Modes

We’ve touched on major and minor scales, but there’s another type of “scale.” It’s a little more abstract in nature, but incredibly useful, and you need to have a thorough understanding before moving on to more advanced theory concepts.

“Modes,” as they’re called, are the 7 variable patterns of the standard major/minor scale pattern. This can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around at first. The idea is that the major scale contains a set pattern of whole- and half-steps, right? But normally we play the major scale from the first note, 1, to the octave above. We normally go from 1 to 1 (or 8, if it makes more sense to understand the octave, but remember it’s just a repetition of the same note).

But what if, instead of starting and ending on the first note, we kept the same pattern of whole- and half-steps…but started and ended on the 2nd note? And then the 3rd? And then the 4th? We get 7 patterns, known as “modes.”

The 7 modes are, in order: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Here’s a chart to give you a better idea:

Mode

Starting/ending note

 (relative to a major scale)

Ionian

1

Dorian

2

Phrygian

3

Lydian

4

Mixolydian

5

Aeolian

6

Locrian

7

 

Memorize these. Use mnemonics to help by coming up with a sentence where each word starts with the first letter of each mode: “I, D, P, L, M, A, L.” Do whatever you need to to remember the modes and their equivalent starting notes.

OK, so let’s look more in depth at each mode pattern, with their starting note relative to the major scale (which is the Ionian mode):

Ionian

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

1

Dorian

2

3

4

5

6

7

1

2

Phrygian

3

4

5

6

7

1

2

3

Lydian

4

5

6

7

1

2

3

4

Mixolydian

5

6

7

1

2

3

4

5

Aeolian

6

7

1

2

3

4

5

6

Locrian

7

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

 

Now, if we remember that in the major scale half-steps occur between 3 and 4, and 7 and 1, we can establish a pattern of whole- and half-steps for each mode.

Ionian: 1 2 3^4 5 6 7^1

Dorian: 2 3^4 5 6 7^1 2

Phrygian: 3^4 5 6 7 ^1 2 3

Lydian: 4 5 6 7^1 2 3^4

Mixolydian: 5 6 7^1 2 3^4 5

Aeolian: 6 7^1 2 3^4 5 6

Locrian: 7^1 2 3^4 5 6 7

But it makes more sense, for example, instead of imaging Lydian as “starting on the 4th note of a major scale,” to instead imagine it as its own scale, with its own formula. So if we “re-align” the modes so that they each keep the same patterns of steps, but each starts on “1” (not the 1st of the major scale, but the first note of the mode pattern), then we get the following formulas:

Ionian: 1 2 3^4 5 6 7 ^1

Dorian: 1 2^b3 4 5 6^b7 1

Phrygian: 1^b2 b3 4 5^b6 b7 1

Lydian: 1 2 3 4^5 6 7^1

Mixolydian: 1 2 3^4 5 6^b7 1

Aeolian: 1 2^b3 4 5^b6 b7 1

Locrian: 1^b2 b3 4^b5 b6 b7 1

Note: “Ionian” is the same as major scale and “Aeolian” is the same as minor scale.

The above seven formulas are the most important part of this post. Memorize them. We’ll get into more how to use modes in a later post, but you can start experimenting now.  An easier way to remember them is to think of each as some variation on a major or minor scale. For example, here’s how I imagine them:

Ionian: 1 2 3^4 5 6 7 ^1: the major scale

Dorian: 1 2^b3 4 5 6^b7 1: the minor scale with a natural 6th instead of a b6

Phrygian: 1^b2 b3 4 5^b6 b7 1: the minor scale with a b2

Lydian: 1 2 3 #4^5 6 7^1: the major scale with a #4

Mixolydian: 1 2 3^4 5 6^b7 1: the major scale with a b7

Aeolian: 1 2^b3 4 5^b6 b7 1: the minor scale

Locrian: 1^b2 b3 4^b5 b6 b7 1: the minor scale with a b2 and b5

Modes are annoying to learn at first but they come in handy a lot for sprucing up your music (we’ll get to that later). For now, make sure you understand the formulas for each, and spend time playing each to get a feel for how each sounds.

TL;DR: Modes are important. They are the 7 different possible patterns that you can get from the standard major scale whole- and half-step pattern. The 7 are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. See above for formulas.