The Modes of Major Scale

There are seven modes of a major scale and all of these modes represent easily distinguishable sounds/emotions. Each of these modes is constructed using a specific interval structure. It is important that you learn how to construct each mode using intervals and know which chords are to be used for rhythms. Learning these two important steps will eventually enable you to effectively use modes within your musical pieces and improvisations.

As we have already discussed, the major scale has seven modes which are as follows :

  1. Ionian (Natural Major)
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian (Relative Minor)
  7. Locrian

Each of the above modes has its distinct flavor which is created by one or more notes of that particular mode therefore it is essential that you identify those notes while practicing. You will learn about each mode in great detail in its individual lesson where you will also find about which notes create the flavor for each mode. At this point it is important that you know how all of the above modes are constructed from the major scale. We will use C major scale to understand how modes are created.

First of all, we shall quickly refresh the C major scale. The notes of C major scale are C D E F G A B C; it starts with C note (Root note) and ends on C completing the octave (eight notes). Also, the C major scale has the interval structure like this; R 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. If we keep the interval structure same and start with another root note, it will still sound the same because the interval structure, when changed, is what renders the flavor into the modes. So, is it clear now that if you change the interval structure, it will add different characteristics to the sound of the scale? This is the MOST important point to understand because the rest of modal theory is based on this understanding.

The first mode that you play with the above mentioned interval structure is the Ionian mode which is also the natural major scale. By changing the interval structure of a major scale you are able to create modes and thus enjoy the diversity of music. Moving forward to the next mode, we have Dorian. Now here’s the tricky part and you must understand how this happens otherwise you will face difficulty in learning modal theory. The D Dorian mode has the exactly same notes as the C major scale but its root note is D. The question arises here that how it differs from the C major scale.

The answer to this question lies in the interval structure of Dorian mode. The interval structure of Dorian is R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8, the flat third and flat seventh are two different notes from that of the Ionian mode. Now one more thing to focus here is that although the D Dorian mode has exactly the same notes as the C major scale, it is theoretically a variation of D major scale. How is it a variation of D major scale; the interval structure of D major scale is R 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 whereas when you changed the interval structure to R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8 it becomes D Dorian mode. The following two points are worth understanding;

  • The D Dorian mode has exactly the same notes as the C major scale, only the root note is different.
  • The interval structure of D Dorian mode is different from D major scale therefore both scales have very different sounds.

Finally we will sum up this lesson with the concepts behind the third mode, Phrygian. As you are now familiar with the concepts, all you need to play a Phrygian mode is to know the interval structure of the mode. E Phrygian mode has the following interval structure;

R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8

If we compare the E Phrygian mode with E major scale we see that their interval structures are different; E major scale (R 2 3 4 5 6 7 8) whereas E Phrygian has four flats in it and this is the reason that contributes in a significant shift in the mood of this mode. You have learnt about the basics of three modes of C major scale in this lesson but if you apply the same rules on other major scales you will be able to play modes of those scales. The key is to focus on the conceptual understanding that creates all the difference. It is worthwhile to once again recap the bottom-line of this lesson in one simple sentence, “A major scale has different modes and each mode has a different interval structure from other modes of the same scale.”

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Ahmed is a regular contributor to GuitarChords 247 and brings you in-depth guitar lessons and music theory.
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