A Beginner's Guide to Modes & Their Characteristics

Hey guys. Check out my article on an introduction to modes and their characteristics. Let's stop being scared... Together.

Ultimate Guitar
Since the dawn of time, modes have freaked people out. The pretentious and pompous musicians have used their modal knowledge to look down smugly and dismissively from their pedestal. I'm here to tell you that a mode is nothing more than a scale or family of notes that will work over certain chord progressions and situations. In layman's terms: "Play these notes here and it won't sound s*%t!".

Let's take a look at every mode relative to the key of "C" so that we're only dealing with natural notes (no sharps or flats). I want to look at Ionian and Aeolian first as they are the most common and will help with the learning of the other modes.

Mode 1: Ionian

"C" Ionian: C D E F G A B C (standard MAJOR scale)

Mode 6: Aeolian

"A" Aeolian: A B C D E F G A (standard NATURAL MINOR scale)

Have a play through both of these scales, The reason why I wish to go over these 2 modes first is that you've probably heard or played them many times before. They're the most common of modes we hear in music today and are the main staple for our basic "happy" and "sad" sounding modes. We'll be using both of these "more common sounding" modes, and comparing them to the daunting and more interesting modes, to hear the nuances and characteristics that differentiate them from each other. Let's look at these other 5 modes relative to "C".

Mode 2: Dorian

"D" Dorian: D E F G A B C D (MINOR scale with sharp 6th)

You'll notice the raised 6th in the Dorian scale is a lot more positive sounding than the 6th note of the Aeolian scale.

"D" Aeolian: D E F G A Bb C D

The straight minor 6th from Aeolian is a lot sadder and darker. Below are some references to some Dorian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!

Some Dorian songs:
  • "The Extremist" - Joe Satriani
  • "Whatta Man" - Salt N' Pepa
  • "Mad World" (chorus) - Gary Jules
  • "Classical Gas" (chorus section) - Williams Mason

Mode 3: Phrygian

"E" Phrygian: E F G A B C D E (MINOR scale with flat 2nd)

You'll notice the flat 2nd in the Phrygian scale is a lot more tense and evil sounding than the 2nd note of the Aeolian scale.

"E" Aeolian: E F# G A B C D E

The straight minor 2nd from Aeolian is a lot more neutral and less abrasive. Below are some references to some Phrygian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!

Some Phrygian songs:
  • "Symphony Of Destruction" - Megadeth
  • "Wherever I May Roam" - Metallica
  • "Over the Wall" - Testament

Mode 4: Lydian

"F" Lydian: F G A B C D E F (MAJOR scale with a raised 4th)

You'll notice the raised 4th in the Lydian scale is a lot more tense and somewhat quirky sounding than the 4th note of the Ionian scale.

"F" Ionian: F G A Bb C D E F

The straight major 4th (or perfect 4th) from Ionian sounds a lot more neutral and typical. Below are some references to some Lydian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!

Some Lydian songs:
  • "Curve" - John Petrucci
  • "Flying in a Blue Dream" - Joe Satriani
  • "The Simpsons Theme" - Hans Zimmer
  • "Dreams" - Fleetwood Mac

Mode 5: Mixolydian

"G" Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G (MAJOR scale with a flat 7th AKA dominant 7th)

You'll notice the flat 7th in the Mixolydian scale is a lot more rocking and fist raising then that of the regular major 7th note of the Ionian scale.

"G" Ionian: G A B C D E F# G

The straight major 7th from Ionian sounds a lot more coy and unresolved. The flat or dominant 7th sound from the Mixolydian scale has more of a stadium rock sound and can sometimes also sound Celtic or even a bit Elvish! Below are some references to some Mixolydian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work!
  • "Nothing But a Good Time" - Poison
  • "Glasgow Kiss" - John Petrucci
  • "Sweet Child O' Mine" - Guns N' Roses

Mode 7: Locrian

"B" Locrian: B C D E F G A B (MINOR scale with flat 2nd and flat 5th)

You'll notice the flat 2nd and flat 5th in the Locrian scale sound evil, darker and basically just more gross then that of the regular 2nd and 5th note of the Aeolian scale. Think about all those evil chords or notes (generally flat 5ths) in Metallica and Black Sabbath riffs, then add the semi tonal evilness and tension of the "Jaws" theme.

