Modes for Guitarists #1: How The Modes are Created


  • How the modes are created

  • The Major Scale, a.k.a. the Ionian mode

    The major scale is also known as the ionian mode. It is the first mode, and can be considered the “parent” scale/mode from which all of the others will be derived (refer to the HCG Music Theory Lessons if you don’t understand what a major scale is).

    Here’s that piano diagram again for reference:

    The C Major scale, a.k.a. the C Ionian Mode, is made by simply playing the white keys, beginning on C, and continuing up to the next C.  So to repeat–the major scale IS the Ionian Mode.  They are one and the same.

    The other modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian

    To create the rest of the modes, we begin on the various other notes within the scale (the different “scale degrees”). We’ll start with the key of C major for this example, since it’s all white keys on the piano and therefore the easiest to visualize. Now, start on D and go to the next D. Notice that this shifts the pattern of half steps and whole steps (W H W W W H W); this gives us the dorian mode of the key of D, or simply “D dorian.”

    Go from E to the next E, and the pattern has shifted again (H W W W H W W), and we now have the phrygian mode of the key of E (“E phrygian”). And so on.

    Here’s a quick list of all the modes derived from the C major scale, along with a short midi clip to demonstrate what each sounds like. Each of these modes has a unique arrangement of whole and half steps, and therefore a unique sound. Notice that, in these examples, the bass note is changing–D in the dorian example, E in the phrygian example, F in the lydian example, etc.

    C Ionian


    D Dorian


    E Phrygian


    F Lydian


    G Mixolydian


    A Aeolian


    B Locrian



    Try this at a keyboard if you can–play and hold a low C with your left hand, and then play up and down the scale and make melodies on the white keys with your right hand (this gives you the C ionian mode). Now play a D with your left hand and try some melodies on the white keys (which gives you the D dorian mode). Try the same with E, F, G, A, and B. As the bass note (or “root” note) in the left hand changes, notice how different the notes of the scale sound in relation to it, and notice the overall sound of the mode as you play it. Some modes sound bright and happy, others sound darker. This is basically what the modes are all about–the next step would be to apply the idea to all of the keys.

    Be aware, too, that the modes ALWAYS fall in this same order (the importance of this will become clear as you get through the lessons:

    Ionian > Dorian > Phrygian > Lydian > Mixolydian > Aeolian > Locrian >  Ionian > Dorian etc. 

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