The Ultimate Guide To Guitar. Chapter IV: 2 Scales - Diatonic Modes In Practice

author: ZeGuitarist date: 09/14/2009 category: the guide to
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Part IV - Chapter 2

"Scales - Diatonic Modes In Practice"

Hey all! Welcome back to the Ultimate Guide to Guitar! We're continuing our discussion of the diatonic modes this week... We learned last week what the modes are, and how to construct them. We also learned that we can view modes in 2 different ways: firstly, you can consider the modes to be relatives of the Major scale, as each mode uses another note of the Major scale as a tonal centre; and secondly, you can view each mode as an individual variation of the Major scale, where certain intervals are simply replaced with other intervals.

In this chapter, we're going to learn how to use that knowledge in our playing. Before we can start learning how to use modes in our playing, we need to learn what the modes sound like first, so you can distinguish them from one another. To do that, we're going to look at an example piece of modal music for each mode, so that you can learn to hear what each mode sounds like. Making your own progressions and riffs in each mode is something we're going to learn next week; this week, we'll be focusing on learning to recognise the characteristic sound of each mode.

But first off, we need to learn that not any kind of music allows for the use of modes; there are certain requirements to be fulfilled for a piece of music to be considered "modal" music. The examples I'm going to show you will be examples of modal music, of course, since I'm demonstrating the use of each of the modes in the correct "modal setting"... this may confuse you, but just keep reading, the article hasn't started yet!

So, this is what we're going to do this week:

1. Tonal versus modal music: which music allows for the use of modes and which doesn't?
2. Modal examples: an example of each mode used in their modal setting!

Let's get going!

Tonal Versus Modal Music

To be able to use modes properly in practice, you must first understand that it's not possible to apply modes to every musical situation that you'll encounter. Most music that you're familiar with probably isn't suitable to apply modes to. That's because music needs to be composed modally from the start, constructed carefully with the use of modes in mind... and music like that is not very common.

A. Tonal Music

The most common type of Western music is "tonal music". This type of music is already familiar to you, although we never used this term for it... basically, tonal music is any music based around the system of Major and Minor scales functioning as the "key" to any piece of music. The entire music piece, both the progression and the melody, revolve around this key, which is the tonal centre for the piece.

For example, let's consider a music piece written in C Major. The notes that can be used to construct this piece of music are the notes in the C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B), and the chords that can be used are given by the harmonized C Major scale (without chord extensions: C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim). Both the melody and the progression in this music piece will consist mainly of these notes and chords, and both the melody and the progression will always resolve to C, the key of the music piece. This is the first characteristic of tonal music.

The second characteristic, which is the one that distinguishes tonal music from modal music, is that you're free to use "accidental" notes and chords (i.e. notes/chords that doesn't necessarily belong to the key of the music piece). As an example, take a look at the chords in the chorus of Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters":
C A D                         C  A
... Never cared for what they do
Never cared for what they know
D Em
But I know
Nothing Else Matters is a song in the key of E Minor. The chords you'll find to be available in that key through harmonizing the scale are Em, F#dim, G, Am, Bm, C and D. However, in the above tab, you see that an A (Major) chord is used instead of an Am (Minor) chord! This is because, like I said, accidental notes and chords can be used in tonal music. In this case, the C in the Am chord was replaced with a C# accidental, so that the Am chord became an A chord.

Why is that accidental there, you may ask? Well, it was the composer's choice, he might as well have used the "regular" Am chord... but by using the A chord with the C# accidental, a nice transition is created, from the C chord (which contains a C) over the A chord (which contains a C#) to the D chord (which contains a D). Can you see the chromatic transition from C to C# to D? As you can see, chromatics (sequences of semitone steps) are a big part of tonal music as well.

