The Trouble With Modes

A lesson on the proper use of modes as they apply to modern music, and on some of the widespread misconceptions about the use of modes.

Ultimate Guitar


Mode, or Modal Scale: a seven note scale based on the major scale (aka the Ionian mode), in which one or more notes have been altered by one semitone in either direction. The natural minor scale is technically a mode of the major scale (Aeolian), but is considered to be just as musically useful as the major scale. Modes that have many notes in common with the minor scale are often described in relation to the minor scale. This means you could describe the Phrygian mode as either a major scale with a flatted second, third, sixth and seventh, or as a minor scale with a flatted second.

Modal Misconceptions

There is a huge misconception here on UG: That the method of deriving major scale modes by starting the scale on a different degree will yield scales with different root notes and scale patterns that will "magically" work over the original key, and allow the player to use seven entirely different scales over the same music. This is usually put forth by people who have read about music theory regarding modes, but don't test its practical application in real-world music situations. The fact that modes can be derived by re-ordering the notes of any major scale is pretty cool, but it's just a mathematical coincidence brought on by the fact that the notes repeat to infinity. You can technically derive modes from any scale, since it's just a pattern chosen from repeating notes. You could theoretically find the modes of a modal scale, if you wanted to. Modes are simply new scales derived by changing the tonic (root note) in any given scale. The standard modes are the ones derived from the Major Scale. If you derive C# Aeolian from the E major scale, it does not mean that C# Aeolian can be played over E major progressions. It means that you've built a C# minor scale, and are now playing in C# minor. I cannot stress enough that modal scales are their own separate scales, and are not tied to the key of the scale they were derived from, and are certainly not in the same key as the scale they were derived from. In reality, true modal music is rare, hard to write, and doesn't offer much flexibility to the composer before they have to step outside the boundaries of modal music, or risk introducing really harsh dissonance and tension to parts of their music. Modal music requires that, without exception, all notes played in a piece are taken from a modal scale, and nowhere else. This includes notes played in the chords under the melody, all passing tones, lead-ins, etc Let's go into some detail What we always see in the Musician Talk section of UG is the following: Q: I have chords in E major. What scales/modes can I use over these chords? A: Well, you could use E major, F# Dorian, G# Phrygian, A Lydian, B Mixolydian, C# Aeolian, or D# Locrian. This is incorrect. These scales all contain the exact same notes. Played on their own, they are real scales in their own key, but what people are always asking is what scales to play overtop of other music. This is where context becomes important, and this is where modes lose a lot of their perceived functionality. No matter what way you slice it, if the band is playing in E major, you playing the notes E F# G# A B C# D# overtop of it will always, always, always be heard as an E major scale. Re-ordering the notes into a modal scale will simply sound like you've re-ordered the E major scale, and are still playing it, but now you're notes don't resolve anywhere, and sound unrelated to the what rest of the band is playing. What some people in the forum try to put forward, and what I have argued for in the past myself, is that you could, in a roundabout way, use a fingering pattern based on the intervals of a derived modal scale (ie: C# minor played over E major). The notes are the same, after all. But a scale is only given a name based on the order in which you play the notes, and the key you are playing in is determined by what the whole band is playing as their root. Logically, there should be no need to think of a different scale other than the one you are in, regardless of what pattern you are playing. So let's see a few examples. We'll have a theoretical band playing a progression in E major. The common misconception is that you can pick any mode derived from the original key (ie: C# Aeolian is the relative minor of E major, aka the sixth mode of E major) and play that mode over the original progression. But if you are playing notes of the E major scale, starting from C# and finishing on C#, it will just sound like totally improper use of the E major scale, because the band is obviously playing the key of E major. It is certainly possible to choose fingering patterns that are based on what you would play for a modal scale, but the notes that will sound strongest to the listeners are still the ones the band is emphasizing (ie: the root, fourth and fifth chords of E major). If you are constantly trying to tie everything to a C# note instead, the audience will hear a solo that only sounds like it fits for a few notes at a time, and it will lack resolution, as the band keeps resolving to something in E major, and you keep focusing on C# and playing minor intervals from the C#. This raises another problem - if the band is playing minor intervals between some scale degrees, and you are playing major ones, even if some of the notes harmonize some of the time, it's going to sound like someone is lost, or has forgotten their part completely. If you are attempting to play a minor scale over a major key, you will end up with a situation like this: The band is going from, let's say, the fifth to the sixth degree of the scale within a bar of music. In E major, that would be going from a B chord to a C#m chord. If you are playing in C# minor for the solo, and you want to follow with the band, your fifth in C# would be G#, and with your minor scale pattern, you'd be going to the A as your sixth. So the band plays their V chord, and you play your fifth note of C#, (a G#, which sounds to the band like a major third). Then you've got the band moving by a whole step to their vi chord, and you're moving by half a step (which in itself often makes it seem like someone screwed up), and then landing on a note (A) that the band regards as their perfect 4th, but you regard as your minor sixth. Even in the rare instance that a cool harmony shows up in these situations, you still end up with a group of musicians doing different moves in different keys, and chaos will ensue pretty quickly. The best use of modes is to add accidentals to spice up the key you're already in. For example, adding a #4 to a major scale melody played over major chords in the same key (ie: an A major scale with a Lydian-esque #4, played over an A major progression), will add what people commonly refer to as a "modal" sound to the melody. But the reality is that it's more of a "major-scale-with-an-added-note" sound than it is a "Lydian" sound or a "modal" sound. A few other notes on this topic use the altered notes as lead-ins, passing notes, or some other kind of flourish, but not as your main notes. Playing Dorian doesn't mean that you focus on the major 6th more than the other notes... it just means that within your minor scale, when it comes time to play the sixth, you're making it major instead of the usual minor.

