I'm a self-taught guitarist with zero to little experience in music theory. After marrying a violinist I found that there's a lot to music theory that I know tribally but don't understand the technical or formal definitions for.

I'd like for someone to briefly explain to me what the different modes are (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, and Ionian) and how they are used.

  • music.stackexchange.com/questions/1136/… Have you seen this?
    – Bella
    Commented Jan 23, 2011 at 19:59
  • 7
    One of the most interesting and useful classes I took was music theory, tied to its corollary, ear training. Theory gives you the knowledge to understand song structure and how to wind a melody through chord changes. It's important to hear it as we're playing but the knowledge lets you think ahead based on knowing the changes and hear/see it in advance and decide on tonally safe vs. adventurous lines.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jan 24, 2011 at 0:15
  • @DRL Yeah, I like the conciseness of your answer on there. There's also some good answers on this post too, so I'm keeping it open :).
    – Jduv
    Commented Jan 25, 2011 at 12:53
  • 4
    For Too Much Info, see this ebook. Commented Feb 22, 2013 at 2:04

9 Answers 9


Let's take the C Major scale which consists of C, D, E, F, G, A, B and back to C. The bare basic way to think about the modes is: play the scale starting at another note.

So, the C major scale can be played starting at C:

C D E F G A B C (C - C)

Or starting at D:

D E F G A B C D (D - D)

It's the same exact notes of the scale, you just start at the 2nd note & end at the second note. This is Dorian.

You can keep on going; start & end on the 3rd, then the 4th, then the 5th, then the 6th and finally the 7th.

Putting it all together we get 7 modes of C Major

  • Ionian (CDEFGABC)
  • Dorian (DEFGABCD)
  • Phrygian (EFGABCDE)
  • Lydian (FGABCDEF)
  • Mixolydian (GABCDEFG)
  • Aeolian (ABCDEFGA)
  • Locrian (BCDEFGAB)

Again, you take the basic C Major scale & start & end it on another note. Same pattern, same intervals, just change where you start & end it.

The usage is 100% up to you. If you want to play in C Major (continuing the example) you now have more options. You can play any of the 7 C Major modes and still be in key.

Another great use of the modes is that you can string them together. Since each note shows up on the fretboard many times you can string modes together to help you move up and down the board. Play C Ionian on the 8th fret of the 6th string; when you get to the C octave on 4th string fret 10 you can then slide into 12th fret of the 4th string (which is a D) and start Dorian. Now you're starting up an octave and you've moved hand position up the board by a couple frets. You can continue that all the way thru.

Creatively string together the modes (you don't have to play all the notes each time) yield you a decent little solo =).

  • 2
    Hmz... I'm playing for 7 years already, and haven't used modes even once... Why you need to start from D note if D chord is playing? What about your ears? I'm ALWAY have good accents while soloing on any chord changes! It's there's any other usefulness of modes beside "right note in a right place" ? This is completely useless for me. I know major/minor scales, and that's it.. Intuition shows the way while playing... tell me more please =)
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jan 24, 2011 at 2:00
  • 16
    You did use them, you just didn't know that was what they were called. Musicians who solo eventually learn about modes as they learn new styles of music, especially if you want to play styles that have a Latin feel, or are more jazz-like. You can claim they are useless and learn over time, or go after the knowledge and really learn; It just depends on what you want to do with your music and how successful you want to be.
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jan 24, 2011 at 3:01
  • @holms John Lennon felt the same way! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Not_a_Second_Time
    – Anonymous
    Commented Jan 24, 2011 at 23:41
  • 9
    Arin's answer has some truth but potentially confuses things. Playing the notes in the C scale starting on D is in fact a Dorian scale but it is the D Dorian. Playing the same notes found in the C Ionian scale but starting on E gives you E Phrygian (not C Phrygian as some may interpret Arin to mean). The various modes are differentiated by the relative intervals between the notes (whole or semi tone). Neil Meyer's answer below gives further explanation of the notes in the other modes of C (all of which contain notes unique to their respective modes). Commented Jan 16, 2015 at 18:18
  • An analogy would be like throwing a ball at a coconut shy: You can either do the maths which calculates the trajectory, force required, etc and stand a good chance of hitting the coconut each time, or you can just chuck the ball and learn from how it 'felt'. Some like the maths & prediction, but 'play by ear' types (myself included) find it more fun to just throw the ball. Then you find out there's mathematics/theory which describe what you just did, which you feel you don't need to keep on doing it. Commented Dec 20, 2016 at 11:22

The thing to realize about modes is that they are simply emphasizing different key notes in the same collection of notes.

Take a scale, any scale, and "emphasize" one note. This will make the "Scale" sound different than if you emphasize a different note.

