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I'm a bit confused about the modes. I'm learning them by ear through this app, where the app explains what to listen for. For instance: dorian has 2b (flats), and lydian has 1# (sharp).

The thing I'm confused about: does lydian always have 1# in it? or dorian 2b? Doesn't this depend upon which major scale and mode? Or is the fixed amount of flats and sharps only applying if all modes are starting from C?

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  • Take a look at my answer on this related question, it might be helpful to you: music.stackexchange.com/questions/110215/… Mar 28, 2023 at 5:31
  • 2
    Note that it may look like a confusing approach to learn modes starting from the same note (C in your case), as they are derived from the major scale, just starting from a different note. But actually musically it's a good approach as it teaches you how they sound different starting with the same note
    – Kaddath
    Mar 28, 2023 at 15:06
  • @Kaddath Agreed, but I'd suggest getting used to the sound of the modes in one key (say, C major) as well. Mar 29, 2023 at 14:00
  • @ScottWallace yes it's useful too, I use it sometimes to change mode for a short time while staying in the same scale. It's more natural in my case because I play bass which has evenly spaced notes and strings (a mode pattern stays the same across the fretboard), while the inverse needs some work. It may be the contrary on other instruments, I don't know
    – Kaddath
    Mar 29, 2023 at 15:04
  • @Kaddath - no, it's similar on other instruments, depending on how they're tuned. The patterns pertain to all. Apr 6, 2023 at 13:40

5 Answers 5

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It's common to describe modes (or any seven-note scales) by how they compare to the major scale- major is sort of the "default" scale in western music and music theory.

Lydian has one sharp added to the parallel major scale. It could be described as 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7.

Dorian has two flats added to the parallel major scale. It could be described as 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7.

You're right to think that if you start with a major scale with 3 flats (Eb major) and add the two flats to make Eb dorian, you end up with 5 flats. Or, if you added a sharp to make it lydian, you're returning the Ab to A natural- so the scale has 2 flats.

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  • With "parallel major scale", you mean equivalent major scale here (they're not equivalent either, but parallel makes me think of parallel minor scale, which is a minor third away from the major scale. Here, the major and Lydian scales are a perfect unison apart, which confused me a bit).
    – 9769953
    Mar 27, 2023 at 8:34
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    @9769953 a parallel minor is not a minor third away from the major scale, parallel means they share the same root note. The minor scale a minor third below a major scale is called the relative minor, the answer’s use of parallel is the correct!
    – OwenM
    Mar 27, 2023 at 8:49
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    @OwenM Thanks. Then it is (or was, now) just my lack of knowledge about this idiom and use of parallel.
    – 9769953
    Mar 27, 2023 at 9:49
  • @9769953 yup, the terms are all a bit vague and easy to mix up!
    – OwenM
    Mar 28, 2023 at 0:56
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I find it helpful to think of the pitches as "raised" and "lowered" to avoid confusion. So Lydian, for example, has one raised pitch compared to major. The actual note name could be natural or sharp (or even double sharp), but it will still be "raised" in comparison to major.

Some concrete examples for Major and Lydian:

C Major / C Lydian
C D E   F    G A B C
C D E   F#   G A B C

C# Major / C# Lydian
C# D# E#   F#   G# A# B# C#
C# D# E#   Fx   G# A# B# C#

Db Major / Db Lydian
Db Eb F   Gb   Ab Bb C Db
Db Eb F   G    Ab Bb C Db

In the three Lydian scales shown, the changed pitch can be sharp (C Lydian), double-sharp (C# Lydian), or natural (Db Lydian), but it's still raised from its position in the corresponding major scale.

