AF’s Weblog

September 25, 2009

Spice it up! An Introduction To Modes

Filed under: Instructional articles — audiofanzine @ 8:24 am


The aim of this article is to serve as a simple and straightforward introduction, or re-introduction, to the wonderful, but sometimes confusing world of modes.

There are quite a few misconceptions about modes and how they work. Much of the confusion comes from the word “mode” itself, since it implies more of a reference to another scale than an actual scale in its own right. We’ve all heard, or read, and half understood, that modes are based on this or that scale (usually the major scale), and that all you need to do is play from a certain degree (note) up or down the scale one octave to the same note and you get the mode in question. And, of course, when you tried it, you didn’t hear any difference so you gave up!

The problem with this over-simplification (though technically it is true) is that it overlooks the most important aspect of modes and possibly of music itself: context! If you are playing over a C drone or C major chord progression, and your ear hears C major, you can play E Phrygian or F Lydian (two modes “based” on the C major scale) until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll never hear anything but a C major sound (see Ex. 1)! Context is everything: if you play, over that same C drone, a C Lydian or C Phrygian scale (mode) then you definitely will hear a change and a different flavor(see Ex. 2). Sometimes the flavor change is slight and sometimes it’s radical!

Ex.1: C Major, E Phrygian, F Lydian over a C drone: The C major sound is unbroken even though E phrygian and F Lydian are being played

Ex 2: C Phrygian, C Mixolydian, and C Lydian over a C drone: You should hear three distinct flavors

Static versus Changing Harmonies

In this article we won’t be dealing with modes in the context of jazz or changing harmonies. We’ll be concentrating on static or “modal” harmonies. This means that even though there may be more than one chord, the harmony, or mode, or key center will stay the same (or in the case of a drone: neutral).

The reason for this is that in non-modal jazz there’s usually a quick succession of chords and changing key centers, and modes in this context just fly by, making it difficult to feel or hear any kind of flavor or get any kind of appreciation of the mode. Plus modes in this traditional jazz context are often just a means of playing the right notes (playing in) or playing “wrong” notes( playing dissonant or purposely playing “wrong” notes) over a given chord.

By taking our time and playing over static modal harmonies, or just a drone, we’ll be able to hear and eventually recognize the different flavors of each mode.

Scale or Mode?

I won’t be making any difference between scale and mode because they are virtually the same thing. For all intents and purposes: any mode is also a scale (sort of like the particle/wave duality of light ); and any scale could be considered a mode of another related scale. For the moment, the goal is to try and simplify things and cut away some of the jargon.

Now let’s take a deeper look…


The modes presented here are just 3 out of the 7 diatonic modes. Two of the other 4 should already be familiar to you. They are: Ionian, which is nothing more or less than the major scale; and Aeolian, which is the minor (natural) scale. This leaves: Dorian, which is very similar to the natural minor scale, and Locrian, which is probably one of the least used scales/modes in music (except maybe to solo over certain chords) .

Spice your music!

For the moment, you should concentrate on these three modes, and make sure you learn and hear them well before moving on to other stuff. Just like with other aspects of music, you need to build strong foundations. Learning too many scales at a time will only ensure that you play none well.Try to remember that every mode has it’s distinctive flavor. And it’s usually just one or two notes (intervals) that create that distinctive flavor. It’s these notes that you should try to recognize. For example, if you listen to Sting’s « when we dance »; at first it just sounds like a basic major-scale sound, but then he sings that #4 and everything just changes. Just that one note gives the whole song a different feel and flavor. And this is important: each mode has a different spice or flavor to it, and they often have an effect on our emotions. Movie composers know that well, and have been using changing modes to play with or heighten our emotions since the beginning of cinema.

If you decide to jump ahead and look at other modes, don’t forget about context! It’s good to know what scale each mode is derived from, but remember that if you’re playing mode X (that is related to or derived from mode Y) that you should be hearing an X tonality (try a drone on X), and not Y. If you’re hearing Y as the tonal center while trying to play mode X, then you’re just wasting your time.

As stated before, listening and recognizing are crucial. Record yourself playing different modes and see if you can tell which one is being played and where the characteristic notes are. Also, a good way of seeing if you have understood something is to try to explain it to others. So go and find someone patient (preferably a musician) and see if you can teach them what you’ve learned.

To read the full detailed article see:  An Introduction to Modes

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