Modes In (And As) Chord Progressions

Another thing I'd like to address is the following... people often ask "is there a way to create complex chord progressions that work flawlessly with a lead part played in a modal scale?" The answer is not really. You would need to alter one of the main notes in three of your triads (and four of your chords if you're using sevenths) just to use a mode with one altered note. It's one thing to alter a seventh, or even a third, but having to change the root note or the fifth of a chord can really mess things up. In short, trying to include the mode itself in the chords is a fool's errand most of the time. A simple example would be the Phrygian mode... it has a flat (or minor) second. If you try to play the V chord in the (hypothetical) key of E minor Phrygian, it will sound like you made a mistake, because the root note is too dissonant with its own fifth (which is now F, not F#), since that fifth had to be altered to fit the Phrygian formula. It would also cause your diminished second chord to become a major chord instead, and your VII chord, normally major, would become minor. What about Lydian? That #4 might sound good in the solo, but if you build it into a chord progression, it creates a IV chord that clashes with the I and the V chords, and which clashes with its own fifth. This will force you to avoid the IV chord most of the time. Also, the ii chord would become a II (major) chord in a Lydian progression and the diminished chord on the seventh degree would become a minor chord. Now, it appears that some of these newly created chords are pretty standard; just majors instead of minors most of the time. But the chords cease to function properly within the key when we alter them with modes. You always end up with at least one diminished chord that sounds way out of place, and the newly formed chords which appear standard will still sound a little out of place, like they don't reinforce the chord that preceded them, and they don't properly imply the chord that will follow. I guess you could say they'll sound half wrong.

Well Then What The Hell Good Are These Modes, Anyways?

