The Modes Explained

Learn The Modes To Boost Your Guitar Soloing Power

Ionian.

Ionian is the regular major scale, with half steps between 3-4 and 7-8. (C, C6, Cmaj7)
Ionian scale works over major triads, 6 and maj7 chords.

C Ionian

Dorian.

Dorian is the scale that is built on the second degree of the major scale.
It is a minor scale and its characteristic tone, which distinguishes this scale from the natural minor (also called Aeolian scale), is the raised 6th (D Dorian has a B note instead of Bb). (Dm, Dm7)
Dorian scale works over minor triads and m7 chords.

D Dorian

Phrygian.

This is the scale that is built on the third degree of the major scale.
It is a minor scale and its characteristic tone is the flat 2nd, which gives the scale its Spanish flavor. (Em, Em7)
Phrygian scale works over minor triads and m7 chords.

E Phrygian

Lydian.

This is the scale that is built on the fourth degree of the major scale.
It is a major scale and its characteristic pitch is the raised 4th (F Lydian has a B instead of Bb).
Because of the 3 whole steps in a row, this scale is more open and brighter sounding than the regular major scale. (F, F6, Fmaj7)
Lydian scale works over major triads, 6 and maj7 chords.

F Lydian

Mixolydian.

This is the scale that is built on the fifth degree of the major scale.
It is a major scale and its characteristic pitch is the (dominant) flatted 7th. (G7)
Mixolydian scale works over major triads, dominant 7 chords.

G Mixo

Aeolian.

This is the scale that is built on the sixth degree of the major scale.
This is the regular minor scale, also called the natural minor or relative minor, with half steps between 2-3 and 5-6. (Am, Am7)
Aeolian scale works over minor triads and m7 chords.

A Aeolian

Locrian.

This is the scale that is built on the seventh degree of the major scale.
It is a minor scale and its characteristic pitches are the flatted 5th and the (dominant) flatted 2nd. (Bdim, Bm7b5)
Locrian scale works over diminished triads and m7b5 chords.

B Locrian

Modes: what’s the big deal? Isn’t This Just All C Major Scale?

Music teachers usually see blank expressions on student’s faces after explaining all the above.

And the question that almost always arises right away:

“I don’t get it. This is all just C major scale starting from a different note. Right?”

NO!
These really are 7 different scales.

This chapter will resolve all possible confusion one might have about modes.

I remember how this was incredibly confusing to me back when I was first introduced to the concept of “modes” in music school.

I couldn’t understand how scales that all consist of the same 7 notes, could be 7 different scales.
Unfortunately: I found that teachers generally tend to explain this material quite inadequately.

It always amuses me when my students showcase the same recognizable confusion and ask me the same questions I once struggled with.
They typically always “get it” instantly when I share following information…

It all boils down to following simple concept:

A C major scale, could NEVER possibly sound like a C major scale unless it is played over a C major chord

When you play a C major scale, over a Dm chord, then it sounds like a D Dorian scale.
When you play a C major scale over an Em chord, then it sounds like an E Phrygian scale
When you play a C major scale over an F chord, then it sounds like an F Lydian scale
When you play a C major scale over a G chord, then it sounds like a G Mixolydian scale
When you play a C major scale over an Am chord, then it sounds like an A Aeolian scale
When you play a C major scale over a Bdim chord, then it sounds like a B Locrian scale

Why does the sound of the scale change from being a C scale to sounding like another scale?

Answer: Because of how you are playing the scale!
You don’t use all the white keys of the piano the same way over a C chord as you do over a Dm or over an F chord.

You change the sound of the scale from a C major scale to sounding like a different scale, because the chord over which you improvise, lead you to “outline” and “emphasize” different notes of the scale over different chords.

What does this mean: “outline”, “emphasize”?

Well this is where things get interesting.
It simply means: “the notes that you start and end your phrases on”.
Even more so than the first note in your melodic phrase, the last note in your phrase tends to stick out as the note that creates the most tension or resolution against the chord.

So in other words: without maybe realizing it, you don’t play these 7 notes the same way over a C chord as you do over an F chord, or a G chord, or and Am chord, etc.
This is due to our inherent dislike of unresolved tension.

It is our inherent nature to resolve tension.
This is showcased in an interesting way, when I have students improvise over chords I accompany them with.
I tell them to improvise in the key of C major, and guess what??

Without usually fully realizing it,

1. When I am playing a C chord groove: students tend to end all their phrases on the notes C, E and G
2. When however I am playing a Dm chord groove: almost all their phrases tend to end on the notes D, F and A
3. Over an Em chord groove, almost all their phrases end on the notes E, F and G
4. Over and F chord groove, they end almost all their phrases end on the notes F, A and C
5. Over A G chord groove, almost all their phrases end on the notes G, B and D
6. Over an Am chord groove, almost all their phrases end on the notes A, C and E
7. Over a B-7b5 groove, almost all their phrases end on the notes B, D and F.

