Musical Modes for Beginners: A Guide to Master Modal Theory

Musical Modes Guide- Mastering Modes in Music Theory
Musical Modes Guide- Mastering Modes in Music Theory

Mastering Musical Modes

Many beginner musicians and music artists think the mood of a song is determined either by the major scale or minor scale. 

Whilst major scales give a happy, bright mood, and minor scales give a somber, melancholic sound, there are a range of musical modes beyond these that each offer a unique mood and tone to the music.

These musical modes are used by talented musicians and artists across the world to make their music more interesting and dynamic. 

Learning about the different modes in music will equip you with a new set of creative possibilities for analyzing, interpreting, and writing music. 

In today’s article, we’re demystifying the topic of musical modes, looking at their origins, how they work, how they can be interchanged, and some tips to use in your music production.

Key Takeaways

  • Musical modes are a set of 7 unique scales that offer musicians a way to create different textures and harmony in their music, beyond the traditional major and minor scales.

  • The 7 musical modes (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian) each feature their own distinct sound characteristics, and can be utilized to create a diverse range of compositions.

  • Modal interchange, or borrowing chords from one mode to another, is an a powerful compositional tool that adds depth and variety to music, creating interesting harmonic shifts and emotional twists to catch the listeners off-guard.

  • Understanding modes in music is essential for serious musicians and producers, as it expands their harmonic abilities, song composition skills and more.

What are Modes in Music?

Musical modes are a set of 7 unique scales, with each scale having its own distinct sound. 

These modes originate from the diatonic scale and can be thought of as variations of the major and minor scales. They offer musicians a way to create different textures and harmony in their music, outside of the traditional two scales.

All musical modes start by taking the diatonic scale and starting on a different degree. This creates a new sequence of intervals between the musical notes. 

To better understand musical modes, we can visualize them with piano notes. 

Let’s start with the diatonic scale, using only the white notes, which is the C major scale. We can play through the standard C to C, this is the Ionian mode

Musical Modes Example - C to C (Ionian)

Musical Modes Example – C to C (Ionian Mode)

Now we start on the D, using only the white keys like before, playing through from D to D. This is a mode change in music, and is the Dorian mode.

Musical Modes Example - D to D (Dorian)

Musical Modes Example – D to D (Dorian Mode)

Finally, using only the white keys on the piano, each different key we start on represents a different musical mode. 

Each mode has its own distinct emotional quality, ranging from the bright and uplifting sound that a major scale delivers, to a darker, sadder quality that a minor scale delivers. 

This gives musicians more diversity when composing and performing different pieces of music, as they can tailor the mode to fit the particular mood and sound they’re looking for.

The Importance of Musical Modes

Understanding modes in music is an essential skill for music artists and producers who are serious about their craft.

Musical modes play a key role in expanding a musician’s harmonic abilities. Having the ability to identify, recreate and experiment with a piece of music in one of these modes will help you add more diversity and interesting content to your own song arrangements.

Once you understand each mode’s unique sound quality and the emotion it brings, you’ll be able to call upon the mode when you are trying to create a specific theme. 

The most talented musicians also swap between different musical modes in the same piece of music. This offers even more diversity and suspense, making their music more engaging and interesting.

We’ll talk more about the modal mixture technique later.

The 7 Different Musical Modes

There are seven different musical modes that you need to be aware of:

  • Ionian mode
  • Dorian mode
  • Phrygian mode
  • Lydian mode
  • Mixolydian mode
  • Aeolian mode
  • Locrian mode

These seven modes fall into two different categories, based on interval behavior. These are major modes and minor modes.

The only difference between these two categories is that the 3rd note is either a major 3rd above or a minor 3rd above the root note. 

Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian are major modes, whilst Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian are minor modes.

Let’s take a closer look at each musical mode and how they work, including both examples of musical staff and the piano keyboard. We’ll stick to the pitches of the C Major Scale notes to make it easier to understand.

Ionian Mode

First up, we have the Ionian mode, the most familiar mode as it is identical to the major scale

It has a bright, happy sound that makes it perfect for an uplifting and positive piece of music. 

The formula for the Ionian mode is W-W-H-W-W-W-H 

C Ionian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Ionian Mode on Musical Notation – C Ionian

C Ionian Mode - Musical Modes

Ionian Mode on Piano  – C Ionian

Dorian Mode

Next, we have the Dorian mode, which is a minor scale with a raised 6th degree. This makes it part of the minor mode category. For the remaining examples, we’ll use the pitches from the C major scale, we start on the D note instead.

It features a uniquely mysterious sound, perfect for adding some uncertainty to a song’s composition. 

The formula for the Dorian mode is W-H-W-W-W-H-W  

D Dorian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Dorian Mode on Musical Notation – D Dorian

D Dorian Mode - Musical Modes

Dorian Mode on Piano  – D Dorian

Phrygian Mode

The third mode is the Phrygian mode, which is a minor scale with a lowered 2nd degree. This also falls into the minor mode category.

The various flattened notes in this mode give it very dark-sounding characteristics, perfect for melancholic, introspective music. 

The formula for the Phrygian mode is H-W-W-W-H-W-W 

E Phrygian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Phrygian Mode on Musical Notation – E Phrygian

E Phrygian Mode - Musical Modes

Phrygian Mode on Piano  – E Phrygian

Lydian Mode

The fourth mode in this list is the Lydian mode, a major scale that features a raised 4th note. This mode is part of the major mode category. 

The Lydian mode is one of, if not, the brightest sounding modes available. Perfect for achieving a dreamy, ethereal sound in your music. 

