Modes

For some students, modes are a bewildering subject. The young student often grounds their early learning around one tonality; the major scale. You may be surprised to learn that the major scale is itself a mode, the first mode in the seven mode series.

When the young curious student is introduced to modes, their early foundation is challenged by the thought that there is not one scale, but many. It is for this reason that Music Theory and Practise by Musicopoulos introduces the student to the Chromatic Scale from the beginning, helping to remove tonality bias.

Modes

Modes are distinct scales built from the seven degrees of the major scale. As stated, the major scale is the first mode. This has a unique name, the Ionian Mode. As you will discover, each of the seven modes has a name derived from the Greek language. As you become familiar with these modes, their foreign names will become a common part of your musical communication.

How to Construct Modes

If we choose C as our starting note and proceed till the octave is met, keeping to the major scale formula of half-steps and whole-steps, we create the Ionian Mode, or as we have known it, the C major scale.

Now when we spell out the scale starting from the second degree, D, and proceed till the octave is met, making sure we only use the notes available from the C major scale, we create the D Dorian mode, the second mode in the series.

As there are seven unique notes in a major scale, continuing on in this manner will complete the entire series seven modes.

Below is a list of the seven modes using C major as our starting point. All are constructed from the seven notes of the major scale.

As shown below, when we make reference to a mode, we first quote the root note followed by the mode name.

C Ionian Mode (C Major Scale)
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
I
D Dorian Mode
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
II
E Phrygian Mode
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
III
F Lydian Mode
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
IV
G Mixolydian Mode
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
V
A Aeolian Mode (A Minor)
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
VI
B Locrian Mode
C D E F G A B C D E F G A B C
VII

Modes of the Major Scale

Each mode is constructed from and directly related to, a parent scale. We refer to this specific relationship as Relative Major.

When trying to determine the notes of a mode, first consider the name of the mode and use this information to determine the degree at which the mode begins in relation to the relative major. Once you have this information, you can count back and determine the tonic note.

For example, when presented with the E Phrygian mode:

  1. Phrygian is the 3rd mode in the series and begins on the 3rd degree of the scale
  2. Counting back an interval of a major 3rd reveals the note C, making C the relative major

Looking at a more familiar example, the sixth mode of the major scale is the Aeolian Mode. It is also called the natural minor scale, as it is the relative minor to the major. As the Aeolian mode originates at the sixth degree, counting back by an interval of a major 6th reveals its relative major.

Below is a table of all the intervals used to determine the root note of the relative major for each mode:

Degree Mode Name Interval
I Ionian Perfect Unison
II Dorian Major 2nd
III Phrygian Major 3rd
IV Lydian Perfect 4th
V Mixolydian Perfect 5th
VI Aeolian Major 6th
VII Locrian Major 7th

Modes and Key Signatures

Regardless of the starting note of each mode, the key signature of the mode will be the same as that of its relative major. Lets look at an example to see how this works.

Consider the following scale:

C Lydian Mode

We know that the C major scale has no sharps or flats, so what scale is this exactly? Having a key signature of one flat, Bb, indicates that this scale is related to F major. C is the fifth degree of the F major scale. Therefore the scale in question is the fourth mode built from the F major scale; C Mixolydian.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
F G A Bb C D E F G A Bb C D E F
C D E F G A Bb C