C ionian and A aeolian are the common major and minor(almost) type of sound. But they are exactly the same notes. What makes them different is that in one you are emphasizing C and in the other you are emphasizing A.

That is, you somehow make the listener lock onto the root note. You do this by setting it up using certain techniques.

For example, if you take CDEFGAB as your "scale" but play a B in the background underneath everything you play, B will seem to dominate(not to be confused with the dominant) the sound. Every note will be heard against that B and your ears will treat B as the "king" of all the notes.

This means if you play a C against it you are playing a min2nd interval. This interval doesn't exist in C major because the 2nd interval is D which gives a maj2nd. The other intervals are just as important and all of them relative to B give that characteristic sound which we call locrian.

Now if you simply changed the root emphasis to A then that C is not a min3rd which gives a minor sound.

For example, if you take a single line solo and play a B bass note it will transform the sound than if you played any other note.

In fact, if you want, you can think of all modes, scales, keys, etc... as simply coming from the chromatic scale and whats makes all the different sounds different is simply emphasis. C major is the emphasis of the note C followed by others less and less so. A min is the exact same 12 notes but we emphasis an A as the root and others less and less.

Effectively we create a hierarchy. You have your king, queen, prince, servants, etc...

The best way to really hear it is to simply play the same scale over a minor chord and then a major chord and hear how it changes.

Note that it is possible to play sort of major sound over a minor chord by emphasizing that a major sound in your solo. e.g., if you play C E G over a static A bass note you'll have a more major sound than if you play C E A. This is because you are outlining(called an arpeggio) the C major chord even when the bass note is A. Depending on a lot of factors you might hear the A note as being part of the C chord rather than the G being part of the Am chord. i.e., you have the notes A - C E G. But depending on context your brain might group them as A C E - G or A - C E G. The first case we have a sort of Am called Am7 and the second we have a sort of Cmaj6. Most likely you will hear Am7 unless the A bass note is very quite.

In any case it doesn't matter much about the theory as you need to learn the sounds. You just have to know that it all depends on emphasis and context. If I'm playing a Cmaj chord and you're playing a Dbmaj chord at the same time what key are we in(assuming that's all we are playing)? what mode? The answer is that it depends.

  • Regarding your example: When you are playing C E G over a static A bass note, you're playing the b3-5-b7 of the scale, which is a bIIImaj chord. When playing C E A, you're playing b3-5-1, which is a first inversion i minor chord. Most of your answer doesn't regard modes, but the pedal tone (static bass) is absolutely correct. Regarding your ending - "The answer is that it depends" - Depends on what? Depends on what you perceive as the tonic, if you even perceive a tonic. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:05

They are part of our western music tradition. They are no harder to learn that any other scale. You can use them to give a feeling to the music that is unlike anything else. To there uses I can say there use is the same as any other scale. They are used to make music.

This explanation relies on you at the very least knowing what semi tones and whole tones are. I do not think it is possible to learn them without you knowing that. I strongly you urge you to ask a theory teacher to explain that to you.

You should not see them as any different to any other scale. A scale at its core is a set of notes with the semi tones and whole tones in specific places. The Major scale has its semi tones between the third and fourth note in the scale and the seventh and eight. Seeing as the various modes have semi tones in different places they do not sound alike. If you play any popular type music training your ears to recognize the modes would be a tremendous skill to possess.

No matter on which note you start from if the semi tones are at that spot you have a major scale. This is why to a certain degree all major scales sound alike. The distance between the notes are the same in all the Major Keys.

So with that in mind we can use our knowledge of semi tones and whole tones on the Modes so we can learn what notes they have regardless on what note we start from. I will start on C for each example.


Has its semitones between 2 / 3 and 6/7. C Dorian hence has C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C


Has its semitones between 1/2 and 5/6 C Phrygian therefore has C-Db-Eb-F-G-AB-Bb-C


Has it semitones 4/5 and 7/8 C lydian has C-D-E-F#-G-A-B-C


Has its semi tones between 3/4 and 6/7 C Mixolydian hence has the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C


Has its semi tones between 2/3 and 5/6 C aeolian has C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-c


Has its semi tones between 3/4 and 7/8 C ionian therefore has C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C

If the last two looks familiar it is because they are our good old Major and Minor Keys.


Oxford Companion To Music 10th Edition

  • A scale is not a stack of seconds - it is a collection of scale degrees, and the seconds between the notes is just something that happens whenever there's more than two notes involved. Classical students learn scales using intervals because that's how they were taught, however, that doesn't mean that it's correct. For example: The intervals of the Ddorian scale (WHWWWHW) appear when playing C major from D. That doesn't mean that you just played a D dorian. The only thing that matters is the tonic, and what the relations of all the notes played to it. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:10

Modes are just an indication of where you start in the scale. I think far too much emphasis is placed on modes - I've never found any good practical application for them. They are, in my experience, an unnecessary abstraction. Know your current/active chord; know the tones in the chord; play notes related to those tones; know what chord comes next and tie those mutts together. Bam.

