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Understanding Modes (Blog Post for Guitar Students)

By Josh Lloyd, May 3 2018 02:33PM

For a guitar student who is new to modes, the concept can at first seem rather confusing. It can also seem quite daunting having to learn a whole new range of patterns (on top of the major, natural minor and pentatonic scales you may have learnt so far already), however the good news is that if you already know the major scale, you (sort of) already know to play all the modes we are about to discuss! The best way to understand modes to see how they relate to the major scale. Here below is an example:


C Major:

C D E F G A B C

R 2 3 4 5 6 7

T T ST T T T ST

R = Root Note

T = Tone / ST = Semitone


Above is the C major scale, comprising of the entire sequence of notes and their intervals (an interval being the difference between two pitches). Now look at D Dorian mode, which comprises of exactly all the same notes, but with the emphasis on D instead of C:


D Dorian:

D E F G A B C D

R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

T ST T T T ST T


The great news is that you can essentially use the same shapes you have been practicing for the major scale in order to play all seven modes, however now the emphasis changes as you play different modes and use an alternative root note. What’s even stranger is that the major and minor scales you have been playing previously can also be referred to as the ‘Ionian’ mode (major scale) and the ‘Aeolian’ mode (natural minor scale). Below are further examples:


E Phrygian:

E F G A B C D E

R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

ST T T T ST T T


F Lydian:

F G A B C D E F

R 2 3 #4 5 6 7

T T T ST T T ST


G Mixolydian:

G A B C D E F G

R 2 3 4 5 6 b7

T T ST T T ST T


A Aeolian:

A B C D E F G A

R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

T ST T T ST T T


B Locrian:

B C D E F G A B

R b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

ST T T ST T T T


Remember that you can play all the modes with any root note as your starting position (12 possible key notes in total), as long as you keep each particular mode’s sequence of notes intact, as follows:


Ionian: R 2 3 4 5 6 7

Dorian: R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

Phrygian: R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Lydian: R 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Mixolydian: R 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Aeolian: R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

Locrian: R b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7


Each mode has its own ‘feel’ or ‘sound’ that can be taken maximum advantage of by the composer and/or instrumentalist. For example, the Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian modes have a sense of ‘sadness’ which can be used to express regret, romance or other intense emotions in a particular piece of music.


Lastly, it is worth noting the key difference between tonality and modality. Tonality just refers to a simple question: which is the tonic or ‘key’ note? Modality refers to another question: how do the notes in a scale relate to the tonic? A piece of music can be referred to as being in the key of C major. That answers both questions; we now know the key note (C in this case) and also how the rest of the notes relate to the tonic. Equally, we get the same amount of information if someone says to play in A minor, F Lydian, E Dorian etc.


I hope this helps any student who is learning modes for the first time. Please feel free to comment or send me a message for any questions or further information. I am also free to take on more students if you are interested.


Josh Lloyd


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