"B" Aeolian: B C# D E F# G A B

The straight minor 2nd and 5th from Aeolian are obviously less evil and have a more naturally sad sound. Keep in mind that this is the least common or used mode. It's use generally results in pretty yucky sounding riffs and chord progressions. Below are some references to some Locrian songs for you to hear the mode's characteristics at work (gross as they may be)!
  • "Raining Blood" (chorus section 1:39) - Slayer
  • "Painkiller" - Judas Priest
  • "Like a Surgeon" (chorus section) - Ciara
I hope this has got you guys on the right path to begin your modal musical journey. Happy shredding!

By Chris Zoupa

88 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    I like it when lessons use examples of actual songs.
    jannet.brown.71 · Jan 17, 2014 07:07 PM
    jannet.brown.71 · Jan 17, 2014 07:07 PM
    jennifer.ravalo · Jan 18, 2014 09:57 PM
    eva.clark.7524 · Jan 20, 2014 09:28 PM
    ammy11258 · Jan 14, 2014 10:14 PM
    edith.manzella · Jan 16, 2014 10:14 PM
    victoria.hinsha · Jan 21, 2014 04:13 AM
    Call me stupid, or whatever, but i don't understand anything. How is this used, what do chords behind it mean, why are these modes same thing as the one scale, but called differently , i really don't understand the concept of modes, it is something , but it isn't... I can play guitar quite well, but these theoretical things i just can't grasp.
    This, I still don't understand the difference between a mode and scale. The Aeolian and Dorian modes seem to both come from the Minor Scale?
    The problem here is that everyone teaches modes without teaching music theory. There is a parent scale, in this case the major scale used in diatonic harmony. The modes are derived from the parent scale without alteration just as the chords are. In truth there is only the major scale and the sounds you can derive from it by harmonizing each note individually forming the basis of chord structure: Every "mode" listed is the C major scale played over its respective chord. C(Ionian/Major) Dm(Dorian) Em(Phrygian) F(Lydian) G7(Mixolydian) Am(Aeolian/minor) Bdim(Locrian). Without delving into too much theory, the C major scale played over a single chord listed above will result in the modal sound unique to each. Of course there are ways to create chord progressions that will bring out the sound more than others. So you don't need to learn a gazillion scales, just learn your major scales and how they relate to the chords.
    That's true if the song you are playing is in Ionian mode.In reality every mode has a certain chord progression that helps it establish it's sound and it's character. The Ionian mode for example has the infamous I,IV,V,I chord progression that helps it establish it's sound as a "happy" scale.So in C Ionian we have C/F/G/C.Of course you could play Lydian over F and Mixolydian over G,but the overall sound would be that of C Ionian,or as we simply call,C Major. The Phrygian mode however has an entirely different chord progression to establish it's sound as an eastern,mystical scale.It's the I/II/VII/I which in E phrygian would translate into Em,F,Dm,Em.Now E phrygian may have the same notes as C Ionian,but now we think of E as the root,because that's where the music resovles,thus in the previous chord progression Em is the I instead of III.
    It doesn't matter what mode you are using, the theory is derived from the diatonic harmony of the major scale. If you are playing A Dorian mode you are really playing the G major scale and the chords would also relate to the harmonized scale it was derived from. And FWIW, there are no set modal progressions.
    If you are playing A dorian over Am on a chord progression like this G/Am/C D/G then yes. But if the chord progression is resolved around Am,using chords from G major,then you are essentialy playing in A Dorian.At that point A Dorian is not a mode.Is a scale on it's own with it's totally unique sound,despite having the same notes as G Major.
    But the harmony and theory are the same and that first progression you list is derived from G major anyway so I'm not sure what your point is. Just because it sounds different doesn't change the fact that it is still G major. But hey, there are twelve keys, so if you want to learn theory for 84 scales instead of just 12 then go right ahead.
    So by your point Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is in E major,not C# Minor because C# Aeolian has the same notes as E Ionian.And so does every minor song in existance. My point is that you can use modes in two ways. The first one is to use them in order to solo over the corresponding chord in a chord progression. The second is to base entirely your chord changes around the mode you want,in order create a total different sound and feeling. The difference is the tonic and how the song resolves around it.C Major and E phrygian might have the same notes but if I base my chords and melody around C will result in a tottaly different sound than if I use the same notes to base my chords/melody around E.This is why each mode has their own very unique and recognisable sound.Because I can use the same notes to base my songs to a variety of "central points" which in music we call tonic.
