I started playing guitar almost 30 years ago as a little kid. I'm not great, but I can move my fingers and I know how the scales work and that a scale uses some specific chords.

Now I wanted a new challenge so I want to learn to play the bass and took up some online lessons and the instructor teaches something called modes. I see how they resemble scales so I begin to search on why modes are a thing and this rabbithole makes me more and more confused.

For anyone that wants to answer my questions I can say that I tend to learn the best with specific examples with simple words. Of course, if it's possible.

  1. All I see about these modes uses C major scale as the Ionian mode. Can other scales be Ionian? For example, can the B minor scale be Ionian?
  2. I think I understood that modes change throughout a song. Do they change with the chord progression? For example, lets take the C major progression: C-G-Am-F. Will the modes then go Ionian-Mixolydian-Aeolian-Lydian? If not, when do they usually change?

I hope you can help me understand this. I get the feeling that it's simple enough when it finally clicks.

Edit: I want to update and tell that I finally understand modes. At least, I think I do. It clicked when I saw an online lesson with Evan Brewer (great instructor, I must add) and he used G major as an example instead of C major. Seeing the same system but from a different point of view, if we can call it that, gave me the push to explore it more on my bass.

My understanding of it is this:

Ionian is the equivelant of the major scale. G major (which is also G Ionian) goes like this: G-A-B-C-D-E-F# which goes like this in terms of intervals: Root/G-2-2-1-2-2-2-1-Root/G. The intervals are the same on every Ionian. Start from A? Then just go the same intervals and you have the Ionian. Dorian is the second of the Ionian, so with the Dorian to G Ionian will actually be called A Dorian (don't know if I use the right words here, you are very welcome to correct me) and will use the same tones, so the intervals will be Root/A-2-1-2-2-2-1-2-Root/A. Notice when the first 1 is, it comes one note earlier in Dorian than in Ionian.

I made this table for my own reference:


I think several of you have tried to tell me exactly what I say here, but I must admit that my knowledge of music theory was less than I thought so a lot of the words, or maybe just many of your words in the same sentence, was difficult to comprehend. But I get this now.

I also saw the point in Aeolian being the equivelant of natural minor after I checked up in intervals.

Thank you all for your replies!

  • There are many, many questions here about modes, including questions similar to yours. I highly recommend taking some time to search through them to see if one or more help clarify things.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 6:49
  • This one might make a good starting point: Clarification of modes, mixed understanding of how they work.
    – Aaron
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 6:52
  • 2
    Sorry, Aaron. But I have really tried and everything I've stumbled on explains modes in the same way, which is like having a teacher in school explaining the laws of physics the same way everytime expecting that now suddenly the kids understand it. I appreciate your link, it was a bit different from everything else. What I could gather was that Ionian is the "parent" so the answer to my first question is "yes"? Which definitely helps me. After some more digging I still don't have a clear answer on my second question, but I sense that it might be a yes, but can also be different?
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 7:40
  • "Ionian is the parent": this is how modes are taught today because the major scale is seen as the most elementary. This wasn't always the case, and theoretically speaking you can start with any one of the modes and describe the others as rotations of the starting mode.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:21
  • 1
    Don’t be silly, of course B# exists.
    – Lazy
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 22:01

7 Answers 7


Just to add on to the good answers here, and boil an important part down very simply: You've been using some modes all along. Our good old major and minor are themselves modes. Just like those, the others can be both "a set of notes that you play, as a scale," and "a sense of being centered around a certain note." And just like major and minor, they could "start on"(/center around) any note; the difference between them is just about the pattern of distances between notes.

The only reason you keep seeing examples based on C is just for ease of explanation. There are usually two ways to explain these modes: one is to make all of them start on C, and then just use various sharps and flats to show how various scale degrees are raised and lowered (e.g. Mixolydian would have a Bb). Another, and the way I find easier to explore while playing, is to use the notes of a C major scale—all naturals—but "start the scale" on a different note. E.g., if you start on D and play a scale that uses all naturals, you have Dorian (even a handy mnemonic!). That should be enough to get an experiential feel for them; you might want to then expand on it by reading a bit about their history and how we got here.