So, in short, tonal music is based around Major and Minor scales, which function as the "key" of every piece of music. The key of the piece determines what notes and what chords can be used in said piece. However, you're not limited to the notes and chords determined by the key of the music piece; you can also add "odd" notes to the piece (accidentals), make transitions between notes through semitone sequences (chromaticism), or "borrow" chords from other keys.

B. Modal Music

The second type of music, which we're going to study in this and the following article, is called "modal music". As the name implies, it's not based around the more common (and easier!) system of Major of Minor scales as "keys", but around the system of the 7 modes of the diatonic scale. This sounds like a simple premise, but it's a lot harder to define, recognise or compose modal music than it looks!

The first characteristic of modal music is that, like all tonal music is written "in a key", all modal music is written "in a mode". The chosen mode of the diatonic scale determines what notes can be used in the melody, and what chords in the progression. For example, we consider a modal music piece written in E Phrygian. The notes that can be used are the notes in the E Phrygian mode (E, F, G, A, B, C, D), and the chords are given by the harmonized E Phrygian mode (without extensions: Em, F, G, Am, Bdim, C, Dm)... do those look familiar? Indeed, they're completely the same as the notes and chords in the C Major scale... but we're not in a tonal context here, we're talking about modal music! Therefore, the term "C Major" is out of the question, it's E Phrygian we're talking about now.

You may be asking yourself now: "if the notes and chords in a piece in C Major and in E Phrygian are the same, how do you know the difference? How to distinguish between a tonal piece in C Major, and a modal piece in E Phrygian, for example?" This is because, other than the first characteristic I just explained, there are other characteristics to modal music that distinguish it from tonal music. These characteristics together form the "modal setting" of a modal music piece. Confused? I'll clear it up for you by explaining first what a "modal setting" is.

For a music piece to be considered modal music, it needs to be written in a modal setting. This means, from the start, you need to be aware of the mode you're composing the piece in, and the options that are available to you - as well as the options that are restricted to you. Both the melody and the progression have certain requirements that they need to meet in order for the entire piece to be considered modal. If these requirements are fulfilled, the piece is said to have the necessary "modal setting". Here is a short list of these requirements, both for the melody and the progression.

Modal melody is of course different from the "regular" tonal melody in that it can resolve to a tonal centre other than the Major and Minor tonal centres. E Phrygian shares all its notes with C Major, for example, but it resolves to E instead of C, so it sounds vastly different. A second characteristic of modal melody, is that it is restricted to the notes given by the mode in which the piece is written. No accidentals or chromatics are allowed; if any are used, there is no longer a "modal setting", so the piece is not modal. This is an important difference with tonal music, where accidental and chromatics are common; so, the use or lack of accidentals and chromatics allows us to distinguish between tonal and modal music.

The modal progression accompanying a modal melody is possibly even more important. For a progression to create a modal setting, it needs to restrict the melody to the notes in the used mode, allowing no accidentals... What does this mean? It means that you should use extra notes ("extensions") in the chords you use, so that only the mode you're playing in can (and therefore must) be used over the progression! This is because, in tonal music, the tonal centre is strongly established and the entire piece always "gravitates" automatically towards the tonal centre... Modal music, however, does not automatically resolve to a certain tonal centre (as if there is no "gravity"), you need to establish a tonal centre, create tension and resolve it yourself! It's important, therefore, to establish clearly what mode you're playing in and what the tonal centre is, as this is not set in stone like in tonal music.

Let's look at E Phrygian, as an example. The root chord in E Phrygian, without extensions, would be E Minor, which consists of the root note, a minor 3rd and a perfect 5th. The Phrygian mode contains these 3 intervals, so it could be played over this chord; but so could the Aeolian and Dorian mode, since they contain the same intervals! Therefore, we use extensions to the E Minor chord, to make sure only E Phrygian can be played over this chord. A possible "extended" chord in E Phrygian progressions is Em7b9, which is an E Minor chord with an added minor 7th and flat 9th interval. Since these intervals are exclusive to the Phrygian mode, no other modes but E Phrygian can be played over this chord! We say that this extended E Minor chord "declares" the use of the Phrygian mode, since it's constructed of notes exclusive to this mode...

