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Theory Lesson 5: Modes

This lesson is divided into two parts. Although modes are the main focus 
of this lesson, part 1 is about minor scales which I think is good to know 
before we discuss modes in part 2. 

PART ONE -- minor scales 

The 6th degree of a Major scale becomes the first degree of  a minor scale.
A is the 6th degree of the scale of C Major, so A becomes the first degree
in the scale of A minor. You use the same key signature for A minor, as 
you do for C Major (niether has any sharps or flats). 

Here are some examples: 

C Major:  c d e f g a b c 
degrees:  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1   --  A is the 6th degree 
a minor:  a b c d e f g a       C Major has no sharps or flats...so A 
                                minor doesn't either. 

D Major:  d e  f# g a  b c# d 
degrees:  1 2  3  4 5  6 7  1  --  b is the 6th deg 
b minor:  b c# d  e f# g a  b      D Major has 2 sharps...so b minor has 
                                   2 sharps also. 

Since the minor scale is based on the key signature of a Major scale, they
are said to be 'relative'. This means that the scale of b minor, is relative
to the scale of D Major, because b minor is based on the 6th degree of the
scale of D Major and has the same key signature. 

The minor scale has 3 forms. 
The NATURAL minor,   HARMONIC minor,  &  MELODIC minor. 
The ones in the examples above (a minor and b minor) are known as NATURAL 
minor scales. Their sharps or flats are exactly as their relative Majors 
(the Major scales they are based on). 

Composers of the past started altering this natural minor scale to suit 
their taste and began to use the HARMONIC minor scale. This is found by 
first finding the natural minor scale, and then raising the 7th degree one
half step. 

So in the key of a minor, g becomes g#: 
a b c d e f g# a  = A harmonic minor  (although we usually only refer to 
it as 'A minor'...leaving out the word 'harmonic') 

The harmonic minor is the most common of the 3 forms. 

The MELODIC minor key came about because the harmonic scale was harder to 
sing so they changed it. This one is different depending on whether it's 
ascending...or descending. Ascending it is Melodic...but descending, it is

Again, first you find the natural minor, then you make the changes. Raise 
both the 6th and the 7th degrees a half step each to get the melodic minor.
The A melodic minor scale, ascending and descending, would look like this: 

a b c d e f# g# a   a g f e d c b a        f and g are sharped going up, 
but natural coming down. 

PART TWO -- Modes 

A mode is a type of scale that is based on a Major scale. (like the natural
minor, based on the 6th degree) For examples, we'll be using the key of C. 

c d e f g a b c 
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 

Each mode begins on a different scale degree, but still uses the key 
signature of the scale it was based on (it's relative Major). For example,
the second mode (called Dorian), begins on the second degree of the Major 
scale,  in this case the scale of C Major. So that would mean that the 
Dorian mode begins and ends with D but still uses the same key signature 
as the scale of C Major....that is, it has no sharps or flats. The D 
Dorian scale (no sharps or flats) is unlike the D Major scale  which has 2

If you begin and end on the third note of the scale of C Major, you are in
yet another mode. There is a different mode for each scale degree. Each 
mode has a characteristic sound. You can use them for putting specific 
types of feelings into your songs. 

Here are the names of the modes and each characteristic sound they have. 

Scale degree       Mode          Characteristic Sound 

1                  Ionian        Vibrant (Major scale) 
2                  Dorian        Sad 
3                  Phrygian      Gloomy (like in some heavy metal) 
4                  Lydian        Longing 
5                  Mixolydian    (used in rock) 
6                  Aeolian       Emotional (natural minor scale) 
7                  Locrian       A bit oriental 

Try playing these scales both up and down, and listen to the differences 
in sound/mood. 

Each mode based on the key of C: 

c d e f g a b c -- Ionian 
d e f g a b c d -- Dorian 
e f g a b c d e -- Phrygian 
f g a b c d e f -- Lydian 
g a b c d e f g -- Mixolydian 
a b c d e f g a -- Aeolian 
b c d e f g a b -- Locrian 

Remember, when playing the above scales.....NONE of them have any sharps 
or flats because they are all based on the key of C. 

