Take the 2-minute tour ×
Musical Practice & Performance Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I can't seem to find a straight definition for both.

share|improve this question
Related question. –  luser droog Feb 14 '12 at 18:44
I can't believe nobody has answered this question with anything approaching a real understanding of the difference. –  Robusto May 23 at 2:35
@Robusto I am unclear too, what I think I have derived so far: scale = any method of dividing an octave into a series of notes, mode = a specific set of scales with Greek names. (which I honestly think would be easier to understand if examples of all the modes started at the same note, just to show how they are all different when directly compared to each other, i.e the student doesn't have to transpose them mentally.) –  Lee Kowalkowski May 23 at 6:07

13 Answers 13

up vote 7 down vote accepted

A "scale", technically defined, is a sequence of ascending or descending "unit pitches" that form a palette of notes that can be used to form a melody. Most scales in Western music conform to a particular "key"; that is, a sequence of notes that will be "sharp" or "flat" by default. Not all scales have keys; the chromatic scale is a scale of all possible semitone steps used in Western music, while the whole-tone scale is a scale composed of intervals two semitones apart.

Within a particular key, there are 7 notes in a single octave, before reaching the 8th note which is named the same as the first note and is at double the frequency. The seven notes have differing intervals between adjacent notes; sometimes it's one half-step (semitone), while other times it's a whole step (two semitones). The pattern of whole-step/half-step intervals that determine the notes of a key, starting from the note for while the key is named, is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Within a single key, each of those seven notes could be used as the "base" note of an ascending sequence. Each such sequence, created by starting on a different note in the key, is a "mode" of that key, and each mode has a name:

  • Ionian - starts on the "tonic"; the note for which the key is named. In the key of C, the Ionian mode starts on C. This mode is the most common, and colloquially called the "major scale". The pattern is WWHWWWH.
  • Dorian - starts on the next note higher in the key than the tonic (D, in the key of C). WHWWWHW. This mode is sometimes called "harmonic minor".
  • Phrygian - starts on the note one major third higher than the tonic (E). HWWWHWW.
  • Lydian - starts on the note one perfect fourth higher than the tonic (F). WWWHWWH.
  • Mixolydian - starts on the note one perfect fifth higher than the tonic (G). WWHWWHW.
  • Aeolian - starts on the note one major sixth higher than the tonic (A). In modern music, this mode is also very important, and is referred to as the "natural minor scale". WHWWHWW.
  • Locrian - starts on the note one major seventh higher than the tonic (B). HWWHWWW.

More reading: Wikipedia - Musical Mode

share|improve this answer
So, can I play the C Aeolian mode while playing in the key of C(major)? –  Xzoechord Mar 12 '12 at 21:06
You can; that would be the same as playing in the key of A minor. Within the same key signature, you can start on any of the scale degrees and think of that as your "root note", and then you're playing in a mode. You can even switch between modes mid-piece. For examples, take a look at Bach's fugues, especially the ones in a "minor" key; certain passages will sound "happier" than others, because the motif that forms the fugue is being played up two scale degrees from the root of the key, and thus in the Ionian mode of that key signature. –  KeithS Mar 12 '12 at 21:30
@Xzoechord: The C Aeolian mode would use the same set of notes as the Eb major key! The A Aeolian mode would use the same set of notes as the C major scale and key. See also music.stackexchange.com/questions/6885/… –  Ulf Åkerstedt Sep 14 '12 at 15:33
Can I just clarify : Playing in A Aeolian is the same set of notes as playing in C Ionian - is the same set of notes as playing F Lydian.. is that correct ? The comment from KeithS seems to be wrong in that case "C Aeolian = A minor" .. it's not it would be like C minor or Eb Major (Ionian) ? @KeithS Brilliant overall answer by the way –  user2808054 Jul 14 at 15:52
Yes, my comment was incorrect; A Aeolian is the same set of notes as C Ionian, and C Aeolian uses the same flats as Eb Ionian. Xzoechord could play the Aeolian mode of the key of C, but it would start on A and not C –  KeithS Jul 14 at 16:27

A scale is any sequence of ascending (or descending) notes that can be used as an "organizing structure" for a piece of music. There are many types of scales, including diatonic (the "standard" in Western music), chromatic (containing every half note in an octave), whole-tone (containing notes a whole step apart), and pentatonic (the pentatonic formed from C major uses the "black" keys on a piano). They can even include quarter-tones and other microtones in the music of other cultures, such as Middle Eastern or gamelan music.