So, if we're writing a progression in E Phrygian, we must make sure that the chosen chords limit the melody to the mode of E Phrygian only, i.e. that each chord "declares" this mode, like we did for the root chord!

So in short, with a melody revolving around the modal notes and a progression that clearly declares the mode you're playing, a piece of music can definitely be considered to be set in a modal setting... and therefore, it can be considered modal music. Any music that doesn't meet these requirements, however, is not modal, and one shouldn't apply modes to it! Modes can be "implied" in pieces like that (through accidentals, emulating the sound of a certain mode), but never actually applied.

Modal Examples

So, now that we know what modal music is, and what the modal setting required for music to be modal involves, we can start studying each of the seven modes in their modal setting, to learn what they sound like... which is the point of this lesson after all! Below, I'll be showing you short example progressions in each mode ("modal vamps") and I'll be playing simple modal lead lines over each of them, so that you can learn to recognise the distinct sound of each of the modes... and as you'll hear, even with these small differences in intervals, the diatonic modes all sound very different!

We'll be studying each of the 7 modes with a similar approach:
  • First, we'll look at the characteristic intervals of each mode;
  • Then, I'll show you a progression that creates the correct modal setting for each mode, by accentuating these characterising intervals (we won't get into detail about the creation of these progressions though, we'll be looking into that in the next article);
  • And finally, I'll let you hear an example riff over the given progression, that also accentuates the "modal notes" and thus declares the mode being played
This approach will familiarize you with the characteristic sound of each of the modes. We won't learn to create our own modal music yet, that's for the next chapter! So, I'm not including tabs of the example riffs, because the purpose of this lesson is to learn what the modes sound like, not to learn how to imitate what I'm playing!

A. The Ionian Mode

We'll start off with the first mode, which is the Ionian mode. This mode is, as we've learned from the previous chapter, a Major mode, sporting a Major triad (major 3rd and perfect 5th intervals). It's distinguished from the other modes by a characteristic perfect 4th and major 7th interval. These intervals are important, since we need to declare these intervals clearly, both in the progression and the melody, in order to create a modal setting for a music piece in Ionian! The overall sound of this mode, created by the characteristic intervals, is a happy, cheerful, almost cheesy sound.

Below is a modal "vamp", which a simple progression of 2 chords that are repeated over and over again, in E Ionian. This progression consists of chords that accentuate the intervals that characterise the Ionian mode, thus declaring the progression to be in E Ionian; we'll learn to create modal progressions like that next week, though. I'll just hand you an example progression for now, and I'll show you the chord diagrams over the chord progression as well, so you know how to play each chord.

You can see that this progression consists of only 2 chords, and both of them are strummed for 8 beats (each slash counts as a beat). The chosen chords accentuate the notes that are characteristic to the E Ionian mode: the perfect 4th (A) and major 7th (D#). Thus, these chords create a perfect modal setting for E Ionian! We'll learn about the details of creating modal chord progressions next week, though; in this article, we're focusing on the melody.

Now, we're going to listen to the sound of a Ionian melody over this modal vamp. Here is an example riff in E Ionian for you to listen to. Let's listen to it and analyse what I'm playing, and why... First of all, we need to consider that the Ionian mode is a Major mode, with the distinctive major 3rd and perfect 5th intervals (G# and B) forming a Major triad. Furthermore, the characteristic intervals of the Ionian mode are the perfect 4th and major 7th (A and D# respectively) which differentiate the Ionian mode from the other Major modes. Therefore, I accentuate these notes in the melody I'm playing. In the first 2 bars, you can hear me abuse bends between the major 3rd and perfect 4th (G# and A); in the next 2 bars, I use bends between the major 7th and the octave (D# and E). This way, I'm making it clear that the Major triad as well as the perfect 4th and major 7th are prominent in the progression as well as in the melody, thus declaring this short riff to be in the mode of E Ionian!

