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I'm just diving into music theory having largely ignored it in my playing up until now. I believe I've got the basics down of how to move modes around the finger board. But, there is some "confusing" information online that has me questioning how this all works at a theoretical level.

So I understand that if I'm in a given key (lets say D minor). I lay my 7 notes out and return to the root

  1. D
  2. E
  3. F
  4. G
  5. A
  6. A#
  7. C
  8. D

I then know that if I want to start my sequence on the E (which being the second note, would be Dorian?) my order then becomes

  1. E
  2. F
  3. G
  4. A
  5. A#
  6. C
  7. D
  8. E

This makes sense to me so far, I just swap tonic notes, but the key is the same as before. No additional sharps/flats added. I also then can keep this pattern on the finger board and apply it to other minor keys later on.

My confusion arises when I see something like this in many places online:

The phrygian mode contains – b2, b3, b6 ,b7

This might be where the gap in my theory presents itself, but I see that statement, and then I look at all the modes I could make using that D minor example and I only have an A# that isn't a natural note.

Each mode appears to have its own set of sharps/flats but in actual practice within that D Minor aren't the notes supposed to remain the same?

Just trying to ensure I've got the right grasp on this as I'm keen to try and incorporate an understanding of "why" into my playing. Apologize if some of this is blatantly obvious to others.

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    Couple of pointers - modes make more sense (to beginners) with reference to major keys. In Dm, there's no A#, it's called Bb. Minor keys will be confusing, as there are extra options of notes - not merely those making the natural minor scale. Answer maybe follows...
    – Tim
    Feb 10, 2023 at 15:33
  • One point that might help understanding: Major and minor are themselves "modes." I mean that in the sense that our garden-variety major is Ionian and that "natural minor" is Aeolian, but also that sometimes in music theory you hear words like "modality" and "modal mixture" in conversations about how major and minor interact. The way mode is different than key is—well, with some drastic oversimplification—"key" tells you what notes you're working with, but "mode" tells you about where they're "centered," how those notes relate to each other. Feb 10, 2023 at 16:13
  • I'm glad you found an answer here, but you really should learn key signatures and how to properly use sharps/flats. Learning the modes and keys depends on understanding key signatures and intervals properly "spelled" with sharps/flats. Feb 10, 2023 at 17:10
  • Have a look at this question music.stackexchange.com/q/97786/9426 which walks through the modes so only one accidental changes each time. Feb 11, 2023 at 18:09

4 Answers 4

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The reference point is Major

The reference point for the diatonic modes is the major scale. ("Diatonic" is the general terms for the modes related to major/minor scales.)

There are two ways to think of modes: relative and parallel.

Relative modes

Relative modes are modes that share the same key signature, as in the question post. Major is the "first" mode, and the proceed as follows:

1. Major (Ionian)
2. Dorian
3. Phrygian
4. Lydian
5. Mixolydian
6. Minor (Aeolian)
7. Locrian

Given a "starting mode" of D major, one gets

1. D Major
2. E Dorian
3. F# Phrygian
4. G Lydian
5. A Mixolydian
6. B Minor
7. C# Locrian

The question gives a "starting mode" of D minor. In that case, to find the relative modes, one must remember that the starting point is "mode 6."

6. D Minor
7. E Locrian
1. F Major
2. G Dorian
3. A Phrygian
4. Bb Lydian
5. C Mixolydian

Parallel modes

In the given example of "The phrygian mode contains – b2, b3, b6 ,b7", the speaker is saying

If you want to convert from major to phrygian keeping the same key note, lower scale degrees 2, 3, 6, and 7.

In Parallel modes, every scale has the same starting note, and the description of how to construct the scale is based on changes compared to the major scale.