    To understand it more try to play with your instrument the following chord progressions in order to hear the differences. C/Em/Am/Dm G7/ Now the next chord your brain wants to hear is C again which means you based your song around C and just have wirtten a song in C Ionian or C major. You can of course use C Ionian,E Phrygian,A Aeolian,D Dorian and G mixolydian to solo over the chords.The song might temporally change mood and sound depending on the chord changes but in the end it will always have the character of C Major. Now try playing this.Same notes,same chords as C major scale,different order. Em/F/Dm/Em Notice how when you play Em again your brain has that "complete" feeling?You just based a Song around E using notes from C Major,thus your song now is in E phrygian.
    Listen to yourselves! This kind of explanation doesn't help anyone, except those who already understand modes, and they don't need any more explaining. The more i read your answers,the less i understand. xD
    Yeah lol,I'll agree with you.Understanding modes doesn't happen overnight and no matter how good a teacher is,it will stil require some effort from your part to grasp the concept. The more you play them and the more you analyse songs,the more you will start understanding them by yourself.There is just way too much information for your mind to grasp just by reading an article.
    thanks a lot for taking the time to write all that BlackRose93. Before reading everything you just said, I sort of thought of modes as 'pointless' because C Ionian and A Aeolian, for example, have the same notes, so i thought it would be fine to just know the C major scale and be done with it. But now I see how resolving to or basing your chord progression on a different chord other than its parent scale's main chord creates a different feel and sound.
    Scales are modes. The Aeolian scale is the minor we use the majority of the time. The Dorian, however, does not come out of the Aeolian. It's an extension of the Ionian. Here's another way I use modes... When I'm playing with a band and I'm given a chord progression I gotta know what mode to use for my leads. If the progression is simply G,B,F,D,G then I know I have to write fills using the mixolydian scale in G. If I played a Gm scale the Bb would clash. Using a BMj wouldn't work because of the F#. You simply have to know the modes in order to be a good player. It separates the men from the boys.
    Every mode is either major or minor sounding.That depends on the 3rd of the mode. C Ionian ,C is the root,E the 3rd=Major 3rd=Major scale D dorian ,D is the root F the 3rd=Minor 3rd=Minor scale E Phrygian ,E is the root,G the 3rd=Minor 3rd=Minor scale F lydian ,F the root,A the 3rd=Major 3rd=Major scale G Mixolydian ,G the root,B the 3rd=Major 3rd=Major scale A Aeolian ,A the root,C the 3rd=Minor 3rd=Minor scale B Locrian,B the root,D the 3rd=Minor 3rd=Minor scale As you can see there is not just one Major or Minor scale.We just call the Ionian the Major and the Aeolian the Minor because those are the ones we use the most.In Jazz music however,Dorian is the default Minor scale most of the time.
    That really cleared up modes for me. I agree with Grarfield, using the song examples was a useful idea.
    Fire_Starter90 · Jan 19, 2014 04:37 AM
    lauren.langton. · Jan 16, 2014 12:43 AM
    I think a big part of the confusion is that modes are all taught relative to the C major scale, i.e. this is C Ionian, this D Dorian, this is E Phrygian. This leads to the " What's the point of having 7 different names for the same group of notes". I now I stumbled over that for years. What broke me out is playing each mode BASED OFF THE SAME ROOT... i.e. C Ionian, C Dorian , C Phrygian. etc.. Once I did this I was able to hear the differences and flavors each mode had to offer based on the intervals within it.
    I think that the "off-one-root" approach and "relative-mode" approach are equally good in assimilating and visualizing the intervallic structure of the modes but more importantly, I think that the part that wasn't introduced and still missing in this first lesson is the discussion of the tonal center and the function, (strengths and weaknesses) of the other notes with respect to the tonal center of a mode. . A working knowledge of modes doesn't end up with something like merely knowing that the C major scale has seven notes - C, D, E, F, G, A, B and that the D Dorian mode and E Phrygian modes have the same 7-notes or chords played with a slightly different orientation. It would be good to show short examples of licks/riffs defining each mode in a modern-day context. Overall, a good video and introductory lesson on modes
