Easy System To Memorize The Key Signatures To All Modes in All Keys

There are 2 approaches to figuring out all modes in all 12 keys.

1) Thinking relative scales:

This is the system taught in music schools.
When you use this approach, you count back a number of scale degree steps to the relative major scale.

Then you figure out the key signature to that major scale. This tells you what the notes are that you are looking for in the mode relative to that major scale.

This approach is mostly “scale degree” driven.

Example:

E Phrygian. Phrygian is the 3rd mode (meaning: “it starts on the 3rd note”) of a major scale.
Counting back 2 whole steps (a major 3rd down): leads us to C major scale.

Conclusion: E Phrygian has the same notes like a C major scale.

Conclusion:
E Phrygian consists of all white keys of the piano: no sharps or flats.

2) Thinking parallel scales.

Paralel scales are scales that start on the same starting note: E major scale, E minor scale, E Phrygian, E Mixolydian, E Locrian, etc..

The parallel scale approach to figuring out what the notes are in a mode, is less tedious than the system of counting scale steps to the relative major scale.

Instead, you think of the particular mode you are trying to figure out in terms of ITS PARALLEL MAJOR SCALE (the major scale starting form the same note as that mode).

Then you make the appropriate alteration to that parallel major scale key signature to reflect the notes in that parallel mode.

The Parallel Approach Explained.

This approach is mostly “key signature” driven.

I’m aware that all the above is a lot to grasp.
The above explanation probably will really only make sense with an example:

E Mixolydian for example.

E Mixo is parallel to E major scale.
Mixolydian is a major scale with a flatted 7th.
“Flatting a note”, means that it goes down a half step. If that note is a sharped note (i.e. D#), then it becomes a white key (i.e. D).

In order to flatten the 7th, so E major scale turns into E Mixolydian scale, I need to drop my number of #’s from 4 to 3.
Conclusion: E Mixo has 3 sharps (F#, C# and G#).

Sharp number 4 in the order of sharps, is D#, which is indeed the 7th note in the key of E major.
Dropping that sharp out of the key signature, lowered D# to D in the scale.
E Mixolydian scale has 3 sharps.

So it is a matter of having memorized then, what the structure is of every mode.

A Brief Explanation of Modes As Related to Their Parallel Major Scale

The first mode, called Ionian, is the regular major scale.
It is essential that you have the key signatures of the major scale in all 12 keys memorized really well.
The better you have the major scale key signatures memorized, the more following info will make sense.

The 2nd mode, Dorian, is a minor scale with a raised 6th.
A minor scale, is a major scale with b3, b6, and b7.
Therefore, Dorian is a major scale with b3 and b7. (No b6th)
In other words: Dorian has the same key signature like its parallel major scale, with 2 notes down a half step.

The 3rd mode, Phrygian, is a minor scale, with a flatted 2nd.
A minor scale, is a major scale with b3, b6, and b7.
Therefore, Phrygain is a major scale with b2, b3, b6 and b7.
In other words: Phrygian has the same key signature like its parallel major scale, with 4 notes down a half step.

The 4th mode, Lydian, is a major scale, with a raised 4th.
One note goes up a half step.
In other words: Lydian has the same key signature like its parallel major scale, with 1 note going up a half step.

The 5th mode, Myxolydian, is a major scale, with a flatted 7th.
One note goes down a half step.
In other words: Phrygian has the same key signature like its parallel major scale, with 4 notes down a half step.

The 6th mode, Aeolian, is also called the minor scale.
A minor scale, is a major scale with b3, b6, and b7.
In other words: Aeolian has the same key signature like its parallel major scale, with 3 notes down a half step.

The 7th and last mode, Locrian, is a minor scale, with a flatted 2nd and a flatted 5th.
A minor scale, is a major scale with b3, b6, and b7.
Therefore, Locrian is a major scale with b2, b3, b5, b6 and b7.
In other words: Locrian has the same key signature like its parallel major scale, with 5 notes down a half step.

This is explained from a different angle in following list:

The Key Signature Relationships Between Each Mode and Its Parallel Major Scale

  1. Lydian = Its parallel Ionian +1# / -1b (1 note goes up a half step, the 4th)

  2. Mixo = Its parallel Ionian +1b / -1# (1 note goes down a half step, the 7th)

  3. Dorian = Its parallel Ionian +2b / -2# (2 notes go down a half step: the 3rd and 7th)

  4. Aeolian = Its parallel Ionian +3b / -3# (3 notes go down a half step: the 3rd, 6th and 7th)

  5. Phrygian = Its parallel Ionian +4b / -4# (4 notes go down a half step: the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th)

  6. Locrian = Its parallel Ionian +5b / -5# (5 notes go down a half step: the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th)

As an example to help make sense of this:

E major scale has 4 sharps.

E Lydian has 5 sharps. (1 note goes up a half step, which adds 1 sharp to the 4 sharps)

E Mixo has 3 sharps. (1 note goes down a half step, which lowers the 4th sharp to a white key. One sharp drops out)

E Dorian has 2 sharps. (2 notes go down a half step, which lowers the 3rd and 4th sharps to white keys. 2 sharps drop out)

E Aeolian has 1 sharp. (3 notes go down a half step, which lowers the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sharps to white keys. 3 sharps drop out)

E Phrygian has no sharps or flats. (4 notes go down a half step, which lowers the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th sharps to white keys. 4 sharps drop out)

E Locrian has 1 flat. (5 notes go down a half step. There are only 4 sharps in the key signature. A 5th note needs to go down after all 4 sharps were dropped. That means that a white key is turning into a flat.)

