top of page

Understanding Modes
By Michael Korte 

If you played guitar for a while, you might have heard of something called the "modes" of Phrygian, Dorian, Mixolydian and so on, in context of playing lead guitar, but also in context of song writing in a specific "mode".

Let me take the opportunity now, to explain what is meant by that, because the concept is pretty easy to grasp. It is the names, that make it so confusing. But good news is, that you do not make an effort in memorizing those "weird" names, because that will come on its own, by simply working with them and applying them bit by bit.

Look at the C major scale. It is mostly explained by starting with the C, which makes sense, because it is the
C MAJOR scale: C D E F G A B C

This can also be called the Ionian scale. But what if we take the SAME notes and we start the scale on another note?

For example, on the D note: D E F G A B C D.

Here we have the D Dorian scale. Simply by shifting our starting point. Take your guitar and try to play a D Dorian scale. Simply take a C major scale that you know and start it on the 2nd note.

You will notice, that it sounds different than a major scale, because the half steps and the full steps are in a totally different place now. Compared to a major scale, instead of having the half notes on steps 3-4 and 7-8 and the rest consisting of full steps, you now have the half steps at 2-3 and 6-7.

You can go through this process for all the notes in the C major scale now, starting on a different note and you will always get another of the 7 modes. Two we already discovered, the remaining five are as follows:

Phrygian starting on the E: E F G A B C D E with half steps at positions 1-2 and 5-7

Lydian starting on the F: F G A B C D E F with half steps at positions 4-5 and 7-8

Mixolydian starting on the G: G A B C D E F G with half steps at positions 3-4 and 6-7

Aeolian starting on the A: A B C D E F G A with half steps at positions 2-3 and 5-6 – Notice, that this is also a MINOR SCALE, finally:

Locrian starting on the B: B C D E F G A B with half steps at positions 1-2 and 4-5.

Notice that all those modes introduced here, have the half steps between the notes B and C, and E and F.

But what is more important is the structure behind the scales.

The Lydian mode for example, always has the half steps at positions 4-5 and 7-8.

For example, G Lydian then would consist of the notes:

G A B C# D E F# G.

Be aware, that the Lydian mode also starts on the 4th scale degree of a major scale. That would mean, if we count backwards from 4, starting at the G, you would get the parallel major key. Which would be... G, F#, E, D!

So, G Lydian contains the same notes as D Major: D E F# G A B C# D.

Again, this process can be applied to all the modes. You can start any mode on any note and you will find a parallel major key (=Ionian), minor key (=Aeolian), Locrian mode, Phrygian mode, etc.

Why is this important to know?

Because every mode has a different feeling to it and a different mood! You can exploit this fact alone for millions more of expressive tools in your song writing tool box.

If you want to write a chord progression, try to write in in a certain mode. It is easier than you think.

Let us take G Mixolydian as an example. G Mixolydian contains the same notes, as which major key?

Right, C major. Now simply take the chords from C major (C, Dm, Em, F, G and Am), but centre them around the G major chord. That means, start with a G major and finish the song on G major, but play chords from C major.

It will take some time until you develop an ear for the nuances in differences, but also with other modes those differences are more obvious.

You might think now "if even I cannot hear the differences, why would the audience even care? If they do not hear it, why do I need it?". Valid objection.

The point is, inexperienced listeners might not hear it, but they will subconsciously feel the different feeling that you are portraying. So, this topic is well worth exploring!

I hope this brought you some clarity about how the modes are constructed.

About the author:
Michael Korte is teaching guitar in Finland. In his guitar school, he teaches his students new approaches and concepts for their rhythm and solo playing and also shows them how to improve their practicing, so that they get better results faster. If you want to reach the next level in your playing and you are looking for kitaratunnit in Tampere make sure to get in touch with him.

bottom of page