Introduction to the Modes

In a way – people get tripped up by modes because physically they are just different sections of the major scale they are based on – ie in G Major – the Dorian Mode scale is the same notes as G Major but starting on the A and working up to the A an octave up.

The trick is to get your head wrapped around the concept that by starting on a different note it is a different scale and sounds different, despite having the same notes – it’s all about the relationship between one note and the next as it goes up the scale.

G Major scale is

G, A , B (the major 3rd), C , D (the 5th of the scale), E, F# (major 7) and back to G

So – modes are
G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G – Ionian
A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, A – Dorian
B, C, D, E, F#, G, A, B – Phrygian
C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C – Lydian
D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, D – Mixolydian
E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, E – Aeolian
F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F# – Locrian

That’s kind of useless though isn’t it? A list like that doesn’t tell you why they sound different and makes you think – is that all there is to it?

Let’s look at it differently – in ‘steps’
W W H W W W H – Ionian
W H W W W H W – Dorian
H W W W H W W – Phrygian
W W W H W W H – Lydian
W W H W W H W – Mixolydian
W H W W H W W – Aeolian
H W W H W W W – Locrian

Note how the ‘pattern’ changes – which changes the sound of that scale. You know how a Minor scale sounds sadder than a Major scale? Well each of these modes has their own sound.

So Dorian has a Minor 3rd and Flat 7th – changes the sound quite a bit.

Phrygian has a Flat 2nd, Minor 3rd, and Flat 6th – again, creates its own sound.

You could describe each of the modes as:

Ionian – Happy, Contented
Dorian – Serious
Phrygian – Exotic
Lydian – Playful
Mixolydian – Wandering – the sound of the blues
Aeolian – Sad – this is the ‘relative minor’ of the Ionian mode
Locrian – Unstable – this mode has a minor 3rd and a flat 5, crazy


A great practice is to use a looping pedal (or application that plays chords) and record the chord for that mode while playing the ‘modes’ to hear why it sounds different than playing the Ionian Major scale.

Also, make sure to spend at least a bit of time working out role of each note in each mode – when you’re working out your mode say the note value for each note “Root, 2nd, major(or minor) 3rd….” Note if any notes are flattened such as the 7th, 6th, etc.


Using a mode for songwriting can help reinforce the words – or add irony if used right.

If you have a dark and tumultuous lyric, then the Ionian (Major) scale may not be as effective as Dorian minor. Ask yourself what the music should be saying to support the words you’ve written and choose a mode that supports that idea.

–> Is There An Alternative to Modes?

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