How do I differentiate between modes?

Suppose a person is playing "D Dorian". How do I know that it's "D Dorian" and not "C Major/Ionian" or "E Phrygian" and so on, and in fact "A natural minor" because it has same notes as C major.

  • 3
    I'm thinking that there's nothing guitar-specific about this question, so "guitar" should be tossed off as a tag. Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 20:29
  • 2
    I'm surprised the term 'tossed off' is allowed to stay.Maybe it's esoteric in English.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 9, 2013 at 21:35

7 Answers 7


When you play a C Major scale and have emphasis on a note other than C, such as D, then it is D Dorian. The player implies that the D note is the root using the notes of the C Major scale. Another thing is the harmony behind the scale. What chords are being used? That would direct your ear in hearing where the root is. If I play Dmin7 chord and use the C Major scale, I will land on the D note for a completed phrase and that is the sound of Dorian. Each mode has a particular sound. Play each note in the C scale to its first octave ( D to D ) and you will hear the flavor of the mode. Do that with all notes in C Major Scale.

  • So if I play C major scale over G Major chord than it should be G Mixolydian.
    – mihirjoshi
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 19:45
  • Not exactly - the notes contained in the C maj. scale, rather than the C maj. scale itself, but homing on G.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 8:36

Yes, they're using all the same notes, but not necessarily in the right order...

C maj. will be CENTRED around C, D Dorian will be CENTRED around D, E Phrygian will be... you get the picture.

The home (CENTRED) note will be the mode letter. The chords may well be the same, but their function will be different, i.e. in C maj., the G will be the dominant pushing back to C, but in, D Dorian, the same G will be the sub-dominant, a chord to visit, but not say "you're going back to C".

  • any trick to identify quickly except practice and ear training.
    – mihirjoshi
    Commented Oct 1, 2013 at 19:32
  • 1
    @mjosh - why would you want to skip practicing and ear training? All that does is rob you of technique and skill. Practice allows you to be able to identify modes and keys quickly and with ease. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 2:41
  • @jmosh - Without practice and ear training, you're going to be sadly lacking...
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 8:37
  • @jjmusicnotes Perhaps the OP was asking for another trick besides the very obvious ones ie. practice and ear training...
    – mey
    Commented Feb 2, 2015 at 21:03

If you look at just a small part of the tune under a magnifying glass, so to speak, then you don't know. A D minor chord is playing, or a G7, and all the notes are from the key of C major. You could be in a II-V-I cadence or whatever.

To know that you are in D Dorian, you have to step back and take a bird's eye view of the tune's structure.

Strong clues about the intended tonality will emerge. For instance, if major sections of the tune keep starting on a D, with a Dm or Dm7 chord, and return to Dm, that suggests that the tonality is D, and so if the notes selected are from C major, then the tune is being composed in D Dorian.

Another clue is if that it is a tune from the jazz and blues tradition, the bluesy alterations heard in the music, such as the addition of a tritone, will be with respect to D.

The music might contain V-I cadences targetting Dm, such as A7 Dm, suggesting the key of D minor related to F major; however, these may show themselves to just be a temporary tension heightening device which confirms the D tonality.

For instance, consider a vamp like Dm G7 | Dm G7 | Dm G7 | A7#9 - | Dm. That would be clearly interpreted as Dorian because of the Dm/G7 interplay. The A7#9 is just a bluesy turnaround.

The basic idea is that we would like the effect of a dominant to target the root note D in a powerful way, and so we just use this A7, without caring that it uses notes from outside of the D Dorian mode.

Note that an A7 dominant is "foreign" to the D minor tonality itself! To obtain the dominant, we have to alter the natural minor scale to have a leading tone. The notes of A7 are found in the harmonic and melodic minor variants of D minor. The same way that D natural minor can get a C# leading tone to support A7, we can temporarily introduce a C# in D Dorian music for the same reason. So the point is that there can be some "distractors" that are off scale, yet the music can be in Dorian.


Ugh! I used to be initimidated by this modal thing initially. Turned out to be the simplest thing once I got it down. It's all about how you think of it. And it was during this time that I learnt the actual function of chords. Say, you're playing C-F-G-F-C, a I IV V progression in Cmaj. Now, play anything you want from Am/G-mixo/C-maj scale, yes I know they are all the same thing. But interesting thing to note here is that, no matter what you play or how you play it from those 3 scales above..your ear is smarter than you think it is, it will magically resolve to 'C' note. Meaning, 'C' is your tonal center. Now, here's the LIGHT BULB moment. Do that exact same thing, but this time around play G-F-C-F-G progression instead. Voila! play the exact same thing..now again 'Magically' everything will resolve to a 'G'. And believe me, you don't need a great ear for this. I have an average ear myself. So what happened the second time around? The chords, you see..essentially set up the 'flavor' of the melody that's about to go on top of it. When you played G-F-C, the flavor was already set up, even if you played a 'C-major scale', it was essentially centered around 'G'(because of the chordal thing). So, it would become wrong to call it a 'C-major' key' right? Duh! So it's a G-something...G-mixolydian. Yes, although it may have the exact same notes as a C major, it's completely different. It's a very warm-majory sound. This way, each mode has it's own sound or flavor as I'd like to call it.

I think, this stage is brilliant to get you started on modes. Ever since I knew this, a lot of things started making sense to me.


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


Modes are just a very old type of scale. It was just the way in which the pre baroque era Medieval music was made. It is in essence the musical system that predates the current classical inspired system.

If you want to go in depth about how you can see the different modes for what they are you can always just look where the semi tones in the scale / piece is. That is all a scale really is. A set of notes a set amount of whole and semitones from each other.

The eight Gregorian modes (Also known as the church modes) have their semitones between the following places.

Dorian → 2/3 and 6/7

Phrygian → 1/2 and 5/6

Lydian → 4/5 and 7/8

Mixolydian → 3/4 and 6/7

Hypodorian → 2/3 and 5/6

Hypophrygian → 1/2 and 4/5

Hypolydian → 3/4 and 7/8

Hypomixolydian → 2/3 and 5/6


Modes are differentiated by the interval patterns, or in short by the movement of the notes. The things common to all the modes of a scale are the involved notes. All the modes of a scale will share the same key signature.

  • Could we get you to further elaborate on your thoughts> They seem interesting but we don't like short answers on this site.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jul 28, 2015 at 7:35

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