1. Major      = Major
2. Dorian     = Major +     b3,             b7
3. Phrygian   = Major + b2, b3,         b6, b7
4. Lydian     = Major +         #4
5. Mixolydian = Major +                     b7
6. Minor      = Major +     b3,         b6, b7
7. Locrian    = Major + b2, b3,     b5, b6, b7

The parallel modes of D major, for example, look like:

1. D Major      = D E  F# G  A  B  C#
2. D Dorian     = D E  F  G  A  B  C
3. D Phrygian   = D Eb F  G  A  Bb C
4. D Lydian     = D E  F# G# A  B  C#
5. D Mixolydian = D E  F# G  A  B  C
6. D Minor      = D E  F  G  A  Bb C
7. D Locrian    = D Eb F  G  Ab Bb C
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  • Amazing, thank you so much for the detail and explanation. Covered everything I was hoping to get better insight into!
    – user90535
    Feb 10, 2023 at 16:28
  • Since OP wanted to begin with minors, it may be a good thing to mention minor modes! As in those which emanate from the minor scale - which is where OP started. Maybe that's a little advanced for today, though. Maybe tomorrow...
    – Tim
    Feb 10, 2023 at 16:38
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Modes can make a little more sense in the context of a song. They are good way of describing the tensions that a player chooses to highlight in respect to a chord. If C major is the chord and I play a melody containing C, Db, Ab, Bb, Eb then I would be using the Phrygian mode over a major chord (odd choice, probably don't do that).
The modes are described in their relation to the major scale. "Flat 2" means that the second note is lowered one half step. As a guitarist, modes are great to practice because they can familiarize our fingers with different shapes over the fretboard instead of being stuck in one position.
This is just my opinion, so feel free to ignore: modes are not as important as places like youtube might make them seem, at least as a concept. If you focus on things like chords/harmony and think about chord tones/tensions you will eventually arrive at an understanding of melody that might be better than if you focus on the modes. They won't help as much compositionally as you might think, but as I stated earlier they are a great way to drill your fingers into diatonic patterns all over the neck. Once you have a comfortable understanding of other theory concepts like functional harmony then revisit modes a little deeper

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    Also: some modes really don't get used much these days. They're important to study for medieval music history, but these days, outside of the usual major and minor, it's by far Dorian and Mixolydian that you encounter in "real music" more than any others. Feb 10, 2023 at 16:15
  • Surely Ionian and Aeolian are the two most common? Those cover probably 90% of my music library.
    – Edward
    Feb 11, 2023 at 14:31
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Yes, but ...

All the answers here offer a thorough explanation in different ways, and all are excellent. One point more to consider is the so-called Locrian mode. Unlike all the other modes, Locrian's tonic triad (the chord you get when you play the first, third, and fifth note in the mode) is diminished.. That is to say, it's composed of two minor thirds and lacks a perfect fifth. Because of this and its inherent instability, many theorists do not consider it to be an actual mode. Any song that is built in Locrian will necessarily sound unfinished when it returns to its tonic and cannot resolve in a satisfying way.
So as a thought experiment and to aid your understanding of modes, definitely work with the Locrian, but know that it doesn't really belong in the same category as a mode with a major or minor tonic triad.

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There is another way to regard modes.

Each and every mode belongs to a parent scale. So - Ionian (being the parent (let's say C major), uses all of the notes of C major - C D E F G A and B.

Working in a different way from Aaron, C Dorian uses the notes from key B♭, C being the 2nd note of the B♭ scale.

C Phrygian uses the notes from the key A♭, C being the 3rd note of A♭ scale.

C Lydian uses notes from the key of G major - C is the 4th note of scale G major.

C Mixolydian uses the notes from scale F major, C being the 5th note of F scale.

C Aeolian uses the notes of parent E♭, C being the 6th note of that scale.

C Locrian uses notes from parent key D♭, as C is the 7th note (leading note) of that key.

That's the way I tend to regard modes. Just when you thought it all made sense, here's another way to envision it all. Sorry!!

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  • haha thanks Tim, all the answers have been great and tricks like yours above will help me understand the concepts quicker!
    – user90535
    Feb 11, 2023 at 1:24

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