The Right Way To Learn Modes

A very simple and short lesson on what to do with the modes of the major scale.

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Ultimate Guitar
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Alright, I've been seeing a lot of lessons on here about modes lately and they all give you the same bull, "To play Dorian mode all you have to do is play your G major scale starting and ending on an A"... That's not really right, that would still just be G major. Now listen, I'm not gonna take the time to type out all the mode shapes, patterns, boxes, whatever you wanna call them. If you haven't learned those already (even though they're just the major scale spread out over the entire fret board) then go look at one of the other mode lessons on here and come back to this later. Alright, here we go... First of all I'm gonna give you the names of all the modes. Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian Now, I'm gonna give two lists. The first will be the way most lessons tell you to play the modes. The second will be my way which will give you the notes in each of them using G major as the parent scale (parent scale just means the plain old major scale you are using to derive the other modes from). Most lessons give you G Ionian, A Dorian, B Phrygian, etc. But these aren't the modes they're just shapes, because you're still using the exact same notes in every one of those. In other words, you're just playing G major all over the neck. THE WRONG WAY
G  Ionian     (Major)      (G,A,B,C,D,E,F#,G)  (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1)
A  Dorian     (minor)      (A,B,C,D,E,F#,G,A)  (2,3,4,5,6,7,1,2)
B  Phrygian   (minor)      (B,C,D,E,F#,G,A,B)  (3,4,5,6,7,1,2,3)
C  Lydian     (Major)      (C,D,E,F#,G,A,B,C)  (4,5,6,7,1,2,3,4)
D  Mixolydian (Major)      (D,E,F#,G,A,B,C,D)  (5,6,7,1,2,3,4,5)
E  Aeolian    (minor)      (E,F#,G,A,B,C,D,E)  (6,7,1,2,3,4,5,6)
F# Locrian    (diminished) (F#,G,A,B,C,D,E,F#) (7,1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
See what I mean? Every one of these has the exact same notes, because they are all the exact same scale. Let me clarify something real quick before I make my version of this list... The list of modes I just gave you is not really wrong per se, it's just that most guitarists see that and think something like "So if I have a chord progression of G major, A minor, and E minor and I wanna play modally over it, I would play G ionan, A dorian, and E Aeolian". That's what's wrong with, and what I hate, about all the other lessons I've seen, they lead people to believe that modes are just a fancy way to refer to chunks of the major scale. HERE'S WHAT MAKES MODES DIFFERENT
G Ionian     (Major)      (G,A,B,C,D,E,F#,G)    (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,1)
G Dorian     (minor)      (G,A,Bb,C,D,E,F,G)    (1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7,1)
G Phrygian   (minor)      (G,Ab,Bb,C,D,Eb,F,G)  (1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7,1)
G Lydian     (Major)      (G,A,B,C#,D,E,F#,G)   (1,2,3,#4,5,6,7,1)
G Mixolydian (Major)      (G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G)     (1,2,3,4,5,6,b7,1)
G Aeolian    (minor)      (G,A,Bb,C,D,Eb,F,G)   (1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7,1)
G Locrian    (diminished) (G,Ab,Bb,C,Db,Eb,F,G) (1,b2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7,1)
This is how you should see modes. Notice how if you base them all off G the differences between them become very apparent. Now for the easy part. I'm now going to tell you how to use them... Let's say for example, you have the same chord progression as earlier (GM, Am, and Em) just three simple triads. Now, you could always just play it safe and noodle around with the G major scale for the entire progression, or you could play your newly learned modes! Let me show you chord by chord. For the GM chord, you could use any major mode (with G as the tonic of course). So, you could play G Ionian, G Lydian, G Mixolydian, or even some strange combination of the three over your GM chord. For the Am chord, you could use any minor mode (this time using A as your tonic). So, you could play A Dorian, A Phrygian, A Aeolian, or combine the three in various ways over your Am chord. The Em chord would work exactly like the Am did, except you would use E Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian instead of A. If your wondering about Locrian, it goes with diminished chords and that's it, so if we had an F# diminished chord in our progression than you would just play F# Locrian. It gets better! If your just using power chords (which aren't defined as major or minor) you can use any of the major or minor modes you want! However, the more intricate the chords you use (using 7ths, 9ths, etc.) the less options you have on what modes you use, because you have to make sure the notes of the chord match with the notes of the mode. For instance, if you played a GM chord with a flat 7th, then you would need to play G mixolydian would be your most likely choice of mode because it is Major and has a flat 7th. Get it? Well, this is all I can think of to try to explain modes... It's kinda hard to explain without being able to sit in front of someone with a guitar and just show them haha. I hope this helps anyone out there confused about modes and why you should learn them.