    Hi Chris - is there going to be a part 2 to this one? I think that whilst most people can agree on the notes/formula of different modes, a lot of people misunderstand how they are actually used. I "think" what you're going for is using modes to visualise accidentals to the major amd minor scales rather than traditional modal songs but it doesn't come off as very clear within the article.
    My guitar teacher many many years ago taught me the following acronym to remember the order of modes... I Don't Play Like My Aunt Lucy Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aolean, Locrian. Instantly remembered the order.
    "I'm here to tell you that a mode is nothing more than a scale or family of notes that will work over certain chord progressions and situations" That's not entirely accurate. Because in "modal" music, Chord Progressions aren't really a thing. While the C Major scale shares the same intervals as C Ionian, a song in C major is not the same as a song in C Ionian. If I just played a C major chord or a C drone and played the C Ionian mode over it, that will give you the "Ionian" sound. If you change the tonal center (as you do with a chord progression) your harmony will inevitably pull back to the tonic chord and you will lose the modal sound. I suppose that what this lesson is trying to teach is what modes are in simple terms and for that purpose, this is good.
    steven seagull
    Anyone who overstresses the importance of modes, or indeed thinks they "separate the men from the boys" simply doesn't understand them properly.
    Are you saying they're not important?
    They are important, but people overstress modes and forget how important their ears are. You don't need modes to be a great player, you need good ears.
    There is a difference between natural minor and modal minor when you are dealing with harmony. But this was a great lesson. Kudos to Chris for getting everybody to hear the individual characteristics of each mode. They aren't supposed to be thought of as derivatives to a scale. If you want to see them as something related to other scales then this is the way to go. The parallel approach. E Phrygian sounds different to E modal minor. And THAT is the way to look at modes. Not thinking of them as things to use in key. 10/10 lesson
    Chris Zoupa
    Thanks dude. I don't like the RELATIVE approach. You've got to express the characteristics and quirks of the mode. Listen to the simpsons theme. It's quirky and weird because of the #4/b5 and that's why it sounds so Lydiany!
    All of you are great! I think I learned more by reading comments and feedback than I did the actual lesson, which was also great. Years ago I tried teaching myself guitar from what I had learned in high school band resulted in nothing but power chords and 1st position pentatonic minor left me frustrated and bored with playing. Now 20 years later, getting back into that longing to play. I have learned more in 1 year than I did in the 5 years. A whole bunch of it is still Greek to me, but man did you all through a lot of theory out there.....You all made my day! Thanks a Bunch!
    Modes are tempting, but in this day and age surely a solid understanding of tonal harmony is all you actually need. Then all you really need to understand are the Major and Minor scales because you will also understand how accidentals can affect the sound. It is by no means an easy task, but I suggest this is easier than assigning particular accidentals to a modal name. After all modes are so last year (read few centuries).
    My favorite (and only) example of playing modally is Miles Davis' So What? D Dorian 16 bars D# Dorian 8 bars D Dorian 8 bars Sweet sweet licks
    CDEFGABC - Ionian DEFGABCD - Dorian EFGABCDE - Phrygian FGABCDEF - Lydian GABCDEFG - Mixolydian ABCDEFGA - Aeolian BCDEFGAB - Locrian If your chord progression is CFG you can solo over the chords using these scales: C Dorian, F Lydian, and G Mixolydian. That's when the modes become useful. Mastering this concept should be paramount to a lead guitarist.
    So play the C major scale but call it three different names just for the hell of it. That doesn't sound like a useful concept to me.
    Let me put it like this, When you play an Am scale aren't you also playing a C major scale just calling it something different? Theoretically it's still a C major but you're mind in honing in on the Am scale. Try to do that with all the modes (scales) when you play over your chord progression. I'm no music teacher, just trying to share some knowledge.
    I tend to think not, because you are resolving to A if you are playing A minor. Not the C. That's why it's the same notes but different sound. When you play a G major chord you don't refer to it as a derivative of a D(Stupid extension here) chord? Because of the focus of the notes you are playing. If you are playing E Phrygian, it is just that. Not the 3rd mode of C major, because then you are going to think in C and it loses all of it's own identity.
    steven seagull
    It all depends on the context - the backing chords will define what scale a collection of notes will fall in, not the intentions of the player.