Modes: An Introduction For The Ages

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What Is A Mode?

Most guitarists have asked this question at some point during their tenure as a guitarist. The rest just haven’t started playing guitar to even know to ask the question in the first place. Modes are strange creatures in that they have wrought much confusion upon budding musicians, yet their concept is really not a complicated one.

A mode is simply the tone of a given scale that is being used as the tonal center. In short, what is regarded as tone 1. The primary tone. The sound that is being treated as home for all other tones to act around.

For this we’ll use the go to example scale of C major. The available tones are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Each tone within the scale is the center of its own mode. Because any introduction on modes wouldn’t be complete without a list of the mode names and their scale relation here you go:

C – Ionian
D – Dorian
E – Phrygian
F – Lydian
G – Mixolydian
A – Aeolian
B – Locrian

Pick a tone. Any tone. I’m going to pick D. If I were to take all of the tones of C major, but play the scale in such a way that every time I landed on D it sounded more resolute than any other tone played then I would be playing in Dorian.

It should be stressed that just because I start on D does not mean I am playing in Dorian. This is probably the trickiness to understanding modes. Most of all it’s how you play them. You can play any tone of any scale, but if you always resolve to C you’re in Ionian through and through. The feeling of each mode shines when you can properly control which tone acts as the tonal center.

How Do Modes Work?

The thing about modes is that even though they use the same tones in a scale they still sound completely different. From bright and successful to dark and horrifying, the major scale alone comes with the ability for you to cover just about any emotion you could want to imbue into a song.

So what makes the difference? Say we take a C major scale. The major scale has its own established interval pattern.

C: W W H W W W H

Because of the way this is laid out when you play this pattern you stress major 3rds, major 6ths, major 7ths, and perfect 4ths and 5ths for example. But when you shift that over to D as the tonal center you get:

C: W W H W W W H
D: W H W W W H W

I rewrote the C major scale for a better side by side comparison. In relation to D suddenly though you’re using the same tones you’re stressing minor 3rds and minor 7ths instead.

Musically a major 3rd grants you a very bright, uplifting sound and a major 7th has a natural tendency to want to pull up a half step to resolve to the tonic. When you replace the major 3rd with a minor 3rd you abolish the potential brightness from the sound and instead get a bit murkier and sadder sound. The minor 7th, while still having some pull towards the tonic above it, is a lot less strong compared to the major 7th.

Though everything else remains the same those two intervals alone manage to warp everything all around into a whole different sound.

Why Are Modes Useful?

I had alluded to this point earlier. If you develop a good understanding of modes it really maximizes the number of emotions you can tap into from just one scale. If you have ever spent any amount of time committing the major scale to memory then the hardest part of the work is done because all of those scale forms you use remain the same.

Every bit of studying you put into the major scale translates to and makes understanding modes that much easier.

How do you use them?

All of this talk about what modes are and why you should care you would have to expect there would be some sort of tangent on how to apply them. The short answer to that is the sky is the limit. The big thing to using modes is controlling which tone feels like the tonal center and your choice of tones to play based around that.

Really a mode isn’t too different from any other scale. In this case it’s just an exercise of more attention on the one that everything is based around.

Relative Vs. Parallel Comparison

When it comes to developing an ear for the differences in each mode there are a few approaches people go for. Parallel comparisons and relative comparisons.

A relative comparison is when you compare, say C Ionian to D Dorian. They are relative in that they share the same scale tones. C D E F G A B.

So it would look like this:

C: W W H W W W H – C D E F G A B
D: W H W W W H W – D E F G A B C

Now what kind of information are you supposed to walk away with from that?

When you play a melody in C Ionian then you play a melody in D Dorian you can kinda hear the difference, but because the tones themselves are all the same it blurs your ability to really hear the difference.

That’s why I personally throw that approach out and go for the parallel comparisons. A parallel comparison would be when you slap D Ionian right next to D Dorian (or any other mode based around D you can think of) and see and hear the differences that way.

D: W W H W W W H – D E F# G A B# C#
D: W H W W W H W – D E F G A B C

Just looking at that alone shows you the differences in tones in relation to D. When you slap any scale up against the major scale like that you can get an idea of how it will sound just by looking at the intervals. Then when you go and play a melody in D Ionian then switch to D Dorian the differences will really pop out at you.

If you want to hear how these sound check out part 2 here.

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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