Aug 10 2015

Understanding Modes

By: Frank Macri

Posted in: Rock Guitar Lessons


Understanding the concept of modes is confusing to many musicians. Let’s try to simplify this seemingly complex subject for those of you just delving into this area.

A mode is formed by taking a scale (such as the C major scale) and instead of beginning on the note C, you start from any other note in the scale and play up to that same note, but an octave higher.

Each mode has its own sound, because when introducing the Major scale with a note other than the root (C), we’ve changed the location of the half steps. Placing these half steps in different locations is one reason why each mode has a distinct sound.

When playing a C major scale over its chord (C), it has a very major (happy) sound. This sound also has another name, the Ionian Mode. By playing these same notes, but this time over the II chord (Dm), the result will be a different sound. This is because the scale notes are being heard with the Dm chord being played behind it, not the C.

A major scale centered around its II chord is called the Dorian Mode. Though we’re playing the C major scale we call it D Dorian and the D (the 2nd note in the C major scale) becomes our new root.

By examining Figure 1. we see that starting the scale on a different step will create a new set of intervals measured from the new root. Notice that the Phrygian has a b2 and Lydian has a #4 when compared to a major scale (Ionian) starting on the same note.

When soloing over a mode it is important to highlight a color (interval) that makes each mode distinct from the others. For instance, when playing over the Dorian mode you want to accentuate the 2nd and 6th, making the classic Dorian sound. In Phrygian you should emphasize the b2 and b6. Examine the Ionian and Lydian mode in Figure 1. What interval sets these two modes apart from one another? The Ionian mode has a 4th while the Lydian mode contains a #4. This interval is the key in distinguishing the difference between these two modes. The Lydian mode is used often in contemporary jazz, while the Ionian mode is more commonly used in Rock and Country.

Figure 1.                 1= Whole step     ½ = Half step


I.  Ionian

C    1  D    1    E    ½    F    1    G    1    A   1     B    ½    C

1         2          3            4          5          6          7

II. Dorian

D   1   E    ½    F    1    G   1     A    1    B    ½     C    1    D

1         2          b3          4          5           6          b7


E   ½     F    1    G   1     A   1     B    ½    C    1    D    1    E

1          b2         b3          4          5           b6        b7

IV. Lydian

F    1   G    1    A   1     B    ½    C    1    D    1    E    ½    F

1         2           3        #4           5          6           7

V. Mixolydian

G   1  A   1   B  ½    C    1    D    1    E    ½    F    1    G

1        2        3          4          5          6           b7

VI. Aeolian

A     1    B ½    C    1    D   1     E      ½    F    1    G    1    A

1           2        b3          4          5            b6         b7

VII. Locrian

B    ½     C  1    D       E    ½    F    1    G    1    A   1     B

1           b2       b3          4          b5         b6        b7

Any melodies you play will gravitate and resolve to the chord tones they are being played over. This is how a mode is used to bring out its sound.

A chord progression (Fig. 2) built from the C major scale, but centered around the D minor, is identified as a D Dorian progression (the D minor chord is the 2nd chord in the key of C). The C major scale can be used to solo over the Dorian progression, but now the Dm chord is used like a new chord.

Figure 2.

Examples 3-13 consist of samples from different modes. The goal of this exercise is to hear and recognize the difference each mode produces with its own unique tone and feel.

It is important to remember that the mode is determined not by the melody or pattern that the notes make, but by the underlying chord, progression or riff.

Figure 3.  D Ionian  (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#)     Lie In Our Graves     by Dave Matthews Band

Figure 4.  D Ionian  (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#)        Don’t Follow     by Alice In Chains

Figure 5.   G Dorian (G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F)        Evil Ways      by Santana

Figure 6A Dorian (A-B-C-D-E-F#-G)      Cold Shot      by Stevie Ray Vaughan

Figure 7.    E Dorian (E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D)         Four Sticks      by Led Zeppelin

Figure 8.   E Phrygian (E-F-G-A-B-C-D)    Symphony Of Destruction     by Megadeth

Figure 9.   C Lydian (C-D-E-F#-G-A-B)     Flying In A Blue Dream      by Joe Satriani

Figure 10.   E Mixolydian (E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D)     Daytripper          by  The Beatles

Figure 11.   D Mixolydian (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C)        Sweet Home Alabama       by Lynryd Skynyrd

Figure 12.      F# Aeolian (F#-G#-A-B-C#-D-E)     Crazy Train                    by Ozzy Osbourne

Figure 13.    B Aeolian (B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A)      Fade To Black                 by Metallica

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