What are Musical Modes?

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Written By Tanya

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It is easy to get lost in musical modes and wonder, “What’s the point?” Why is all this so complicated and convoluted?

It may seem like that at first, but once you get comfortable with modes enough to see the pattern, it will become clearer. It will click into place and you can even make your way through it in your mind! It is very easy to follow the pattern.

We’re going to help you with that today. At this point, you are familiar with chords and scales. You may also have completed the Circle of Fifths trip (another pattern that you should be aware of).

So we’ll briefly review scales and how they work so that we can move on to modes which are just slight variations of scales. It makes a lot of sense if you look at it this way.

Everyone likes to explain modes using half-steps between notes. But who can count semitones when a band calls out a song in a particular key and mode? They don’t think that way.

This is not a difficult task. Forget the rest, and prepare for the best explanation possible about musical modes.

As listeners, songwriters and music theorists, we’re all familiar with the major and minor chords… to the point that boredom can set in.

They are so familiar and routine that even the most unusual chord progressions can be difficult to understand. Because not enough people are able to understand the modes, they can’t be used widely.

Modern fashions are built on a large scale, but have one fundamental difference: they feel fresher.

There are many other modes that you don’t have to worry about. This simple explanation will help you capture the imagination and intrigue of your listener with modern Western modes.

Remembering the names and modes is the hardest part! We’ll get to it in a moment. The first step is to lay out the basic building blocks.

The Major Scale: The Basis to Explain Musical Modes

Preface: Minor scales have modes, but they behave exactly the same way as those based on major scales, especially when C-Major (which we will use) is used.

Each scale is composed of seven notes. They start at the tonic and work their way up. The eighth scale degree is when you return to the tonic. You have now climbed to the octave. All Western modes and scales are built from the white-key diatonic scale (6 perfect fifths) (also called C-Major).

The sequence of intervals between notes in a scale determines the type of mode or scale.

If you are dealing with a large scale project, start at the tonic. Then proceed as follows:

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

The letters can refer to whole steps (or tone) or half-steps, (or semitones). C-Major has no sharps or flats. It looks like this:

C-Major is very straightforward with just a tonic C and no accents. To get the basics of the process, let’s start by building the modes from C-Major.

Constructing the Musical Mods

Remember, we’re working on a major scale with C Major

Modern Western music has seven modes. Why seven? Each mode is determined by the note on a scale. This will all make sense in a matter of seconds. These are the seven fundamental modes.

  1. Ionian –
  2. Dorian –
  3. Phrygian – E
  4. Lydian –
  5. Mixolydian – G
  6. Aeolian – A
  7. Locrian –

They are numbered from 1 to 7, and their number represents the degree of their new tonic.

For example, the Dorian mode C-Major starts on the 2nd degree, D and climbs up to C at the 7th degree. It uses the exact same pitches, with no sharps nor flats.

C-Major’s Lydian mode begins at F on the 4th degree and then climbs to E at the 7th. Simply shift forward a few scale degrees and then use that note tonic.

This is the way it works, but you won’t be communicating with each other about it. Musicians talk to one another about scales that are based on the root note, or tonic.

You wouldn’t say, “We’re going play this one in Dorian mode based upon C-Major.” Because the tonic note is the D, you’ll say “We’ll play this tune in D Dorian.”

You are actually shifting your tonic’s scale degree forward. In doing so, you also shift the sequence of intervals away form the major scale sequence W – W – H – W ­ W W — H.

Modes can be easily built from C-Major. But what really makes them unique is their sequences of intervals. This makes them different from other scales and key signatures.

The sequence that leads to the accents in the different key signatures is the same for all major scales. However, modes run through the sequence.

Let’s take a look at the list again, this time in table format.

ModeInterval Sequence

Visually, you can see the pattern unfolding with the diagonals filled with H’s. This is how you will remember which mode has which sequence of intervals, until you start to memorize it.

You’ll need to think of it as scale degrees and accents because these modes can be applied to any major or sub-major scale.

There are no key signatures that you need to remember because a mode is a type variation on a scale. You only need to know how you will modify the existing key signature.

Once you are able to think through the details, this table shows how to approach these modes. This is the most important thing, and you don’t need to commit it to your memory. It will come naturally.

ModeInterval Sequence

This layout has a visual pattern, so if you have strong imagery-based memories you will have no trouble with it.

Real absurdity is when you realize that these scales have different names. These are all the same.

  • C Lydian
  • D Mixolydian
  • E Aeolian
  • F# Locrian
  • G Ionian
  • Dorian
  • B Phrygian

You might get silly, but you will be using chord charts or at the very least a staff. Only super modal jazz musicians can improvise in a variety of keys and modes.

We’ll now discuss each mode and their peculiarities. Each mode has its own note, which gives it its characteristic. Each note can be major or minor, depending on the scale that you use. This will allow you to choose the right one to achieve the emotional impact of your song.

