Modes - Demystified

by James Stelling & Daniel Dotor

The point of this article is to demystify modes for those who find it difficult to understand them.

Modes really are very simple. You just need to digest this information bit by bit.

I've sat down and worked through this article with several students of mine and the main stumbling block when these students haven't understood something has been that they haven't read through it properly or haven't thought about what every sentence means.

If you are finding this difficult to understand try reading the sentence or paragraph that you're having difficulty with several times. It might be that you don't know some of the terminology being used, in which case it's best to try and look it up online (it just isn't possible to explain every musical term used and still produce a concise article).

This article is split up into 3 key sections:

  • Why do we need to learn Modes?

  • How do we arrive at the 7 Modes of the Major Scale?

  • How do we choose which Modes to play?

Wherever possible we have included audio examples of correct and incorrect modes being applied to a chord progression and given musical examples of the material being presented for your reference.

Hopefully you will find this article helpful.

 

Why do we need to learn Modes?

If like most aspiring guitarists or bassists you can find success using pentatonic scales to improvise or compose melodies with but using seven note scales becomes confusing then this article is for you.

Now for a little bit of theory:

When playing or listening to music your ears get anchored to the home sound of the key you are in. This is known as the I chord or a ‘Tonic’ sound.

Every chord that you hear is leveraged against that Tonic sound and graded in degrees of tension relative to the I chord.

When you play the Tonic pentatonic scale over an entire chord progression you are playing the Tonic sound that your ears have been anchored to and are letting the chords apply the varying forms of tension.

These degrees of tension come in the form of 3 groups of chord:

So now we have a situation where we can improvise in a key but we only have the pentatonic available to us and this allows us to imply a tonic sound only.

Unfortunately it is much easier to get in trouble using a major scale than it is a major pentatonic scale due to the presence of the 4th degree of the scale (F in the key of C) which screams sub-dominant or dominant function (not part of the tonic sound). This is commonly seen as an avoid note over C for this very reason.

If we want to be able to outline more than a tonic sound i.e. sub-dominant and dominant sounds, then we need to be thinking about each chord that we are improvising over and targeting its chord tones. To be able to do this it would be helpful to have a scale which matches each of these chords. These scales are called the modes.

Simply playing up and down a major scale over a set of chord changes does not outline those chord changes as illustrated below:

Playing up and down the mode associated with each chord perfectly outlines those chord changes as illustrated below:

Here is an example of these scales being used in a more musical way that is almost impossible to achieve thinking just of the major scale:


Although the modes contain the same notes as the major scale they allow the player to match a scale to the chord of the moment. Learning the modes simply makes it easier for you to convey the function of each chord and imply Tonic, Sub-dominant and Dominant sound when improvising.

 

 

How do we arrive at the 7 Modes of the Major Scale?

Before we look at the 7 modes of the major scale we should first look at what the major scale itself allows us to do.

 

Our 7 note major scale (illustrated here in the key of C) is the scale from which we derive our C major and C major 7 chord: the I chord in our key.

 

We arrive at these chords by taking the 1st, 3rd & 5th degree of the scale for a C major chord and the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th degree of the scale for a C major 7 chord.

So because it is the scale from which we derive these chords the C major scale also provides us with a scale to play over a C major or a C major 7 chord.

 

The scale also provides us with the available extensions that we can add to a C major or C major 7 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the I chord in the key of C)

It is worth noting that if an extension is a semi tone or a b9 above a chord tone then generally it is not available for use as an extension, hence the 11 not being used as an extension in the above table as F is a semi tone above E.

 

So to summarise, our C major scale provides us with the following:

 

  • A large set of chords all functioning as the I chord in the key of C
  • A scale to construct melodies and improvise with over the I chord in the key of C.

 

So what about the other chords/scales in the key of C that are not the I chord/mode?

 

We arrive at these by inverting our C major scale. By inverting we mean ‘reordering’ the notes.

 

We will take each note of the C major scale and build a scale from that note to the same note an octave higher using only the notes of the C major scale thus ‘inverting’ the scale.

These are the 7 modes of the C major scale. So far aside from the major scale itself, we know nothing about them.

 

Like the C major scale, each one of these new scales (modes) will have a chord built off the 1st,3rd,5th and 1st,3rd,5th & 7th degrees of the scale. It will also have available extensions and a pool of chords built from using these available extensions.