  • Modes give us ways to understand, create and or work with harmonies that are not strictly conforming to a major or minor tonal center or feel. They are heavily used in Jazz, often times shifting from one modal center to another multiple times in a given work. Know how the modes relate to harmonies and you have a strong insight into the complicated harmonic and melodic world of jazz.
    – amalgamate
    Commented Nov 30, 2015 at 21:58
  • @Tulkinghorn. What you describe (know the active chord, the tones in the chord and notes related to those tones) is tantamount to knowing your modes. You're basically saying you need to know your modes, just maybe not their names. It's like saying you don't need to know the C major scale as long as you now the C major chord, the tones in the C major chord and the notes related to those tones...So you don't need to know the C major scale, but you need to know the C major scale. How does this help?...
    – user26571
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 9:16
  • This answer ignores a broad swath of music that does not rely on chords but is distinctly modal. The overlap between such music and more chordal music is considerable, for example areas in songs or charts where a musician is allowed or required to expand on a single tonal center. Not all tonal centers are chord-based. Also, chords do not tell you all there is to know. Consider a minor 7 chord on C. If the mode is phrygian, the neighbor tones are different from dorian. In the first, one would play D-flat and A-flat, in the second one would play D- or A-natural. Very different character. Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 2:12
  • This answer is incorrect. Modes refer not to the current chord (however many people do not understand that - even in higher levels of education) but to the tonal center. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:17

ignore or forget anything that says "starts from".

melodies that start on C might not be in the key of C or any of it's modes. it could be Em phygian or A minor! "pickup notes" can be misleading. I would've understood modes 6 years earlier if every book or article didn't say "STARTS FROM". It's incredibly misleading and just plain wrong.

situation #2 - chord progressions may produce modal change

key of C feels different with F in the bass vs B in the bass. What you're actually hearing is the difference between F Lydian and B locrian!!! This is the key to begin understanding. It's still key of C, but when the bass changes it's a new CONTEXT.

modal changes are better thought of as CONTEXTUAL changes.

situation #3 - key changes may produce modal change

Play key of Ab with a C in the bass. Then move to key of G with a C in the bass. Bass note stays the same but what you're really hearing is Cm Phrygian moving to C Lydian. It's a key change AND a modal change!

rule #1 - modes are directly related to style and emotion. modal changes are better thought of as "Mood Changes"

you will never understand modes until you learn to quantify the emotional experience resulting from a mode and associating it accordingly. MAKE A LIST on your own of the MOOD you feel when you hear each mode. Do not listen to other's opinions of whether the mixolydian mode sounds "bluesy" or "jam band" or if the locian mode sounds like "the circus" or "sludge metal" or if Ionian sounds like "lullaby" or "pop punk". Only you can match your subjective reactions to the modes with the mode names themselves.

Afterwords, you can use modes at will to cause an emotional effect. (I want to sound happy, now I want to sound evil) for example. For some styles of music, some modes (moods) are inappropriate and will never be used. Death Metal crowds do not want to hear Ionian. Pop Punk crowds do not want to hear Locrian. Hippes LOVE mixolydian. Goth kids scream in terror when they hear mixolydian, unless if maybe it's coming from The Doors

  • This is built on the axiom that you're hearing the scale - that is incorrect. You are hearing the scale degrees and the clashes between them. For example: In the mixolydian scale, there's a tritone between 3 and b7, which gives you a somewhat bluesy feel, as we've heared that so many times in blues. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:25

The noteworthy differences of the various modes of a scale are the variations in the tonal centers. For example, D-Dorian mode (in C-major scale) will have the tonal center of D instead of C. Depending on the mode, it can be of major & minor tonal center. Ionian, Lydian & Mixolydian are of major tones, whereas Dorian, Phrygian & Aeolian are of minor tones. Locrian mode shows diminished tone, which in principle is also a minor tone.

  • Your answer is really close to the truth - correct regarding the tonal center and not the intervals, however, the tonal center is a single note, not a chord. The reason why we hear something as major or minor is because we've been spoonfed only ionian and aeolian music, which have 3 different scale degrees, thus are very audible. However, the third really doesn't matter Higher level education tends to build on the that incorrect axiom that major and minor are entirely different things - and on the incorrect axiom that scales are audible (they are just theoretical guidelines). Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:21

Modes are scales which share the same notes, but the context is different. That's it. What does that mean? Context means tonality - If we play C with the tonic (tonal center, most stable note) being C, it will sound a lot different than if the tonic was B (making C the b2, a very unstable note).

