Dear Sensei:
Can you please explain in detail how the seven modes work? I’m studying music theory on my own, and when I go online to research modes I’m often confused by what sometimes seems to be contradictory information.

Karl Mirabella

Dear Karl,

This is a topic many guitarists struggle with, so let’s see if we can shed some light on it. There are two ways to understand modes and each approach ultimately gets you to the same place. However, the two systems require a different mindset, and this can sometimes create confusion when you’re trying to reconcile info you may encounter on the web, or glean from another guitarist or music teacher.

When it comes to modes, we need to be very specific: In this lesson, we’ll drill down on the seven modes of the major scale. Other types of scales have modes too, but the major scale modes are by far the most common, so that’s what we’ll tackle here.

The “Relative” Approach
Our first way to look at modes involves playing through a single major scale from seven different starting points. But before we go any further, let’s review the basics.

Using a specific pattern of whole-steps and half-steps, you can build a major scale from any of the 12 tones of the Western music system. Here’s the pattern, which starts on a given root and ultimately ends an octave above it: Whole-step, whole-step, half-step, whole-step, whole-step, whole-step, half-step. This yields a series of eight notes. It can be easier to visualize this pattern when it’s written like this: W–W–H–W–W–W–H. That’s the shorthand we’ll employ in this lesson.

Here’s why looking at the arrangement of whole- and half-steps in the major scale is crucial to understanding modes: A major scale sounds the way it does because of where the whole- and half-steps occur within an octave. If you were to change the sequence of whole- and half-steps, the sound changes and you no longer have a major scale.

The seven major-scale modes have Greek names. We’ll address each one, starting with the first—Ionian. Sonically the Ionian mode is identical to the major scale—we’re simply using its Greek name. Fig. 1 shows a one-octave G Ionian pattern, with its low G root located on the 6th string, 3rd fret. Take a moment to play it ascending and descending: G–A–B–C–D–E–F#–G. Pay attention to the low and high roots, which are indicated in red. (If you’ve ever studied moveable solfège, this will sound familiar—our good old “do re me fa sol la ti do.”)

Now analyze what you’re playing in terms of whole- and half-steps. That’s right! Ascending from G, you’re laying down a W–W–H–W–W–W–H pattern.

All right, we’re now ready to step off the precipice.

Now we’ll take the same string of notes we played as a G major scale, but instead of starting and ending on G, we’ll shift to the second tone—A—and use it to create a new one-octave pattern: A–B–C–D–E–F#–G–A. We haven’t changed any notes; we’re simply declaring A as the root. But by doing so, we’ve changed the pattern of whole- and half-steps to W–H–W–W–W–H–W. This arrangement is called the Dorian mode.

Fig. 2 shows a one-octave A Dorian pattern. As you play it ascending and descending a few times, really dig into the new A root. This will focus your ears on the Dorian sound, which is minor. Dorian is used extensively in jazz and rock for playing melodically over minor chords and vamps.

Note: At the end of this section, you’ll find a set of backing tracks that correspond to each of the relative modes we’re currently examining. These tracks will allow you to explore A Dorian, as well as the other modes of the G major scale, in a musical context.

Now we can see why we use the term “relative” to describe this system of understanding modes: We’re relating Dorian to the major (Ionian) scale we began with. In this case, we’re comparing A Dorian to G major, but you can apply this “start on the second tone to get Dorian” way of thinking to any major scale.

We’ll now shift to B, the third tone of G major, and use it as the root for our one-octave scale: B–C–D–E–F#–G–A–B. Again, the pattern of whole- and half-steps has shifted, and we now have H–W–W–W–H–W–W. This mode is called Phrygian. It also has a minor sound, but the half-step between the first two notes gives it a distinctly flamenco flavor (Fig. 3).

By now you’re probably getting the hang of this process and can anticipate our next move: Use the fourth tone (C) of our parent major scale as the launching pad. This yields C–D–E–F#–G–A–B–C. Its underlying pattern is W–W–W–H–W–W–H, and this arrangement of whole- and half-steps generates the Lydian mode. As you play through Fig. 4, notice how Lydian has a major sound, but with a spiky bump right in the middle of the sequence.

Moving on, we use the fifth tone of our parent major scale as the next root. In G major, this note is D, and it gives us D–E–F#–G–A–B–C–D. The pattern of steps between the notes is W–W–H–W–W–H–W, and this gives us the Mixolydian mode. Play through Fig. 5 to make friends with this sound, which is perfect for jamming over dominant vamps. Match the roots and you’re good to go (i.e., play D Mixolydian over a D9 vamp).

Again, let’s shift our root, this time to the sixth tone of our parent major scale. In G major, that’s E, so we have E–F#–G–A–B–C–D–E. This W–H–W–W–H–W–W pattern creates the Aeolian mode. Now work through Fig. 6. If it sounds familiar that’s because Aeolian is identical to natural minor, and you’ve probably played it many times.

We’re almost done—just one more shift. It’s time to use the seventh tone as our root. Working from G major, this gives us F#–G–A–B–C–D–E–F#, and these notes correspond to a H–W–W–H–W–W–W pattern. This is called the Locrian mode, and in this case, we’re playing F# Locrian (Fig. 7).

Okay, now that we’ve used each note of the G major scale as a root, we’ve worked through all seven of G major’s modes: G Ionian, A Dorian, B Phrygian, C Lydian, D Mixolydian, E Aeolian, and F# Locrian. Let’s summarize what we’ve just covered with a handy-dandy chart.

The Seven Modes of the G Major Scale

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
G Ionian G A B C D E F# G
A Dorian A B C D E F# G A
B Phrygian B C D E F# G A B
C Lydian C D E F# G A B C
D Mixolydian D E F# G A B C D
E Aeolian E F# G A B C D E
F# Locrian F# G A B C D E F#