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Music Theory – An Introduction to Modes

Music Theory – An Introduction to Modes

There are quite a few misconceptions about modes and how they work. Much of the confusion comes from the word “mode” itself, since it implies more of a reference to another scale than an actual scale in its own right. We’ve all heard, or read, and half understood, that modes are based on this or that scale (usually the major scale), and that all you need to do is play from a certain degree (note) up or down the scale one octave to the same note and you get the mode in question. And, of course, when you tried it, you didn’t hear any difference so you gave up!

The problem with this over-simplification (though technically it is true) is that it overlooks the most important aspect of modes and possibly of music itself: context! If you are playing over a C drone or C major chord progression, and your ear hears C major, you can play E Phrygian or F Lydian (two modes “based” on the C major scale) until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll never hear anything but a C major sound (see Ex. 1)! Context is everything: if you play, over that same C drone, a C Lydian or C Phrygian scale (mode) then you definitely will hear a change and a different flavor(see Ex. 2). Sometimes the flavor change is slight and sometimes it’s radical! Ex.1: C Major, E Phrygian, F Lydian over a C drone: The C major sound is unbroken even though E phrygian and F Lydian are being played

Ex 2: C Phrygian, C Mixolydian, and C Lydian over a C drone: You should hear three distinct flavors

Static versus Changing Harmonies

In this article we won’t be dealing with modes in the context of jazz or changing harmonies. We’ll be concentrating on static or “modal” harmonies. This means that even though there may be more than one chord, the harmony, or mode, or key center will stay the same (or in the case of a drone: neutral).

The reason for this is that in non-modal jazz there’s usually a quick succession of chords and changing key centers, and modes in this context just fly by, making it difficult to feel or hear any kind of flavor or get any kind of appreciation of the mode. Plus modes in this traditional jazz context are often just a means of playing the right notes (playing in) or playing “wrong” notes( playing dissonant or purposely playing “wrong” notes) over a given chord.

By taking our time and playing over static modal harmonies, or just a drone, we’ll be able to hear and eventually recognize the different flavors of each mode.

Scale or Mode?

I won’t be making any difference between scale and mode because they are virtually the same thing. For all intents and purposes: any mode is also a scale (sort of like the particle/wave duality of light ); and any scale could be considered a mode of another related scale. For the moment, the goal is to try and simplify things and cut away some of the jargon.

A Few Basics

Ideally, this article’s aim is to be a « no nonsense » approach to modes, without there being too much technical stuff or theory. And while the attempt was made to try and make it as straightforward as possible, there are, of course, a certain number of basic things you probably need to know.

To play the scales (modes) that are given here in E, you need know nothing other than where the notes are found on your instrument. But if you want to transpose them to other keys (something you should learn to do) you’ll need to know something about intervals, or at least know the difference between a half-step and a whole-step. Since the modes we’ll be dealing with are related to the major scale, it’s a good idea to learn how a major scale is constructed, if you don’t already know.

The Formula for a Major Scale is as Follows:

Ascending: Root (any note) + WS + WS + HS + WS + WS + WS + HS (and you should end up an octave above the starting note)

WS = whole-step, HS = half-step (for a guitarist or bassist, HS = 1 fret, WS = 2 frets)

If you follow this formula you’ll get a major scale. A major scale has the following intervals within it (all related to the root):

Between root and second note: Major 2nd

Between root and third note: Major 3rd

Between root and fourth note: Perfect 4th

Between root and fifth note: Perfect 5th

Between root and sixth note: Major 6th

Between root and seventh note: Major 7th

In the key of C Major : C D E F G A B C

In the key of E Major : E F#G# A B C# D# E

When I speak about how each of the modes differs from the major scale I’ll be making reference to these intervals.

Once you understand these intervals and how modes are constructed, you should then be able to transpose these scales, to any other key (tonal center). Or, of course, if you’re a bassist or guitarist you could just take the easy way out and move the fingerings up or down the neck. But this won’t help you in the long run.

Important Points:

The mode examples: Throughout this article I’ve used E as the tonal center. The reasons for doing so are twofold:

1. It’s important to get away from the key of C and the strong associations and confusion of the modes in this Key (especially for keyboardists). We often see the diatonic modes of C major listed one after the other in diagrams. And when we play them in order (starting with C major), we’ve already got the C major sound in our head and so we don’t hear the mode being played, just more of C Major! Therefore the crucial element for each mode, context, is lost.

2. By putting the examples in E, I’m hoping that it will be easier for Guitarists and Bassists to use their low E string as a drone while they play the scales/modes on top of it (It won’t make any difference to keyboardists). This will come in handy when no other drone source is available.

The Progressions: As stated above, everything depends on context, and Rhythm, especially harmonic rhythm (an oft neglected topic) plays a crucial role in musical context. These progressions need to be played in such a way (rhythmically) that there will be no doubt about the tonal center. This doesn’t necessarily mean starting on the I chord (though this is often the case), but you should at all times feel the tonal center (in this case E) and should always hear this tonal center as being the final resting place of the piece/improvisation, even if you choose “not” to end on the I chord (Tonic).