 

So in order to determine what sort of scale we have in the case of each of these new scales/modes let’s compare them to the major scale bearing the same name. If we know what notes are in a D major scale for example then we can compare those notes to the ones in our new D dorian scale and identify what intervals it contains. For instance if the D major scale has an F# as its 3rd and our D Dorian scale has an F as its 3rd then we know the F in our Dorian scale must be a b3rd.

 

We will do this for each new scale/mode.

D Dorian

So this scale has a b3rd and a b7th. As such it yields a minor chord (1 b3 5) and a minor 7 chord (1 b3 5 b7).

These chords act as the II chord in the key of C:

The scale also provides us with the available extensions that we can add to a D minor or D minor 7 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the II chord in the key of D):

E Phrygian

 So this scale has a b2nd,b3rd, b6th and a b7th. As such it yields a minor chord (1 b3 5) and a minor 7 chord (1 b3 5 b7).

These chords act as the III chord in the key of C:

The scale also provides us with the available extensions that we can add to an E minor or E minor 7 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the III chord in the key of C):


F Lydian

So this scale has a #4. As such it yields a major chord (1 3 5) and a major 7 chord (1 3 5 7).

These chords act as the IV chord in the key of C:

The scale also provides us with the available extensions that we can add to an F major or F major 7 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the IV chord in the key of C):

G Mixolydian

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So this scale has a b7th. As such it yields a major chord (1 3 5) and a dominant 7 chord (1 3 5 b7).

These chords act as the V chord in the key of C:

The scale also provides us with the available extensions that we can add to a G major or G7 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the V chord in the key of C):


A Aeolian (natural minor)

So this scale has a b3rd, a b6th and a b7th. As such it yields a minor chord (1 b3 5) and a minor 7 chord (1 b3 5 b7).

These chords act as the VI chord in the key of C:

The scale also provides us with the available extensions that we can add to an A minor or A minor 7 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the VI chord in the key of C):

 

B Locrian

So this scale has a b2nd, a b3rd, a b5th, a b6th and a b7th. As such it yields a diminished chord (1 b3 b5) and a minor 7 b5 chord (1 b3 b5 b7).

These chords act as the VII chord in the key of C:

The scale also provides us with the extensions that we could add to a B diminished or B minor 7b5 chord:

Using these extensions results in the following chords:

(all of these chords can act as the VII chord in the key of C):

So to summarise, each mode of the major scale yields a triadic chord (either major, minor or diminished) and a seventh chord (either major 7, 7, minor 7 or minor 7b5). It also yields a set of 3 extensions which may be added to either the triadic and/or seventh chord to add different colours to the sound of the original chord.

The scale/mode from which these chords were derived should be the scale that you use to construct melodies from or to improvise with.

 

 

 

How do we choose which Modes to play?

 

Contrary to a lot of misinformation surrounding which choice of mode is available over a given chord, there is no choice to be made!

 

The function of a chord dictates which mode is to be played.

 

For example: If you are playing in the key of C major and you encounter an F major or F major 7 chord then you have to play F Lydian as F is the 4th chord in the key of C major and Lydian is the 4th mode.

 

Lets examine this further using an entire chord progression.

Listen to this example of modes chosen at random being used over chords in the above progression in contrast to the correct modes being used. This should illustrate the need to play the correct mode.

Incorrect Modes used per chord: Here the Mixolydian scale is played over the I chord, the Dorian is played over the VI chord, the Phrygian is played over the II chord and Lydian is played over the V chord. Major modes have been applied to major chords and minor modes to minor chords. It sounds terrible. Imagine how bad it would sound if minor modes were applied over major chords and vice versa.

Correct mode being used per chord: Here the correct mode is being used over each chord as per the above table.

Another instance in which you need to assign a mode to a chord progression is in modal vamps.


Modal vamps are repetitive musical passages in which you hear something other than Ionian as I.


An example of this is the following vamp. Use this as a backing track to experiment with changing from the Phrygian scale to the Lydian scale.

It is worth noting that in a single chord modal vamp situation the rule that stated ‘a note which is a semi tone or a b9 above a chord tone is generally not available for use as an extension’ is less binding than when dealing with two or more chords.

 

Hopefully this article will have been of use to you in demystifying modes.

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All the best, Dan & James.