102 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    Hristev
    I've known all the modes for 7-8 months and only now understand how they're properly used! Thanks for the great tutorial
    Colohue
    You've done the groundwork well, but you've majorly oversimplified to the point where people are going to play c major, starting on d, over a d minor chord and think they're playing modally. What's missing is a decent explanation of the tonal centre, how to establish and maintain one, and an explanation of interval dissonance to explain how to maintain a modal piece over a chord once the progression is converted from tonal to modal. So, oversimplified to the point of harmful, but with a bit of additional effort, potentially helpful.
    warlordjoe92
    I was just trying to lay the groundwork to help people get moving in the right direction with modes. It's meant to be bare bones so people, especially beginners, can easily digest it. This way, when they move on to more advanced in-depth lessons, like your "The Modal Approach" columns, they won't be completely lost. By the way, why don't you just direct some of these people over to your column?
    Colohue
    Because this has potential with a little expansion.
    rockslide86
    Its quite harmful in that when you talk about the GM - Am- Em part, you completely neglect talking about the fact that if you now use Glydian instead of G ionian, then these chords will change. You will now need to play GM AM and Em. Modes are not just what notes you play but also what tones within the chord must also change in order to establish modality. You can't come on here badmouthing others work and them completely miss the point yourself.
    Geldin
    Agreed hard. Every singly article that purports to teach "modes" ignores the two most vital features of modality: 1. Establishing and maintaining a tonal center, and 2. The simple fact that modes are about the most useless things ever, especially when playing an instrument like the guitar, which is tuned and fretted in accordance to equal temperament.
    YngwieLi
    Could you elaborate on your second point: "The simple fact that modes are about the most useless things ever, especially when playing an instrument like the guitar, which is tuned and fretted in accordance to equal temperament." I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at here so could you explain this point?
    Geldin
    Prior to the equal temperament tuning system, modality was a very different concept than it is today. I'm no expert on the specifics of that conceptualization of modality, so you'll have to ask someone else, but my reading on the subject indicates that just temperament made modality a more practical concept because of the ratios between notes. For more specifics than that, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint for now. I'm reading more on the subject, but I haven't gotten too terribly far into it at the moment. As for modern modality, the principles of modality are much more complex than starting a scale on a different note or resolving a tonal chord progression to a non-root interval. For example, if you wish to play in E phrygian, you don't just play in C major and resolve to an E minor chord. You'll want to explore the relationship between the root, the fourth and the fifth and the diminished second and minor sixth and seventh. You'll want to use leading tones to construct a chord progression that resolves naturally to the Emin chord rather than arbitrarily starting and/or stopping there. What do you get out of all that? Probably a headache, among other things.
    rockslide86
    could not disagree harder..... There is no reason a more scholared guitarist can do all of the things that you mentioned in your second paragraph... some spend nearly a lifetime exploring and perfecting this very thing
    Geldin
    There is no reason he couldn't do those things. However, it's a matter of diminishing returns. Is his musically necessarily superior because he knows how to write a modal passage? The truth is that knowing the specifics of modes is only useful if you're doing any kind of serious musical analysis or you're writing in multiple key signatures and you have to do some clever modulation to make the transitions coherent. Besides that, the benefits you get out of spending that much time learning modes (or mislearning, given the sheer amount of wrong information about modality on the internet) are dubious at best.
    Theophillis
    Well, as long as we're discussing semantics, the second in Phrygian is a minor second. A diminished second would be a unison. For me, it's all about chord function, and cadences. When you learn modes, you recognise new tonalities, therefore chord movements and substitutions have a new perspective from a harmonic point of view. If you're into that kind of thing, then modes are hardly pointless. If you're not, then they are, and no harm done.
