Theory: The Modes

There are a gazillion books etc… out there devoted to the topic of major scale modes, so why cover it again here? Because most of the stuff I’ve seen overcomplicate the subject beyond what’s necessary. Here’s my (hopefully) simplified version.

The Basics:

A major scale is a pattern of whole and half steps from a given root note:

C maj

In C Major: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
This is the Ionian mode.

If you start on the D and play up the scale using the same notes, you get
W-H-W-W-W-H-W, which is the Dorian mode.

If you simply repeat this process for each note in the scale, you derive all 7 mode patterns.Listen:


Now What?

Now that we have the patterns, here’s how to use them.

First, the two main patterns are:

  • Ionian (major scale)
  • Aeolian (natural minor scale)

We will use these two patterns to compare all other modes.

The best way to memorize the scales is to know how each mode differs from the basic Major and Minor scales.

Here’s a guide:

  • Ionian: Major
  • Dorian: Minor w/ SHARP 6
  • Phrygian: Minor w/ FLAT 2
  • Lydian: Major w/ SHARP 4
  • Mixolydian: Major w/ FLAT 7
  • Aeolian: Natural Minor
  • Locrian: Minor w/ FLAT 2 AND FLAT 5

Listen to all modes from the same root (C)


When you play them all from the same root note, you can really hear how the pattern makes each mode different. This is also where people get confused. Essentially, what I just did was play the patterns we derived from the major scale, starting on the same note each time to illustrate the interval patterns.

To go a step further, take the triad (1 3 5) from each pattern and you get the chords for each mode.

Mode Triad 7th added
Ionian MAJOR maj 7
Dorian MINOR min 7
Phrygian MINOR min 7
Lydian MAJOR maj 7
Mixolydian MAJOR dom 7
Aeolian MINOR min 7
Locrian 1/2 DIMINISHED min 7 b5

So, in actuality, the underlying CHORD defines the mode, if you are playing a major scale.

If you were playing a song in the key of C Major, and the chord moved to D minor, but you kept playing C major scale notes, you are now playing ‘IN’ the Dorian mode.

If the chord moved to E minor, you would be playing in the Phrygian mode, etc… The
important part here is that you keep playing the SAME MAJOR SCALE NOTES
(CDEFGAB for C major) when the chords change.

Modal Jamming

Now, to go a step farther, you can also play the characteristic sound of a mode without ever ‘resolving’ to the parent major scale.

EXAMPLE: if you had a vamp in D MINOR, and played the Dorian mode (C major scale), you would be playing ‘Dorian’, or minor with a sharp 6th. Basically, the Sharp 6th is the ‘focus’ note.

EXAMPLE: if you had a vamp in F MAJOR and played the LYDIAN mode (C major scale), you would be playing ‘LYDIAN’, or major with a sharp 4th. Basically, the Sharp 4th is the ‘focus’ note.

Making sense yet? Perhaps you are ready for single-string modes?