Modes And Their Sounds

In the article Modes: An Introduction For The Ages I had discussed the fundamentals of what defined something as a mode, but I skimmed right over the sounds and feelings each mode can evoke. Ultimately when it comes to music you can talk and talk about the principles all day long, but it doesn’t matter if you never hear any music out of it, so that’s just what we’re going to do here.

Ionian Mode

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Ionian Mode: W W H W W W H
Ionian by The Smitchens

The Ionian mode uses the same interval steps as the major scale. If you have your major scale down you by default have the Ionian mode. The intervals include a major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th.

Between the major 3rd and major 6th alone the Ionian mode has a very bright, uplifting sound to it. You want to write a love song for your girlfriend this is a good place to start.

Dorian Mode

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Dorian Mode: W H W W W H W
Dorian by The Smitchens

The Dorian mode is found starting on the second tone of the major scale, and uses the intervals major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and minor 7th.

Describing the Dorian mode’s sound is a tad weird. It’s in this middle ground with a rather murky sound, but the major 6th adds a dash of contrasting brightness to it, but the minor 3rd and minor 7th keep it from being too giddy sounding. You’re not going to come out with an Ode to Joy with this mode that’s for sure.

Phrygian Mode

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Phrygian Mode: H W W W H W W
Phrygian by The Smitchens

The Phrygian mode is found starting on the third tone of the major scale, and uses the intervals minor 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th.

The Phrygian mode is almost the same thing as the natural minor scale with the exception of the minor 2nd. Thanks to that this scale harnesses the power to take on a much darker sound. This is probably the heavy metal guitarist’s first stop in modes. At least it was for me.

Lydian Mode

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Lydian Mode: W W W H W W H
Lydian by The Smitchens

The A Lydian mode is found starting on the fourth tone of the major scale. The intervals it uses include the major 2nd, major 3rd, augmented 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th.

Sound-wise this is the brightest mode of the bunch. It has all the makings of the Ionian mode with plus an augmented 4th. As I’d commented earlier the major 7th interval has the strongest effect in making the listener want to hear something resolve up a half step to the next tonic. The perfect 5th is the most consonant, comfortable, and powerful interval to move to from the tonic. Give that perfect 5th a major 7th of its own (the augmented 4th) and now you have the two most comfortable intervals each with an interval that strongly gravitates up to them.

Compared to the A major scale A Lydian’s only difference is the augmented 4th. When it comes to situations like this depending on how you play it. By that I mean if you never played a single 4th of any kind there would be no difference between the Lydian mode and the Ionian mode, so it becomes important to stress that particular interval to clarify what you’re playing. At least unless you want a more ambiguous feel. Both are viable options.

Mixolydian

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Mixolydian Mode: W W H W W H W
Mixolydian by The Smitchens

The Mixolydian mode is found starting on the fifth tone of the major scale, and uses the intervals major 2nd, major 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, major 6th, and major 7th.

This is another kind of in that murky middle ground with the Dorian mode. These two modes are in that central transition from brighter sounding modes to darker. Overall you have the same makings of the major scale here, but the 7th is minor instead. Seems harmless enough.

Actually if you were to build a chord/arpeggio off the root of the Mixolydian mode the newly added minor 7th would act as a diminished 5th to the major 3rd (you may have to read that a couple of times if you’re new to this kind of crap). So if you were to play a seventh chord in A Mixolydian for example, you would have A C# E G. The foundation is in major thanks to the 3rd, but the G adds a clashing dissonance with the C# and really knocks the edge off the brightness.

Aeolian

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Aeolian Mode: W H W W H W W
Dorian by The Smitchens

The Aeolian mode is found starting on the sixth tone of the major scale, and uses the intervals major 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, perfect 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. The Aeolian mode, like Ionian and the major scale, is almost interchangeable with the minor scale, in that they share the same interval structure.

If I were to describe the sound I would use one word. Sad. You could make someone weep with this mode. Of course this wouldn’t work on me because I don’t actually cry. I’m too much of a chiseled, rugged, ravishing stud to cry. I get occasional bouts of excessive ocular condensation.

Locrian

Major Scale: W W H W W W H
Locrian Mode: H W W H W W W
Locrian by The Smitchens

The Locrian mode is found starting on the seventh tone of the major scale, and includes the intervals minor 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th, diminished 5th, minor 6th, and minor 7th. It is the darkest of all modes thanks to all of the minor intervals with the diminished 5th sitting right on top like a cherry on a sundae. A very dark sundae.

If you’re after something that sounds unsettling, uncomfortable, or maybe downright horrifying (and not just because we have to hear you play the guitar) this is the mode for you. I haven’t checked the stats, but I’m pretty sure this is the least used out of all intervals because it can be a bit cumbersome and unruly to harness. In the right hands, however, it is a powerful mode.

Kyle Smitchens (448 Articles)

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.