    Jehannum
    The "modern" modes are perfectly playable on equal tempered instruments. Modes aren't useless if you use them correctly which, as you say, hinges on achieving the correct tonal centre. Modes are useable as a way of varying the sound of the music you write. One shouldn't let the common misuse of modal terminology frighten you off modes completely.
    jbutler9
    TECHNICALLY, if someone played DEFGABCD over a Dm they WOULD be playing "modally," (Where's the Bb of D natural minor?) Although this wouldn't necessarily be in a way that will make the quality of the mode stand out to any but a well trained ear. I think what the OP is trying to do here is provide a starting point for beginners without confusing them too much.... While I agree that there's more to it, this will help them walk before they try to run.
    jbutler9
    Correction: I'd say playing DEFGABC over Dm might be (very weakly) suggestive of Dorian.
    overthrown123
    About time someone posted a simple and correct lesson on learning and using modes. Tired of seeing incorrect lessons every day on modes. Cheers and +100000 for you
    AlanHB
    This is a perfect introduction to CST, but not modal music. If we use the approach in the article we can opt to play for example: Progression: G C D (obviously in G major) Over the G we play G ionian, as suggested. Over the C we play C lydian, as suggested. Over the D we play D mixolydian, as suggested. And then you claim it's modal. However it's the notes of the G major scale, over the key of G major. It's G major, not anything else. Additionally we're given some chords to play over. These are G, Am, Em and F# diminished. If we had a progression which included these chords, it would most likely be a progression in G major, again not a modal composition.
    H8ed H3r0
    Good article short and sweet. Right to the point and with clear and simple explanations. Anyone who thinks modes are useless or unnecessary think of modes in the first example and don't know their true potential
    Hail
    **** this, i'm done with reading these articles thinking something worth seeing would be in them
    Artemis Entreri
    I would order them from brightest to darkest for a variety of reasons instead of starting with Ionian. Lydian Ionian Mixolydian Dorian Aeolian Phrygian (Locrian) This lines up with the circle of 5ths/4ths and make much more sense contextually. Otherwise, well done.
    jamstation
    I don't get how all these lessons in modal music don't have a single example of modal tunes. How about some nice Indian music or perhaps some Miles or Coltrane examples? What is this chord-scale crap that is being thrown around as modal theory?? Understand this. If you're not playing "modes" (shapes, positions, intervals, or however your thinking of it) over the correct harmonic context ("cadences" corresponding to the mode) then it's not modal playing.
    Sprunger
    God people dont listen to this! Here's how i find students learn modes best. C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G7, A minor, Bdiminished These are the chords of C major. Now if our progression was D min to G7 (two chords in Cmajor only), we would use the C major scale. The only difference now is that the note C is not in the hamony. D min - DFA, G7 - GBDF. Notice now that D is our Main note, our tonal 'center'. So if we now play the C major scale, the notes will sound correct, only that the C note will not sound strong over either chord. By playing this scale over the chords you will find that playing off the D note will feel correct and easy. Once you have finished getting your head around this new mode which we call D dorian, then move on to mixolydian. Which, in my opinion, is the next easiest to learn. And bit by bit, you will learn all the modes. By trying to learn them all at once, you will take in too much info without putting it into practice and most people crash and burn. Also worth noting is that the harmony will dictate the mode, so study your "chords in keys"
    Colohue
    That's not modal. You haven't established an original tonal centre to give the mode context. That's just suggestive, which is exactly what this lesson is teaching. The lesson is good, just not correctly described.
    Sprunger
    That is modal. If thats not modal, what is it? in C major? The fact that it sounds minor should rule that one out
    scottnipper
    It is modal. By placing emphasis on the D, you are establishing that as the tonal center. The fact that you don't stay on it very long and/or move the tonal center somewhere else for the next chords is irrelevant.
    ciano16
    This is a lesson on chord scale theory, not actual modal music. Its not the "correct" way to use modes, its just one of the ways. Modes were originally intended to be used to make modal music. meaning the tonal center of the song revolved around a mode. Like if the key signature was G major, but the chord progression leads the listener to think that the tonic is Aminor. This song would be in A dorian. To use modes the "original way" cannot be explained in such a short article and requires a very good sense of musical tonality instead of just knowledge of what modes can be used over what chords.
    cmvideo
    Well, I think the problem is that a lot of guitar teachers teach you the modes as patterns without really emphasizing the intervals between the notes. My teacher taught me the theory behind the modes but was much more intent on having me learn patterns. Starting with C and working my way up the fret board with notes. Move to the D major scale and repeat all the patterns just starting on D instead of C. Then move onto E, etc. It definitely taught me my modes, but not much on how tyo apply them. This article is kind of the opposite. It doesn't really explain the relationship between the notes in a mode but it does help in applying the modes. Honestly, although not theorethically correct, this kind of lesson probably would have helped me A LOT more when I was 15 and learning this stuff.
    cmvideo
    Just to follow up, I think it's important to get a hook into someone, then expand on the knowledge. If you just teach the theory, it gets lost on young, learning guitarists. It gets confusing and really turn you off to learning proper theory. This kind of lesson gives you a practical way to use the modes immediately, then you can progress into the theory of the tonal center and that stuff. Just different ways to learn I guess.
    mastergon
    As Govan said, learning a theory and not knowing it's use is a death trap for a guitarist.
