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UPDATED: July 19th, 2011

I listen to all types of music, but I think you’ll see from this blog that pop music is what gets me excited. From years of working as an audio engineer, I’ve found that many pop songwriters (except the old school ones at the very top) have little, if any, formal music education. But the internet is changing all that, and I want to help in any way that I can. I’ve researched modes online to see what’s out there, and frankly most of it is either downright confusing or written exclusively for guitarists. So without further adieu…

Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians

You probably already know that there are two types of keys: major and minor (aka the “happy” and “sad” scales, respectively). But what if I told you that there are also 5 other exciting, sexy scales to choose from?

pianoPlay a major scale. Now play those same notes, but this time start from the sixth note (or “degree”) of the scale. You’ll notice that it sounds dark–you’re playing what’s known as the “relative minor” of your original major scale. Every major scale has one. Take C major and A minor, for example: they are comprised of the exact same notes (the white keys on the piano) but sound very different.

Already knew that? Here’s something you may not have tried: start from another degree of the major scale other than the first or sixth. These scales are called modes. You’ll notice that they have an unusual but not entirely unfamiliar sound. Each mode has its own general vibe. Technically, the major and minor scales are also considered modes, but songs written in these two most common scales are not thought of as “modal” music. Listed in order of degrees that they start from on the major scale:

1 – The Major Scale (aka “Ionian Mode”) – The most common scale there is.

2 – Dorian Mode – Minor with an exotic twist.* Often associated with the Eastern world, particularly Asia, or psychedelic music (see: the first half of “Come Alive“). Minor scale shape with a raised 6th degree (starting from the root of this Dorian scale, not from the relative major scale).

3 – Phrygian Mode – Darker than the regular minor scale. Most commonly used in metal and rap (see: “Swagger Like Us“). Minor scale shape with a lowered 2nd degree.

4 – Lydian Mode – Major with an exotic twist. Used mostly in film music and dreamy rock (see: intro to “Dancin Days“). Major scale shape with raised 4th degree.

5 – Mixolydian – Major with a rock edge. Defined the 90s pop rock sound (see: “Since U Been Gone“). Can sometimes sound Eastern. Often referred to as “Mixo” for short. Major scale shape with a flatted 7th degree.

6 – The Minor Scale – All styles. More specifically called “natural minor” or “aeolian mode.” I sometimes call it the “regular minor” scale because everyone knows what that means, but that’s not an academic name for it.

7 – Locrian Mode – A very unstable, confusing-sounding version of minor. (see: “YYZ“) Some argue that our ears cannot perceive a song as being Locrian for reasons which I will not get into. Minor scale shape with a flatted 2nd and 5th degree.

To make things even clearer, you can play the following scales with the notes CDEFGAB:

C Major, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Minor, and B Locrian.

Now you’re probably wondering: “if all these scales use the same notes, how do we know what mode a song is in?” After all, if you read my compositional analysis of “Kids” by MGMT, you know that major key songs don’t always start on the root note.

Unfortunately that answer is mostly beyond the scope of this article and not always definitive. Each mode has its own identifying characteristics in a compositional context (versus a soloing context), but for now, try to hear which root note/chord feels like “home,” and use that information, along with which scale degrees are being used, to deduce what mode you’re in.

It can be tough to write something that actually sounds modal, because certain chords will cause the listener to hear the song in the relative major or minor key (the one that has the same notes as whatever mode you’re in). For this reason, there is typically very little bass movement in modal music.

Modes are not the end-all be-all of music or scales. Far from it. There are many other harmonic possibilities including pentatonic scales (5 notes per scale instead of 7), harmonic minor (regular minor with a raised 7th), songs where the key changes from section to section, songs that borrow chords from parallel keys, secondary dominant chords, and even songs with two different keys at once (polytonality). The list goes on. Nonetheless, being aware of modes will give you yet another tool for your songwriting toolbox.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. If there’s something you still don’t understand, feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to clarify it. Theory won’t make you a great songwriter, and it’s certainly not required for becoming one, but you can think of it as a toolbox for understanding what you love or hate about certain songs and a potential cure for writer’s block.

*A great rock guitar player on getting through jazz solos: “play dorian over everything and people will think you’re hip.”

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7 Responses to “Keith’s Crash Course on Modes For Self-Taught Musicians”

  1. Erlend says:

    I like to think of all music as modal, because it helps me to think root notes, and different possibilities for chord extentions in composition. I basically think of any dominant/ bidominant chord as some version of mix or alterated chord instead of a sign of major/ minor tonality. But that’s me.

    I was just curious: Why can’t we hear in locrian?

    And haha @ “play dorian over everything and people will think you’re hip.”

  2. FixYourMix says:

    @Erlend: I am working on a post to answer your question.

  3. FixYourMix says:

    The short answer is that the root chord of a Locrian song is a diminished triad, which is considered too unstable to sound like “home” because of its tritone interval.

    Here’s the long answer:

  4. Dan says:

    Hey Keith, love the article, found it explained it really well. Just have a quick question..
    If you’re in C Major and you’re playing the Lydian Mode, what chords do you play that over..?
    If for example I played it over say F,Am,C,G (or any chord sequence in the key of C) it kinda sounds just like a C major scale..??
    Cheers, Dan

  5. Keith says:

    @Dan- not sure if I understand your question, so I’ll just give you as much information as I can. You can play an F Lydian scale over any chord in the C major progression because they contain the same notes. Your ear may not recognize it as Lydian though, unless it’s over an F major chord.

    Lydian is considered a “mostly major” mode because it has only a one-note difference from the major (Ionian) mode: the major mode has a perfect 4th while Lydian uses a tritone. For example the only difference between C major and C Lydian is F versus F#, respectively. You could technically play C Lydian over a C major progression if you only use the chords which do not contain F natural, but if you’re doing that, you technically wouldn’t call it C major anymore, you’d call it a “modal mixture”–the song has temporarily moved from C major to C Lydian. Hope this helps.

  6. […] sixths. We covered a year’s musical academia in our Adelaide week, and in a whirl of tea, chess, theory, youtube karaoke, and three-dollar chocolate Bavarian straight from the freezer, our magic week had […]

  7. Kyle says:

    This is a refreshingly simple course on modes. If any one is interested here is a very helpful site that illustrates this visually:

    Also, it would be nice if you had a follow up post to explain pentatonics, harmonic minors, and borrowing chords in a way that is as easy to follow along as this.

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