Modes Part One

Would you like to understand modes; what they are, how they work, and how to use them? Mark Wingfield takes a look at what can be an amazing source of colour and mood for musicians.

What are modes exactly, why should or shouldn’t I learn them, what are they for and how do I use them?

Lets go through these questions one at a time.

First what are modes. OK forget about the fact that they came from the ancient church modes that’s irrelevant to us as rock, or jazz players in the 20th almost 21st century. Today they are simply a set of very useful scales.

There are seven modes. And for all intents and purposes, these modes are just seven different very useful scales.

Why are modes distinct from other scales?

Modes are simply a set of scales that all derive from one parent scale, they all share the same notes. So all the modes derived from say the scale of C Major, contain the same notes. This is often the source of confusion for people trying the understand modes.

If all the modes that come from a parent scale contain the same notes, then what’s the difference between them? That should become clear as we look a bit more into what modes are.

You can in theory, derive modes from any scale, but in practice, when someone refers to modes in general, they mean the modes derived from the normal everyday major scale.

So let’s have a look at this every day major scale which generates all these modes. If we take the scale of C Major, we can see that it consists of 7 notes, C being the root note:


Using only these notes however, you could make any of them your root note. ie: using only this set of notes, you could have a TYPE of D scale, a TYPE of E scale etc…The big question is, just what TYPE of scale do you get, when you use these other notes as the root? This is THE KEY question when it comes to understanding modes.

We’ll get back to that little mystery in a minute.

First we have to get past the initial point of confusion for most people trying to understand what modes are.

I remember the question I asked when I first looked at modes, and its the same one students ask again and again: “If all the modes that are derived from the C Major scale just use the notes from that scale, what’s the difference?” “You start on a C, you start on a D, and play the same notes, it sounds pretty much the same to me”. “Am I not playing D Dorian (2nd mode) when I start on the D, and yet it sounds pretty much the same as starting on the C”.

Well it would sound the same if you played it all over a C major chord. However, try it over a D chord… Or start on an E and play over an E chord.

So if your root note is C for example, and you play the scale of C Major (otherwise known as the Ionian mode) it doesn’t matter which note in that scale you start on. You are still playing the same set of notes over the same chord, therefore you are still playing the same mode (scale) of C Ionian or C 1st mode. You can start on a D if you want or and F or any other note in the scale, but it won’t change the mode – you’ll still be in C Ionian mode (C 1st mode).

If the CHORD you are playing over changes however… THEN your mode changes. eg: if the chord changed to D minor (or any kind of D chord) your root note is NOW D. Let this sink in if you will… the ROOT NOTE has changed. In this case it has changes to D, that means that your scale or mode has also changed to D. You can start or rest on the C (or any other note) as much as you want, but it won’t change the mode. The root note of the chord is D, so you are playing a D scale or mode. Even if you exclude the note of D entirely from your scale… you are STILL playing a D scale.


What defines a mode’s sound, is the notes it contains RELATIVE to the root note.

You are always playing a mode or any scale over a root note.

This is the important thing to remember; if you always keep this firmly in mind, it will all make sense eventually:

The root note will either be the root of the chord you are playing over or the drone if you are playing over a drone.

Keep this in mind: That root note is “written in stone”.

Your ear will hear that root note and judge every other note by it.

So if the root note of the chord you are playing over is C, all the other notes you play will be heard and take their sound partly from their relationship (ie: their distance) to the C.

If your root note is D, likewise, all the notes you play in your scale or mode get their sound in part from their distance or relationship to D.

But we still haven’t quite reached the crux of what modes are. So to that end let’s now look at this exact same thing a little more closely. To make life simple we’ll continue to work from the C major scale as the parent scale from which we derive modes.

Remember, when you REALLY understand what modes are, you will also understand how to use them.

So when reading the following section remember this: The root note of your chord, is the reference point by which your ear judges all other notes.

e.g.: Have someone (or your computer) play a C major chord. Over that play a C Major scale starting on C.

C major chord:
C major scale (C Ionian mode)

The important thing is to concentrate on the relationship (or distance) of the notes in your mode to the root note of the chord.

So here we have major chord and a major scale (also known as C Ionian mode or C 1st mode). This is a reasonable scale choice ie: in a basic sense they match up.

Why do they match? Well if you look at the intervals in the chord and those in the scale (mode), you can see that all the notes in the chord are contained in the mode. ie: the Root, Major 3rd and 5th. In addition, the mode contains a 2nd, a 4th, a 6th, and a Major 7. All these sounds fit over a major chord.

How do you know that? Well that’s down to doing a bit of ear training. In my opinion, if you want to be an improvising musician, (or even if not), you should make it your business to know these sounds. Without this knowledge, you are ‘playing blind’. What tools do you have to find the right notes? Fingering patterns? Surely that’s a blunt tool on its own? Surely you should have some idea what is contained in that fingering pattern, and what these intervals sound like. How else do you judge which note to play when?