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  • I think you forgot a double flat raised to a single flat. (Fb major vs Fb Lydian)
    – mathlander
    Mar 27, 2023 at 21:00
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    @mathlander Good catch. I actually left it out on purpose, because Fb major is so exceedingly rare.
    – Aaron
    Mar 27, 2023 at 21:25
  • So is C# major... (Even in classical music, which usually cares a lot about enharmonicity, Beethoven chose to use Db major for Moonlight Sonata Mvt 2 and Chopin used Db major for the middle section of Fantaisie Impromptu!)
    – mathlander
    Mar 27, 2023 at 23:01
  • Also, if you really care about how common something is, you should use F major for your last example.
    – mathlander
    Mar 28, 2023 at 16:59
  • @mathlander You're walking a fine line between offering constructive suggestions and attacking me personally.
    – Aaron
    Mar 28, 2023 at 17:04
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Being told by the app that a mode 'has one sharp', or 'has two flats' in itself is pretty useless. Unless it also highlights which number notes are affected.

It's not like 'there's a major key with one sharp', - which we all recognise as key G. And that sharp is the sharpened leading note, compared with the natural (F).

It's of paramount importance, therefore, to designate which note/s gets the sharp/flat - in comparison with the basic major scale.

So Lydian (with one sharp - that is vague) is the same as the major scale, BUT its 4th is sharpened. Mixolydian has one flat, BUT that is its 7th note, flattened when compared with its parallel major scale. G A B C D E F, compared with G A B C D E F♯. But even that's confusing - we just read that Mixolydian has one flat - there's not a flat in sight. It's the 7th note that's been flattened, producing F♮!

I'd hesitate to use the site or app that describes modes that way - I think it's quite confusing. There are far better ways in which to get to understand modes.

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Here's what the other answers miss:

  • It's unnecessarily complicated to think of modes as scales that you build.
  • Modes, like most other scales, indicate tonal relationships. Unlike other scales, in addition to establishing tonal relationships like tonal centers, modes also indicate tonal parentage.

Think of modes as essentially rotations of a major scale. The formula for each mode is derived from its relationship to its parent scale. Understanding the mode names and how they relate to the parent scale helps us understand why the formulas are built the way they are. Let's see it in action:

Ionian (Major): C D E F G A B (1 2 3 4 5 6 7)

Now if we rotate this scale and go from "D" to "D", we get:

D E F G A B C

Cool, "D" is our tonal center now, but it's not "D major", in fact, we don't want it to be "D major" because we want to use the language of "C major" but with "D" as our tonal center.

So if we look at what's different between "D major" and this scale, we see that we're missing the "F#" and "C#".

This gives us "D Dorian" with a formula of 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7, with the "b3" & "b7" representing "lowered" notes, in this case, "F", which would be "F#", and "C", which would be "C#" in D major. These are scale degrees that we altered from "D major" to fit our language of "C major".

Now let's rotate the same scale but starting on "F":

F G A B C D E

So, "F" is our tonal center but we're continuing to use the language of "C Major". Well, relative to "F Major", there is one note different, "B", which should be "Bb". So, we represent the formula as:

1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

to indicate that the 4th degree has been raised. Again, "F" is our tonal center, but keeping the language of "C major".

In order of scale degree the modes are:

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian (b3 & b7 for parent scale)
  3. Phrygian (b2, b3, b6, b7 for parent scale)
  4. Lydian (#4 for parent scale)
  5. Mixolydian (b7 for parent scale)
  6. Aeolian (b3, b6, b7 for parent scale)
  7. Locrian (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7 for parent scale)

Because all major scales in 12-EDO equal-temperament are all built using tetrachords, these formulas work for all rotations of all keys.

Hope that helps!

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  • 2
    In highschool, my teacher taught us to memorize the modes like this: "I Did Pot Leave Me Alone Lady"
    – JacobIRR
    Mar 27, 2023 at 17:04
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    @JacobIRR - that's odd. 'I don't play like my aunt Lou' makes more sense.
    – Tim
    Mar 28, 2023 at 7:56
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All modes contain the same repeating sequence of 7 pitch classes. The only difference is where in the sequence you start.

  • do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do = Ionian (major)
  • re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re = Dorian
  • mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi = Phrygian
  • fa-sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa = Lydian
  • sol-la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol = Mixolydian
  • la-ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la = Aeolian (natural minor)
  • ti-do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti = Locrian

Personally, I think that the traditional names of the modes are a needless complication imposed by academic types who still buy into the silly idea that speaking in Greek makes one sound “smarter”. I prefer to just call them do-mode, re-mode, etc. Nevertheless, since that terminology seems to be “confusing” to some people, I will use the Greek names in this answer.

