Modes - Fundamentals of Music Theory

Modes - Fundamentals of Music Theory

In the previous section we looked at what scales are, different scale types, how they are related to each other, and gave some common examples. In a few places we also mentioned the mysterious modes. So, what are they and where do they come from?

What are Modes?

The concept of modal music has existed in one shape or form for a very long time and was commonly used in plainchant. However, here we are specifically referring to the Diatonic Modes that have their origin in the Western Church Modes. To understand what a diatonic mode is we first have to appreciate that at the time of their creation, western music only recognised 7 notes, not yet all the 12 notes of the Chromatic scale. These 7 notes are now commonly known as the natural notes i.e. they don't have any sharps or flats. Imagine just the white keys on a piano keyboard, no black keys.

C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Now, remember that the intervals between each of these notes are not equal to each other. With the exception of B and E, each of these notes also has a sharp note above it (the black keys) meaning that some natural notes are a full tone apart whereas B to C and E to F are only a semitone apart. Why is that important? Well the idea of modes was to take those repeating 7 notes but start from a different note/tonic. That process created 7 modes which all have a unique character due their different tonal centre and interval patterns.

Ionian (Major)C, D, E, F, G, A, BT, T, S, T, T, T, SMajor
DorianD, E, F, G, A, B, CT, S, T, T, T, S, Tminor
PhrygianE, F, G, A, B, C, DS, T, T, T, S, T, Tminor
LydianF, G, A, B, C, D, ET, T, T, S, T, T, SMajor
MixolydianG, A, B, C, D, E, FT, T, S, T, T, S, TMajor
Aeolian (Natual Minor)A, B, C, D, E, F, GT, S, T, T, S, T, Tminor
LocrianB, C, D, E, F, G, AS, T, T, S, T, T, Sdiminished

These modes would always be used in the same key as the concept of key wasn't really a thing yet. Dorian would always start with D, Mixolydian always with G, etc. Each mode evokes a different mood or feel due to its unique pattern. However, some modes are known as Major or minor based partly on the quality of their 3rd degree. Locrian mode is the odd one out because, despite its minor 3rd, unlike the rest it has a diminished 5th rather than a Perfect 5th. As a result, this mode is rarely used as a compositional base in Western music.

Modern Use of Modes

Over time, two of these modes became more popular than the others and are now known by different names. The Ionian mode became the Major scale and the Aeolian mode became the Natural Minor scale. That's not to say the other modes disappeared. You can still find them used widely in folk, jazz, prog rock and heavy metal music to name but a few.

Many think of the modes as mysterious or worry that they will be difficult to understand and memorise. A maybe simpler way of looking at them is that they are just a reordered version of the Major scale pattern with a different starting point, each one shifting one scale degree to the right. Hopefully looking at the modes like this will help demystify them.

With the later recognition of the remaining chromatic notes (what we know as the sharp or flat notes between the natural notes), it was possible to transpose the modes into other keys. For example, if we wanted to play the Dorian mode but in the key of C rather than D, we could transpose the mode's pattern (T, S, T, T, T, S, T) to start from C. This would produce C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. As we can see, this now requires two flat notes.

It is also worth noting, maybe to revisit at a later time, that we can apply the same process to produce modes for other scales such as the Harmonic Minor scale or the Melodic Minor scale. We can either work out the notes of the scale in a specific key, then re-order the notes by shifting them one degree at a time to create each mode. Or, we can look at the pattern for the scale and rotate that one degree at a time. For example the Harmonic Minor scale pattern is T, S, T, T, S, TS, S. This will give us the first mode (and the scale of course). If we start again from the second degree we get S, T, T, S, TS, S, T which will produce the second mode of this scale. Repeat the process for each degree until you have all seven modes for the scale.


If you are looking for information on a specific mode and key, check out our Music Theory Scales & Modes section and just select the mode and key you need for a detailed breakdown. And if you want to view modes on your preferred instrument of choice, each instrument section includes a modes section such as Piano Modes, Guitar Modes, Bass Modes, etc.

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