A mode is a very specific type of scale, with origins lying in Ancient Greek music; the names for the modes come from these traditions. Although they may look at times like standard diatonic scales, their origins are very different. For instance, the Lydian mode, which "looks" like C major, is actually F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F rather than C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The difference means that C major is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half, while Lydian mode is whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half. (If transposed to C major, the mode would be C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C.)

A good example to listen to is Bruckner's Os justi meditabitur, which is written entirely in the Lydian mode—but essentially notated in C. It doesn't "sound" like it's in C, though; that's the result of its modal foundation instead of a standard diatonic scale.

share|improve this answer
+1 for citing a musical example, that's helped me. –  dumbledad Oct 3 '12 at 12:20

While the terms can be used fairly interchangeably, that only speaks to the practical applications; where each comes from is slightly different.

A scale is an ordered sequence of notes with a start and end. A mode is a permutation upon a scale that is repeatable at the octave, such that the start and end points are shifted.

For example, the major scale is repeatable at the octave. Since it contains seven distinct pitch classes within the space of an octave, there are seven possible modes on the major scale. These are known as the church modes, and have different names like Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian, Lydian, etc.

Major pattern in half/whole steps:


2nd mode of major (Dorian) in half/whole steps:


Modes in general, however, are not limited to this. You can extend the definition to other octave-repeatable scales. For example, consider the harmonic minor scale. Its pitches don't line up with those in the major scale or any of its modes, but the scale is repeatable at the octave. You can play in modes of the harmonic minor scale.

Harmonic minor pattern in half/whole/aug (augmented 2nd) steps:


5th mode of harmonic minor in half/whole/aug steps


Obviously, when you take a mode of a scale, the result is still an ordered sequence of notes; so you can call a mode a scale. And, for all scales that are octave-repeatable, you could, if you like, refer to them as modes. But for the reasons stated above, they are -not- the same in how they are generated. It is possible to have a scale that is not octave-repeatable (that takes up more notes than can be fit into an octave), but all modes come from a particular named scale (including the 1st mode of each scale, which is isomorphic to the scale).

share|improve this answer

I think the musical answers already given are the most useful, but the dictionary answers may also be informative. From the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) we get:

Scale: Any of the graduated series of sounds into which the octave is divided, the sounds varying according to the system of graduation adopted.

Mode: A scheme or system specifying the disposition in a scale of the constituent notes of a melody or harmony; spec. each of a conventionally agreed set of such schemes or systems.

The OED also notes each word's first recorded use (with this meaning). For 'scale' it comes in T. Morley's 1597 'Plaine & Easie Introd. Musicke', where he writes "Here is the Scale of Musicke"; while for 'mode' it is C. Simpson's 1667 'Compend. Pract. Musick' where he writes "That which the Grecians called Mode or Mood". The next printed occurrence for 'mode' listed in the OED is A. Malcolm's 1721 'Teat. Musick" where he writes "I would propose the Word Mode, to express the melodious Constitution of the Octave"

share|improve this answer

Sorry, but I have to chime in after all this time. The answers given here, while accurate, convey none of the most critical distinctions, nor of how modes sound to the ear in a way different from scales. And how things sound is what music is all about. Otherwise you may as well describe the difference between, say, Leonardo Da Vinci and Claude Monet by talking about the types of pigments each used.