    GuitarmastaX79
    Ok, now I agree with the way this article is written simply because it shows a more practical use for the modes when playing lead or creating a melody over a chord progression. However, one of the reasons that modes are shown to a student with the ascending method starting in perhaps C ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian etc... It helps a student learn their notes on the entire fretboard, which is essential to any guitar player. So I disagree that the aforementioned way is wrong and this way is right, I just think this is a practical way of using the modal shapes that are learned.
    RoxxHunter
    I find a lot of lessons on modes don't go into detail about how to construct a chord progression for the modes, which to me is the most important element. Let's say you were playing a song in C major and it comes time to record chords for the guitar solo. The chords in the key of C major are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim. If you write something that has many chord changes then it probably will not sound very modal. Remember modes have their own unique sounds. If you write a chord progression and stick to one chord or just a few chords then the chances of your solo sounding modal increase. If you stick to the C major chord and only change to another chord quickly or occasionally when you play your C major scale over top you will get a certain sound.
    ha_asgag
    The 7 triads [C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim] need not be exhausted all at once for a particular verse/chorus/solo or an entire song. Here's a list of typical groups of chords which may be used for creating progressions for each of the 7 modes. [Key Signature = no sharps/ no flats] For Ionian: C-F-G Dm-G-C C-Am-F-G C-Em-F-C C-F-C C-G-C Dorian: Dm-G Dm-Em Dm-F-G Dm-Am-G-Dm Dm-Em-F-Em Phyr gian: Em-F Em-G-F Em-Dm Em-F-Dm E-F < exemption Lydian: F-G F-G-Em F-Em F-Am-Em Mixolydi an: G-F G-F-C G7-Dm G7-C G-Em-F Aeolian: Am-G-F Am -Dm Am-Em Am-C-G Am-F Locrian: Bdim-C Bm7b5-Em7 Bm7 b5-Am7
    ha_asgag
    Warlordjoe92 spelled out the modes "off one root" - [G], in his main example so you will have to transpose the above chord groups listed above accordingly with the "G" functioning as the root or "I chord" of the progression. Experiment and create your own backing tracks and try improvising over the chord changes using the corresponding scale mode. The topic on "MODAL PROGRESSIONS" may be written as a separate lesson but since RoxxHunter brought it up, I decided to scratch the surface of it as an extension of Warlordjoe92's column, "The Right Way To Learn Modes".
    RoxxHunter
    If you play every C,D,E,F,G,A and B note on the guitar you have the C major scale. You can find many patterns on here that show you common ways to play these notes as well as many lessons on you tube. The Chords, as mentioned before, are C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am and Bdim. If for the rhythm during the solo you stick to the sound of C then your solo will have a modal sound and that sound will be Ionian. A common thing that people do for the modes is to add other chords. So let's do that. Let's go C - F - G - C. However we are going to try to keep the sound of the C note going throughout the rhythm during the solo section. So what we will do is play slash chords for the F and G. (Slash chords are easy to understand. The note before the slash tells you the chord to play and the note after the slash is the bass note of the chord, or the lowest note. Think of it as the first note your pick should hit. Sometimes these chords can require some finger gymnastics on the guitar so maybe be nice to the keyboard player in the band) So now our progression will be C - F/C - G/C - C. Now it will have this very distinct Ionian sound when you play the C major scale over top. Now let's say you wanna try something different. Let's take Dm and construct chords based around that. Dm - C. Again we will want to make sure that D sound is going throughout the rhythm. Now our progression is Dm - C/D. Now when you solo using the same notes as before what are you playing will sound magically different. You are playing D Dorian. You can play the exact same licks for all the examples and they will sound different. Now if you go to Em and do a progression like Em - F - C - Em. Try the slash chord approach. You don't always have to do slash chords but the idea is to get the sound of the one note implanted in the ears so your solos sound modal. If we change the chords we get Em - F/E - C/E -Em. Now you are playing E Phyrgian. Hopefully you get the idea. Just go through and try that. Now once you get those down then it's good to look at the modes as their own unique things and not just C major, so that you can find the notes that make D Dorian different from D major and really accent the notes that give the mode it's flavor. If you stick to one mode for like 5 minutes it might get a bit boring so you can then expand it into pitch axis and trying different scales etc. Hope this helps. If you want more examples I can post more. Cheers from China (for now), ~Roxx Hunter~
    METAL JEFF
    I got f'n headache already.Just solo in key,forget about the modes unless you are actually charting.Listen to what sounds good and go with it.This is what has always turned me off about soloing.Too much information bad and good.If you solo in the right key,you can't go wrong.Modes are for composers,scales are for guitar gangsters!
