Monday, July 26, 2010

Modes of the Major Scale

Q: I read forums all the the time and I'm always confused about modes. I'm not sure anyone can really explain it without confusing me. Can you give me a hint?

A: I'll do my best. Take your time and read through this really slowly. Obviously you want to learn how to use the modes properly but first you need to understand a few different things first. You can't put the cart before the horse regarding the modes. First you will have to have a very good understanding of the major scale and the diatonic system. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can you write out all the major scales? If you can, move on to the next question. If you can't, go here >>>
  2. Do you understand intervals? If you do, go to the next question. If you don't, go here >>>
  3. Do you understand the harmonized diatonic system? If you do, go on. If you don't, go (half way down the page) here again >>>
  4. Can you play the major scale and improvise in all keys with little problem? If you can, go on to the rest of this article. If you can't, go here >>>
OK, if you are here, you should be able to: 
  1. Write out your major scales. For example: what are the notes in an E major scale? E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#. What are the notes in a Bb major scale? Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-A. etc.
  2. Be able to identify intervals. For example: What is a perfect 5th from A? E. What is a major 7th from Eb? D. etc.
  3. Understand the diatonic system. For example: what is the "V" chord of D major? A or A7. What is the "ii" chord in F major? Gmin or Gmin7. etc.
  4. And be able to play and use the major scale. Although it may not be completely necessary, I would strongly suggest that you know all five (the conventional) patterns of the major scale. You should be able to play over diatonic progressions using the scales.
If you don't understand these things and can't improvise using the major scale, I'm not sure that getting involved with modes will do you a lot of good. So let's assume that you've reached the point where we can move on. If you haven't gotten to that point yet, don't worry, this post will be waiting here for you.

Now, let's try to understand modes theoretically first. You have probably already heard this and it is one reason you are confused, but it is important to get this first Make sure you read to the end of this article or you will stay confused.

What are Modes?

Modes are scales based on different degrees of the major scale (and other scales like the harmonic minor or more commonly the melodic minor scale). There are seven notes in the major scale, so there are seven different modes. The first is easy enough:

The Ionian Mode - The major scale based on the first note. Silly right? Look at these examples:

C Ionian: C-D-E-F-G-A-B
G Ionian: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#
F Ionian: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E

It is important to understand the notes by what they translate to in intervals:

The C major scale: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. The intervals are: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 (or 1-M2-M3-P4-P5-M6-M7-M7). You have to learn to look at scales this way or it is impossible to understand their uses and how to apply them.

This is easy enough, the Ionian mode is simply the major scale. Next let's move on to the dorian mode. The dorian mode is a scale based on the second degree of the major scale. Now to find the proper major scale or (parent scale) all you need to do is remember a simple formula. The formula for the dorian mode is:

Dorian = Major Scale Down a M2

So let's say you want to write out or play a D dorian mode. Now you promised me that you know your intervals so you should be able to do this right? What is a Major 2nd down from D? The answer is C, so D dorian = C major. See if you can do more of these:

  1. B dorian = ? 
  2. E dorian = ? 
  3. F# dorian = ?
  4. A dorian = ?
  5. C dorian = ?

Answers: A, D, E, G and Bb major. Where you able to do it? Good. Now going back to D dorian as our example, D dorian carries the same key signature as C major right? So write out a D to C scale using the key signature of C and you'll get what you are looking for:

D Dorian: D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Let's do some more:
  1. B dorian:B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A (The major scale down a M2 from B is A and the key signature for A is F#,C#, G#)
  2. E dorian:
  3. F# dorian:
  4. A dorian:
  5. C dorian: 
B dorian: B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A
E dorian: E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D 
F# dorian: F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E 
A dorian: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G
C dorian: C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb

What we have done is find the mode using a derivative method. We basically found the dorian mode by finding the parent scale. Now this is fine and dandy for finding the scale quickly but it doesn't show you what it is and how to use it. To do this you absolutely have to understand it from a parallel point of view. We already did this with the major scale (or ionian mode), now let's do it with the dorian mode as well. Using D dorian once again:

D dorian: D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Now what does this translate into intervalically?  1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7 (or 1-M2-m3-P4-P5-M6-m7).  