So how do you actually use modes? It seems like I've just spent several pages explaining their limited application... what you do to use modes is to not even think about them at first. Don't set out to write a modal solo. When the band plays a chord progression, just play along in the right scale. As you play, listen to the notes you are playing and how they interact with the band's notes. If the band plays in a major key, I would recommend trying to throw in an accidental based off one of the more "major-sounding" modes, such as Lydian (major scale w/ #4) or Mixolydian (major scale w/ b7). There is no universal, fail-safe "use-the-note-here-and-not-there" rule. The best way to test out the usefulness of a modal note in any musical situation is to just substitute it in. First, play a melody using the normal major or minor scales. To try something modal, simply replace one of your notes you just played with its modal alteration. If you played a major scale, turn the 4th into a #4 and see how that sounds. Don't overuse the modal notes either sometimes the modal note will only work one time in one place in the whole progression. Remember to think of it bar-by-bar... just because the #4 works in one bar doesn't mean that the regular 4th won't work in the next one. Or you could even do a 4th-to-#4 hammer/pull-off lick. Long story short: Experiment! A few other quick notes... the Locrian (minor scale w/ b2 and b5) mode is by far the least applicable mode in most music. Due to its diminished fifth, it is considered too dissonant to use in most situations. The modes that work best when applied to minor keys are Phrygian (minor scale w/ b2) and Dorian (minor scale w/ #6). For major keys, start with Lydian and Mixolydian. To conclude, the best use of modes is to add accidentals that can be theorized as "modal notes" to your standard major and minor scales. I will emphasize again that modes are not a magical musical tool to allow you to play out of key and still sound perfect, and that reordering the same scale notes over a constant progression will still yield the same scale. It's only called a mode and/or modal music if you're in the key of that mode already, and are using only the notes from that mode. So what I recommend for you budding theory experts is to learn about intervals, and then learn the interval patterns of the modal scales. This will help you to understand how and where to add these mysterious "modal notes" to create rich harmonies and sounds. And above all, remember that if something sounds good, it IS good. By Tom LeBlanc (aka FrigginJerk)