  • (More mnemonics: start on F and you get Ph(f)rygian; start on A and you get Aaaaeolian.) Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:14
  • With a key signature of zero sharp/flats, starting on F gives lydian, E phrygian. The mnemonic only works for D dorian, A aeolian. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 15:07
  • 1
    @MichaelCurtis Oops, right. Maybe phrygEEEEan then. :D Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 15:20
  • kinda problematic for C ionian, G mixolydian, B locrian nearly half of them, no letter matches. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 15:28
  • Not a very good mnemonic, since you can also have G Phrygian, Bb Phrygian, or ANY OTHER note Phrygian. Phrygian (or any other mode) does not inherently start on a particular note. Instead it has a particular sequence of whole steps and half steps.
    – Hutch
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 9:37

My guess is you can change modes throughout the blocks of a song (verse, chorus etc). So for example the bass would play the Ionian (B minor in this case) in the verse and then change to Dorian in the chorus (C# Dorian)? And can the modes change constantly with the chord progression?

It seems like you're confusing two concepts, which is no doubt understandable in light of the material you've been seeing.

First, there's a concept of "mode" that is analogous to the concept of tonality. Just as a melody can be in a major key or a minor key, it can also be in a Dorian mode or a Mixolydian mode. This concept of modes goes back thousands of years, before the concept of major and minor keys even existed (that concept only goes back three or four hundred years). This idea of classifying melodies by mode also extends to harmonizing these melodies. Traditional analysis typically identifies a single mode for an entire piece or perhaps each section of the piece. For example, you might say that a song is in E minor but the bridge or chorus is in C major. Similarly, a song might be in E Dorian with a bridge in E Mixolydian.

The other application of this concept is that it is a convenient way of identifying a set of notes that sounds good in your solo. In other words, it's a helpful framework for improvisation. In this context, you might switch to a different mode for just a single chord. If your E Dorian song, for example, has an F chord in it, for example, you're probably not going to want to play E or F♯ during that chord. The mode describing the set of pitches you want to use at any given point in a piece of music may not be the mode of the piece.

All I see about these modes uses C major scale as the Ionian mode. Can other scales be Ionian? For example, can B# (edit: B# doesn't exist, I meant to type Bminor. I apologize) scale be Ionian?

Other scales can be Ionian, but only if they're major scales. B minor has a key signature of two sharps. This key signature gives you D major, D Ionian, E Dorian, F♯ Phrygian, etc., including B minor and B Aeolian.

I think I understood that modes change throughout a song.

Only the second application of the concept changes throughout a song. The first application changes more slowly, if at all.

Do they change with the chord progression? For example, lets take the C major progression: C-G-Am-F. Will the modes then go Ionian-Mixolydian-Aeolian-Lydian? If not, when do they usually change?

Let me ask this: suppose you're playing scales in this song. During the C major chord, you play C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. During the G major chord, you play G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G. Does it help you to think of the second scale as a G Mixolydian scale instead of as a C major scale that starts and ends on the fifth degree? In the end it doesn't really matter how you approach it except to the extent that it helps you understand what you're playing and why it works with the given chord changes. In particular, it especially doesn't matter if you recognize that the two are different ways of describing the same thing.

  • 1
    You helped a bit more in the right direction. Maybe even to the point where I just need to play to have it click in my head. And to your question, yes it does help. I'm not good with words and my mind works a lot better with simplified naming of systems. So all this Dorian etc is just adding complexity to something I already know. But it can help me structure what I play in some way, that I didn't do before. I'll just have to start slow. Thank you for your thorough answer!
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:36
  • 1
    In one exam board examples are used for practising: in key C, for instance, over C, use C Ionian, over G, use G Mixolydian, over Dm use D Dorian, etc. They all amount to exactly the same set of notes, it's just that the focus changes, using the root (tonic) for each mode. Not saying it's a good or bad concept, but it works for some.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 10:57
  • I have edited my original post with my epiphany. I get it now. Thanks!
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 17:59

There is no short answer to what modes are, because it can only be understood with a good knowledge of music fundamentals - intervals, transposition, and key signatures - and some music history.