Now you can see what the scale actually is. It looks like a:
  1. natural minor scale with a major 6th (or) 
  2. major scale with a minor 3rd and minor 7th
 if you told the truth and also understand the diatonic system, you know that this scale will harmonize to a min7 chord. The "ii" chord in C major is Dmin or Dmin7 so obviously the dorian scale harmonizes to the same chord:


So What?

You may know this much and might be asking yourself what the big deal is. There is no big deal really. But there are some important points to remember. A lot of aspiring guitarists mistakenly make the assumption that you are playing a different mode over every chord in a diatonic progression. In other words, over a Cmaj7-Amin7-Dmin7-G7 progression you would be playing a C ionian, A aolian, D dorian and G mixolydian mode. This is not really correct and is a waste of brain power. The chord progression revolves around C, the "I" chord and the "I" chord has what I call tonal gravity. You do not hear any of the other three chords as the tonal center so you hear the progression as C major. The trick to modal music is that you have to hear the music's tonal center as the chord that corresponds to the mode in question. The ear decides but personally I find that anytime you get a functioning "V" chord, in other words a "V" chord going to a "I" chord, you lose the sense of anything modal. The less chords the better actually. So you will want to play the D dorian scale over a ii chord vamp (Dmin7), ii-iii (Dmin7-Emin7) or ii-V (Dmin7-G7) progression. You can experiment and see what you think.

More common misconceptions

1. You have to start on the root of the mode. In other words, to play D dorian, you have to start on a D note. This is: 

False. You have to hear the tonal center as D dorian only. Hearing the tonal center is to the largest degree due to the chord vamp or chord progression. A C major scale played over a static Dmin chord (not one in the middle of a diatonic progression) is dorian. It might have have been true back in the ancient modal days when there were no chords that your melody had to start on D for it to be dorian (wouldn't want the king of the ancient kindgom of Doria to chop your head off) but in regards to modern modal music, it certainly doesn't make much difference.

2. You can start on any note you want. A C major scale over a static Dmin7 chord or progression which is perceived as centering on D minor is Dorian. 

Partly true. Just because you are technically playing a mode, it certainly won't sound good if you aren't putting emphasis on one of the notes in Dmin (D-F-A) or Dmin7 (D-F-A-C). This goes for improvisation on any level.

3. You have to play over a one-chord vamp for it to be modal. The chord has to be static.
False. The tonal center of gravity has to be the modal chord but it doesn't have to be static. Granted, static probably works best because there are no gravitational tonal distractions but it doesn't have to be a one-chord vamp. But the more chords you add to the mix, the less you will hear what you are doing as modal. 


The method I first described is the "derivative" approach or point of view. What this means is that we refer everything back to the major scale (the mother scale, so to speak).We used D dorian as our example, and I taught you to think: the dorian mode is the major scale down a major 2. This is handy for coming up with what you need on the spot. If you need to play a D dorian mode, you can simply play the major scale that is down a 2nd (C major in this case). This works for all the modes:
Dorian = major scale down a 2nd. (Ex: C dorian = Bb major)
Phrygian = major scale down a 3rd. (Ex: C Phrygian = Ab major)
Lydian = major scale up a 5th. (Ex: C lydian = G major)
Mixolydian = major scale up a 4th. (Ex: C mixolydian = F major)
Aolian = major scale up a minor 3rd. (Ex: C aolian = Eb major)
Locrian = major scale up a minor 2nd. (Ex: C locrian = Db major)

You get a chart and it says by the word "Guitar Solo" Cmaj7. You want C lydian, all you have to do is remember the rule (lydian = major scale up a 5th) and play a G major scale being sure to start on a chord tone (C, E or G) and you'll be playing lydian. Some guys who I call the mode nazis bitch and moan about this method of locating the mode. You get these guys all the time on forums and I wouldn't listen to them. My experience is that these guys generally don't play modal music and take the whole thing too seriously. The proof is in the pudding as I always say and if you like the way I do modal improv, you can take my method as a a fine and dandy way of approaching it. Look here, me playing dorian:

And me playing phrygian:

More Silly Questions I Have Heard on Various Forums

Q: I don’t know what this Juergensen cat is talking about. He says that if you want to play a G mixolydian scale, you should think “up a 4th” I thought the mixolydian mode was the 5th mode. Why does he want to make it so hard?

