Modes for Guitarists #3: Parallel Thinking


  • Modes 3: Parallel Thinking

  • Parallel Thinking

    Perhaps ultimately more useful than derivative thinking, “Parallel thinking” refers to the “parallel” major scale. This is the major scale that starts from the same note (has the same root note) as the mode in question. In other words, D major is the parallel major scale to D dorian (as well as D phrygian, D lydian, etc.). Likewise, G major is the parallel major scale to G mixolydian, G aeolian, etc.

    If you have gone through my lessons on the major scale, you might remember that I said that virtually everything we talk about in music is talked about by comparing it to a major scale. Here is this concept in action–we can gain insight as to why the modes sound the way they do by comparing them to their parallel major scale.

    Now, let’s compare the D dorian mode to the D major scale:

    Comparison between D ionian and D dorian

    Notice that the third and seventh steps (F and C) of the Dorian mode are different–they are both “flatted,” which means that they are lowered by a half step (if you start with an F# and you “flat” it, it just means that it becomes an F). This means that this mode will have a very different sound from the major scale (as you can hear in the examples above).

    In each mode, different steps (a.k.a. “degrees”) of the scale are flatted (lowered by a half step) or sharped (raised by a half step) when you compare them to their parallel major scale. Because these alterations are different for each mode, each mode has a unique sound. This little chart will quickly show you which scale degrees are changed in each mode, and the upcoming lessons will examine those unique sounds.


    Mode    Notes it contains     Parallel Major Scale     How they compare  
    Ionian C D E F G A B C C Major:
    C D E F G A B C
    Dorian D E F G A B C D  D Major:
    D E F# G A B C# D
    b3, b7
    Phrygian E F G A B C D E E Major:
    E F# G# A B C# D# E
    b2, b3, b6, b7
    Lydian F G A B C D E F  F Major:
    F G A B C D E F
    Mixolydian G A B C D E F G G Major:
    G A B C D E F# G
    Aeolian A B C D E F G A  A Major:
    A B C# D E F# G# A
    b3, b6, b7
    Locrian B C D E F G A B  B Major:
    B C# D# E F# G# A# B
    b2, b3, b5, b6, b7

    “Major” and “minor” modes.

    Perhaps the most important detail to be aware is which modes have a flatted 3rd degree. These modes are compatible with minor chords, whereas the modes in which the 3rd degree stays the same (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian) are compatible with major chords. The oddball here is the locrian mode, which has a flatted third but also a flatted fifth. This puts it in the category of diminished, which is a separate animal from regular major and minor chords. For more detail on chord construction, along with the concepts of major, minor, and diminished, check our lessons on chord construction in the HCG Music Theory Lessons.

    As you will see in the remainder of this tutorial, the notes that are altered within a given mode, especially when the 3rd and/or the 7th are altered, determine what types of chord the mode works best with.

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