I've been playing guitar for almost 12 years now. I had never really gotten into what is described as 'modal playing'; I tried years ago and it seemed so hopelessly complicated that I abandoned it.

Recently I returned to the topic, curious if my experience through the years has changed my understanding. Surprisingly, I found that (from what I understood) the concept is actually extremely simple.

Consider the following 3-note per string major scale:


This is known as the Ionian mode. Playing these same notes (compensating at the higher end to make it a full two octaves) starting at the second scale degree gives you Dorian, third gives you Phrygian and so forth.

People write about 'playing in the right mode' against specific chords -- is there anything to this other than simply emphasizing a particular note? Is there some fundamental knowledge that I'm missing that transforms this into something bigger, or is 'modal playing' really just emphasizing a particular note compared to the accompaniment behind it?


Yes, the concepts are simple. Each mode keeps the tonality of the diatonic parent scale but starts / ends on different notes. For example:

Parent Scale / Ionian - C D E F G A B C

Dorian - D E F G A B C D

Phrygian - E F G A B C D E

etc through all of the other scale degrees.

When people discuss "playing in the right mode", they are talking about using harmony / scales for the situation. Let's look at how we can apply our knowledge of modes to playing / creating music.

Ex. Scale - C D E F G A B C

From our Ionian scale, we can derive our three most common chords: C (I)(CEG), F (IV)(FAC), and G (V)(GBD). If the rhythm guitarist played that chord progression, you could use the Ionian scale to solo over all the changes. Or, to further your playing, you could "play" the changes. This means that while using the Ionian mode, you emphasize appropriate chord tones during that same chord in the progression. Let's take a look in Mixolydian mode.

Ex. Scale - G A B C D E F G (Mixolydian)

Our "I" chord is G (GBD), "IV" is C (CEG), and "V" is Dm (DFA).

Let's say our chord progression went like this: I-V-IV-I

On "I" you would emphasize the notes GBD, on "V", DFA, and on "IV", CEG.

Now, how to know when to play in the right mode. All it takes is a little more analysis on your part. Analyze the chord and see which scale fits the chord the best. Example:

Dm7 = D F A C Scale = D Dorian (D E F G A B C D)

Fm11 = F Ab C Eb G Bb Scale = F Dorian (F G Ab Bb C D Eb F)

n.b. Aeolian would also work here just fine and give you a little extra flavor in your playing with the altered sixth degree added.

Em7(b9) = E G B D F Scale = E Phrygian (E F G A B C D E)

You can also use chromatic approach notes to smooth chord changes. For example, if going from Fm11->Em7(b9), you could use F aeolian, scoot Db->D->Eb->E->F chromatically to join the two chords and create some tasty dissonance.

  • Just a thought. Would, for example, D Dorian 'keep the tonality of the diatonic parent scale' (1st para.), - C major - or take on its own tonality more leaning towards D minorish? – Tim Jul 9 '15 at 8:20
  • @Tim Great question. The aural implication would definitely lean towards D minorish. My statement about "keeping the tonality" was specific to the idea that to play modes in a given key, you shouldn't have to alter anything (e.g. non-diatonic notes). So, while the Final and tonal center are shifted to the new note, the overall tone-region would stay relatively the same. – jjmusicnotes Jul 9 '15 at 17:02
  • When you say 'play modes in a given key' I guess you mean parent key. For me, a lot of modal stuff can easily gravitate towards the parent major key, often only needing that V or V7 to tip the balance. Tone-region/tonal centre/tonality - synonyms? – Tim Jul 9 '15 at 17:09
  • @Tim Yes, parent key. All seven modes with parent scale being C Ionian, for example. Same tonal region, 6 additional tonal centers. You're correct, this is one reason why musica ficta was common practice for many years. "Tone-region" is like your neighborhood. "Tonal center" is like your house. "Tonality" is like the fact you live in a house, as opposed to outdoors. – jjmusicnotes Jul 9 '15 at 21:49

You are right in the way modes can be explained. Using Ionian as a basis - the full major as we know it now, sounds 'right' when we start and finish on the root note/chord. When we use the same set of notes, but use the 6th note/chord as 'home', we think of being in a minor key. This actually often has a sharpened leading note, which makes the change back to 'home' more convincing. It also stops it being the Aeolian mode, and makes it either harmonic or melodic minor.

Each mode will sound major or minor, depending on its 3rd. Dorian and Phrygian are minor. Lydian and Mixolydian are major.

Modal music works pretty well like what we're used to, starting from 'home' and ending there too. So, yes, reference 'home' often, and keep away from the almost inevitable push that may well lead back to the parent key. As in G Mixolydian, the dominant 7th sound tries to push back to the parent key of C major. As with Aeolian, most of the modes have no semitone away from tonic leading note, so it's not quite so convincing getting 'home'.

Listen to a lot of Celtic music - using Dorian and Mixolydian modes, to hear how it works.

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