I recorded the modal vamp I showed you as a backing track in E Ionian for you to practice with. With the given modal vamp as a backing track, you can try to improvise your own modal melody over it... all you need to do is to keep in mind that you need to accentuate the "modal notes" defining the mode you're playing in. In this case, to establish clearly that you're playing in E Ionian, be sure to accentuate the Major triad, as well as the presence of the perfect 4th and major 7th intervals, like I did in my example riff. Listen to the example over and over again, and then practice!

If you understand the above explanation of how I accentuate certain notes in the melody and why, you understand what modal music consists of: a progression that declares a certain mode through chord extensions, and a melody that declares that mode as well through the use of the distinctive "modal notes". This is, in a nutshell, what you need to remember from the above (and very wordy) paragraph on modal music! We'll be applying this knowledge to the rest of the seven modes as well... so let's move on!

B. The Dorian Mode

On we go with the second of the seven modes, the Dorian mode. This one is a Minor mode, since it contains a Minor triad (minor 3rd and perfect 5th). The interval that distinguishes the Dorian mode from the other Minor modes is the major 6th interval, as you can see from the interval schemes of the modes we studied in the previous chapter. This mode sounds a bit jazzy overall, because of the general "minor" sound with a "major" touch of the raised 6th interval.

Now that we know which notes characterise the Dorian mode, I'll hand you a progression in E Dorian again, consisting only of 2 chords that accentuate the characteristic intervals of the Dorian mode. Check it out:

The above Dorian vamp consists of only 2 chords again, both strummed for 8 beats. Both chords accentuate the presence of the major 6th interval (C#), as well as the base Minor triad (minor 3rd and perfect 5th, G and B). Therefore, this progression clearly defines the mode we're in as E Dorian! Don't worry about how this progression is created, though, we'll deal with that next week; for now, let's focus on the melody.

In the example riff in E Dorian I recorded, you'll hear that the characteristic intervals declaring the E Dorian mode. Firstly, the Minor triad is prominently present in the first 2 bars, played over the root chord: you'll hear the minor 3rd and perfect 5th (G and B), clearly indicating the played mode to be a Minor mode. Furthermore, the major 6th interval (C#) that is exclusive to the Dorian mode is accentuated throughout the riff. I often skip from the minor 7th to the major 6th, bend from the major 5th to the major 6th, and so on... Through clearly indicating the presence of the Minor triad and the distinctive major 6th interval, this riff is unmistakably declared to be in the mode of E Dorian!

I recorded this for you as a backing track in E Dorian. If you want to improvise your own modal melody over the given Dorian vamp, be sure to accentuate the Minor quality of this mode, as well as the major 6th interval that distinguishes this mode from the other Minor modes. Use the riff I gave you as an example, and try out your own stuff!

C. The Phrygian Mode

On to the next mode! You know the drill by now: first, we'll look at the characteristic intervals of the Phrygian mode. The Phrygian mode is a Minor mode containing a minor 3rd and perfect 5th (G and B). The most important interval distinguishing it from the other Minor modes is the minor 2nd interval (F); only the Locrian mode sports a minor 2nd as well, but it's a Diminished mode, not a Minor mode. You will hear in the example riff that the characteristic minor 2nd interval makes the Phrygian sound very Spanish.

Let's take a look at a modal vamp in E Phrygian. Below are the 2 chords forming a short Phrygian progression in E, and their chord diagrams:

The shown chords accentuate the presence of the Minor triad, as well as the minor 2nd (F). Both chords are strummed for 8 beats, creating a short progression with a clearly declared Phrygian sound. Again, I'll ask you not to worry about how this progression was created too much, we'll be looking into that later.