37 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Cmd. Cool
    Very good and well explained article. I feel perhaps you could have included the use of modes in chord progressions that do not start in the tonic of the key they're in; for example the chord progression D major, C major and G major is in G, but a D mixolydian would work wonderfully over it.
    Ok uhh frigginjerk you confused me, in your article you said you dont ever play the other modes when you play in the key of E, how can that be true? How would a soloist be able to travel around the fretboard then, but if he were to land on the resolving note with the resolving chord it would work wouldnt it?
    The_String_Man wrote: great read, gave me tips on soloing. so for example your playing strictly in the key of F minor, could you throw in some notes in the F major scale,say an A note ?
    you could do that, but it wouldn't be modal... you'd be adding a major third, which is more like borrowing from the parallel major key, rather than using a mode. Most modes don't alter the third, because it's such an important interval in determining the major-ness or minor-ness of a scale. In F minor, I would try a major sixth or major seventh if you're looking to make it a bit more modal.
    Hm...just starting out on theory, it took a couple of reads to get the gist of it, but once I did get it, it was good. If it wasn't for this article, I would've fallen for it too.
    frigginjerk wrote: In F minor, I would try a major sixth or major seventh if you're looking to make it a bit more modal.
    whoops, i mean try a major sixth or a flat second. major seventh would be harmonic minor, which is a whole other story.
    The article is helpful in redressing certain points of misinformation on modal theory, but I disagree with the insistance on avoiding playing a derived mode over its tonic scale. Poly-modal music. and poly-modal chromaticism as pioneered by Bartok, is an incredibly interesting path to take with regards to music theory, and as his article to an extent alluded to semi-advanced theory, I think it puts the readers who can fully comprehend this at a defecit not to further elaborate on modal theory.
    PoopChute: what you're describing is just a regular solo... if the music is in E, you can play an E scale anywhere on the neck all you want... and always resolve to an E... This is because the music underneath will definitely be pulling towards an E resolution, and if your solo doesn't follow it to E or some strong harmony with E, then it will sound like the soloist has missed his cue. Modal scales are not fretboard positions... they are just a note substitution within a scale. You still can't play an F# phrygian scale over the key of E and expect it to sound good of course SpeedCacophony: what i'm emphasizing in my article is that it's a misconception to think that the standard, modern application of modal theory to western music is not to just play a scale with a root note different than the key and call it modal. Progressive music will always defy the rules, and do so on purpose, and often in brilliant form... but the problem we see on UG is that the kids hear Steve Vai and Satch playing these crazy-melodic riffs, and in interviews, they usually just refer to it as being modal... they don't explain that they are subbing in an accidental, borrowed from a parallel modal scale to the key they're already in. then when the kids first look up "modes" on the internet, what do you suppose the first thing they see is? it's somebody writing out the different modes of the C major scale, and they misinterpret that exercise as being the magical key to the kingdom, so to speak... you can learn these modes and then play them just as they scale pattern appears, but still over the tonic key, and it will automatically sound good. so they try it, and it does NOT sound good to them, so they come to UG and make a thread, and then a bunch of other misinformed folks will back up the misconception. so my article wasn't really aimed at the more advanced theory geeks... though I'm glad some of them are reading it. Emo-Slayer: modal vamps are a cool subject, but what i've tried to do is dispell the idea that you can create regular 7-chord keys by harmonizing a modal scale into triads, and that this is something that happens all the time. Most modal vamps are only a chord-or two, or several carefully chosen altered grips of those two chords, so as to comply with the requirements for true modal music.
    Wow, that was a great read. You're right, it amazes me just how little people actually know about scales and modes. I choose to approach melody and harmony from a chord-tone standpoint. I feel that, if you take the idea that triads are made from every other scale degree and flip it so that you look at it as though scales are constructed by placing tones between each chord tone, it helps with note identification when playing (although you still have to know your scales first). Plus, that way you can get a line to "fit" all the important chord tones while still sounding modal. For instance, if you are in C7, you can still hit the E and Bb as chordal tones, but use an F# or an Ab when negotiating melody. Of course... used tactfully.
    The_String_Man wrote: great read, gave me tips on soloing. so for example your playing strictly in the key of F minor, could you throw in some notes in the F major scale,say an A note ?
    No, not really. You could play G# major, because it's the relative minor. Depending on what the other guitarist/mbass player is playing you could also maybe get away with F Dorian. If you're the only guitarist and the bass layer is just pumping out an F note, you could play pretty much anything in F minor, even Phrygian or Harmonic Minor (not a mode - a scale in it's own right that has it's own set of modes) or Phrygian dominant or a diminished scale. Depends on the context of the song really.
    Wow, i`ve read a TON of articles on modes, and this is by far the best article about modes, Tom LeBlanc (aka FrigginJerk) for president
    ^ ditto. thank you. this explained the practical use of modes quite well. i have read so many articles about modes and this is the first one that explained their actual uses while playing. thank you again!