Simply put, the real difference between a mode and a scale is one of tonality. A scale, in Western practice, has a tonal center to which the ear gravitates. The seventh scale step pulls the ear toward the tonic, and chords based on those half-steps feel as if they must be resolved in that direction. The statement I-V-I has a sense of going forth and coming back that is not available, or at least not available in the same way, in modal music. The tonal center in modal music is almost arbitrary and may feel imposed upon it. Given the mode, tendency toward this center ranges from identical (Ionian) to virtually non-existent, or even super-imposed (Locrian). It is this arbitrary nature of modality that gives it a distinct character that can sound so fresh and exciting in jazz and forms of rock music as well as the music of other cultures. Each mode carries with it its own character, while tonal music always uses its own tonal gravity to express the eternal comings and goings of statement and resolution. Beethoven's 9th Symphony, for example, (and Beethoven in general) may be viewed as a thorough exercise in the "complicated simplicity" of this idea.

For a better discussion of this topic than I may hope to render in a few paragraphs here, I encourage you to listen to Leonard Bernstein's master class on this very topic, rendered in four parts on YouTube. He covers the physics of modes (scale steps and all that) better than others have done here, but also illuminates the chemistry, which is after all what separates real, organic music from academic discourse.

share|improve this answer
Um, so what are the critical distinctions between a scale and a mode? I kinda need a simple, bulleted list of the differences or something. Perhaps I need to watch that video! Wow the videos were right at my level (although they could be louder!). Thanks for that! So it's like what's asking the difference between food and fruit, or something (i.e. one is a subset of the other). –  Lee Kowalkowski May 23 at 13:35

A mode is a type of scale.

Consider a Diatonic scale. For each tone in the scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7), you get a different mode when you start on that note.

share|improve this answer

Think of C Major:

C D E F G A B.

Notice how there are 7 notes.

There are 7 modes in a scale, one for each note of the scale.

Modes are the scale, starting from a different note. In this instance, C Major is the parent scale and all the modes are derived from it.

So using the notes of C Major we get:

C Ionian (The same exact thing as C Major) D Dorian E Phyrgian F Lydian G Mixolydian A Aeolian (The same exact thing as A Minor) B Locrian

In theory, if I play D E F G A B C D and the key of the song is in C Major, then I'm playing in D Dorian. However, actually using modes is a bit more complicated. There's as much theory with them as any other aspect of music. This is just an overview of what they are. In fact, you can spell modes relating them to major scales, which gives you formulas that you can use to make modes on the fly.

Try to stay with me.

So if I have D Dorian in C Major, I can think of it as D Dorian in C Major. But what if I don't know what the key is, or I don't know what the mode is? This is where parallel majors come in handy.

Parallel majors are just the major scale of whatever mode/scale you're playing in. So if I'm in D Minor, D Major is the parallel major. G Lydian's parallel major is G Major.

So let's say I have a lot of notes:


And I don't know the key of the song. I can compare this to the parallel major just to see how it's different, and this will tell me which mode it is because every mode has its own formula, which make it unique. The notes of F Major:

F G A Bb C D E F

So comparing the notes that we had before to F Major, we realize we have a #4 (Bb to B). Lydian is the mode that has a #4, so the first group of notes I had was F Lydian!

You can repeat this process for any mode. In fact, I recommend spelling each mode against its parallel major to understand how they're different yet the same. Here's each formula for the 7 diatonic modes of the major scale:

Ionian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (This is just the major scale)

Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7 (So D Dorian differs from D Major because D Dorian has a flat 3 and 6 while D Major doesn't)

Phyrgian: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7

Lydian: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Aeolian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (This is just the natural minor scale)

Locrian: 1 b2 3 4 b5 b6 7

share|improve this answer

The seven inversions of the major scale are the modes. So every mode is a scale; but not every scale is a mode (eg. the harmonic minor scale is not a mode).

share|improve this answer
To confuse things further, you can have modes of scales other than the major scale, e.g. the fifth mode of harmonic minor is similar to the so called Spanish gypsy scale (raises 7th). –  Chris Arndt Sep 17 '12 at 20:45