Part of the reason leaning about modes is difficult is because there is a very, very long history of modal music. There is modal music from the Medieval and Renaissance eras, folk music both old and modern, modal aspects to rock music, and modal jazz.

Most of the introductions I've seen spend little, if any time, explaining the history, and teach something along the lines of playing a scale an octave of all white keys on the piano - C to C for ionian mode, D to D for dorian modes, etc. - which you can also call rotations or modes of the C major scale.

Rotations of C major sort of gets close to the origin of the modes, but the history is more linked to staff notation. On staff the origin of the modes involves no key signatures and scales spanning octaves starting on pitches D for dorian, E for phrygian, F for lydian, and G for mixolydian. That isn't the complete picture, but we don't need to go into further detail. The point is to get the historic association with staff notation. You can read up on Church Modes to get the details.

Continuing the history in a very abbreviated form flats and sharps get introduced to the modal system and eventually the concept of major and minor keys emerges. Music theory sometimes calls the new system the major and minor key system.

Another way to understand modes is to sort of "reverse" the history and take (what I hope for you) is the familiar major/minor keys and understand how chromatic alterations to them produces modes. The alterations consist of lowering scale degrees by a half step in all cases but one which involves raising a scale degree by half step. Those alteration move through the various degrees of a major/minor scale by fifths, which makes things systematic, but you don't necessarily need to know that.

We can continue by bring in your first question...

All I see about these modes uses C major scale as the Ionian mode. Can other scales be Ionian? For example, can B# (edit: B# doesn't exist, I meant to type Bminor. I apologize) scale be Ionian?

B# exists. It's just enharmonically equal to C natural.

Yes, other scales can be ionian. You can have any starting pitch ionian. B ionian, C ionian, Db ionian, etc. etc. This is where understand the modes as alterations of a major/minor scale comes into play. It's possible to alter a major scale six times to get all seven of the "modern" modes: ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and locrian. But you can also group those modes into major and minor families and make the alterations from either a major or minor scale. I prefer the later.

  • The character ^ and a numeral indicate scale degrees. Ex. ^5 means the fifth scale degree. In C major that would be the pitch G.

  • All raised and lowered scale degrees are raised or lowered by a half step, use the original pitch letter and apply accidental sharps or flats accordingly, don't use enharmonic changes to the pitch letters.

  • The basic major and minor scales are based on key signatures so the minor scale is the "natural" minor scale.

Major family of modes:

  - Lydian     = major scale with raised  ^4 :C  D  E  F# G  A  B  C
  - Ionian     = major scale                 :C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C
  - Mixolydian = major scale with lowered ^7 :C  D  E  F  G  A  Bb C

Minor family of modes:

  - Dorian     = minor scale with raised  ^6    :A  B  C  D  E  F# G  A
  - Aeolian    = minor scale                    :A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A
  - Phrygian   = minor scale with lowered ^2    :A  Bb C  D  E  F  G  A
  - Locrian    = minor scale with lowered ^2 ^5 :A  Bb C  D  Eb F  G  A

That organization is nice, because it groups the basic tonalities by the quality of the third scale degrees either major third or minor third.

All seven alteration from a major scale...

  - C Lydian     = major scale w/raised  ^4             = C  D  E  F# G  A  B  C = G  major/C lydian,     1 sharp
  - C Ionian     = major scale                          = C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C = C  major/C ionian,     0 sharps/flats
  - C Mixolydian = major scale w/lowered ^7             = C  D  E  F  G  A  Bb C = F  major/C mixolydian, 1 flat
  - C Dorian     = major scale w/lowered ^7 ^3          = C  D  Eb F  G  A  Bb C = Bb major/C dorian,     2 flats
  - C Aeolian    = major scale w/lowered ^7 ^3 ^6       = C  D  Eb F  G  Ab Bb C = Eb major/C aeolian,    3 flats
  - C Phrygian   = major scale w/lowered ^7 ^3 ^6 ^2    = C  Db Eb F  G  Ab Bb C = Ab major/C phrygian,   4 flats
  - C Locrian    = major scale w/lowered ^7 ^3 ^6 ^2 ^5 = C  Db Eb F  Gb Ab Bb C = Db major/C locrian,    5 flats