The student who is playing guitar solos, adapts the notes in the scale to the chord I am playing.

When your ending note in your melodic phrase is one of the notes in the chord you are improvising over, then your phrase sounds resolved.
The colors match: your phrase is one with the chord; your phrase is in harmony with the chord.

A note/sound creates tension when that note is played over a chord that note doesn’t belong to.

Why do students unknowingly resolve their notes to chords?

Their “feel” has a way of leading their fingers to the notes that sound “pleasant”.
A solo that consists of chords tones (notes that also belong to the chord you’re soloing over), sounds pleasant.
When you play lots of chord tones in your solo, then there is no tension of your notes against the chord.

This leads to the next important point:

Our inner ear has a tendency to group single notes together into chords.
What this means is that, when I play a short melodic phrase, ending on an F note, then one ending on a D note, and then the next one ending on an A note, you will in your inner ear hear a Dm chord, even if there was nobody around playing chords.
Your inner ear puts the notes D F and A together, and you hear a Dm chord.

The part in the human brain that regulates auditory perception has a way of remembering the last note(s) in consecutive melodic phrases and grouping these notes together.

So far you learned that you are playing a C major scale when you play all the white keys of the piano.
However; when you play melodies using all the notes of a C scale, but starting and ending all your phrases with the notes of a Dm chord (D, F and A), your inner ear will hear a scale that is centered around a Dm chord now.

All the white keys of the piano will no longer sound like a C scale, but like some sort of Dm scale now.
The name of that scale is a D Dorian scale.

As a matter of fact: I urge you to improvise with all the white keys of the piano over a C chord, NOT resolving ONE single phrase to the notes C, E or G.
Instead: end all phrases on the notes D, F and A.
You can play the other 4 notes of the scale as well; just play them as passing notes between D and F and between F and A, and don’t resolve to anything else than the notes D, F and A.

You will be surprised at how incredibly bad and tedious this sounds over a C chord.
After a while the phrases will even end up sounding downright annoying to you.

Why?

It will sound tedious because not one phrase will resolve into the C chord.
You will get antsy because your inner peace of mind will want resolution.
You will feel a strong desire to end the constant musical tension created by the constant occurrence of notes that don’t belong to the chord you are improvising over.
It will sound like you are tone deaf.

IT WILL SOUND LIKE YOU ARE PLAYING THE WRONG SCALE!!!

(Even though you are playing all the white keys of the piano over a C major chord.)

When you end the melody lines you come up with over a given chord, on notes that sound “pleasing” (resolved) to you: that scale you use to create those melodies with, then ends up sounding like that chord.
Meaning: the scale sounds like a C scale over a C chord, and like a D Dorian scale over a Dm chord, and like an E Phrygian Scale over an E minor chord, etc.

Hence: any 7-note scale can sound like 7 different scales.
It all depends on which notes you resolve to, which is dictated by the chord you are soloing over.
In other words: how you use a scale, depends on the chord you are soloing over.

That is why and how modes work.

That is why the 7 modes really ARE 7 different scales created from the same 7 notes.

All 7 modes have their own particular:

  1. Structure of half and whole steps.
  2. Unique scale sound created by its scale structure
  3. Connection to 1 particular chord and key, created by the notes you chose to outline in the scale.
    Meaning: an F Lydian scale sounds like it is in the key of F and works over an F chord.

How To Practice The Modes.

One thing you probably want to spend time with now:

Create a 1-chord backing track in Logic, Garageband or Band In A Box looping a C chord.
Then improvise one 1 single string with a C major scale for a couple of minutes.
For fun, do this on every string for a couple of minutes.
You can do this with scale fingerings if you like, but there are numerous benefits to soloing on 1 string only.

Enjoy the sound created by the scale, and be attentive to the feel and atmosphere that the scale creates over the chord.

Then do the same over a Dm chord.
Notice how the “C major scale” has a TOTALLY different color and feel now.
It’s no longer a C major scale now but a D Dorian scale.

Then do the same drill over Em, F, G, Am and Bdim chords.

Enjoy the new sounds you are discovering.

Do this for a week or so whenever you have some time.
This is exciting: you now learned tons of new scales and discovered tons of new colors.

Next week we’ll talk about chord progressions in modes.
Be prepared to learn a lot. 🙂

Be on the look out for more blogs about everything guitar, music, songwriting and music education.

Meanwhile: give this blog a rating and give me your feedback in the comments section below. I believe everything can always be improved, and I gladly would implement your suggestions and ideas in this blog or the next.



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