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Guitar Modes

There's more mode love in Path 7.

Modes in C Major

guitar modes in c

I C Ionian [C Major] c d e f g a b c
ii D Dorian d e f g a b c d
iii E Phrygian e f g a b c d e
IV F Lydian f g a b c d e f
V G Mixolydian g a b c d e f g
vi A Aeolian [A Natural minor] a b c d e f g a
viio B Locrian b c d e f g a b

Modes are tone groups, also called scales. One way to understand modes is to use a scale that we know, such as the C Major scale. Then, play the scale using the different tones in the scale as ‘starting points’. The Major scale has 7 tones, & all of them can be a ‘beginning point’ for a scale. All 7 are ‘starting points’. Yet, ‘starting points’ are just a concept. We don’t have to ‘start’ on a particular tone to produce the modal flavors [because the underlying harmony determines how melodic tones are perceived, unless there isn't harmony present].

Modes are scales with special names. Scales with particular flavors. The 7 modes derived from the Major scale system are named after early Greek tribes [the Ionians, the Lydians, etc.]. Modes have become almost mythic in their status. There is no proof that the Dorians used only the Dorian mode, or that the Phrygians only used the Phrygian, etc. Modes have an interesting history which you can read about on WikiPedia.

The basic rule for scales is that the number of tones in the scale is the minimum number of names that it can have. Every tone in the scale can be a root [or 1] for a scale. Since the Major Scale has 7 tones, there are 7 scales within the tone group. Again, every tone in the scale can be a ‘starting point’ [root]. When we play ‘tone to tone’ [e.g. D to D] in a particular key, we are playing in a new mode. Some dictionaries & musicians don’t use the word root for scales, yet we think it makes sense to do so. Semantics shouldn’t get in the way of using modes.

There are 21 basic modes [derived from the Major, Harmonic minor, and Melodic minor scale systems]. Below, we derive the Major scale's modes. For a given key, C is shown, the tones are all the same, we are just 'starting' from a different tone [each tone of the scale can be a root of a scale].

In the beginning, we match up the modes with the corresponding harmony. This means when the Dm [the ii chord in C] is sounding, we are thinking & playing Dorian [the 2nd mode in C]. Yet, we don’t have to think D Dorian because if you are playing the Dm chord & soloing in C Major, D Dorian happens automatically.

Modes are melodic/tonal flavors. Ultimately, the harmony [if present] that we play melodic tones against determines how those tones are interpreted. Yet, we can think in any way that is suitable to us. We can think D Dorian even if the Dm chord isn’t sounding. These are called ‘subs’ [this is more advanced].

Again, the basic rule for scales is that the number of tones in the scale is the minimum number of names that it can have. Every tone in the scale can be a root [or 1] for a scale.

Since the Major Scale has 7 tones, there are 7 scales. Again, every tone in the scale can be a ‘starting point’. When we play ‘tone to tone’ [e.g. F to F], we are playing in a new mode.

We can also divide an octave with any tones within the octave span. Therefore, we can create your own modes. If modes we create aren't previously named modes, then we typically call them synthetic modes [scales we synthesized].

Other Names

  • Ionian - Major Scale, Mongolian Scale, Bilaval Raga
  • Dorian - Japanese Ritso Scale
  • Phrygian - Bhairavi Raga
  • Lydian - Kalyan Raga, Japanese Ryo Scale
  • Mixolydian - Dominant 7 Mode
  • Aeolian - Natural minor Scale, Ethiopian Scale
  • Locrian - none that we know

Ragas are melodic modes used in India.

The Major modes are Ionian, Lydian, & Mixolydian. The minor modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian. Locrian is a minor mode with a flat 5 [diminished].

Edited Note: one of my favorite and trusted college professors shared with our counterpoint class that the Mixolydian mode was originally called the Lesbian mode [Lesbos]. This is, until these modes became church modes. No explanation needed there. [If you know a different version of this, please share].

Another note: the 2, 4, & 6 type tones in the scales are the 9, 11, & 13 in chords, respectively.

Formulas for Modes in a Major Key

These are consistent for every Major key center. For formulas, we compare everything to the Major key formula which is considered 'normal': R 2 3 4 5 6 7. See Derivative/Parallel for more discussion on this topic.