Aeismail's answer is confusing - using the black notes on the piano will give either F# maj.pent (Gb maj pent.) or D# min.pent (Eb min pent). However, all the basic modes (dorian, mixolydian etc., ) are still scales - groups of notes that work with each other- but the only modes that are scales as we know them are the Ionian as in major, and the Aeolian as in the natural minor. It's interesting that a composer may state 'this is in D dorian, then writes in the key of Cmaj !! Also don't be messed up with the other naming method - the dorian OF C is in fact, D dorian !!

share|improve this answer

A "mode" is simply a scale that has been altered in some way. The unaltered natural major scale is playing in Ionian mode. The unaltered natural minor scale is playing in Aeolian mode. The other modes can be constructed by altering the natural minor or major scales.

For example the Phrygian mode can be formed by a natural minor scale with a flattened 2nd.

A good explanation of this is given here: http://www.mandolincafe.com/niles2.html

share|improve this answer

All modes are scales but not all scales are modes. All scales try to achieve is to give you a series of notes that are a set pattern of whole tones and semi tones apart.

Take the Major scale for instance. This scales has two semi tones that are between 3/4 and 7/8 scale degrees. It does not matter on which note you start from if your semitones are at that place you have yourself a Major scale.

A mode is just a scale with the semitones in an unusual place. Dorian for instance has its semitones in between 2/3 and 6/7. It has the unresolved feeling to it because the leading tone is a whole tone from the tonic (Which is the antithesis of virtually all western music traditions). The same is true of Modes you can in this case start on any note and as long as your semi tones are where I mentioned you will have a Dorian.

They need to be consider in the same way you would consider any other scale.

share|improve this answer

A scale is an ordered set of notes, usually defined by a starting note and a pattern of intervals. For example, the C major ascending scale starts at the note “C” and follows the “major scale” pattern: tone–tone–semitone–tone–tone–tone–semitone. The starting note is called the tonic, first degree, or key of the scale, depending on context.

In modern music, a mode is a scale that belongs to a group of scales with related interval patterns. This is easiest to see with the diminished scale, an octatonic scale that only has two modes:

  • tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone
  • semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone

Notice that this is essentially the same pattern, but the first mode starts with the tone, and the second mode starts with the semitone. If you change the first degree and the mode in parallel, you get two scales with the same notes but a different starting point. For example:

  • C–D–D♯–F–F♯–G♯–A–B (C diminished, mode I)
  • D–D♯–F–F♯–G♯–A–B–C (D diminished, mode II)

You can apply the same principle to the major scale, which has seven modes. All of these modes of the major scale use the same notes, but a different first degree:

  • C–D–E–F–G–A–B (C Ionian/mode I)
  • D–E–F–G–A–B–C (D Dorian/mode II)
  • E–F–G–A–B–C–D (E Phrygian/mode III)
  • F–G–A–B–C–D–E (F Lydian/mode IV)
  • G–A–B–C–D–E–F (G Mixolydian/mode V)
  • A–B–C–D–E–F–G (A Aeolian/mode VI)
  • B–C–D–E–F–G–A (B Locrian/mode VII)

Note that when you start at the sixth degree and sixth mode of the major scale, you get the relative minor key, which has the same key signature. Likewise, if you start at the third degree and third mode of a natural minor scale, you get the relative major key.

Any scale with a mixture of intervals in its pattern will have modes like this. Common modal scales have names, like the Lydian scale for the fourth mode of the major scale or the Phrygian dominant scale for the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale.

share|improve this answer

A scale is a set of notes. For instance, the D Dorian scale contains the notes D, E, F, G, A, B, C, and D.

A mode is a scale or scales with musical functions attached to the notes. For example, the Dorian mode of Gregorian chant (sample here) has

  • D is the tonic
  • A is the reciting note (listen 1:34)
  • B is often replaced by B-flat, especially in progressions leading downward to A.
  • The remaining notes are unstable and gravitate toward the lower D.

For another example, the minor mode of classical music consists of natural, harmonic, and melodic forms with downward and upward tendencies attached to the 6ths and 7ths.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.