Bass Drone : The chord progressions given here can (and should) all be played with, in this case, an E bass/drone on the bottom. So if, for example, I say in E Lydian, a typical progression is E – F# – E, you should also try it as E – F#/E (F# with an E in the bass) – E. It’s even preferable at this stage to play it like that since it will give you even a stronger feeling for the flavor of the mode, and will give you new ideas for chords with different bass notes other than their roots.

About Chords In a Given Scale/Mode: This is very important because you need to know which chords are native (diatonic) to which mode so you don’t play any chords that are outside the scale. I won’t be going into how these chords are derived for the moment because it involves a little more theory than I have space for in this article. I’ll be dealing with this theme at a latter time. For the moment, try transposing the given chord progression examples into other keys.


In this first part we’ll be dealing with three of the diatonic modes: Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. “Diatonic” just means that they share the same notes as the Major scale (which can also be considered a mode: Ionian). I suggest taking your time with each mode before jumping on to the next one. Too much information kills information! Once you start to feel comfortable with them you can mix them up and play one after the other to get a feeling for each of them.

I also strongly suggest recording yourself (or someone else) playing the different modes, and see if you can tell which mode is being played back…hearing is crucial!


Phrygian is one of the scales that differs the most from the basic major scale. For the moment you don’t need to know that Phrygia was a kingdom of Anatolia or other interesting historical stuff. It should be mentioned, however, that Phrygian is the third mode (of the major scale; starting on the third scale degree of a major scale). Even though I’ve said it’s necessary to see each mode as a separate entity, it is important to remember that these diatonic modes are related to each other.

The Phrygian mode has the following formula: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, when compared to the starting pitch’s major scale (e.g. E Phrygian compared to E major). It has a minor triad (chord) as its tonic (though cadences will often end on a major chord…, more on that below).

So E Phrygian is: E F G A B C D E (related to C Major)

Compare with E Major: E F# G# A B C# D# E

What you should try to hear, and keep in mind, is that the characteristic note (or interval) of Phrygian is especially the b2 (in this case, F) but also the b7 (D) and b3 (G, which makes it a “minor” mode). Try to get that sound in your ear. The b2 b3 b7 Phrygian flavor is quite easy to recognize. You might say it sounds spanish, or medieval, or gypsy, oriental…whatever! The thing is, you’ve heard this sound before, you recognize it and now you should try to recognize it every time you hear it and therefore see it for what it is: Phrygian.

Play around with the scale until it becomes familiar. Keep a low E drone going as you improvise with it, or try to find melodies. Then try going in and out of it by playing E major for a little while and then E Phrygian. Listen and “feel” how they differ…this is important. You need to get this sound into your ear and your musical vocabulary.

Progressions in E Phrygian

An important thing to note about Phrygian progressions is that they often end (cadence) or start on a major chord/triad. Since this major triad isn’t in the mode itself (b3 becomes natural 3), if you’re soloing you might have to alter that note, and this momentarily gives you another scale (a harmonic minor scale or what some people call a Phrygian dominant scale or Spanish gypsy scale). I won’t go into this scale here, but it’s a nice one to play around with (often heard in flamenco/Spanish style music).

Typical Chords:

Just as there are characteristic notes or intervals in each mode, there are also characteristic chords and chord progressions in each mode. In Phrygian the characteristic chord is, of course, the major flat II (F major chord in E Phrygian) and also the minor flat VII (D minor in E Phrygian). To a lesser extent the major flat III (G major in E Phrygian) and the minor IV (A minor in E Phrygian) are also quite characteristic when used in the same progression.

Some typical progressions in E Phrygian are:

  • A min – G – F – E(min or usually Maj)
  • E(min or usually Maj) – F(maj7) – E(min or usually Maj)
  • Dmin – E(min or usually Maj)
  •   Pieces in Phrygian:

    • Pink Floyd – “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”
    • The “Ben-Hur Theme” (the melody is in Phrygian while the chords go in and out of Phrygian)
    • A lot of Flamenco/spanish music (though, as stated before, the cadences on the major Tonic (I chord) alter the scale and therefore it’s not a pure Phrygian)
    • Led Zeppelin – “Kashmir”: The end Progression (G min to A) is a typical Phrygian progression
    • Jefferson Airplane – “White Rabbit” (in E Phrygian except for the fleeting Bb chord)
    • Björk- “Hunter” (with major Tonic) and “I’ve seen it all”
    • Massive Attack – “Future Proof” (with major Tonic)


    The Lydian scale only differs from a major scale by one note, but this note is so characteristic of Lydian’s flavor that it makes all the difference. This flavor, and difference, comes from the #4. In a major scale the 4th is a perfect 4th from the tonic, and therefore the introduction of the #4, though not radical in itself, gives a new flavor to the scale, transforming it from a normal Major to Lydian.