Next, we'll look into the example riff in E Phrygian I played over this progression, and analyse its distinctive sound. Since the minor 2nd interval (F) is so characteristic to the Phrygian mode, I made sure it was omnipresent in the riff I created. The minor 3rd and perfect 5th (G and B) are also accentuated throughout the riff, establishing this riff to be based around a Minor triad with a minor 2nd, thus declaring the Phrygian mode clearly!

You can use the modal vamp I gave you as a backing track in E Phrygian for practicing your own Phrygian melodies. You now know that the Minor triad and the minor 2nd are the characteristic "modal notes" for the Phrygian mode, so be sure to accentuate these!

D. The Lydian Mode

We're getting the hang of it! The next mode is the Lydian mode, which is a Major mode since it sports a major 3rd and perfect 5th (G# and B), forming a Major triad. The characteristic modal interval is the augmented 4th interval, which is exclusive to the Lydian mode... and this makes it easy for us to recognise it! As you will hear below, the Lydian mode sounds very positive overall; because of the raised 4th interval, it sounds "happier than happy", or "more Major than Major".

Like I did for the previous mode, I created a short modal vamp in E Lydian that we can use to play a Lydian melody over. Here is this Lydian progression:

The 2 chords in this progression, both played for 8 beats, accentuate the notes that characterise the Lydian mode: the Major triad is present (major 3rd and perfect 5th, G# and B), as well as the distinctive raised 4th interval (A#). This progression therefore offers a perfect Lydian setting for us to play a Lydian melody over!

We have a progression, so now I can let you hear the example riff in E Lydian played over it. This melody very clearly indicates the presence of the raised 4th interval (A#): the melody constantly jumps from the raised 4th to the major 3rd. Those two intervals are basically all we need to be able to acknowledge the presence of the Major triad, as well as the raised 4th interval, both of which together clearly declare this melody to be in E Lydian!

Here is the backing track in E Lydian I recorded for you to practice over. If you want to play your own Lydian melodies over the given modal vamp, make sure you accentuate the Major triad this mode is built upon, as well as the raised 4th, which distinguishes Lydian from the other Major modes!

E. The Mixolydian Mode

We have arrived at the last of the three Major modes: the Mixolydian mode. This mode is characterised by a major 3rd and perfect 5th (G# and B) forming a Major triad, which as stated makes Mixolydian a Major mode. Unlike the other 2 Major modes, the Mixolydian mode sports a minor 7th (D), which together with the "regular" perfect 4th (A) distinguishes the Mixolydian mode from the other Major modes. Overall, the Mixolydian mode sounds bluesy, with a happy-sounding Major touch.

Below is another modal vamp in the mode of E Mixolydian. This progression, consisting of only 2 chords, creates a Mixolydian setting by accentuating the modal notes, which allows us to play Mixolydian melodies over this vamp:

As you can see in the chord diagrams above, the major 3rd and perfect 5th (G# and B) forming the Major triad in Mixolydian are present in the chords, as well as the minor 7th interval (D) that clearly declares the mode being played as Mixolydian.

Once more, I'll let you hear an example riff in E Mixolydian played over this progression. This melody is a very clear example of a Mixolydian melody: in the first 2 bars, you can hear an alternation between the minor 7th (D), the root (E) and the major 3rd (G#), establishing the played mode as a Major mode with a minor 7th... which can only be Mixolydian! Furthermore, in the next 2 bars you'll hear a descending run from the octave to the perfect 5th, passing over the minor 7th, and thus further declaring the played mode as Mixolydian!

For those wishing to practice playing their own modal melodies over this Mixolydian vamp, I have recorded a backing track in E Mixolydian. Keep in mind that the Major triad, as well as the perfect 4th-minor 7th combination, are characteristic to the Mixolydian mode and have to be well pronounced in your melody!

F. The Aeolian Mode

The next mode is one you are all familiar with already, though not in a modal context: it is similar to the Minor scale used in tonal music. The Aeolian mode is the third Minor mode, based around a minor 3rd and perfect 5th (G and B) forming a minor triad. The distinguishing intervals of the Aeolian mode are the major 2nd (F#) and minor 6th (C) intervals. These intervals give the Aeolian mode its defining sad, moody quality.