Each mode based on the key of D (which has F# and C#): 

d  e  f# g  a  b  c# d  -- Ionian      (key of D Ionian -- or D Major) 
e  f# g  a  b  c# d  e  -- Dorian      (key of E Dorian) 
f# g  a  b  c# d  e  f# -- Phrygian    (key of F# Phrygian) 
g  a  b  c# d  e  f# g  -- Lydian      (key of G Lydian) 
a  b  c# d  e  f# g  a  -- Mixolydian  (key of A Mixolydian) 
b  c# d  e  f# g  a  b  -- Aeolian     (key of B Aeolian -- or B minor) 
c# d  e  f# g  a  b  c# -- Locrian     (key of C# Locrian) 

You'll notice that the scale we traditionally call Major, is in fact the 
Ionian mode. The scale we traditionally call natural minor is in fact the 
Aeolian mode. 

Each of the modes are either major or minor: 

Ionian     --  Major 
Dorian     --  minor 
Phrygian   --  minor 
Lydian     --  Major 
Mixolydian --  Major 
Aeolian    --  minor 
Locrian    --  minor 

Whether a mode is major or minor depends on the chord which it is built on.
If a mode is built on the second degree of a major scale, it's first chord
would be minor, making that whole mode minor. For example, in the 
D dorian mode (relative of C Major), the first degree is D. In Ionian mode 
(C Major), D would be a minor chord, so the scale of D dorian is a minor 

In a Major scale, each chord degree is always either Major, minor, or 

degree:  1     2     3     4     5     6     7     1 
type:    M     m     m     M     m     m     d     M     
(M = Major    m = minor    d = diminished) 

So then the chords for the key of C would be (M = Major, etc): 

C M,   d m,   e m,    F M,   G M,   a m,  b diminished 
D dorian is minor,   E phrygian is minor,  F lydian is Major, etc. 


Next time you write a song and you find that the melody doesn't quite 
convey the feeling your lyrics are trying to express...try changing the 

To transpose from one mode to another, without changing the key signature, 
write out the Major scale with the degree numbers below them: 

C Major:      c  d  e  f  g  a  b  c 
degrees:      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  1 

Then write out the scale for the mode you want to transpose to, also with 
the degree numbers below them: 

d dorian:     d  e  f  g  a  b  c  d 
degrees:      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  1 
So if your song is in the Ionian mode of C Major.... 
use the scale degree numbers from the Ionian mode, then look up the same 
degree numbers from the dorian mode. Next, listen to the difference in 
sound and see if that's the feeling you were looking for.  See how much 
fun you can have with the modes! 

Ionian melody (C Major): c e g f e c 
Ionian degree numbers:   1 3 5 4 3 1 

scale of dorian mode:  d e f g a b c d 
dorian degree numbers: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 

Ionian melody degree numbers:             1 3 5 4 3 1 
dorian melody from dorian degree numbers: d f a g f d 

I think the dorian mode sounded prettier than the Ionian in this case. 
Play both and see what you like best! 

Now if you simply transposed from C Major to D Major...you'd still have 
the same characteristic sound of the Ionian mode...only at a higher 
starting point. Also, the melody would be d f# a g f# d instead of just 
d f a g f d. (because D Major has two sharps f# and c#, D dorian is all 

Play both of these: 
d dorian melody: d f  a g f 
D Major melody:  d f# a g f# 

You might want to experiment with existing songs and change the modes to 
see what effect it has on the song. This is be really fun!!  Try Amazing 
Grace, or some christmas carols, or P & W choruses, or hymns. Try some CCM,
or some of your own songs! 

I once wrote a song that soon lost it's appeal to me. So one day I changed
it from Ionian mode to Mixolydian. That was a little better and I started 
to use power chords with it (playing only the 1st and 5th degrees of the 
chord). But then I changed it to Dorian mode and wow! What a difference that 
made! Now I really love it! It even inspired me to play in a different 
style.  :) More of an arpeggio rhythm rather than power chords. 

I think a lot of guitarists would really like Mixolydian as it's popular 
in rock. 

You also might want to keep the mode you are using because you still like 
the characteristic sound or the feeling it has, but it may be too high or 
too low. If you are in G Mixolydian (based on C Major) and want to lower 
it, you might try the Mixolydian mode based on B Major. So you would figure
out the mixolydian melody and degree numbers, then figire out the B Major 
degree numbers. Then starting with B major's 5th degree, you'll find the 
scale and degree numbers for F mixolydian. You can then transpose it and 
see if this is a better range for you to sing your song. 

You can probably see what a great tool this knowledge of modes is going to
be for your songwriting!

You can fool around with the different modes and get inspired by the sound! 


Theory Lessons

Theory Lesson 1: Scales Theory Lesson 2: Key Signatures Theory Lesson 3: Intervals Theory Lesson 4: Chord Formation

Other Theory Links

Jason's Theory Page (more to come)

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