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  Modes

Modes

You might have already heard of modes before, but not really understood what they are. The term mode is very similar to the definition of a scale, which defines a certain specific succession of notes to define a specific scale.

For example, if you take the scale C major, you would have:

C-D-E-F-G-A-B (and then back to C)

This is the C major scale. BUT, it is also the C Ionian mode. What?!

Modes are really useful in music to get more interesting vibes going. And this goes for any genre, not only soundtrack music!

Let's try to understand this.

Understanding modes

To start understanding what modes are, let's look at the relationship between the notes of the C major scale (or any major scale):

Starting off with C, going to D, we have a whole step (two seminotes). From D to E we have another whole step. From E to F we have a half step. Following this all the way to B we get the following jumps of notes: (W = whole step, H = half step)

W-W-H-W-W-W-H

(The last H is the half step from B to C again)

Now, this relationship between the notes, or how far we jump from one note to the next in the succession, determines the flavor, or mood, of the scale. This specific one, W-W-H-W-W-W-H, is the relationships of notes in a major scale.

Let's try it out. If we take the G major scale, we have these notes:

G-A-B-C-D-E-F# (and then back to G)

From G to A, we have a whole step. A-B, another whole step. B-C, a half step, and so on. We see that this is exactly W-W-H-W-W-W-H. So now that's settled, we know that these are the relationships in a major scale, if we start from the first whole step (the first W in that succession).

Now let's go back to our C major scale. The C major scales starts with C as its tonic note, it is the "root" of the scale, where we start.

What happens if we instead start from the 2nd note in the C major scale? If we use the same notes, just that we start from D? Our relationships for the succession D-E-F-G-A-B-C, would instead be:

W-H-W-W-W-H-W

We are using the same notes of the C major scale, but we are basing it in D, starting from D. What's changed? Well, we have just played a mode! This is called the D Dorian mode, and it has a completely different feel to it than the C major scale (or C Ionian mode), even if the notes are same. The key thing here is that we are starting from D.

If we instead start from E, we'd get the relationship:

H-W-W-W-H-W-W

And this is called the E Phrygian.

Here's the list of modes, when we play all the notes existing in the C major scale (all the whites of the piano):

    • C Ionian (C major): W-W-H-W-W-W-H
    • D Dorian: W-H-W-W-W-H-W
    • E Phrygian: H-W-W-W-H-W-W
    • F Lydian: W-W-W-H-W-W-H
    • G Mixolydian: W-W-H-W-W-H-W
    • A Aeolian: W-H-W-W-H-W-W
    • B Locrian: H-W-W-H-W-W-W

Notice how we are just starting from from one note ahead in each successive mode.

Here are a few examples of how the modes sound:

C Major (Ionian)

D dorian

E Phrygian

F Lydian

G Mixolydian

A Minor (Aeolian)

B Locrian

All of these modes have different feels to them. Different character. They all have the notes of C major (all the white notes on a piano), but they start off from different positions. And we can see the shifts in the whole step-half step list above.

Note also how the A Aeolian mode is the same as the A minor scale (A-B-C-D-E-F-G), and C Ionian is the same as C major (C-D-E-F-G-A-B)!


And just as a note: modes aren't only taken out of the C major scale, or only the white keys. Let's say you want to have a mixolydian feel to your music, and your tonic note (the note that you base everything off, or most often start your chord progression from) is D#. Then if we take the relationships for mixolydian (W-W-H-W-W-H-W), we get the notes:

D# - whole step up-> - F - whole step up-> - G - half step up-> - G#... and so on until we get D# - F - G - G# - A# - C - C#, and then the last whole step up to D# again.


What are modes used for?

If you've already played some music yourself, and listened to it, you would most likely have played almost only in a major or minor scale (with the occasional pentatonic). Modes are just alterations of those, and they give much more interesting vibes and character to your music if you choose to compose or play in them.

Instead of taking a regular F minor scale, you can try F Lydian. It will give a much more interesting sound. Take a listen at the two audio examples here, the first one is some improvisation in F minor, and the second one in F Lydian:

Modes are a bit over-course in this particular course, but I still wanted you to hear them and see what they are. If you stick to the major scales (ionian mode) and the minor scales (aeolian mode) in the beginning, you should be fine – but do try these out on your own! :)


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