Again, I'll be giving you a modal vamp in E Aeolian that offers us the correct Aeolian setting to play a modal melody over. This Aeolian vamp consists of 3 chords:

As you can see, the first chord is played for 8 beats, after which the 2 remaining chords are each played for 4 beats. These chords clearly establish the played mode as a Minor mode, because of the minor 3rd and perfect 5th present (G and B). Furthermore, the major 2nd (F#) is accentuated as an extension of the Am and G chords, while the minor 6th is also present. This progression is therefore a clear example of an Aeolian progression!

Let's have a listen to the example riff in E Aeolian I played over this modal vamp. Again, you'll hear me clearly establish the mode I'm playing as Aeolian in the first 2 bars already! I alternate between the minor 3rd and major 2nd (G and F#), and between the minor 6th and perfect 5th (C and B); that way, you'll immediately know that this melody is based around a Minor triad, and that it accentuates the major 2nd and minor 6th which are exclusive to the Aeolian mode!

If you want to practice your own soloing in E Aeolian over the progression I gave you, here is the backing track in E Aeolian you can use. Make sure you accentuate the modal notes (Minor triad, major 2nd, minor 6th) in your melody, like I did in my example riff!

G. The Locrian Mode

And we arrive at the last of the seven modes, and the most unusual one: the Locrian mode! What makes the Locrian mode so unusual is that it's not a Major nor a Minor mode, but a Diminished mode, sporting a minor 3rd and diminished 5th interval forming a Diminished triad. This unstable Diminished triad is the most important characteristic of the Locrian mode; the minor 2nd and minor 7th are other distinctive Locrian modal notes, but less so than the diminished 5th interval. Because of the many lowered intervals, the Locrian mode sounds very dark, unstable and almost twisted or "wrong".

The modal vamp for the Locrian mode is also a very unusual one. It actually consists of only one chord! Let's have a look at the Locrian progression we're going to play a melody over:

In the above progression, you can see what looks like 2 chords, each played for 8 beats... however, both chords are the same! Indeed, the first one consists of the root (E), the minor 3rd (G), the diminished 5th (Bb, note that the diagram wrongly names this note A#) and the minor 7th (D). The second chord consists of the same notes, only with a different bass note! It's simply an inversion of the first chord, using a note different than the root note as the chord's bass note. Obviously, with 2 chords expressing the modal notes declaring the Locrian mode, this progression creates a perfect Locrian setting for us to play a melody over!

Let's listen to the last of my example riffs: here's my example riff in E Locrian. As you can hear, the riff I wrote consists mainly of arpeggiated root, minor 3rd, diminished 5th and minor 7th intervals. I know the riff sounds weird... that's the distinctive sound of the Locrian mode, it sounds strangely "wrong" in a way. The diminished 5th interval makes the mode sound very unstable, which is why it's very hard to write a riff in Locrian that sounds "good"... it's not a mode that was meant for making melodies with.

If you still want to try to defy the laws of music and try to make a nice Locrian progression, I won't stop you: I'll even offer you a backing track in E Locrian to play your riffs over! Focus on the Diminished triad and on the minor 2nd and minor 7th intervals, to accentuate the Locrian quality of your melody!


And we're through! We have covered each of the seven diatonic modes, learning to recognise their distinctive sound, and how this sound is achieved through accentuation of the characteristic "modal notes" of each mode. We learned how to accentuate these notes in a music piece's melody this week; next week, we'll do the same for chord progressions, allowing us to create our own modal chord progressions!

Stay tuned for the third and last article on the diatonic modes next week... and until then, keep practicing!


PS: My usual outro still applies!

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    PPS: All backing tracks and example riffs were recorded with Guitar Pro 5 and Audacity.
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