The formula for the Lydian mode is W-W-W-H-W-W-H

F Lydian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Lydian Mode on Musical Notation – F Lydian

F Lydian Mode - Musical Modes

Lydian Mode on Piano – F Lydian

Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian mode is the fifth musical mode, that features a lowered 7th note. This major mode is sometimes called a dominant scale.

The Mixolydian mode is often used in more complex genres such as blues, funk, and rock. It’s a perfect mode to create advanced melodies whilst having a unique sound.

The formula for the Mixolydian mode is W-W-H-W-W-H-W

G Mixolydian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Mixolydian Mode on Musical Notation – G Mixolydian

G Mixolydian Mode - Musical Modes

Mixolydian Mode on Piano – G Mixolydian

Aeolian mode

Moving on, we have the Aeolian mode, which is also known as the natural minor scale. 

The Aelion mode gives its own version of a melancholic, somber mood. This is due to the various lowered notes.

The formula for the Aeolian mode is W-H-W-W-H-W-W

A Aeolian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Aeolian Mode on Musical Notation – A Aeolian

A Aeolian Mode - Musical Modes

Aeolian Mode on Piano – A Aeolian

Locrian mode

And last but not least, we have the Locrian mode, sometimes known as the half-diminished scale. It is the last minor mode on this list

The Locrian mode isn’t used as much as the other minor modes and has the most unstable and dissonant-sounding result.

The formula for the Locrian mode is H-W-W-H-W-W-W 

B Locrian Mode - Musical Modes on Sheet Music

Locrian Mode on Musical Notation – B Locrian

B Locrian Mode - Musical Modes

Locrian Mode on Piano – B Locrian

Musical Modes vs Scales

Although the terms ‘mode’ and ‘scale’ are used interchangeably, there is a subtle difference that all beginner musicians should understand. 

A scale in music is defined as a series of musical notes arranged in either ascending or descending order.

A mode in music is defined as a type of scale with specific intervals between each of the notes.

It can be difficult for musicians who are just starting their musical journey to grasp this. Our best piece of advice is to remember that – All modes are scales, but not all scales are modes.

Examples of Modes in Music

Now you have an understanding of what musical modes are, and how each mode works, it’s time to use this knowledge to identify different modes in popular music. 

Let’s look at a real example of the first 6 musical modes used in famous music. Locrian mode remains an unpopular choice for popular music due to its harsh-sounding results.

Ionian Mode in Music 

 “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles

Dorian Mode in Music

“Another Brick In The Wall (Part 1)” by Pink Floyd

Phrygian Mode in Music

“Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica

Lydian Mode in Music

“Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac

Mixolydian Mode in Music

“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Aeolian Mode in Music

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Modal Interchange

Modal interchange, also known as modal mixture or borrowing, is a compositional technique that involves using chords or melodies from one mode to another (typically within the same key). 

It’s an advanced skill to learn in music, but once mastered, it can add a new level of variety and unexpected elements to your music. This results in richer harmonic and melodic textures.

Let’s look at how we can use modal interchange in our own music in this simple example. 

Imagine you’re in the C Ionian mode (C major scale), you could use a chord from the parallel minor mode, C Aelian, such as the B flat major chord. 

Modal Interchange Example - CMaj to BbMaj Chords

Modal Interchange Example – CMaj to BbMaj Chords

By introducing this Bb major chord, you immediately create a sense of contrast and surprise. You’ll notice this adds depth to the overall harmony of the music.  

This is only a simple example, but it shows that modal interchanging is a powerful compositional tool that can add a new breath of life to your music. Musicians use these model mixtures to add emotional impact, interesting harmonics and create tension in their music. 

Brief History of Modes in Music 

Musical modes originate from ancient Greece, where they were used for poetry, and later for music. 

These early modes, known as the “Greater Perfect System,” were named after various regions and tribes in Greece. They served as a means of conveying specific moods and emotions in both poetry and music. 

These musical modes evolved over centuries and had a significant role in the development of harmony and melody in Western music. 

The cultural significance of modes in music is immense, as they have influenced the sound and style of countless compositions across various genres and time periods.

From medieval Gregorian chants to contemporary jazz, modes have been used to create unique sonic landscapes that resonate with listeners on an emotional level.

Composing Tips Using Musical Modes

Now you have the basic understanding of the different music modes, the next step is to use them in your own music. 

Here are some of our best tips to get you started: 

Start with the basics: Pick a few modes that you feel comfortable with, then practice playing each of them on your instrument of choice to get used to the sound and intervals of that mode.

Experiment with chord progressions: Try building chord progressions based on the modes, and listen to the different moods and emotions in your music as you cycle with the modes.

Mix them up:  Don’t be afraid to mix and match modes within a single composition, modal interchange is a powerful tool and creates interesting and unexpected contrasts.

Listen to different examples: Similar to the examples earlier in the article, go and find more songs that use modes and analyze them. Listen and make notes on how the composers have used them in their music. This exercise will give you valuable insight and inspiration for your own music

Summary – Understanding Modes in Music

And we have reached the end of our journey about musical modes. Throughout this guide, we’ve explored the 7 different types of musical modes, their unique characteristics, and the powerful use of modal interchanging. 

Now that you’ve learned about the world of musical modes, it’s time to let your creativity run free. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different modes, borrowing chords or melodies to create intriguing harmonic shifts and unexpected emotional twists. 

By incorporating modes into your own music, you’ll start crafting rich and engaging compositions that were not possible before.

Remember, the journey of mastering modes in music is an ongoing process, so stay curious, keep learning, and enjoy the endless possibilities that this fascinating aspect of music theory has to offer.

Thomas Smith
Thomas Smith
As Visionary and Chief Editor of 122BPM, Thomas is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of music pioneers. With a degree in Music and 10 years industry experience, Thomas is now shaping 122BPM as the central hub for music and audio education.
Share this post
Table of Contents