One of the things that make many musicians scratch their heads are the modes. Let’s face it: They are so confusing yet in fact you need to learn and understand how to use them if you want to improve your musical skills and knowledge. We always hear how to use the modes in everything from writing songs to soloing over a complex jazz piece. In this piece, I’m going to show a couple of ways regarding how to understand modes.
Now, for us to understand this tutorial, we need to know what a major scale is and the names of the modes. Since we have seven notes in the major scale, we also get seven modes.
The Major Scale and it’s Relative Modes
We have this nice graphic above that shows our C major scale and its relative modes. We can easily play the each of the major scale’s relative modes by starting the same major scale at a different note and then we name the mode according to that starting mode. For example, if I want to play D Dorian, I just play the C major scale a.k.a. Ionian mode starting at D as a root. Sound-wise, you will notice that by starting the same scale at a different note, you rearrange the order of intervals. Add to the fact that you now consider the different note as the root note, you will tend to return to it every now and then, making you hear a scale that is very different from your original major scale.
And so, to figure out…
…the Ionian mode, we start our major scale at the 1st note (it’s just the same major scale, duh!) (I).
…the relative Dorian mode, we start our major scale at the 2nd note (ii).
…the relative Phrygian mode, we start our major scale at the 3rd note (iii).
…the relative Lydian mode, we start our major scale at the 4th note (IV).
…the relative Mixolydian mode, we start our major scale at the 5th note (V).
…the relative Aeolian mode, we start our major scale at the 6th note (this also happens to be our relative minor scale) (vi).
…the relative Locrian mode, we start our major scale at the 7th note (vii).
Figuring out the Parallel Modes
Figuring out how to learn and play the parallel modes (e.g. C major, C locrian, C Phrygian, etc.) is a trickier thing. There are a number of ways to do it. The technical way is to analyze our relative modes, check the order of intervals, and then apply that order of intervals to a particular root note. For example, I know that the Ionian mode/major scale follows the order of whole step (W)-W-half step (H)-W-W-W-H pattern of intervals. By looking at, say for example our E Phrygian in our relative modes section, we find out that the pattern is now H-W-W-W-H-W-W with a flat 2nd. So, let’s say I want to know what Bb Phrygian is, I figured out that it is Bb-Cb-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab. I can do the same procedure for the other modes. Quite taxing, isn’t it?
What if we put it this way instead? We can categorize each mode as major (if it has a major 3rd) or minor (if it has a minor 3rd). By figuring out the formula for each mode, I now have this shortcut:
Major modes = Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian
Minor modes = Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian
All I have to do next is figure out which interval is different from that of our standard major and minor scale. Now, let’s assume that we already know that the major scale (Ionian) has a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th. Let’s also assume that we know our natural minor scale (Aeolian) as having a major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. It’s time for us now to figure out how our other modes are built:
Dorian = Minor scale with major 6th instead of minor 6th
Phrygian = Minor scale with minor 2nd instead of major 2nd
Lydian = Major scale with augmented 4th instead of perfect 4th
Mixolydian = Major scale with minor 7th instead of major 7th
Locrian = Minor scale with with minor 2nd and diminished 5th
Still too difficult to figure out by this method? Okay, by doing it this way, it does involve some time to study. However there are easier ways.
We can use the relative mode order in order to figure out how to play a mode correctly. All you have to do is know what order does a particular mode appear to know the sequence order of the root note of that particular mode in a particular major scale. Confusing, right? Here’s a concrete example:
Let’s say that I want to play a D Mixolydian. Now, from the study of relative modes, I know that Mixolydian is the 5th mode and so its root note is the 5th note of a particular major scale, which I find out to be G in this case. And so, all I have to do play D Mixolydian is play the G major scale but start with the D.
Let’s also say that I want to play Ab Phrygian instead. Since Phrygian is the third mode, Ab is the third note of the Fb major scale. Now, you might say, “What the hell, Mark! There’s no such thing as Fb major.” Relax, I’ll explain it for you. From a strictly music theory standpoint, there is. But for the sake of practical use, it is just the E major scale, and so now we think of Ab as G# and then play the E major scale starting at G# to get ourselves the Ab Phrygian mode. I think that this is the simplest way of learning and playing the modes.
As for actual use in songwriting, composition, and soloing using modes, there are plenty of resources on the web for that. Anyway, you can always drop a line or two at the comments box if you have questions regarding modes and other stuff. Thanks.