I Ionian R 2 3 4 5 6 7
ii Dorian R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
iii Phrygian R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
IV Lydian R 2 3 #4 5 6 7
V Mixolydian R 2 3 4 5 6 b7
vi Aeolian [A Natural minor] R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
viio Locrian R b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

Major Type Modes

As explored in the Derivative/Parallel lesson, we can compare what is normal [what is derived - Derivative - from the Major scale system] to create names for the tones not in the key [the Parallel tones or non-diatonic tones]. Here we'll take a look at the formulas for the Major modes compared to the Major Pentatonic & some other types of Major modes [others derived from minor keys].

Since the Major Pentatonic is 'missing' a 4 & a 7 tone, we can use it as a frame or skeleton for the modes found in the Major key. We can 'fill in' types of 4's & 7's to get the other Major type modes. Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian can be created by adding the appropriate type of 4 and 7 to the Major Pentatonic. All of the modes listed on this page work for Major triads [R 3 5]. Context and degree of consonance/dissonance determines usage.

Modes in Major key Compared to Major Pentatonic
Major PentatonicR2356
Ionian [Major] R 2 3 4 5 6 7
Lydian R 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Mixolydian R 2 3 4 5 6 b7
 
Major modes for Major 7 [R 3 5 7] Type Chords
Major PentatonicR2356
Ionian [Major] R 2 3 4 5 6 7
De-emphasize the 4 when using the Major scale over Maj7. The 4 creates a tritone with the 7.
Lydian R 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Lydian #2 R #2 3 #4 5 6 7
Lydian #2 is the 6th mode of Harmonic minor.
 
Major modes for Dominant 7 [R 3 5 b7] Type Chords
MixolydianR2345 6 b7
Phrygian DominantRb2345 b6 b7
Phrygian Dominant is the 5th mode of Harmonic minor. It is also called Spanish Gypsy.
Lydian DominantR23#45 6 b7
Lydian Dominant is the 4th mode of Melodic minor. It is also called the Overtone scale [the harmonics sequence created by a ringing tone].
Mixolydian b6R2345 b6 b7
Mixolydian b6 is the 5th mode of Melodic minor.

minor Type Modes

Minor modes can be paralled to the Major scale and/or other minor scale types to get their formulas. Ultimately, everything is compared to Major, yet, once we have a minor type scale, we can then parallel to it. Example: Natural minor [R 2 b3 5 5 b6 b7] is Dorian with a b6. Or the opposite: Dorian is a Natural minor with a 'raised' 6. This is up to each of to determine how to track scale formulas. And, our inner hearing ultimately guides our direction.

Since the minor Pentatonic is 'missing' a 2 & a 6 tone, we can use it as a frame or skeleton for other minor scale types. We can 'fill in' types of 2's & 6's to get the minor type modes. Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian can be created by adding the appropriate type of 2 and 6 to the minor Pentatonic. All of the modes listed on this page work for minor triads [R b3 5]. Context and degree of consonance/dissonance determines usage.

minor Modes compared to minor Pentatonic
minor PentatonicR b3 4 5 b7
Dorian R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Aeolian [Natural minor] R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Phyrgian R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
 
minor modes for minor 7 [R b3 5 b7] Type Chords
minor PentatonicR b3 4 5 b7
Aeolian [Natural minor] R 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Dorian R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Dorian #4 R 2 b3 #4 5 6 b7
Dorian #4 is the 4th mode of Harmonic minor.
Dorian b2 R b2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Dorian b2 is the 2nd mode of Melodic minor.
Phrygian R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
 
minor modes for minor Major 7 [R b3 5 7] Type Chords
Harmonic minor R 2 b3 4 5 b6 7
Melodic minor R 2 b3 4 5 6 7
Melodic minor is just the Major scale with a b3.

More Modes

All of the min7b5 modes work fine over a diminished triad [R b3 b5], and the +7 modes work fine over Augmented triads [R 3 #5].

Modes for min7b5 [R b3 b5 b7] Type Chords
Locrian R b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
Locrian 13 R b2 b3 4 b5 6 b7
Locrian 13 is the 2nd mode of Harmonic minor.
Locrian #2 R 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
Locrian #2 is the 6th mode of Melodic minor.
 
Modes for +7 [R 3 #5 7] Type Chords
Ionian #5 R 2 3 4 #5 6 7
Ionian #5 is the 3rd mode of Harmonic minor
Lydian #5 R 2 3 #4 #5 6 7
Lydian #5 is the 3rd mode of Melodic minor.
 
Modes for Altered Dominants
Phrygian Diminished R b2 #2 3 b5 #5 6
Phrygian Diminished is the 7th mode of Harmonic minor. The 6 = bb7.
Super Locrian R b2 #2 3 b5 #5 b7
Super Locrian is the 7th mode of Melodic minor.