Example 2:

F major scale has 1 flat
F Lydian has no flats.
F Mixolydian has 2 flats
F Dorian has 3 sharps.
E Aeolian has 4 flats.
E Phrygian has 5flats.
E Locrian has 6 flats.

Advantages To Using The Parallel Scale System.

This is a great way to learn modes cause you can use your knowledge of major scale key signatures to figure out all notes in all other modes much more quickly.

There are a couple of reasons why I believe this approach is more efficient than the relative scale approach taught in all music schools.

My students generally tend to prefer the system of thinking parallel scales too.
Here are a couple of the advantages to thinking parallel rather than relative scales:

1) It is less work and less calculation.

With the system using relative scales; you have to count up or down a number of scale steps to figure out the corresponding relative major scale, and then you still have to figure out the key signature of that corresponding major scale. It is really easy to accidentally mess up a distance between 2 notes as you’re counting through scale degrees.

With parallel scales: you think parallel major scale plus/minus a number of #’s or b’s. All that is required is that:
• You know the key signatures to all major scales
• You have memorized for all 7 modes how many sharps of flats you have to add to or deduct from the major scale key signature

2) Thinking relative scales, takes you away from the harmony.

This is important!

With the parallel scales approach: when you see a Dm chord, your whole thought process stays with something D.
You think:
“D major scale with alteration to its particular key signature to make it some type of Dm scale”.

However with the “relative scale” approach:
You think:

“Ok, I want improvise using D Aeolian. Up 3 frets from D Aeolian gives me: F major/Ionian scale.
Cool: I am playing all the notes of an F major scale over the Dm chord.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with this train of thought, except for the fact that:

• You are not playing a scale that sounds like an F scale, but a D Aeolian sounding scale.
• Your thought process was not coherent with the harmony you are soloing over.
Your mind veered off to F, while you are soloing with a D minor scale over a D minor chord.

The improviser benefits tremendously from being able to think within the harmony: thinking a G scale when you see any G chord, a Bb scale when you see any Bb chord, etc.

An approach that makes you think within the harmony enables you to improvise more freely and in the moment, because you are not spending valuable time, energy and brainpower dealing with scales that take you away from the harmony you are improvising over.

The Relative Scale Approach

Don’t discard the “relative scale” system as a means to figure out notes in modes in all 12 keys though.
Eventually you want to be able to think and work using both approaches equally well.
One of the advantages to “relative scales” is that you deepen your insight in the intervallic relationships (meaning: distances) from one mode to another in all 12 keys.

You probably want to practice both approaches independently from one another.

To practice thinking relative modes: memorize the intervallic relationship of the modes.

  1. Dorian is a whole step above the major scale (Exmple: Think a whole step down to find out that Eb Dorian has the same notes like a Db major scale)

  2. Phrygian is a major 3rd above the major scale (Exmple: Think 2 whole steps down to find out that G Phrygian has the same notes like a Eb major scale)

  3. Lydian is a perfect 4th above the major scale. (Exmple: Think 2 1/2 steps down to find out that B Lydian has the same notes like an F# major scale)

  4. Lydian is a perfect 4th above the major scale. (Exmple: Think 2 1/2 steps down to find out that B Lydian has the same notes like an F# major scale)

  5. Mixolydian is a perfect 5th above the major scale. (Exmple: Think 3 1/2 steps, or in other words a 5th, down to find out that A Mixolydian has the same notes like a D major scale)

  6. Aeolian is 3 frets down from the major scale. (Exmple: Think 1 1/2 steps up to find out that E Aeolian has the same notes like a G major scale)

  7. Locrian is a half step down from the major scale. (Exmple: Think a 1/2 up to find out that B Locrian has the same notes like a C major scale)

Conclusion…

It’s good to practice both ways: but thinking parallel scales will ultimately give you an edge.
Over time of course: through regular practice, you will have all the key signatures to all the modes so well memorized that you don’t have to think about anything anymore.

Like Charlie Parker once said:
“Memorize everything you can about music… then forget it all”.

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  1. Scott Gourlay Says:

    You are the first person to correctly explain out the difference, and how there is confusing when people speak about modes..Ihave been self teaching myself music theory, and everwhere its the same.. All truths, but no warnings about how not describing them in relationship to chords from a parallel vs a relative way of thinking can cause all the confusion… Also the way b2 b3 b7 etc means something totally different if you do not understand key signatures..

    Very well put… I commend you, and now its clear as clean glass.. thanks for your time, and care with words..

    May 30th, 2019 at 2:29 pm
  2. vreny Says:

    Thank you very much Scott for the lovely comments. Yes I’m really good at picking apart music theory into easy to understand bits, then building it up again in a very logical way that is easy to follow and understand. It is one of the reasons why my students progress way faster than students of most any other music teacher. Cheers, Vreny.

    June 20th, 2019 at 2:17 pm