse and spread misinformation.
    crazysam23_Atax
    Bardolomeus wrote: Oh, uh, wait, so if modes do not belong in the TONAL realm, then they do belong in the ATONAL realm? Or is it not so oppositional?
    Here's how it works. There's two "types" (or loosely, "realms") when it comes to music. There's modal music, which ONLY uses notes from a certain mode. Then there's tonal music, which generally assumes a key (for example, Aminor) and also allows "color notes" that are outside the key. It's quite frankly a misnomer to equate modes to the major or minor (or whatever other) scales. The modes =/= (whatever scale).
    vIsIbleNoIsE
    as someone who has a good grasp of the tonal, but never bothered formally studying modal, i can't help but find all this "holy crap you're teaching it wrong," "modes are difficult and mysterious" hubbub absolutely unhelpful and rather discouraging. i see how this lesson can be misleading, since all it does is say to play the scale starting from a different note/position, but it is addressed to beginners and the nature of beginner's lessons is often to show first without explaining. i mean, are modes not just a collection of keys, just as in regular major or minor, but with possibly different tonics? is that not rather simple, once you realize what major and minor are in relation to all the 12 keys (a group of 7 with a tonic)? please correct me. let's keep it simple!
    Theophillis
    spoonxxx wrote: sorry link was that http://www.myguitarworkshop.com/guitar_l... tion_soloing/how_to_solo_with_modes.aspx
    I see what you're doing from a chord/scale point of view, but firstly, the tonality of each mode needs to be developed before you take this step. Firstly, concentrate on the C major chord progressions. Then the C dorian chord progression, the C mixolydian, and so on until the tonality and 'feel' of each separate mode is established. This is truly the best way of establishing ear recognition... that of using the same tonic with the different modes. After that, the chord/scale idea can be used, where the minor7/dorian link can be established, and then ignored (if the person wishes) in favour of phrygian, or aeolian, or whatever scale will fit over said chord.
    Skuzzmo
    So, does anybody understand modes or is it just a mysterious phenomenon that people like to pretend to understand? Srsly, i look at these lessons and then read the comments and i'm left so confused I don't know who's talking bollocks. Would someone like to point me in the right direction for a credible modes lesson.
    Theophillis
    vIsIbleNoIsE wrote: Theophillis wrote: In short, chord I in D dorian is D minor/Dm7. This is not the same as the tonic chord in C major, which is C. so...same key signature (set of seven keys), different tonic/tonal center. every chord you could possibly form in D dorian can be formed in C major. D dorian's x degree chord is C major's x + 1 degree chord. i still don't see why anyone should view modes as something so alien compared to major and minor. not much else to it...right?
    Part of the full answer lies in cadences. When we have a perfect cadence in a minor key, we usually use the major V chord instead of the minor v (which is diatonically correct). This results in a use and development of the harmonic minor scale, and is a slight difference in the minor tonality. We can apply the same major V to minor i chord progression in Dorian, resulting in a major 7th interval. This leads to a use of melodic minor in conjunction with Dorian. The thing people tend to forget when using modes is that the sound of the mode is king. They are different from a straight forward minor or major tonality, and can be listed darkest to lightest sounding as Locrian, Phrygian, Aeolian (Natural Minor), Dorian, Mixolydian, Ionian (Major scale), and Lydian. A IV-I progression in Dorian is Major to minor. A IV-I in Aeolian is minor to minor. A IV-I in Locrian is minor to diminished..... so the rules of harmony result in a very different sound. Also, the realisation can be forgotten that theory exists attempt to explain a real world event. Therefore, the sound is whats important, and it can be easy to get bogged down in explanations, and blues with it's dominant chord structures tends to defy a lot of these rules. But when modal theory is applied to more exotic sounding scales, it results in some very useful tools indeed. Some of the Harmonic minor modes are quirky and interesting.
    oldscroat.world
    As this post is over three years old I'm sure you have grown up just enough to realize that major and minor scales are also modes. If you think really hard for a few minutes you might have a eureka experience when you realize how they are used over a chord structure. Open your eyes now, and no crying when you discover what a fool you have been!