    Cymbaline wrote: ummm not much pure modal music? Miles Davis had a series of albums based on modal progressions... check it out... Kind of Blue would be a good place to start
    i know you can use modal notes in progressions to imply modes... but what i was getting at is that some people mistakenly think that all they have to do is harmonize a modal scale into the triads the same way you would for a major scale, and everything will be all good. But i know what you're getting at. another guy in MT wrote an article about how to do stuff like that, and it should be coming soon.
    Well that's nice; the use of modes never made sense to me for pretty much the reasons you said. Thanks for confirming some stuff. Good Article.
    ^ i thought of that, but it's still just re-ordering the scale... if you're in G major, which you are for that progression, playing a D mixolydian scale is really just playing a G scale. D is the fifth of G, and the mixolydian is the fifth mode, so it's tempting to say that D mixolydian works in this case. Because you start on D, it's possible to use a D-based lick to start off the lead melody. but when the music resolves in G, you always have to look at your scale as some kind of G. Yes, it has the notes of D mixolydian, but those are the same notes as G major, and your music is in G major. i guess i'm saying that it works because it's the same scale, and you're resolving to G, or to D in the context that it's the dominant chord of G major.
    Dear god... O_O This is why I normaly don't bother with set scales, modes etc... I just play something I think sounds good and only occasionaly check to see if I'm in key when I get stuck. I still don't stick to it though.
    man this is confusing. But is very helpful nonetheless. I just started learning all this the other day with the circle of 5ths etc. I think I started a bit late seein as I have been playing without this knowledge for 8 years lol But I guess it never did Keith Richards or Sid Vicious any harm
    okay...that's brilliant. Modes have been confusing me for a long time...and I've been looking all over the net...and getting conflicting i finally tried to struggle through it myself...and this proves to be pointing in exactly what I have found I'm going to follow this for sure! thank you very much.
    ummm not much pure modal music? Miles Davis had a series of albums based on modal progressions... check it out... Kind of Blue would be a good place to start
    good and very well written! compared to other articles bout modes ...its crystal clear (at least before messing with examples)
    this is a giant example of tl;dr. modes are boring imo, and they don't get more interesting with time.
    great read, gave me tips on soloing. so for example your playing strictly in the key of F minor, could you throw in some notes in the F major scale,say an A note ?
    most of the modal misconceptions that you talk about are because modes are taught the wrong way. deriving them from other major scales. you should always derive your modes from the major/minor scale of the key you are playing in. ie: know that D dorian is simply Dminor with a #6 and not referring it to an enharmonic scale. at least thats what we were told when i was studying music
    drunken ninja
    wow, very insightful article. probably the most helpful i've come across here. great job, looking forward to more
    modes canimpact the music and spice up solos. yes they are the same notes rearranged but it gives a different sound to the piece. Great article.
    but the notes that will sound strongest to the listeners are still the ones the band is emphasizing (ie: the root, fourth and fifth chords of E major).
    over a major chord the 4th is a dissonant tone, it has a slight pull to the 5 and a strong pull to the 3rd. you would want to emphasise chord tones
    hahaha way to rip UG a new one, ****ing theory noobs lol
    Totally useless comment.
    sounded a bit like you were discouraging the use of modes first but you were spot on. good article, definately one of the better "theory" articles.
    gizmodious wrote: hahaha way to rip UG a new one, ****ing theory noobs lol
    and who are you? just another stupid ass guitarist were not gonna need in the world. your just another one of those kids thats gonna learn a few songs, brag to everyone that their self taught, and then quit the guitar after high school. if you wanna go anywhere in music learn theory
    I feel like you could have explained some common applications of modes in much more detail. There are plenty of modal conventions that exist, and are even necessary. For example, any major blues, let's say in G, is going to continuously change mode with each dominant 7 chord. So while the I chord, in this case G7 (or G9), is being played, the band is in G Mixolydian, because of the b7 (F natural) in the chord. Similarly, while the IV(C7) chord is being played, the band is in C Mixolydian, and will be in D Mixolydian over the V(D7) chord. Playing the major scale over any of these chords will clash, as the band will be playing a b7 and you will be playing a natural 7. Unintentional minor seconds don't make friends. In addition, I've found in most jazz contexts that m7 chords, even if they are the tonic, tend to favor Dorian rather than Aeolian. The #6 just got that swing. This isn't a rule, though, just an observation. Also, many a funk bassline has been derived from the Dorian mode. Run for Cover by Marcus Miller, Mr. Pink by Level 42, a bunch of other examples I didn't look up out of laziness. Again, I must refer to how much swing the #6 has. I've even played some tunes in what I call the key of E Funk, where the band freely modulates between E Mixolydian and E Dorian, since the only difference between the two is one has a b3 and one has a natural 3. Metal even has it's moments of modality. anyone who has ever chugged away at 0-1-4-5-4-1-0 in a drop tuning has been playing in a modified Phrygian mode, derived from the harmonic minor scale. Point is, there are starting places for learning modes beyond just throwing in some modifications and seeing what happens. Learn your modified shapes, learn the chord structures of different modes, learn some tunes that use modal harmony, look closely at how the players use the modified tones. Apologies for the massive comment.