A Practical Guide to Modes and Scales

Q: What are modes and how do they work?

A: I get this question a lot, but have only touched on it in past columns, as it relates to other questions. Here’s a straightforward guide to modes and scales to follow.

Modes are a very simple concept but can take some time to really understand and get under your fingers in a way that gets you playing around with them with any authority.

Basically, all a mode is is a scale. When someone mentioned the major scale modes, they are talking about all of the scales contained within the major scale.

For example, you probably already know the C Major scale, which is:

C D E F G A B

If you choose a different starting note (other than the C), and progress through the scale normally from there, you’ll be playing a different “mode”. For example, if you start on D (the 2nd note of the scale), you’d play:

D E F G A B C

That’s known as the Dorian Mode.

The real key is learning the names of the associated modes and then internalizing the patterns and sounds of those modes. Even though they may have the same notes as their Major parent scale, they will have different sounds and feels to them.

The Major Modes:

  1. I – Ionian (Major scale)
  2. ii – Dorian (Major scale starting on the 2nd degree)
  3. iii – Phrygian (Major scale starting on the 3rd degree)
  4. IV – Lydian (Major scale starting on the 4th degree)
  5. V – Mixolydian (Major scale starting on the 5th degree)
  6. vi – Aeolian (Minor Scale – Major scale starting on the 6th degree)
  7. vii – Locrian (Major scale starting on the 7th degree)

Notice that the 6th mode (Aeolian) is also a regular minor scale.

If you’ve ever heard anyone mention the “relative minor” or “relative Major” scale, this is what they’re talking about. The appropriate minor or Major scale relative to the current mode.

If we are in G Major, for example, the relative minor scale would be E minor (E is the 6th note of the G Major scale. When you play the notes to a G Major scale but start on E, you get an E minor scale).

If we are in A minor, the relative major is? C Major!

So, if we want to take this stuff a step further, we would really learn all of the Major modes as well as all modes relating to melodic minor and harmonic minor as well.

Melodic minor is just like Major, but with a flatted 3rd. So, C melodic minor is:

C D Eb F G A B

It’s a slight difference, but it makes a big impact on the sound of all of the modes.

Harmonic minor is just like regular minor, but with a natural 7th. So, C harmonic minor is:

C D E? F G A? B

If we take each of those scales and learn all of the different modes associated with each, we get 21 different modes, all with very different sounds (each scale has 7 notes, so there are 7 modes per parent scale. Parent scales being Major, Melodic Minor and Harmonic Minor).

I would suggest tackling these one at a time. First, learn all of your Major modes. Then Melodic minor and finally, Harmonic minor.

That way, when someone says this is a Lydian sound, you will immediately know what that means (Major with a sharp 4! It’s also the 4th mode of Major. C Major and F Lydian have the same notes, but very different sounds when you really emphasize that raised 4th).

I’m big on the shapes of things on my fretboard when learning new harmonic concepts. I would recommend that you write out the name and notes of each Major scale mode and then draw the shape on a fretboard diagram for yourself. I used to simply drill the shapes of each mode until I knew it like the back of my hand.

Modes Fretboard Diagram:

Modes Fretboard Diagram

Quiz yourself or go through them with a friend. You can simply call out a note and the name of a mode and then try and play it: C Phrygian! D Lydian! G Melodic minor! and so on.

Have fun, but do the work. This is highly rewarding and comes in very handy when dialoguing with other musicians about music and approaches to a tune.

Modes in the Key of C:

Modes in the Key of C

In addition to the examples above, I also suggest that you create your own charts and diagrams as it helps to reinforce the information and how you are internalizing it.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Klaus Neumann

    Haha theory 101 was 7yr when I was taught this but forgot some of the names like Locrian and Phrygian thanks Brent Lane.

    • Alex Strekal

      For some reason modes in particular is a confusing topic for a lot of people. But it’s pretty straight forward with the right explainations.

  2. Kevin Aguirre

    It’s like the basis to musical theory on bass haha so useful! (bookmarking)

  3. Frederick Van Staden

    pimping!

  4. Nice. Simple and to the point. As a self-taught player, I have always bypassed modes in favor of other scalar exercises. Think I’ll go back in the shed for a while…

  5. Thank “D” I guess I just need to slow down…

  6. This video by Adam Nitti helped me to wrap my head around the concept..

  7. I also like using a short cut to modes like this: After you have the major and minor scale down the rest of the modes can be learned by altering a note. For example, Dorian becomes minor with a raised 6th, Phrygian is minor with a flat 2, Lydian is major sharp 4, mixolydian is major flat 7, and locrian is minor flat 2 and flat 5.

    • Paul Morrison

      That’s the way I teach it. Places the importance on the 3 basic scales then you can relate the others. The difficulty comes when telling how to use them appropriately. Especially when I contradict myself and say things like “when you are being creative there is no right and wrong. It just makes more sense to speak the same language as your listener so be prepared to explain why you said/played that particular statement.”

  8. School’s in session give me more please! Thanks D!

  9. Sorry but I don’t get it , are your Fret diagrams in the correct place? I get a B for a C Ionian root?

    • They’re all just shapes only. Notice the’re not named as C, D or anythong else. You can use these shapes on any neck position.

    • Peter Tailordbird
      Thanks Peter but still confused,maybe next time define root note/fret for dummies like me.(not a music reader)Always had trouble with modes,have used various scale shapes over the years, but thanks for the reply.

    • ahhh Kevin I was looking at the pattern rotated 90 degrees. Look at it sideways and think of the fret board only showing 3 strings. duh… i get it now

  10. Just learned this from music theory last semester. Pretty cool stuff.

  11. don’t forget the descending melodic minor is the same as ‘natural’ minor. (so the scale is different going up then coming down). always tricky to wrap your brain around.

  12. Thanks for the lesson Damian. I kind of have a good grasp of the shapes of the modes but find it hard to apply it in a soloing context over a given chord progression. I hope you would write something about that soon. Cheers!

  13. Thanks Damian. I somehow have a grasp of the shapes of the modes in the fretboard but still struggling to apply it in a soloing context over a chord progression. I hope you would do a lesson on it next time. Thanks

  14. Corey England

    Excellent! Great way of simplifying this for beginners new to advanced theory.. Although there was one crucial error. melodic minor is when the 3rd and 6th degrees (medient and sub medient) are lowered (not “flatted”) when ascending from and to the tonic, then raised when descending. NATURAL minor is when the 3rd AND 6th are lowered in the scale. And Harmonic minor is the natural minor with a raised leading tone (7th degree).

  15. Emmanuel

    Thanks Damian….this is really lovely…..but my question is how can this modes be practised and linked together to make someone have a good mastery of the fretboard…I mean the use of links and connection of this modes to make you move around the fretboard to and fro…..thanks

  16. Shilp

    Should’t the C Ionian start with a C cause I understand from the article it is basically the major scale itself? In the notation it starts from A. Nice article nevertheless!