For example: The modes of the C Major Scale are C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian. The letter refers to the tonic and the name of the mode refers to the scale degrees:

  • Ionian: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
  • Dorian: 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7
  • Phrygian: 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
  • Lydian: 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7
  • Mixolydian: 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7
  • Aeolian: 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
  • Locrian: 1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7

So how do we make a certain note the tonic? A mistake made by a lot of people is to think that a you get a mode when you start on a different note. The tonic is the most used note, or the note of resolution for a phrase. If you play the notes of the C major scale from F, you are not going to get F Lydian, but C major. However, if you play the notes of the C major scale (doesn't matter on which note you start) with F in the bass, or always return to F (or F in the harmony, so on...), you will hear F Lydian.

However, there is nothing mystical about modes and scales. You absolutely do not hear the sound of the mode, but the sound of its "characteristic" scale degrees - Scale degrees that are different from what you're so used to hearing: In the Lydian scale, you hear the #4. In Mixolydian, you hear the b7 and so on...

This is why scales are useless for ear training and for ear based improvisation - only serving as "training wheels" for people without a strong ear, and a poor excuse for people to not do ear training.


Modes are one way of thinking about melodic lines and their underlying harmonies. They can be used as a compliment or an alternative to the "usual" diatonic way of thinking about harmony. They predate diatonic harmony by a number of centuries in Western music. The diatonic system grew out of the modal system as it became more polyphonic because certain melodic tensions seemed to always resolve in certain ways (See this question for an excellent overview of the details). As other posters have pointed out, modes are basically just inversions of a scale. As such, all scales have modes, though symmetric scales, like the diminished, have fewer modes than they have scale degrees (the diminished has eight degrees but only two modes). That said, the modes that have specific names are primarily inversions of the major scale.

In modern usage modes are often a way to build more interesting melodies that fit with certain chords, or sometimes to generate chord changes themselves. An example of the first type of usage would be playing C Lydian over a C Major triad. The F sharp (a raised 4th) from the lydian doesn't clash with any of the chord tones, so if a composer or improviser wants a fourth in the melody she can chose to use the sharp four from the lydian. That may not be the only or best way of thinking about or analyzing this note (maybe it's meant to imply a secondary dominant, for example), but this sort of chord/scale relational thinking is common especially in jazz.

Also, each mode has a characteristic "flavor." So for the most common modes of the major scale: lydian sounds playful and whimsical (e.g. Saria's song from the game Ocarina of Time), Mixolydian sounds like a primeval version of the major scale with it's flat leading tone ("In a Silent Way" is the best example I can think of), Phrygian is oftern associated with flamenco music (more stereotypically, you'll have heard it in the "bull fighter" music that's played at sporting events), and Dorian has a funky, tongue in cheek sound (Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon", Miles Davis' "So What"). From these examples you can probably infer that these characteristic sounds emerge most clearly when the harmony remains relatively static or vamps between two or three chords.

  • Who's to say that an F# over major isn't using Blues rather than Lydian? Could be construed as b5.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 7:54
  • Tim, what you're hearing is the note a tritone above the tonic. Doesn't matter at all what's the scale, as you do not hear the scale, only the scale degrees. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 17:25

Modes are used in many types of music; from sacred music to jazz to rock. Composers use it to add "flavor" to their compositions in order to avoid predictability. It is formed by naming a different note as the root (1st) instead of the original root of the scale. Thus, in a way, modes can be defined as displaced major scales.

Types of Modal Scales

Ionian - Also known as the major scale; follows the pattern W-W-H-W-W-W-H.

Dorian - Constructed from the second note of a major scale; follows the pattern W-H-W-W-W-H-W.

Phrygian - Constructed from the third note of a major scale; follows the pattern H-W-W-W-H-W-W.

Lydian - Constructed from the fourth note of a major scale; follows the pattern W-W-W-H-W-W-H.

Mixolydian - Also known as "mixo," is constructed from the fifth note of a major scale and follows the pattern W-W-H-W-W-H-W.

Aeolian - Also known as the natural minor scale, is constructed from the sixth note of a major scale and follows the pattern W-H-W-W-H-W-W.

Locrian - Constructed from the seventh note of a major scale; follows the pattern H-W-W-H-W-W-W.

Each mode has a very distinct sound; for example, the Phrygian mode sounds melancholy and reflects the music of Spain. The Lydian mode sounds happy and is often used in jazz and rock music. The Mixolydian mode evokes a bluesy sound and can often be heard in jazz, blues and rock music. The Locrian mode, on the other hand, has a very strange sound but is rarely used.

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