To understand musical modes and their structure means to know music on a whole new level. Their is truth in the fact that a musician can go a life time without knowing a single mode, and play exceptionally well, but what that musician may not realize is that modes are always in play. Even if you claim to not know a single musical mode, you are still in fact using them on a daily basis.
In this article I’m going to attempt to explain in simple terms how modes actually work and interact with music. This is no easy chore, and the understanding usually comes to the studious musician in a sort of “aha!” moment.
First, what is a mode in the simplest of definitions? Well, a musical mode is a series of notes with very specific intervals. An interval could be thought of as the progressive phrasing from one note to another.
If I were to give advice to a new guitarist on how to learn and master all the scales and modes, I would tell them to do it in a certain order.
This is what that order would look like.
The C Chromatic Scale
The C Major Scale
The Major Scale in all keys
The Natural Minor Scale
I would tell them to go ahead and start with the C chromatic scale, because it is actually the mother of all scales, and not the C major scale. This is because it contains every note in the musical alphabet. You can go ahead and master it right now, by starting on C and then playing every single fret or note up to the next C.
And then there is the actual order of modes, which is.
You should take the time to memorize this order of modes, because it is very important in learning the construction of each mode. A good way to do this is to create a little saying based off of the first letter of each mode. An example of this would be “I Don’t Pick Little Mice After Lunch”. OK, that was pretty cheesy, but if you come up with your own phrase, then it will stick better.
The reason that it is so important to memorize the order of modes is because these modes are actually constructed from the major scale, and they are constructed in this same order. It doesn’t matter what the tonic (root note) of the scale is. It doesn’t matter if its the C Major scale or the F Major scale, because they can be constructed in this same order from any position on the guitar neck.
This is where it gets confusing to most guitarists. You don’t actually construct a new mode by moving the major scale up to another key and starting it from their. Instead, a mode starts from a different position in the major scale.
Here’s how I will best explain it. There are seven notes in every scale and mode. There’s the 1st (root note), 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th notes. There is an 8th note, but it is simply the octave. It will always be the same as the 1st note, which is your root note.
If there are seven notes to any scale or more then I find it quite interesting that there are seven modes, don’t you?
If the order of these modes is so important, then why is that? Because each one of those numbers beside the mode represents a different note position in the major scale.
1 = 1st (root)
2 = 2nd
3 = 3rd
4 = 4th
5 = 5th
6 = 6th
7 = 7th
Now I will explain to you that the Ionian mode starts on the 1st note of the major scale that you are in. This actually means that when you are playing any major scale, you are actually playing Ionian as well.
If you are playing the G major scale then you are also playing Ionian out of G, note for note. Now let’s look at a simple modification of the example above.
1 = 1st (root) Ionian
2 = 2nd Dorian
3 = 3rd Phrygian
4 = 4th Lydian
5 = 5th Mixolydian
6 = 6th Aeolian
7 = 7th Locrian
By starting on the 2nd note of the G major scale you will be creating A Dorian, because A is the second note of the G major scale. The A is now your root note for the Dorian mode.
In order to finish out the mode, just remember that there are a total of seven notes that you have to play to complete that mode. Because of this, you will always be gaining a note as you move up through the modes. If you have your guitar handy, you’ll know just what I’m talking about.
Now we’re going to look at it like this. The numbers on the left will be the note positions of the major scale, while the numbers on the right will be the note positions of the Dorian mode.
1st (root for major)
2nd (root for Dorian) 1st
8th (octave root note) 7th
It repeats like that for every mode. The 3rd note of the major scale would actually be the starting point and 1st note of the Phrygian mode.
What about the minor modes? These surely must all have a major sound to them!
This isn’t true, because modality is actually an aural illusion, which effects our mood reaction. Its because of this that we deem something to have a happier, major sound, while casting a stone on something that has a darker mood, like a minor sound.
These modes can all be constructed from the major scale, but here is a listing of what modes have been deemed to have a major presence, and what modes have been classified to have a more minor presence.
And Locrian is actually classified as a Diminished mode. This is because it is the only mode with a diminished 5th.
Also, if you take the time to study the natural minor scale, you will find out that it is the same as the Aeolian mode. Just as the Ionian mode is the same as the major scale, the Aeolian mode has the same tonal quality as the natural minor scale.
A little bit of advice
Once you get this tricky concept locked into your head, it then becomes confusing when trying to construct a mode from a major scale that starts in a different key.
Its all bread and roses if you practice your modes out of the G major scale, but then it becomes confusing if you decide to practice these modes out of the A major scale, and so on.
The only way to truly master this is to take your time with each key of the major scale. The good news is that this formula doesn’t change. Stick to one position of the major scale, and take the time to call out the starting root note of each mode, before moving to the next. Make sure that you have these memorized, before going to A major and so forth, because once you change the key of the major scale, the root notes of the modes are going to change as well.
It takes a little bit of time, but if you stick with it and don’t rush, you’ll get their. Best of luck!