Suppose that we have the following chord progression with one measure for each chord:

C  Dm  Em  F  G  Am  B°

and that I always play the C major scale in each measure.

Would it be correct to say that I'm playing, in sequence, the following modes?

Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian
  • What is the question? You put a question mark at the end of a statement. You play all the modes of C major ...but what is the question? May 27, 2020 at 14:05
  • Hi. If it is true the last part of my statement
    – LeoAn
    May 27, 2020 at 14:45
  • You have the right order of modes to match the chords using the basic chord/scale system matching. Probably just add "am I matching the right mode to the chords?" or something like that. May 27, 2020 at 14:52
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    +1 because this question reflects the kind of conceptions and misconceptions that many people seem to have regarding scales and modes. May 27, 2020 at 18:50
  • In a way you're right. Or, you would be if you made each chord in turn the key centre. I find this a useful way to think about the modes.
    – PeterJ
    Jun 1, 2020 at 11:57

6 Answers 6


If you feel that the tonic i.e. home note is C, then you're only creating a C ionian mode all the time, from beginning to end, regardless of which of the scale patterns derived from C major you're using, or which of the seven chords are playing behind your soloing. Your ear decides what mode it is, and the ear doesn't know what fingering pattern your eyes are looking at, ears only care about sound.

In for example D Dorian, D is felt as the tonic. When the melody goes to D, that's a natural ending for the tune, if D is the tonic note. If the D note does not feel like such a place of rest where the story could end, then you are not creating the feeling of a D Dorian mode.

Mode and scale are different things.

If you select notes from a scale randomly, you are creating random feelings. Notes selected randomly from the C Ionian scale create a random modal feeling. Notes selected randomly from the C Dorian scale create a random modal feeling.

Since the progression starts in C, most probably the C will be imprinted as the tonic in your mind, and it won't be very easy to force the ear to re-think that impression, particularly if you just play step-by-step ascending stuff from C major. So instead of, say, E Phrygian, which would require a tonic shift from C to E, you might be able to create a C Phrygian mode after the C major, by playing a C minor chord and notes from the C - Db - Eb - F - G - Ab - Bb scale.


Since your first bar is C major, you've already established a 'c-ness' about the piece. Moving to Dm in bar 2 - well, that happens in so many pieces in key C, it don't mean a thing, as the song goes.

Then Em and F. Starting to sound like a song we may know - in key C. No, it hasn't modulated to anything - it's still in key C.

And, if you play all 8 notes of the C scale to each bar, to an extent, that will cement the C feeling, although it will sound rather strange in some bars!

If you took a different approach, and played each mode, starting with the tonic in each bar, that would be more modal, although it still wouldn't be too convincing. We normally expect to hear the root note of any key a bit more than the first and last notes only - although they're prbably the favourite places...


It seems like you are aware of the fact that the modes are related to the major scale and also aware of the correlation between these modes and the chords that occur in a given major key. This is an interesting question. It is not false to say that if you are playing C major you are also playing D dorian and/or A minor. But how one actually hears the diatonic patterns and sequences will determine what mode the claim to be listening to. When we make music we establish patterns by playing "key tones", tonal centers of chords, on strong beats (at least that is a formula in many Jazz improv pamphlets). So if you were to play a simple melodic phrase (C, G, F, E, D, E) in the key of C, or (1, 5, 4, 3, 2, 3) and keep repeating it over each new chord in the progression it will always be a C major melody and perceived as such. You will hear interesting contrasts between this and the notes of the each new chord as the melody will (1) align with the tonal center of some chords but not others (creating more/less dissonance), (2) have chord tones on weak beats rather that strong beats even when they do align, (3) create interesting extensions of the chords, and (4) generate a variety of harmonies with the chord tones. If, on the other hand you repeat this phrase over C, Dmin, and Emin, then move it up to the the 4th on F (F, C, B, A, G, B) (notice the #4 relative to F) then I'd say you have been in C maj for three chords and are now in F lydian. Changing the chord under the melody does not necessarily mean you have changed mode. But if you move a motif in a way that places tonal centers of the chord on strong beats (or uses some other device to indicate a change) then it would be appropriate to say you've changed modes.

On another note one can play through all 7 modes on one chord. I do this over So What by Miles Davis. Even though the song is a vamp on D-7 (in the key of C) and has a completely D Dorian feel (as indicated by the Bass line and all the solos), I like to play with melodies that are explicitly on C maj. The C Maj7 arpeggio has the (b7, 9, 11, 13) of the D-7 and these are great extensions. So, am I in D Dorian because I am playing over D-7? Or am I in C maj because I am explicitly playing with a C Maj7 motif? There may be no clean and decisive answer to that. I would say it depends on the motif I choose, the order I choose to play the C Maj7 arpeggio and whether I land on the C or E (b7 or 9) or the other tones as those will be more likely to conflict (especially the 4th of D-7). I think of it as being in C major when I do this because I am trying to "force" C maj tonality over the D-7 chord. It works but you do hear the "force", the tension of fitting two chords together.