Now, let's assign each note a number from 0 to 11 based on the usual convention of twelve equal semitones in an octave: do=0, re=2, mi=4, fa=5, sol=7, la=9, ti=11. (That's one semitone for the mi-fa and ti-do intervals, and two semitones for the others.)

  • Ionian (do) mode = 0-2-4-5-7-9-11-0
  • Dorian (re) mode = 2-4-5-7-9-11-0-2
  • Phrygian (mi) mode = 4-5-7-9-11-0-2-4
  • Lydian (fa) mode = 5-7-9-11-0-2-4-5
  • Mixolydian (sol) mode = 7-9-11-0-2-4-5-7
  • Aeolian (la) mode = 9-11-0-2-4-5-7-9
  • Locrian (ti) mode = 11-0-2-4-5-7-9-11

By subtracting the number assigned to the starting note or “tonic”, and adding 12 (one octave) to any number that goes negative, we can derive the notes of each scale as a sequence of semitones from the tonic.

  • Ionian = 0-2-4-5-7-9-11-0
  • Dorian = 0-2-3-5-7-9-10-0
  • Phrygian = 0-1-3-5-7-8-10-0
  • Lydian = 0-2-4-6-7-9-11-0
  • Mixolydian = 0-2-4-5-7-9-10-0
  • Aeolian = 0-2-3-5-7-8-10-0
  • Locrian= 0-1-3-5-6-8-10-0

You may prefer to refer to notes by letters instead of numbers, though. So let's assign the number “0” to the ever-popular tonic of C. Recall that 0=C, 2=D, 4=E, 5=F, 7=G, 9=A, and 11=B. The five “black key” notes (1, 3, 6, 8, 10) will need to use sharps or flats as appropriate.

  • C Ionian scale = C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
  • C Dorian scale = C-D-E♭-F-G-A-B♭-C
  • C Phygian scale = C-D♭-E♭-F-G-A♭-B♭-C
  • C Lydian scale = C-D-E-F♯-G-A-B-C
  • C Mixolydian scale = C-D-E-F-G-A-B♭-C
  • C Aeolian scale = C-D-E♭-F-G-A♭-B♭-C
  • C Locrian scale = C-D♭-E♭-F-G♭-A♭-B♭-C

The mapping of numbers to letters is context-sensitive: Note 6 is “F♯” in the Lydian scale, but “G♭” in the Locrian scale. This is needed in order to satisfy the requirement that each note in a scale use a unique letter.

For instance: dorian [re-mode] has 2b (flats), and lydian [fa-mode] has 1# (sharp).

This is indeed the case for scales starting on C. As you can see from my lists of notes above: C Dorian has two flats (E♭ and B♭) and C Lydian has one sharp (F♯).

But as you suspected, this only applies if you're starting from C. Let's try starting from E instead. Then 0=E, 1=F, 3=G, 5=A, 7=B, 8=C, and 10=D, so:

  • E Ionian scale = E-F♯-G♯-A-B-C♯-D♯-E
  • E Dorian scale = E-F♯-G-A-B-C♯-D-E
  • E Phyrgian scale = E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E
  • E Lydian scale = E-F♯-G♯-A♯-B-C♯-D♯-E
  • E Mixolydian scale = E-F♯-G♯-A-B-C♯-D-E
  • E Aeolian scale = E-F♯-G-A-B-C-D-E
  • E Locrian scale = E-F-G-A-B♭-C-D-E

E Dorian now has two sharps, and E Lydian has five sharps. If you compare the E scales to the corresponding C scales, you see that they all have exactly four more sharps or four fewer flats than the C-based counterpart.

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  • 1
    @JoãoMendes: Fine, I've edited my answer to use the traditional arbitrary Greek words for the modes.
    – dan04
    Mar 28, 2023 at 16:42
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    Objection and downvote withdrawn and replaced with upvote. Mar 29, 2023 at 9:55

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