Guitar Modes: An Overview of the Seven Main Modes
WHAT ARE MODES?
Hi guys! Now we’re down to one of the most confusing concepts of music theory: Musical modes. A mode is technically a specific sequence of whole steps and half steps that begins on one note and ends on the same note an octave higher. If you would look at it, it functions as a scale, right? And yes, it is a scale with a catch – these are within the scale.
Modes originate from ancient Greece but were used historically as scales during the Medieval times. It is usually heard in Gregorian chants – music for churches. After that, it was later discontinued because tonality developed during the Renaissance period. Other cultures use modes for improvisation in their musical forms. Today, most musicians around the world use modes for improvisation more often than not.
These “scales” are used by modern musicians to add their very own flavor to their compositions. It is what usually makes them stand out from other musicians who play the same genre or type of music. Others use modes just to differentiate the feel of the music at a certain point in the songs, but then float back to the song’s original tonality.
MODES VS. SCALES
You might be thinking that all modes are scales and all scales are modes, right? Nope! What exactly is the difference between a scale and a mode? A scale is a set of pitches in ascending order. And modes are indicators located within the degrees of a scale. A mode can start at any point of a scale and play it in ascending order (see image below).
In other words, a scale can stand alone. A mode can not. It took me quite some time to understand the difference between a scale and a mode. But it is actually as easy as understanding which can stand alone and which can not.
DIFFERENT KINDS OF MODES
You might have encountered the terms “lydian” or “dorian” at a jazz bar, right? I’m gonna discuss with you the different kinds of modes. And there are seven modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. I’ll be using the C Major key as an example moving forward.
We’re gonna start off with the first scale degree, Ionian. This is the same with the C major scale. Its sequence goes with W-W-h-W-W-W-h. Almost all songs that are in the key of C major have an Ionian solo or musical phrase because the Ionian is just basically the scale of C major. Ionian in C is built on the notes C D E F G A and B.
The Dorian mode starts on the second degree of a major scale. Its sequence goes with W-h-W-W-W-h-W. You can think of this as a natural minor scale with a raised 6th. Listen to “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson – this song uses Dorian. Dorian in C uses the following notes: D E F G A B and C.
The Phrygian mode starts on the third degree of a major scale. Its sequence goes with h-W-W-W-h-W-W. You can think of this as a natural minor scale with a flattened 2nd. A good example of Phrygian would be Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2. C Phrygian will contain E F G A B C and D.
The Lydian mode starts on the 4th degree of a major scale. Its sequence goes with W-W-W-h-W-W-h. You can think of this as a major scale with a raised 4th. If you watch The Simpsons, you’ll have a good idea of what the theme song is like – this has the Lydian mode in it. C Lydian is composed of F G A B C D and E.
The Mixolydian mode starts on the 5th degree of a major scale. Its sequence goes with W-W-W-h-W-W-h-W. You can think of this as a major scale with a flattened 7th. “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles uses this, so listen to it to have an idea of what a Mixolydian should sound like. Mixolydian in C has the notes G A B C D E and F.
The Aeolian mode starts on the 6th degree of the major scale. This just looks like a natural minor scale. Its sequence goes with W-h-W-W-h-W-W. One example would be Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”. Notes in C Aeolian would be A B C D E F and G.
Lastly, the Locrian mode starts on the 7th degree of a major scale. Its sequence goes with h-W-W-h-W-W-W. This mode may sound a bit weird! Since this is a bit difficult to compose to due to its uneasy dissonance, there are only a few songs with this. The most popular one would probably be Bjork’s “Army of Me”. Notes in C Locrian are B C D E F G and A.
Now that you know what the seven modes are, let us talk about how to apply them.
Let us use a progression from the C major scale as an example moving forward. Suppose that I use Dm-G-C (ii-V-I) as a progression: I’ll allot one bar for Dm and G, and two bars for C. I will use two modes for this progression — Dorian and Mixolydian. In the D minor chord, Dorian will be the best to use because D is at the second degree of the C major scale. If you look at it, relating D minor chord to Dorian mode, D is on the 1st degree, F on 3rd degree, and A on 5th degree of Dm which can serve as D natural minor with a raised 6th.
I’m not saying that you can only use these given the example above. There are a lot of uses for modes besides the ones I used, but the possibilities are based on your experience in music. Try it for yourself! Maybe the ones I used above does not suit your taste and maybe what you’ll use won’t even suit mine as well. It’s really just a matter of perspective in the end.
It took me quite a while to understand modes given my personal experience with it. I thought, “why do I have to know these modes if they’re just merely scales located in different scale degrees”? Why not just focus on the major and minor scale? I realized later on that there are different genres and styles of music – jazz for one, and latin genres for another, which are not based on the major and minor scale. There are scales that are modally approached. In other words, it turns out that modes bring a different kind of “flavor” when applied.
I know it will really take some time to understand and master these. To understand this further, try to apply these in one genre or style before applying it to other styles. Hear how famous guitarists apply different types of modes to their songs like Pat Metheny, Wes Montgomery, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and others.
The possibilities for guitar solos are endless once you understand what modes are and furthermore if you can properly identify them from any key. While most musicians base their solos off tonality, you can try mixing that up and add a bit of flavor with Locrian and Lydian. What are your thoughts on modes and their applications? If you any experience with these modes, feel free to share it with us by commenting below!
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