Modes Part 1: The Basics

In this series, we’ll look at modes. I’ve written a fair amount on the Dorian mode in previous postings, but let’s rewind a little bit and start with the basics.

What are Modes?

Modes are types of scales, and scales are simply groups of notes (usually 7) organized by a certain, distinctive pattern of whole steps and half steps. Can you think of any types of scales right away? Perhaps major or minor scales come to mind…these are modes! But here’s a more detailed definition:

Modes are types of Major or Minor Scales that start on the seven different pitches within a major scale.

Let’s break that definition up. First, what is meant by “modes are types of major and minor scales”? This means that some modes are very similar to a major scale with at most two altered notes, while some modes are very similar to a natural minor scale, also with at most 2 altered notes (there are also modes created from the harmonic and melodic minor scales, but that is another topic in and of itself).

Second, what do we mean by modes are “scales that start on the seven different pitches within a major scale”? This means that you can find and play each of the primary 7 modes by starting on some major scale (let’s use C major) and then creating new scales using different pitches as your root but keeping all the same notes as in your C major scale. Let’s walk through this:

Notes in a C Major Scale are C-D-E-F-G-A-B

1. First mode: Ionian (major scale)
Root: C
Scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

2. Second mode: Dorian
Root: D
Scale: D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D

3. Third mode: Phrygian
Root: E
Scale: E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E

4. Fourth mode: Lydian
Root: F
Scale: F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F

5. Fifth mode: Mixolydian
Root: G
Scale: G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G

6. Sixth mode: Aeolian (also called Natural Minor)
Root: A
Scale: A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A

7. Seventh mode: Locrian
Root: B
Scale: B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B

As you can see, we have constructed the seven modes by taking the notes in a given major scale—in this case C major—and created new scales by starting on each of the different pitches in that scale.

The Major Scale as a Starting Point

We have perhaps taken for granted what exactly it is that makes up a major scale. It is simply a unique combination of whole steps and half steps. Any major scale can be created by the following “formula:”

W(whole step)—W—H(half step)—W—W—W—H

Therefore, each mode has its unique pattern of whole steps and half steps, but as seen in the above example in C major, that pattern can be found by using the major scale whole step/half step pattern as a starting point.

Final Thoughts

As you practice playing these modes (this can be done rather easily on the piano or guitar) you might notice that two of them sound an awful lot like a natural minor scale (Aeolian), and two of them sound very similar to the major scale (Ionian). This comes in handy once we start to apply these modes into our everyday playing and improvising, because we can use major and minor pentatonic scales as our foundation, then add in two missing notes to create all of our major and minor modes in a way that makes sense when actually using them to play or create music. That’s all for now—stay tuned for much more on this complex topic.