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Modes are a great resource for both improvising and composing. They give us a great variety of harmonic choices, but it’s often difficult to remember the difference between one and the other. In this article, we will look at a way to remember which notes make up a certain mode.
In order to do so, we will have to build upon a previous knowledge of major and minor scales. Let’s go in order.
What is a mode in the first place?
A mode is like a scale: It is a collection of pitches which have a certain relationship between each other. Just like any major or minor scale, a mode has a Tonic (a point of rest) and a “Dominant” (a point of tension which needs resolution).
I have put the word Dominant in quotations because in the case of modes, the dominant is not always found on the 5th degree — like in any major scale for example — but it is the degree(s) which contain the characteristic note (the note that gives a certain mode its peculiar sound) that functions as a dominant.
Let’s start with a major scale, C for example. The modes built on the notes of the C Major scale are the following:
As we can see, the scales which are used the most in the Western musical system (the ones commonly called Major and Minor scales) are the modes built on the first and sixth degrees of a Major scale.
The fact that among all modes, these two were chosen as the pillars of our system, resulted from a predominance in the use of these two scales from the Baroque Period onwards. To put it differently, the modes above share all the same notes, but since they start from a different degree of the major scale, each mode has a slightly different construction, and feel to it.
If we compare the Ionian and Lydian modes for example, this is the difference in the intervals which make these modes:
As we can see, these scales are almost identical except for one interval, the Augmented fourth in the F Lydian mode. This note is what I called before “the characteristic note” of that particular mode, the note that gives the F Lydian mode its peculiar sound — its “Lydian-ness” — and the one that differentiates it from sounding like a major scale.
Now, if we apply the same reasoning to all the other modes, we would see that the differences between the modes and their respective Major or Minor counterparts is often only one note (with one exception, which we will see shortly).
If we compare D Dorian to its parallel (and generally more familiar) mode (D natural minor and not D major!), we would notice the following difference:
The two scales differ from each other by only one note: B natural in the Dorian mode (a major sixth) as opposed to a B♭ (a minor sixth) on the same degree of the D Aeolian (Natural minor). These two modes are minor modes, because they share the presence of an F as a third degree of the scale (which, in music theory books is called “Modal” degree because it sets the mode of the scale and its general mood).
The following table contains all the modes we mentioned until now, with their parallel scale of reference and their characteristic note:
As we can see, we can divide modes in Major and Minor modes and this will affect the comparison we must make with their parallel scale. For example: E Phrygian is a minor mode, therefore it should be compared to E Natural Minor and not E Major. By doing so, we would find out that the two scales differ from each other by one note: F in the Phrygian mode instead of F# which appears on the E Natural Minor scale.
There is an exception, and that is the Locrian mode. This mode is a minor mode but it has two different notes from its parallel B minor: C (minor second) instead of C# and F (diminished fifth) instead of F#.
A step further…
If we want to take this a step further and become experimenting with even more unusual sounds, we can build modes on the two other Minor scales: The Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales. The resulting modes would be the following:
Here, the resulting modes are a bit more complicated to name.
The presence of the G# in the Harmonic Minor scale changes the names of the modes, because they now contain a different tone. For example, D Dorian has now become D Dorian (Augmented fourth): This mode differs from D Dorian by one note, the G#, which is an augmented fourth away from the Tonic, hence its name D Dorian (Augmented fourth). In the same scale, the mode constructed on E has now become E Phrygian (Major third). Since a Phrygian mode is by definition a minor mode, some people prefer to call it Mixolydian (Minor second, Minor sixth).
This is obviously a matter of little importance, since the notes which form the mode are the same, the only difference would be which scale we decide to compare it to.
The addition of the F# in the Melodic Minor scale, makes things slightly more complex (if that was even needed at this point!). This time, we would have to work out the names comparing the scales to their most similar mode. For example, there is little point in comparing the fourth mode built on A Melodic Minor scale to an Ionian scale. It is much more similar to a Lydian mode, since it comprises of the note F#. The G# at this point, makes it a C Lydian (Augmented fifth).
Although most of these modes have been used quite sparsely in Western popular music (and mostly in jazz-fusion), some of them have been used more. The mode built on the fifth degree of a Harmonic minor scale, Phrygian (Major third), for example, has been used in heavy metal by guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen or Ritchie Blackmore, while the mode built on the seventh degree of the Melodic Minor scale is commonly used in jazz over altered dominant chords (for example, try to use G# Superlocrian on a G#7(♭13) and unleash its altered, dissonant character).
The following table comprises of the modes constructed on the Harmonic and Melodic Minor scales:
Don’t stop here!
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