One thing is for sure, changing chord does not equate to changing mode.

  • If it's in D Dorian, then D is tonic and then it's not "in the key of C". Key is more about tonic than it is about scale. I would write it like in D minor, but accidentals for every B. May 28, 2020 at 15:19
  • 1
    Here we go again.
    – user50691
    May 28, 2020 at 15:20

Yes, sort of! But I think the aural effect will be more of a diatonic chord sequence in C major.

If you want to establish a different mode - say Phrygian - you'd need to give the Em chord more prominence in the structure of the music. At the very least, start and end the sequence on that chord.


yeah that's the basis of chord scale theory. You can then extend it by adding the 7th to each chord, just watch the B it becomes Bm7b5. For more info: https://www.berklee.edu/bt/121/chord.html

  • dv'd as not correct.
    – Tim
    May 27, 2020 at 15:23
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    How is what I have said not correct? I quote here directly from the Berklee website: "The chord-scale approach is based on the idea that if a chord is diatonic to a scale, then that scale can be used as a source to derive melody on that chord".
    – meganoob
    May 27, 2020 at 23:16
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    @meganoob That quote means that since Dm is diatonic to C Ionian, you can use the notes from the C Ionian scale to create a melody over Dm. However, Dm is also diatonic to the Bb Ionian scale, as well as F Ionian, C Dorian, D Dorian, G Dorian, E Phrygian, G Mixolydian, D Phrygian, etc. and all of those scales can be used just as well, depending on what kind of harmony you want to do. The notes of Dm are even found in D diminished scales! Modes have scales, but scale and mode are not the same thing. Mode needs a tonic. The OP is confused. Don't support the confusion. -1 May 30, 2020 at 12:03
  • I see what you are saying, and I understand, but in the context that the OP has provided, all of the chords are chords related to the C major scale are they not? If I see a chord progression such as the OP has posted, I would assume that all of those chords are diatonic to the key of C major and hence, it would be reasonable to assume that the C major scale is appropriate to play over them all. Now if the chords were: C Em A7 Dm, it might be reasonable to assume that the Dm chord is now the root chord of Dm, and then it would then be reasonable to assume i could use notes from F major.
    – meganoob
    May 31, 2020 at 1:51
  • The OP asks, am I playing these modes. No, you're probably not playing those modes. Mode and scale are separate things. Look at the chart here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mode_(music)#Modern_modes For every mode of the major scale, there's a different tonic. The tonic is not set by what notes you use, it's set by how you use them. It is entirely possible to use only the notes of the F Lydian scale, but fail to create an F Lydian mode. May 31, 2020 at 13:05

The answer is yes, that is exactly correct, and it is so by definition.

The very point of C-S is that whatever pitch collections be considered from the perspective of the chord they are to be played over, which effectively creates a formal context that, hopefully, matches an aural context, making the whole thing useful.

That said, it won't produce anything you'd like to listen to because of the chord sequence in particular among other reasons.

Added note: from the comments and votes this answer got, it looks like chord-scale theory (which I abbreviated C-S) is not as widespread as I thought, so I add the link below for reference.


  • It is not exactly correct, it's more like not correct at all. If there's an Em chord for one bar, and you play notes from the C major scale over it, you're not "playing a mode". Who knows what modal feeling you're creating, but most probably not E Phrygian, since you started the progression with a C major chord. Most probably you're feeling C as the tonic and so you're just feeling C Ionian and that's it. If you can do this claimed magical thing, managing to create an E Phrygian mode in the space of one bar, right after starting in C, please post a demo. Tempo 1 BPM or something? -1 May 30, 2020 at 12:12
  • By what definition? Playing modally requires the tonoc of whatever mode to be prominent i the melody, along with the root harmony. By merely putting a Dm chord under the scale notes in order, of C major, yu're doing nothing modal at all. Same will happen in the Em and F bars, and so on. You might be right about a chord and some pitch collsction, but not in the OP's scenario. Rare for me to dv, but here's one.
    – Tim
    May 30, 2020 at 13:05
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    Phrygian is 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7 which, in the context of Em, is E, F, G, A, B, C, D. In no order in particular. It's a pitch collection. C-S is not about "feeling". It's a system which provides a formal framework. Whether it can produce anything that sounds like music is much more debatable. Whether C-S applies here, too. I've just read the original question and, to me, it's all, totally about C-S, not about playing modal music or playing music in a modal context. Plain C-S as usually applied to tonal music (as per Mark Levine's book and so on).
    – Alex Lopez
    May 30, 2020 at 15:51
  • Sorry, but I don't even know what C-S is! And Levine's book is not the best - or anywhere near in my opinion. He's a very unconvincing writer imo.
    – Tim
    May 30, 2020 at 15:57
  • It's this: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chord-scale_system And by reading the original post, I think it totally applies. I'm not a fan of any of that at all.
    – Alex Lopez
    May 30, 2020 at 17:04

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