Introduction to the Modes

I’m often asked what modes are and how they work, so here is a short breakdown.

Simply put, there are seven modern modes and they are all built from slightly different interval patterns. The easiest introduction to the modes involves the use of just the white notes of the keyboard.

If you try playing a one octave scale of just white notes, regardless of which note you begin on, you will have played a mode. Starting your scale on each of the seven different white notes gives you a different mode.

Modal Theory

First, let us establish our understanding of melodic interval patterns in relation to key. Most of us will be familiar with the sounds of major and minor keys. If we were to play an ascending succession of white notes on the keyboard from C to C, we will have played the scale of C Major. This is also known as the Ionian mode. The interval pattern for major scales (Ionian mode) is as follows:

C Major

   Tonic   >
   Tone  >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone  
     C     D      E         F    G     A     B        C
The Scale of C Major

A Minor (Natural)

Finding the relative minor of C Major (a minor third below), and playing white notes from A to A results in the natural A Minor scale. This is also known as the Aeolian mode. The interval pattern can be seen here:

   Tonic   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >
      A      B         C      D      E         F      G      A
 The Scale of A Minor (Natural)

So, what happens if we play all the white notes from D to D? Would that be the key of D Major or D Minor? Well, you may have already worked out that the answer is neither. In short, the interval patterns shown above for major and minor keys mean that black notes (sharps or flats) must replace certain white notes for every key other than C Major and A Minor. This is where the remaining five modes come in.

If we were to play all the white notes from D to D, what we end up with is the Dorian mode. If we play all the white notes from E to E, we find the Phrygian mode. F to F is Lydian, G to G is Mixolydian and B to B is Locrian. Below are audio clips and charts detailing each mode and its interval pattern:

Ionian Mode

   Tonal Centre   >
   Tone  >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone  
              C     D      E         F    G     A     B        C
Ionian Mode on C

Dorian Mode

    Tonal Centre   >
   Tone  >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone  
               D     E          F      G      A       B         C     D
Dorian Mode on D

Phrygian Mode

   Tonal Centre   >
   Semitone  >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone  
              E        F     G      A      B         C     D     E
Phrygian Mode on E

Lydian Mode

       Tonal Centre   >
   Tone  >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone  
                 F     G     A      B          C      D      E       F
Lydian Mode on F

Mixolydian Mode

Tonal Centre   >
   Tone  >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone  
           G      A      B         C      D      E         F     G
Mixolydian Mode on G

Aeolian Mode

   Tonal Centre   >
   Tone  >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone  
              A      B          C     D      E          F      G     A
Aeolian Mode on A

Locrian Mode

   Tonal Centre   >
   Semitone  >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Semitone   >   Tone   >   Tone   >   Tone  
              B         C      D      E          F      G      A     B
Locrian Mode on B

As with our major and minor keys, each mode can be begin on any note as long as it follows the relevant interval pattern. In order to get a better understanding of the subtle differences between the modes, I recommend trying out all of the modes using the same tonal centre. For example, by starting on C and following the interval patterns outlined above (you will play sharps and flats depending on the mode), you will be able to hear the different characteristics of the modes in relation to each other.

Characteristics and Musical Examples of Modes

While some music is entirely composed within a mode or modes (harmonically and melodically), very often there are fleeting moments of mode usage in many pieces as well (particularly noticeable within jazz). Below, I have given a brief description of the character of each mode and recorded some short excerpts that show use of modes within familiar music. There are links to the full pieces if you’d like to explore them more.

Ionian Mode

The same as the modern major tonality. Often described as bright and uplifting. This mode can be found very commonly in many styles of music. The examples below are Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and American Pie by Don McLean.

Wonderful Tonight & American Pie

Dorian Mode

Minor in quality due to the minor root chord, but doesn’t have a raised seventh degree which gives the upper end of the mode a major feel. From Gregorian Plainchant to folk music and even modern pop, Dorian mode has been heard in Western music throughout the ages. I chose Scarborough Fair and Gary Jules’ version of Mad World (featured in the film Donnie Darko) as examples of Dorian Mode.

Scarborough Fair & Mad World

Phrygian Mode

Minor in quality, this rather rare mode can sound dark and mysterious due to the minor 2nd interval. It is sometimes described as having a ‘longing’ feel. The mode is sometimes associated with Middle Eastern music and Spanish Flamenco music and is often altered by sharpening the third degree (becoming Altered Phyrgian Mode) to really emphasise this feel. The original theme from Doctor Who is one of my favourite pieces that makes use of Phrygian Mode.

Doctor Who Theme (1963)

Lydian Mode

This mode is major in quality. Has an upbeat, sometimes comical association and is often heard in cartoons, animations and film. The theme from The Simpsons is probably the best example I have heard.

Theme from The Simpsons

Mixolydian Mode

Major in quality and, aside from Ionian Mode, the most similar to the modern major key. The only difference is the whole tone between the 7th and 8th degree of the scale. A good example is Clocks by Coldplay.

Clocks

Aeolian Mode

The same as the natural minor tonality, Aeolian Mode is often described as sad or solemn. It is frequently heard set against its relative major (Ionian mode). For centuries, composers have made use of the ambiguity and duality between these major and minor tonalities to create intrigue in their music. REM’s Losing My Religion is a fine example of Aeolian Mode usage.

Losing My Religion

Locrian Mode

Diminished in quality (due to the fifth degree being diminished rather than perfect). In Western music, it is the rarest of the modes but can still be found at least in part in music of various styles. Most commonly, elements are heard in Jazz or Middle Eastern music. Interestingly, a modern piece of folk music called Dust to Dust by John Kirkpatrick explores the mode through melody alone. Written in B Locrian, it often it feels as though it is moving towards Aeolian Mode, but the artist always draws back to a tonal centre of B. Below is a short excerpt that I arranged for piano, but I do recommend having a listen to the vocal version by following the link above. 

Dust to Dust

Final Thoughts

I hope that you’ve gained some insight into the modes and their modern-day usage. If you have any burning questions, other examples of songs that use the modes, or just want to make a general comment, please feel free to share your thoughts below!

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