A: Quit being a complete dingbat and use your head. Using your logic, which is right by the way, G mixolydian is the 5th mode of what scale? C major. OK easy enough. But unfortunately when you get a chart and it is your time to solo, it doesn’t say on the chart next to the word solo “play mixolydian, the 5th mode of C major” it only says G7 and you have to figure out on your own what the hell to play. My logic says: 

G7 = mixolydian, up a 4th from G7 is C, G mixolydian = C major. 

It is the same thing in reverse: the 5th degree of C is G mixolydian and a 4th from G7 is C major. 

You only get the chord, so thinking about what degree of what scale is a big waste of time. It is much faster thinking: major scale up a 4th.  

Parallel is the point to understanding 

Using the derivative method might be easier to locate and play the mode, but to really know what is going on with modes, you absolutely have to see things from a parallel viewpoint as well.

You have to think of the mode as a separate scale all together (which in all reality it is). This point of view would say that the dorian mode is, compared to the parallel major scale, a scale with a fixed set of intervals: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7. The advantage is simple, it shows you clearly what the scale is, its intervals, its tonality and the harmony born from it. It is clear and direct. The disadvantage is that to play it using this method of classification means that you have to learn a separate scale pattern for every mode. I mean, lets say you are playing a tune and the chart tells you that it is time for you to play a solo and gives you a Cmin7 chord to solo over. You would have to think; "Okay, Cmin7, that means I can use the dorian mode, let me think here, the root is C, a 2nd from that is D, a b3rd from the root is Eb, the 4th is F, the 5th is G, the 6th is A and finally the b7th is Bb." It is a lot of thinking to do if you are not yet familiar with all five of the dorian scale patterns. Using our first method, the derivative approach, you would simply say to yourself in the same situation; "I have to solo over a Cmin7 chord, so I need to play the C dorian mode, let's see, a 2nd down is Bb so if I play a Bb major scale everything will be cool." This approach takes a lot less effort. Regardless it is important to look at the modes from the "parallel" standpoint in order to truly understand the nature of each individual mode. The parallel system works for all the modes:

Dorian = 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7
Phrygian = 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Lydian = 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7
Mixolydian = 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7
Aolian = 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Locrian = 1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7

I personally believe it is important to understand both these methods. I tend to teach beginners using the first method for finding and applying the mode simply because it allows someone with little experience to get immediate results with little effort. The student simply needs to know the major scale. By knowing five patterns of the major scale and a few rules you can play every mode. By using the "parallel" method, to get the same results, the same student wound need to know thirty-five different patterns (five patterns x seven modes). Using the "parallel" method you would think of the dorian scale pattern like this (black notes are the "dorian" root):

Eventually what happens is that both these concepts begin to overlap and you stop thinking about it overly. Especially in regards to modes you play often. For example, in the dorian video above, I'm practically not thinking at all. I have played dorian enough over the last three decades for it to be very natural. But in the second video, I am thinking almost completely using the derivative method. In other words, I am thinking" Ok, I've got to play over this Csus4(b9) chord here, down a major 3rd from C is Ab, so I'll play an Ab major scale making sure to start on some chord tone from the chord (C, F or G). Oh, here comes a Db major chord, let me grab a Db, F or Ab on the first beat." The reason I have to do this for phrygian and not dorian is simply because I don't play phrygian very often, it certainly isn't something I do everyday like I might dorian.

Anyway, if you want to get into this mode by mode. Follow the links:

1 comment:

Jay Stone said...

Your explanations are very clear and precise but there always seems to be a gap between beginner level and this type of informative lesson.
Just to let you know we have a way to fill the gap. A new method for teaching all scales and their modes. The formula may be applied to any scale and will allow a beginner to play across the entire fretboard in any chosen scale. Some scales have less notes and their intervals may be closer. These are simpler to start with.
No sharps or flats required, this comes later when teaching conventional theory.
You will find the information at
Regards, Ross