    Majorpole
    I agree Metal Jeff, the theory is very useful if you have 100 years to master them. Other wise sticking to basics can be very enjoyable. Liam Gallagher doesn't even know any notes.
    ha_asgag
    Musical tastes may develop as you keep playing and listening. I'm sure none of us wants to sound mediocre whenever we record ourselves playing our instruments so that's why we're here to share some basic approaches, tips and insights so that we could continually keep on improving.
    RudderAxe
    The OP to this thread is most helpful. There is much bantering, which is less helpful. Knowing the Circle of 5ths comes in handy here. The modal scales are nothing more than playing the major scales of other keys that contain the same note as the root note of the current key. For the Ionian modal scale, the player plays the same as the natural scale of the key in which he is working. For the Lydian modal scale, the player moves to the right on the Circle of 5ths one tone and plays the scale of that tone. For all other modal scales, the player moves to the left on the Circle of 5ths playing scales of other keys. So Mixolydian mode is one tone to the left. Dorian is two tones. Aeolian is three tones. Phrygian is four tones and Locrian is five tones. So given the key of G Major as above, here is what the player would play while the other instruments play in the key of G: Lydian → scale in the key of D Ionian → same as the key, the key of G Mixolydian → scale in the key of C Dorian → scale in the key of F Aeolian → scale in the key of Bb Phrygian → scale in the key of Eb Locrian → scale in the key of Ab Lydian: + 1, Ionian: 0, Mixolydian: -1, Dorian: -2, Aeolian: -3, Phrygian: -4, Locrian: -5 In all movement to the left on the circle, minor intervals replace major intervals. For movement to the right (Lydian), a tritone replaces a perfect 4th. Locrian has a tritone replacement as well, for a perfect fifth. Lydian: TT → P4 Ionian: same as the scale for the key Mixolydian: m7→ M7 Dorian: m7→ M7, m3 → M3 Aeolian: m7→ M7, m3 → M3, m6 → M6 Phrygian: m7→ M7, m3 → M3, m6 → M6, m2 → M2 Locrian: m7→ M7, m3 → M3, m6 → M6, m2 → M2, TT → P5
    Theophillis
    Kudos, sir, and thank you. This should be the go-to mode lesson for mode beginners. Could you expand a little more into CST territory? It's not oversimplified for those with a brain who are capable of taking the next steps themselves, as most UG readers are.
    Colohue
    But I wouldn't call it the right way, given that it misses out the most important initial step concerning the tonal centre. Just my opinion of course.
    Theophillis
    He uses G as the common root of the modes. This is the better way, rather than the previous 'wrong' approach he outlined. He also outlined three possibilities of useful scale over the G major chord, beginning chord scale theory ideas. Granted, he didn't expand on chord function and cadences, but this is a modal lesson, and does its job well. What would you do differently? The only thing I would do differently, is tackle each mode in its own lesson, and to truly know modes takes months if not years of ear training.
    Colohue
    Well technically I've already done a couple of articles on the subject. My concern is only what's missing. It's not actually modal, it's just modally suggestive. The problem with most articles on modes is the idea that there's an easy way to do it. Modes are complicated. People need to stop looking for an easy way out and accept that some things take work.
    Theophillis
    Ah!!! Well in that case, I completely agree with you. Modes are extremely complicated and time consuming.
    Cold Reader
    Glad to see someone has cleared all that up And thanks for telling me when to use them, never really clicked before. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some improv to get on with Cheers!