Notice how the seven alterations to major move through the scale systematically by descending perfect fifths (with an implied ^1): ^4 ^1 ^7 ^3 ^6 ^2 ^5. If you spend some time with that chart you will eventually see all the key signatures and 7 modern modes are linked together through a process of transposition and starting pitch rotations.

So, yes, you can have any of these seven modern modes on any starting pitch. Just alter the necessary scale degrees, and be aware you may need double sharps or double flats to spell things correctly...

                    ^1  ^2  ^3  ^4  ^5  ^6  ^7  ^1
  - `Gb` major    = Gb  Ab  Bb  Cb  Db  Eb  F   Gb
  - `Gb` phrygian = Gb  Abb Bbb Cb  Db  Ebb Fb  Gb

For example, can B# (edit: B# doesn't exist, I meant to type Bminor. I apologize) scale be Ionian?

I'm really confused what you mean - can B minor scale be ionian?

No, B minor is B minor, there's nothing ionian about it.

If you're trying to rotate through the modes of B minor until you get to the "ionian mode", or you could state it like this B minor has a key signature of two sharps, what ionian mode uses two sharps?, the answer is D ionian. Yet, another way to state it is B minor's relative major is D major, and D major is the same set of pitches as D ionian.

  - B (natural) minor is aeolian mode: B C# D E F# G A B
  - D major is B minor's relative major 
           ...which is D ionian mode :      D E F# G A B C# D

B minor, B aeolian, D major, and D ionian all use the same set of pitches, but the tonic or final (the starting pitch) changes.

B ionian is a completely different set of pitches.

  - B ionian is B major              : B C# D# E F# G# A# B

Now for the second part of your question...

I think I understood that modes change throughout a song. Do they change with the chord progression? For example, lets take the C major progression: C-G-Am-F. Will the modes then go Ionian-Mixolydian-Aeolian-Lydian? If not, when do they usually change?

This is basically the "chord/scale" system, and you seem to understand how it wants you to think about playing over a chord progression.

I think that is a really bad system for teaching music, because it makes a jumble of concepts: tonality, chord, scale, mode, and key. That system takes major/minor key chord progressions and labels scalar segments of the key as "modes." The problem is two-fold: it conflates several harmonic concepts - chord and tonality, mode and key, and it also encourages diatonic scalar noodling.

If the song is in C major, and you play scalar passages over chord changes C G Am F, you're still playing in C major. Just because you play a scalar passage in C major that runs, for example, from A5 down to A4 doesn't mean that you suddenly are playing in A minor or A aeolian. The key/mode is not changing.

If not, when do they usually change?

It depends on what the song does. The example you gave is only C major and progression C G Am F. Indeed some songs do nothing more than that and it most likely wouldn't be appropriate to say that anything about key or mode is change in such a song. In fact, the hallmark of such songs is the tonality does not change.

It's possible that a song in C major has a section that modulates, for example, to A minor. At such a change you still aren't talking about a change of mode, you're talking about a change of key. For that section the obvious thing to do is play in A minor.

It's also possible that a song in C major could change to a section that is actually modal. You could have it go like C G Am A7 and then shift into a section in D dorian, a section of actual modal music. It would then make perfect sense to describe that as starting in C major then changing to D dorian.

If you described the same thing the "chord/scale" system way, it would be - play C ionian, G mixolydian, A aeolian, F lydian, next section play in D dorian - which looks like a whole lot of modal playing rather than playing in one major key C followed by playing in one mode D dorian. I think the later is a much, much better description.