    Theophillis
    AlanHB wrote: ^ Half way there, but no, there's more to it than that. If you applied the same rules of harmony as a key to this, derived whatever chords you wish, chances are you're just going to end up with a song in D minor, and it will be in the key of D minor, not the mode of D dorian. This is because modes are a different form of tonality from keys. If this doesn't make sense, it's because it's not a "simple" topic, by any stretch of the imagination. So why are modes "so alien compared to major or minor"? Well it's because they're not major or minor. Now there are applications of modes to songs in keys, but that's a little different, and still not what this article is explaining. An understanding of everything is required to really "get it", and most people skimp and are left with incorrect knowledge.
    I couldn't agree more.
    shreddymcshred
    Bardolomeus wrote: Oh, uh, wait, so if modes do not belong in the TONAL realm, then they do belong in the ATONAL realm? Or is it not so oppositional? I guess not.
    Atonality is a misnomer, and is usually meant to mean an abandonment of functional harmony rather than a foil to tonality
    steven seagull
    wow, this lesson is terrible. I'm honestly gutted about that as I think that the Crusade articles are excellent, but this really is wide of the mark and simply incorrect.
    njm74
    I agree with you. You have to learn the shapes first. Then learn to apply them and which to use in the context of a song. That's the tricky part.
    Hydra150
    Skuzzmo wrote: So, does anybody understand modes or is it just a mysterious phenomenon that people like to pretend to understand? Srsly, i look at these lessons and then read the comments and i'm left so confused I don't know who's talking bollocks. Would someone like to point me in the right direction for a credible modes lesson.
    There is a Modes Sticky in the Musician Talk subforum. There is also a general Music Theory sticky if thats is a bit beyond your level. These two posts explain how they are formed; http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/forum/showpost.php?p =20025979&postcount=33 http://www.ultimate-guitar.com/forum /showpost.php?p=20025990&postcount=34 This video may interest you, it highlights the different character of the notes in the modes;
    The most important thing is not to worry about them. A solid understanding of major and minor keys, an understanding of intervals and the sounds of different accidentals and an understanding of harmony/how chords are formed and relate are all far more important things to learn and should come first. If you know tonal theory well then you will be able to create any sounds that may be considered 'modal'.
    nickthetoolman
    Excellent video. It explains further what Josh Urban communicated in his video, but they basically said the same thing.
    JoshUrban
    Hey man, just answered your comment. I'll be glad to talk, and we'll get on the same page, brothaman! Drop me a PM on YouTube. No hard feelings, buddy, and great solo on the vid! I want to keep anything from me very consistent, and that includes the comments on my videos. You obviously have an idea about how things should be done. That's great, and I encourage you to record your own vid about the topic. Let me know when the link is up, and I'll be the first to watch it!
    northbeach
    I just realized I've been using modes for a good year and a half now, all without learning it and without knowing what it was, I've just found them by myself happy day
    Hydra150
    njm74 wrote: I agree with you. You have to learn the shapes first. Then learn to apply them and which to use in the context of a song. That's the tricky part.
    No. You can play all 7 diatonic modes using any one shape. It's about the tonal centre, and how the other notes relate to the tonal centre, not about the shapes you contort your fingers into.
    nickthetoolman
    Hey Josh. You really took the mystery out of modes for me. I've always understood how this work, it's just I didn't know the fancy names. Your explanation helps a lot. Thanks.
    mjhow101@yahoo
    This a cool introduction into modes,If you play these shapes long enough and remember your root(key)note not alot can go wrong.Yep learn the shapes and Practice Practice Practice!!!
    rockgodman
    ^Yea that's completely wrong. Tonal music is any music with a key center. Modes are absolutely part of tonal music. Atonal music is music that lacks a key center, which probably no one here listens to. Also absolutely can you play "color notes" when playing modes. Passing and neighbor tones are still defined as such no matter what scale you play. Modes are used all the time in songs where the key centers' chord is based on the major scale. You cannot just separate modes from music where major scales are played because they are used in the same songs all the time
    dumbface12
    mjhow101@yahoo wrote: This a cool introduction into modes,If you play these shapes long enough and remember your root(key)note not alot can go wrong.Yep learn the shapes and Practice Practice Practice!!!
    I hope you're being sarcastic. Considering the words key and modes should never be in the same sentence.