Eg: perhaps you prefer the sound of a #4 in a major scale instead of a 4, this is a popular choice (personally I certainly would prefer he #4 over for example a Major 7 chord). The important thing is to make informed choices; information that should be provided by your ear. ie: you choose to play the #4 instead of the 4 in a major scale because you LISTEN to it and you LIKE the sound better. Incidentally if you do chose to use a #4 in a major scale, you are in fact playing the Lydian mode (4th mode).

Its not that hard to train your ear if you have a good teacher, or a measure of self discipline.

Now let’s imagine we are playing over a D Major chord using a mode from the SAME C major scale.

In this case (now here’s the important point) the chord has a root of D so the root of our scale or mode HAS TO BE D; remember its written in stone – the root note of the chord defines everything.

This is where modes start to take on their significance, where they cease to be ‘just starting on a different note of the same scale’.

The D chord gives us a new root note, this changes everything as we’ll see:

D major chord:
D Dorian mode from C Major scale

(If the following paragraph leaves you confused, just forget it, carry on reading as normal. When you feel you understand the basic concept behind modes a bit better, go back and reread this paragraph.)

Is this a good set of notes to play over the D major chord? Use you’re ear. Its a minor scale being played over a major chord. Now here’s one of the real interesting (to the ear) and useful thing about modes: This mode, D Dorian (a minor scale), can work over a D major chord. All the intervals in the scale fit over a major chord in a straight forward way and offer a lot of scope for melodic playing, except the b3. The b3 in the scale if phrased well however, is a very strong bluesy note. It clashes with the major 3rd in the chord, but in a very bluesy way. Some would say (myself included) that this IS the blues note, if you have to bring it down to one note. Interestingly, this is also a pivotal (very important) note in jazz.

Now you can see here the important essence of what modes are. When D is our root note, but we use our set of notes from the old C Major scale, it is now no longer C Major – this is the crux. The change of root note in the chord we are playing over, has CHANGED the whole meaning of our set of notes. They now HAVE to be a D scale because the ROOT NOTE is a D (even though its the same set of notes from the C major scale).

Making D the new root note gives us a whole different type of scale – not a major scale at all. In fact when we view our original set of notes in relation to D being the root we can see that we now have a minor scale with a b3 and a b7!

D Dorian

This the the whole crux – the root note!

The root note DEFINES the scale. Not just on paper, but also to your ear.

Just try this: have someone play a C Major chord and play a C Major scale over it. Then have them play a D7 chord and play what USED TO BE a C Major scale, but is now a D Dorian mode.

Hear the difference? The new chord with a new root note has totally redefined our set of notes. It is now meaningless to call it C Major since when you play over the D chord, C is the seventh note in the scale not the root anymore. You are now playing a D scale, specifically D Dorian or D second mode.

Its is essential that you keep this idea of the root note as the defining force, in your mind.

Now hopefully you understand what modes are:

Modes are a set of scales derived from a parent scale (this parent scale is normally an everyday major scale). Each note in the parent scale can be used as a root note, hence all the modes come into existence.

Remember what makes a mode distinct from its parent. Take D Dorian for example: The reason D Dorian (second mode of C major) is not just C major starting on a D, is down to the root note of the chords you are playing over. If you play this set of notes over a C chord, you are playing C Ionian or C 1st mode. If you play this same set of notes over a D chord, you are playing D Dorian or D 2nd mode. The root note defines the mode.

So every major scale has seven modes. Its seven modes start on each note of the parent major scale.

Lets have a closer look at what these modes are. We’ll use C major scale for simplicity, but all major scales have the same types of modes.

Mode I – “Ionian” – Major

Mode II – “Dorian” – Minor (jazzy)

Mode III – “Phrygian” – (Spanish)

Mode IV – “Lydian” – Major (jazzy/eastern)

Mode V – “Mixolydian” – Dominant (melodic)

Mode VI – “Aeolian” – minor
A—B–C—D—E–F—G R—2–b3—4—5–b6–b7

Mode VII – “Locrian”

The words in brackets are just suggestions for common use, they are by no means definitive descriptions of the mode’s sounds.

So you (hopefully) see half the picture now, you understand what modes are. We need to know how to use them though. If you understand it to this point, you’ll have the necessary tools to understand the next and final part: how to use them. This is where it really gets fun and you find you have whole new sets of colours to paint with. Modes potentially offer all sorts of colours and moods, its all down to knowing how to use them ie: which chord types the various modes sound good over, and exactly how they sound.

In Part Two I’ll go on to explain how you use these modes to expand your musical vocabulary and we’ll look at some of the different moods they can create. Remember, depending on the type of chord you play over, the same mode will create different moods. ie: A D Dorian mode will work over both a D minor chord and a D7 chord, but you’ll get drastically different moods over each. Both very usable however.

Please download this and read it as many times as is necessary. If you reread it enough times, it just might all click.

I give lessons via Skype, contact me about setting up a lesson here.

All content © copyright 2011 Mark Wingfield, Dark Energy Music Publishing