  • I think I'm in way too deep waters at this level of theory. I knew I wasn't at top level knowledge in music theory, but all this seems quite a bit above my level. The main reason I began to search about modes is because in some online lessons instructors talk about modes like it's the most easy thing in the world. There is so much background knowledge needed to comprehend all this. I really appreciate your answer and I'm gonna have to read it through many times over time to really understand it. Thank you, Michael!
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 14:33
  • I think the chart you made for yourself is a good step toward putting all the pieces together. I suggest getting away from the scale rotation concept. And think of what Phoog called parallel changes, like how C minor can become C phrygian. I suggest that because it comes up a lot in harmony. Example, the 'neapolitan' N6 chord, which is often described as having a "phrygian" flavor, because it lowers the ^2 degree of the minor scale, which is the parallel change that make a minor scale become a phrygian scale. Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 12:15

I tried to create a more descriptive post, but it kept changing my note names into chord diagrams ... sometimes ????

Jake Lizzio (Signals Music Studio on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRDDHLvQb8HjE2r7_ZuNtWA/videos) has a video "Demonstrating All 7 Modes in Parallel [MODAL MUSIC THEORY]"

that describes all the modes. He also has a sequence of videos about EACH mode separately, titled "Riffing with Modes". He also posted another couple dozen videos about modes.

I've created two MP3 files that play the same tune, modulated into each mode but keeping the same key center. If you'd like these files, go to Dropbox at



Obviously, if you download these files, scan them for malware before you open them!!!

The first <BRCH.mp3> is the bluegrass tune "Blue Ridge Cabin Home". The second is the old song "Daisy Bell" (aka "Bicycle Built For Two"). Play the MP3 and you'll hear the mode scale, then the tune in that mode. They go in the order: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and then Locrian.

I hope this helps.

  • Thank you. I'm gonna go through his youtube channel to learn!
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 14:35
  • +1 for Jake Lizzio's explanation and videos. They were absolutely key for me to understand modes.
    – JYelton
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 17:22

Another way of thinking about it is this: mode only really matters at the end.. This is perhaps an oversimplification - others are likely to chime in and say I'm missing the point - but try this on for size. You can always deepen your understanding later. If we say that your piece uses the notes in the key of C major (C, D, E, F, G, A and B), then how are any of these following modes any different?

D Dorian: D E F G A B C D
E Phrygian: E F G A B C D E
F Lydian: F G A B C D E F etc.

The answer is, of course, that they are not actually different (yet). If you were writing in a Dorian mode, your melody would tend to rest on D at the end of many phrases and definitely at the end. The rest of the time, your melody would touch many of the other notes. Likewise if you wrote in G Mixolydian. You'd likely end phrases on G, but use all of the other notes.

For your example of a C G Am F progression, you can use all the notes in the scale. Assuming that the song ends on the C chord, your melody would probably end on C as well. So you could consider this as being in the Ionian mode.

I don't really think there is a purpose to mentally changing the mode for each chord of the progression. You'd have to think really quickly and the end result wouldn't be much different.

  • Thank you. Something in your answer made a clicking sound in my head. Honestly, I think it helped me understand something, I just can't explain what.
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 14:43

There are a lot of indepth answers here. We came from the same background where I grew up playing the guitar but never knew what music theory was. I couple play Van Halen eruption but then someone woudl say, play this random chord and i would have no clue what they are talking about. Alot has changed since then and music theory has clicked. I sill try to explain in a way that would of helped me understand it. For simplicity using the most common scale with 7 notes, the natural scale. Starting from one note and ending on its octave is a mode. Looking at a piano middle C for example. You use all the white keys and just played IONIAN aka MAJOR. HERE COMES THE POWER OF MODES: using the same keys but from A to A is AEOLIAN aka MINOR. This means our brains are recieving the same notes but in different order and assigning a completely different feel & mood to it. Its facinating. So there are 5 other emotions you can convey with the natural scale. One of the most extreme? Locrian B to B… why? It causes tention in our brians because our brain wants the note to resolve to either A or C. You can make locrian sound haunted & disturbed which is commonly used in metal. It can get as complicated as you want. This method also applies to the harmonic and melodic scales too. You can also borrow modes from other scales to play over chords from a different scale. There is chord substitution & scale substitution. Jazz heads dive deep in this stuff. I truly love subbing in a different mode over a chord during a solo… Switching from playing Dorian to Aeolian or Lydian to Ionian mid solo over the proper chords can make it sound lile a solo within a solo… you get acclimated to the Dorian notes then all a sudden Aeolian kicks in and it really stimulates the listener. I like throwing some harmonic minor modes of I want a dark / more metal twist over a couple chords as Synister Gates does often. Enjoy your rabbit hole bud!