    E Lydian: E F# G# A# B C# D# E (that’s a lot of sharps and is relative to B major)

    Compare with E Major: E F# G# A B C# D# E (note the A natural)

    As with Phrygian, play around with this mode and try to get it into your ear. It’s interesting and useful to alternate it with E major. You need to hear the difference that the #4 makes. Get a Low E drone happening and alternate between the two. After a while try the E Phrygian too.

    Progressions in Lydian:

    Progressions in Lydian are also very characteristic of the Lydian sound. Many people have tried describing this sound with words like “airy” “magical” or “wondrous” etc. etc., and all cinema composers have used it to these ends, but the best thing, once again, is to hear it and make the connection for yourself.

    Typical Chords

    The characteristic chords of Lydian are the ones that contain the #4. These include: the major II chord (F# major in E Lydian) and to a lesser extent the min VII (D# min in E Lydian) and the V maj7 chord (Bmaj7 in E Lydian).

    Some Typical Progression in E Lydian:

    • E – F# – E (as mentioned above, try keeping the E in the bass over all chords)
    • Emaj7 #11 vamp
    • E – Bmaj7 – E
    • E – D#m(7) – E

    Pieces in Lydian:

    • “Maria” and many other pieces from “West Side Story”
    • Sting – “When we dance”: has a very clear example in the melody of major going to Lydian
    • Led Zeppelin – “Dancing Days”: the opening riff is Lydian (After that it’s in Phrygian until the A major chord)
    • John Williams – E.T. theme and countless other movie moments and themes
    • The Simpsons TV Theme


    Mixolydian is the 5th diatonic mode, and like the Lydian mode, only differs from the Major scale by one note. This note (b7 – D natural in E) is also sufficient to give a strong characteristic flavor to the Mixolydian sound. This Mixolydian sound has a very Renaissance or Celtic flavor to it. This is because it was/is prevalent in these styles. Also Indian music, uses this scale quite often (as it does numerous others) and therefore it’s possible to get an Indian raga type flavor out of it (especially if you omit the 2nd (F# in E) and the 6th (C# in E).

    E Mixolydian: E F# G# A B C# D E (related to A major)

    Compare with E Major: E F# G# A B C# D# E

    Once again, get an E drone going and play around with the scale. Try giving it a celtic or renaissance type rhythm to see if can you hear the connection. The characteristic notes here are the major third (G#) and above all the flat 7 (D).

    Typical Chords:

    The characteristic chords of Mixolydian are those that include the b7. These are: the flat VII chord (D major in E Mixolydian) and the minor V (B min(7) in E Mixolydian).

    Typical progressions in E Mixolydian:

    • E – D – E (like before, try keeping an E in the bass at all times)
    • E – Bmin(7) – E

    Pieces in Mixolydian:

    • Holst – “The Planets” – “Jupiter”: The famous theme starting at measure 108
    • Simply Red – “Holding Back the Years”
    • Countless Renaissance and Celtic Pieces
    • Sting – Intro to “I Was Brought To My Senses”
    • Beatles – “Tomorrow Never Knows” (not all notes are used so it can be argued that it’s not truly mixolydian)
    • Beatles -” Got To Get You Into My Life” (The A section)
    • Beatles – “Norwegian Wood” (A section)
    • Spinal Tap Movie – “Stonehenge” section: the melody played on the mandolin 😉
    • Michael Jackson – “Don’t Stop ’till You Get Enough”
    • Jimi Hendrix – “Third Stone from the Sun”: the main melody is in E mixolydian


The modes presented here are just 3 out of the 7 diatonic modes. Two of the other 4 should already be familiar to you. They are: Ionian, which is nothing more or less than the major scale; and Aeolian, which is the minor (natural) scale. This leaves: Dorian, which is very similar to the natural minor scale, and Locrian, which is probably one of the least used scales/modes in music (except maybe to solo over certain chords) .

For the moment, you should concentrate on these three modes, and make sure you learn and hear them well before moving on to other stuff. Just like with other aspects of music, you need to build strong foundations. Learning too many scales at a time will only ensure that you play none well.

Try to remember that every mode has it’s distinctive flavor. And it’s usually just one or two notes (intervals) that create that distinctive flavor. It’s these notes that you should try to recognize. For example, if you listen to Sting’s « when we dance »; at first it just sounds like a basic major-scale sound, but then he sings that #4 and everything just changes. Just that one note gives the whole song a different feel and flavor. And this is important: each mode has a different spice or flavor to it, and they often have an effect on our emotions. Movie composers know that well, and have been using changing modes to play with or heighten our emotions since the beginning of cinema.

If you decide to jump ahead and look at other modes, don’t forget about context! It’s good to know what scale each mode is derived from, but remember that if you’re playing mode X (that is related to or derived from mode Y) that you should be hearing an X tonality (try a drone on X), and not Y. If you’re hearing Y as the tonal center while trying to play mode X, then you’re just wasting your time.

As stated before, listening and recognizing are crucial. Record yourself playing different modes and see if you can tell which one is being played and where the characteristic notes are. Also, a good way of seeing if you have understood something is to try to explain it to others. So go and find someone patient (preferably a musician) and see if you can teach them what you’ve learned.