I was wondering if someone could explain to me the correct way to play and use modes. some websites that I use to teach myself about them say that (in relation to C major) the Dorian would simply be:


And Phrygian would be :


And so on. But other sites I use say that the Dorian mode would be :

C D Eb F G A Bb

And the Phrygian mode would be :

C Db Eb F G Ab Bb

Could someone clarify what the difference between these two things are? Additionally, if I'm playing over chords and it changes from a Cmaj chord to a some other chord, like Dmaj, would I be able to play notes from C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian (and so on), and when it changed, just switch to D Ionian and so on? Are there any special rules if I'm playing over minor chords, 7th, suspended, 9th, diminished, augmented or whatever else?

for example, in Autumn Leaves in Em, would I be safe playing A ionian, B Dorian, C Phrygian and so on for the first bar (A7), and D Ionian and so on for the second bar (D7)? Thank you in advance to whomever answers this.

5 Answers 5


There's always going to be confusion over the naming of modes. C Dorian isn't the same as the Dorian of C. Thus the question. C Dorian is the C major scale, with 3rd and 7th flattened. Because it comes from the parent key of Bb, with a Bb and Eb in the key sig. The Dorian of C, however, uses C major scale notes, and the scale goes from D to D. Thus no 'accidentals', as C has none.

Autumn Leaves, incidentally, in Em, the first bar will be Am, so you'd use A Aeolian up to the second bar, D7, where D Mixolydian would fit. They're not the only scale/mode notes, though...


The simplest explanation of the modes is that you play a scale from a different starting note. In the C major scale, if you start the scale from the second note, D, you'll get D E F G A B C D, which is the D Dorian mode. If you start the scale from the third note, E, you'll get E F G A B C D E, which is the E Phrygian mode. Notice that in both of these examples I didn't deviate at all from the C major scale; all the notes used do belong in that scale. I just took a different starting point each time.

The other sites that mention the Dorian mode is C D Eb F G A Bb are trying to show you the differences between the C major scale (or Ionian mode) and the C Dorian mode. As mentioned above, the Dorian mode is a major scale, but with the second note as the starting point. So, the C Dorian mode would be in the Bb Major scale, in which scale we have Bb and Eb as the key signature; it all adds up.

Starting all the modes from C, will help understand what is different in each mode compared to the major scale. The C major scale is C D E F G A B C and the C Dorian mode is C D Eb F G A Bb C. So, you can see that in order to create a Dorian mode, you can simply take a major scale, flat the third and the seventh and there you have it! Similarly you can work for all the other modes.

Additionally, if I'm playing over chords and it changes from a Cmaj chord to a some other chord, like Dmaj, would I be able to play notes from C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian (and so on), and when it changed, just switch to D Ionian and so on?

This purely depends on the context. In the major scale, both the I and the IV (Ionian and Lydian modes respectively) are maj7th chords. So, if you meet a maj7th chord, you'll have to try and realize what kind of scale you are playing in. To do this, you'll have to look at the previous and the next chords, as well as the melody.


It seems like you understand what the various modes so I’ll touch on another aspect of modes; colour. Each mode is associated with a specific type of chord. We’ll use C major just to make it easy to understand.


C Lydian: C D E F# G A B (major mode)
C Ionian: C D E F G A B (major mode since we can clearly see the CEG from C major in it).
C Mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb (major mode)
C Dorian: C D Eb F G A Bb (minor mode since we can see CEbG which makes up C minor).
C Aeolian: C D Eb F G Ab Bb (minor mode)
C Phrygian: C Db Eb F G Ab Bb (minor mode)
C Locrian: C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb (diminished mode)

This is the order of modes from brightest to darkest. The Lydian mode is has the signature #4, which makes it very bright. Each mode has a signature tone that makes it unique. Note, we can also extend each mode to be used with 7th chords.

C Lydian - C major 7
C Ionian - C major 7
C Mixolydian - C7
C Dorian - Cm7
C Aeolian - Cm7
C Phrygian - Cm7
C Locrian - Cm7b5 a.k.a C half-diminished

Modes & Chord Progressions

Let’s take a look at using modes in the context of a chord progression. Modes/scales go together with chords, which means that the notes of the scale or mode are found in the current chord that we’re playing. Our chord progression will be in the key of C and is as follows:

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Since the first chord is major, we can use any of the major modes to solo over top of it: C Lydian or C Ionian. Note, using C Ionian will simply keep all of the notes in the scale of C major, but C Lydian will sound a bit more exotic due to the #4. Chord 2 is A minor, which means we’ll use any of the minor modes: A Dorian, A Phrygian or A Aeolian. Of course, A Aeolian is simply all of the notes from the scale of C major. I’ll skip chord 3, since it’s the same as chord 2, but with D as the root. Chord 4 is G7, which is a dominant 7th chord. For this chord, we’ll use the Mixolydian mode, which would be G Mixolydian. Please note, this is a simplistic view for using modes and scales with chords.

For instance, the last chord in the example was G7. We can use any scale that contains a G, B, D and F. Here are a few below:

1) Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G
2) Half-Whole Diminished Scale: G Ab A# B C# D E F G (notice how it contains G B D and F)
3) Altered Scale: G Ab A# B C# Eb F G (the 5th, D, is not commonly listed, but it’s a “hidden” tone of the scale)

  • David, you're completely right! I messed up the order when I was typing it. Aeolian is brighter for sure! Thanks for pointing that out. You're also right that ranking them in order of brightness is not really necessary. I just thought that some people may find it interesting to note, just like I did when I was taught about the brightness of various modes.
    – 02fentym
    May 7, 2017 at 4:37
  • Yes, I agree with you 100%. It's a great tool for learning to hear what they sound like.
    – 02fentym
    May 7, 2017 at 14:17

One approach is to treat modes as flavours: If the chord is major, you have the flavours of ionian, lydian and Mixolydian. If the chord is minor , you have the flavours of dorian, phrygian, aeolian and locrian. As in cooking, mode you choose will depend on taste.

For this answer, the modes are identified in the jazz way: D dorian= defgabcd and would work over a D minor, Dmin7, D min9 etc

  • 1
    Put another way - if the third of a mode is a m3, then the mode is minor. if it's M3, then it's major.
    – Tim
    May 7, 2017 at 14:48

To simplify modes: modes aren't really all that difficult if they're explained correctly: Im gonna try to do that. Overall means what degree in the major scale you're gonna emphasize Example taking the key of C major And you wanna emphasize the second degree which is the note D The second note in the key of C Here's the C major C D E F G A B C. Starting at the 2nd.degree D build The scale D E F G A B C D. We just created the Dorian mode. To create the Phrygian, start at the 3rd. degree of C major, which is the note E, so - E F G A B C D E, and we have the Phrygian mode - just put in your sharps and flats list of all the modes order 1.Ionian. 2.Dorian. 3.Phrygian. 4. Lydian. 5.Mixolydian. 6.Aeolian. 7. Locrian.

Same thing with all the modes: take the Lydian mode, just start at the 4th degree of the C major scale which is F. And build the scale F G A B C D E.. so you're still in the key of C you're just emphasizing another degree of the scale, kinda the same thing when looking at the minor scale or the relative minor which is the 6th degree of the major scale, just in a different root or tonic note which makes the minor scale a mode of the major scale. Which is why the natural minor scale is referred to as the Aeolian mode.

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