  • This is definitely a rabbithole! I think one of the things that confuses me in all of this, is that every example is made with C major as the parent and talks about the 7 modes here. But all these modes skips the sharps/flats and with no other example it can seem like we don't want/need the shards/flats anymore. Using the same example again and again unfortunately doesn't help me understand this. I'm a little bit further after this thread!
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 24, 2023 at 14:41

Trying to be as simple/basic as possible: the parent scale gives birth to 6 modes. 7 including itself. That parent scale consists of the diatonic notes from a major key. It's also called the Ionian mode, and its minor version is the relative minor, called the Aeolian mode, consisting, as already said, of exactly the same set of notes.

So where's the difference between the parent scale and its 6 modes? It's basically the 'feel', the 'home point', the 'root'. Let's take C major as the start point, parent scale (B♯ won't really qualify, as it's not a 'proper' scale - C using the same notes, and far, far easier to cope with!)

The Dorian mode of C is D Dorian, which actually uses the same accompanying chords (it does as they're made up from the other diatonic notes). But - because 'home' is D, that makes the 'home' harmony a minor one, namely Dm. So, a piece deemed to be in D Dorian will have a minor sound and feel to it, and the D note, now more important than the original C, gets visited far more. Quite a few folk songs are Dorian.

Probably the next most used is the Mixolydian - in this example G. A major sounding mode, but containing ♭7 (F), giving a more 'rock and roll/ blues' feel, and centring on G rather than C. Used a lot by the Beatles' and most other pop type songs.

I guess the next most used mode would be Lydian, here F Lydian. Compared with the F major scale with B♭, it contains B♮ (a raised 4th), which then gives it a different flavour from the other major modes, while still using M3 (^A).

Tried to solve the problem in layman's terms, without getting too technical!

And yes, each and every key, having its own diatonic scale, will produce its own set of modes - in order, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and the least used Locrian.

  • 1
    I made a mistake writing B#, I meant B minor and have edited my OP. I apologize. So the modes give different feels, where I have always thought of the scales giving different feels. Like a C major is more happy sounding and C minor is more sad. Modes expands my knowledge on this, since these different emotions can happen in the same scale with modes. That's new to me. So if you have a song in lets say B natural minor (just to use a different example than C major). Would you then stick to the same mode the whole song through? My guess is no.
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:36
  • My guess is you can change modes throughout the blocks of a song (verse, chorus etc). So for example the bass would play the Ionian (B minor in this case) in the verse and then change to Dorian in the chorus (C# Dorian)? And can the modes change constantly with the chord progression?
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 8:43
  • Ionian is essentially a major mode, so even in key Bm, that wouldn't be called Ionian. You may consider Bm to have a parent of D major - its relative major. Modes may well change within a song - chorus/verse, etc., but bass would play something that reflects what everyone else is playing!
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:02
  • Thank you. I'm slightly less confused now.
    – sjkn
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:14
  • This might be biased towards what I listen to more often, but I actually think Phrygian is more common than Lydian (assuming only being influenced counts as being in that mode - gosh, I haven't found any music in pure Mixolydian in a long time). I've found music with Phrygian influences in metal (this is plentiful in metal), rock, video game music (more common in battle themes), and even concert band music (this is rare enough that Phrygian is explicitly labelled as such in the piece's title).
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:39

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