Playing the Fingerboard – Scale Modes

When it comes to learning a musical concept on any instrument, I’m all about laying down the foundation with a little music theory. Love it or hate it, breaking something down to basics is almost always the more profitable method in the end. For this particular lesson, the theory concept I’d like to go over is modes.

What are modes? Explain!

First, let’s state the obvious. In music you have scales, which are patterns of notes played in ascending or descending order (COUGH, Basic Scale Theory). Normally when you practice a scale you play the notes in order, starting and ending on the note that the scale is named after. If it’s C major, you start and end with C. If you forgot what a C major scale sounds like, listen to this clip:

The notes you’re hearing are – C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

That’s all fine and dandy, but let’s say you’re feeling rebellious. You’re tired of starting and ending the C major scale with C, and you want to play the scale starting and ending with D. Ever wonder what that would sound like? Check it out:

The notes you’re hearing are – D   E   F   G   A   B   C   D

You’re using all of the same notes from C major, but it doesn’t quite sound the same anymore. It sounds kind of….off. It’s almost like trying to read a sentence by starting with the second word and ending with the first word. Don’t worry, you didn’t break the C major scale. You are hearing one of the seven modes within the scale. If you compare the notes of this mode with the D minor scale (which are:  D   E   F   G   A   Bb   C   D), you will notice that the 6th scale degree is raised one half step. So, if you play a C major scale by starting and ending with D, you are hearing a D minor scale with a raised 6th. This type of minor scale is also known as the dorian scale. In the sound clip above, you are hearing the D dorian mode.

Interesting, but why do you call it a “mode”? Isn’t it still a scale?

In my experience, people use the terms “mode” and “scale” almost interchangeably whilst speaking in music geek jargon. To me, it’s all about reference. D dorian itself is a scale, but it happens to contain the same notes found in C major. Therefore, D dorian is a mode within the C major scale. Both terms are correct, but one is more specific than the other.

Wow, great explanation! So what are the other six modes?

Thanks. As I mentioned, there are seven modes within a scale, one mode for each note in the scale. The modes made from the major scale are called major modes. There are other sets of modes out there that are based on different scales, but let’s focus on the major modes for now as they are the most widely used and easiest to start with.

Here is a list of each mode found within the C major scale, along with quick descriptions and audio clips.

Ionian:  C   D   E   F   G   A   B   C

– Also known as C major

Dorian:  D   E   F   G   A   B   C   D

– A D minor scale with a raised 6th (it would normally be Bb)

Phrygian:  E   F   G   A   B   C   D   E

– An E minor scale with a lowered 2nd (it would normally be F#)

Lydian:  F   G   A   B   C   D   E   F

– An F major scale with a raised 4th (it would normally be Bb)

Mixolydian:  G   A   B   C   D   E   F   G

– A G major scale with a lowered 7th (it would normally be F#)

Aeolian:  A   B   C   D   E   F   G   A

– Also known as the natural minor scale

Locrian:  B   C   D   E   F   G   A   B

– A B minor scale with a lowered 2nd and a lowered 5th

The best thing about this is that if you know how to play a C major scale, you technically know how to play ALL of the scales listed above. All you have to do is start and end the C major scale on different notes.

To make this a little more clear, let’s use a scale with a few accidentals. Here are the seven major modes in E major.

Ionian:  E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E

F# Dorian:  F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#   E   F#

G# Phrygian:  G#   A   B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#

Lydian:  A   B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A

Mixolydian:  B   C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A   B

C# Aeolian:  C#   D#   E   F#   G#   A   B   C#

D# Locrian:  D#   E   F#   G#   A   B   C#   D#

Alright, so by starting and ending a scale on different notes, you make seven different modes that have cool sounding Greek names. How does this help?

This all may seem fairly pointless, but I can assure you that it’s very helpful for learning how to play across the entire guitar fretboard. I further explain how in this next post!


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