What Are Musical Modes?

Have you ever wondered what modes are and how they contribute to the magic of music? If you’ve ever had a music teacher talk to you about modes, you might have noticed that they all have funky Greek names. But fear not, the world of modes is not as complex as it may seem!

What makes modes so fascinating is that each one has its own unique color, sound, and mood. For instance, the Dorian mode has a bittersweet and melancholy feel, while the Lydian mode has an uplifting and dreamy quality. Even if you haven’t heard of modes before, chances are you’ve come across them in your favorite songs without even realizing it!

So, whether you’re a musician, music enthusiast, or just someone who loves to jam out to their favorite tunes, understanding modes is a key part of unlocking the secrets of music theory. 

Let’s dive into the world of modes together and discover the unique sounds of these ancient scales!

What Are Musical Modes?

Modes in music are pretty cool patterns that you’ll definitely come across if you’re learning the piano (or any other instrument, really). Essentially, modes are a way of playing a scale that starts on a different note than the root note. So instead of playing the C Major scale starting on C, for example, you could play the same notes but start on D instead.

There are seven different modes in Western music, each with their own unique vibe: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. You can think of them as different “flavors” of the same scale. For example, the Dorian mode has a minor feel to it, while the Lydian mode has a kind of dreamy, almost spacey quality.

Interestingly, modes have been around for a long time. In fact, they can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece, where they were used in everything from religious ceremonies to epic poems. These days, modes are used in all kinds of music, from classical to jazz to pop.

So why are modes important to learn? Well, for starters, they can help you add some variety to your playing. If you’ve been playing the same old scales and chords for a while, experimenting with modes can be a fun way to mix things up. Plus, if you’re interested in writing your own music, knowing about modes can give you more tools to work with.

All in all, modes are a neat little trick that can take your piano playing (or any kind of music-making) to the next level.

The 7 Major Musical Modes

Modes are scales that have been used in Western music for centuries, and they can provide a unique tonality to your compositions. Here are the major musical modes that you should know about.

1. Ionian Mode

The Ionian mode is probably the most well-known mode. It’s simply a fancy name for the major scale, starting on the root note. For example, a C Ionian mode is the same as a C major scale.

2. Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is a minor-sounding mode that starts on the second degree of the major scale. It’s a popular mode for guitarists, and you’ll hear it in jazz and rock music. Famous guitarists like Pat Martino and Kirk Hammett use the Dorian mode in their solos.

3. Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode is another minor-sounding mode that starts on the third degree of the major scale. It has a distinct Arabian sound and is used in Spanish and North African music. It’s not as popular as some of the other modes, but it can add a unique flavor to your compositions.

4. Lydian Mode

The Lydian mode is a major-sounding mode that starts on the fourth degree of the major scale. It has a lifting and inspirational sound, and you’ll hear it in film scores and other uplifting music. John Williams’ score for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial is a great example of the Lydian mode in action.

5. Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian mode is another major-sounding mode that starts on the fifth degree of the major scale. It’s commonly used in rock, blues, and fusion music. Listen to the guitar solos in Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” for some great examples of Mixolydian playing.

6. Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian mode is a minor-sounding mode that starts on the sixth degree of the major scale. It’s the same as the natural minor scale, so if you know that scale, you know the Aeolian mode.

7. Locrian Mode

The Locrian mode is a minor-sounding mode that starts on the seventh degree of the major scale. It’s the least common mode and is rarely used in long passages. However, jazz soloists sometimes use it over diminished chords to add some tension to their solos.

Scales vs. Modes: What Are The Differences?

Although scales and modes may sound similar, there’s actually a difference between them.

First, let’s define what a scale is. In music, a scale refers to a set of notes played in a particular order within an octave. These notes are arranged by their pitch, and the distance between each note is defined by intervals. Scales are essential in creating melodies and harmonies, and they can be transposed to different keys using a formula based on the interval relationships. Learn more about scale

Now, let’s talk about modes. Modes are derived from scales, and they are essentially a different way of playing the same set of notes. Using the C major scale as an example, we can create seven different modes by starting the scale on a different note. Each mode has a unique sound and feel, depending on which note the scale begins on.

To understand this better, let’s take a look at the Dorian mode. The Dorian mode is created by playing the notes of the C major scale but starting on the second note, D. This results in a different sequence of intervals and a distinct musical flavor. The Dorian mode is often used in jazz and rock music to create a more exotic and sophisticated sound.

In summary, scales and modes are closely related, but they have different applications in music. Scales are the foundation of melodies and harmonies, while modes offer different ways of playing the same set of notes to create unique sounds and moods.

How Did the Musical Modes Get Their Names?

Some scale modes have been around since ancient Greece.

First up, we have the major scale modes, all named after different regions or cultures in ancient Greece. The Dorian mode is named after a group of people who were pretty important in ancient Greek culture, even making an appearance in Homer’s The Odyssey. 

Meanwhile, the Locrian mode comes from a region in central Greece. And if you’re wondering about Lydian and Phrygian, those modes were named after neighboring regions in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey.

Now, let’s talk about the minor scale modes, which have some seriously cool names like Lydian Augmented and Super Locrian. These modes are basically modified versions of the major scale modes and are perfect for those looking to add some depth to their music.

How to Incorporate Modes Into Your Music Playing

If you’re looking to add some new tonalities to your tunes, modal harmony might just be the thing for you. Instead of sticking to the usual major, minor, pentatonic, or blues scales, why not experiment with some 7-note modes?

For example, if you usually play in a major scale, try switching things up with Lydian or Mixolydian modes. And if you tend to use minor scales, give Dorian or Phrygian modes a go. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, try out Locrian mode in place of a diminished scale.

By getting familiar with these modes and mastering them, you’ll open up a whole new world of possibilities for your music. You can use them to improvise or in your formal compositions.

Leave a Comment