The Characteristics of Musical Modes

Each of the seven main modes of Western music have certain characteristics that will help you reach your songwriting goals. Let’s take a look at each one individually.


  • Characteristic Degree: N/A
  • Interval Sequence: WW-HW-WW-WH
  • Example: Let it Be by The Beatles
  • Example: By Ozzy Osbourne, Goodbye to Romance

A keen observer will have noticed that Ionian mode is not the Major Scale by another title. It’s exactly the same. This is the pop music style we love and know. It’s used non-stop in pop music, almost always with the same chord progression.

This mode is easy to use, and does not require any variations on the scale. The most appealing aspect is the tension and release that results from the half-step between the 6th scale and 7th scale degrees.

As the 7th resolves to the root, the tension is released and song segments are created.

The Ionian mode creates a happy, upbeat, and innocent style of music. It is found in gospel, pop, and children’s music.


  • Characteristic Degree: 6
  • Interval Sequence: WH-WW-WW-WH-W
  • Example: Scarborough Fair Simon & Garfunkel
  • Example: Horse Without a Name by America

Due to the Minor Triad up front, the Dorian mode feels like the Minor Scale. However, the 6th scale degree here is natural and not flat. The 7th is also flat.

This mode has two interesting characteristics. Although it sounds sad and melancholic, it is brighter than the usual minor scale. It doesn’t resolve completely, which causes a feeling of restlessness.

This mode is used in a lot of Celtic and Irish music, as well as other genres that are heavily influenced by them, such Blues, Country, and Bluegrass. You can also see Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky as well as Tears for Fears’ Mad World.


  • b2
  • Interval Sequence H-WW-W–W–H-W–W
  • Example: Knight Rider Theme Stu Phillips
  • Example: White Rabbit Jefferson Airplane

The Phrygian mode produces an ambiguous sound that makes it difficult to know what you are hearing. The 2nd note, which is flat, sounds strange to most people. This is because it does not correspond to the Ionian scales that have a full step to the 2nd degree.

It is not as common in music, but it is used in film scores. It can be used to create a feeling of warmth, mystery, dread, tension and impending negative events. It’s used by both metal and classical musicians. It is also known as The Spanish Gypsy Scale.


  • #4
  • Interval Sequence: WW-WW-HW-WW-H
  • Example: The Simpson’s Theme By Danny Elfman
  • Example: The Jetson’s Theme By Hoyt Curtin

In the same way as Ionian, the Lydian mode has a first chord that is still a major triad. However, the intervals are surprising and unexpected. They differ by one note, which is the sharp fourth. It shares many of the same sounds and uses that Ionian has for happy, pop and children’s songs.

Sharp fourths want to be resolved to the 5th. It’s crucial that you make use of this power to your advantage. Otherwise, you may as well not be writing on a large scale. This is a great way to keep you interested in the show, such as Jazz and many show-tunes.


  • b7
  • Interval Sequence: WW-HW-WW-W–H-W
  • Example: Norwegian Wood – The Beatles
  • Example: Sweet Home Alabama By Lynyrd Skynyrd

Mixolydian also differs from Ionian in that it only uses one note, the flattened seventh. Because it offers a counterpoint, the Mixolydian mode is a popular choice for solo improvisations in major keys.

This is a common sound in country and rock songs, particularly in solos and bridges. This can give songs that are otherwise happy a more smooth, innocent sound. If it is exploited, it can provide the same feeling of not resolving as Dorian.


  • b6
  • Interval Sequence: WH-WW-WW-HW-W
  • Example: I’m Losing My Religion by REM
  • Example: I Kissed A Girl by Katy Perry

The Natural Minor Scale is the Aeolian mode. It is the modern blues sound of sadness and regret. This sound is also used in Rock music due to its relationship to the minor pentatonic score.

The 6th and 7th scale degrees are flattened rather than natural, which gives it a sense of the Renaissance era. The Aeolian mode is well-represented in thousands of minor key songs.


  • b5 Characteristic Degree
  • Interval Sequence H-WW-W–H-W–W-W
  • Example: Ride the Lightning By Metallica
  • Example: Army of Me By Bjork

Locrian mode is distinguished by its flat fifth pitch. This gives it its distinctive darkness. Locrian isn’t heard as much because it relies on the major I chord and the major V chords.

This mode has been categorised by many Western composers as theoretical without any practical application.

This dark sound has a combination of sadness and anger. It is often used by heavy metal musicians, as well as classical composers who seek something darker and more dissident than other styles.

This is Music Modes Explained!

It is clear that millions of musicians are content with their seven modes and do not need to touch them.

It’s possible to get away with it, but if your goal is to make your music stand out, you need to understand how modes work and how to build them at whatever scale.

Now that you have the Ledger Note treatment for the Music Modes explained, it’s simple enough!

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