I can't seem to find a straight definition for both.

  • 2
    Related question. Commented Feb 14, 2012 at 18:44
  • There is a good difinition about this. "Western harmonic tonality and its origin in ancient greece." 2006 by Nancy Kato.
    – user20195
    Commented Apr 30, 2015 at 14:56

22 Answers 22


A "scale", technically defined, is a sequence of ascending or descending "unit pitches" that form a palette of notes that can be used to form a melody. Most scales in Western music conform to a particular "key"; that is, a sequence of notes that will be "sharp" or "flat" by default. Not all scales have keys; the chromatic scale is a scale of all possible semitone steps used in Western music, while the whole-tone scale is a scale composed of intervals two semitones apart.

Within a particular key, there are 7 notes in a single octave, before reaching the 8th note which is named the same as the first note and is at double the frequency. The seven notes have differing intervals between adjacent notes; sometimes it's one half-step (semitone), while other times it's a whole step (two semitones). The pattern of whole-step/half-step intervals that determine the notes of a key, starting from the note for while the key is named, is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Within a single key, each of those seven notes could be used as the "base" note of an ascending sequence. Each such sequence, created by starting on a different note in the key, is a "mode" of that key, and each mode has a name:

  • Ionian - starts on the "tonic"; the note for which the key is named. In the key of C, the Ionian mode starts on C. This mode is the most common, and colloquially called the "major scale". The pattern is WWHWWWH.
  • Dorian - starts on the next note higher in the key than the tonic (D, in the key of C). WHWWWHW.
  • Phrygian - starts on the note one major third higher than the tonic (E). HWWWHWW.
  • Lydian - starts on the note one perfect fourth higher than the tonic (F). WWWHWWH.
  • Mixolydian - starts on the note one perfect fifth higher than the tonic (G). WWHWWHW.
  • Aeolian - starts on the note one major sixth higher than the tonic (A). In modern music, this mode is also very important, and is referred to as the "natural minor scale". WHWWHWW.
  • Locrian - starts on the note one major seventh higher than the tonic (B). HWWHWWW.

More reading: Wikipedia - Musical Mode

  • 4
    So, can I play the C Aeolian mode while playing in the key of C(major)? Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 21:06
  • 5
    You can; that would be the same as playing in the key of A minor. Within the same key signature, you can start on any of the scale degrees and think of that as your "root note", and then you're playing in a mode. You can even switch between modes mid-piece. For examples, take a look at Bach's fugues, especially the ones in a "minor" key; certain passages will sound "happier" than others, because the motif that forms the fugue is being played up two scale degrees from the root of the key, and thus in the Ionian mode of that key signature.
    – KeithS
    Commented Mar 12, 2012 at 21:30
  • 7
    @Xzoechord: The C Aeolian mode would use the same set of notes as the Eb major key! The A Aeolian mode would use the same set of notes as the C major scale and key. See also music.stackexchange.com/questions/6885/… Commented Sep 14, 2012 at 15:33
  • 2
    Can I just clarify : Playing in A Aeolian is the same set of notes as playing in C Ionian - is the same set of notes as playing F Lydian.. is that correct ? The comment from KeithS seems to be wrong in that case "C Aeolian = A minor" .. it's not it would be like C minor or Eb Major (Ionian) ? @KeithS Brilliant overall answer by the way Commented Jul 14, 2014 at 15:52
  • 5
    @KeithS - the Aeolian of C is not the same as C Aeolian. That's where the discrepancy lies. The Aeolian of C is A natural minor, whereas C Aeolian is an Aeolian mode going from C-C, which will use the 3 flats that belong to Eb major.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 9, 2014 at 18:41

Sorry, but I have to chime in after all this time. The answers given here, while accurate, convey none of the most critical distinctions, nor of how modes sound to the ear in a way different from scales. And how things sound is what music is all about. Otherwise you may as well describe the difference between, say, Leonardo Da Vinci and Claude Monet by talking about the types of pigments each used.

Simply put, the real difference between a mode and a scale is one of tonality. A scale, in Western practice, has a tonal center to which the ear gravitates. The seventh scale step pulls the ear toward the tonic, and chords based on those half-steps feel as if they must be resolved in that direction. The statement I-V-I has a sense of going forth and coming back that is not available, or at least not available in the same way, in modal music. The tonal center in modal music is almost arbitrary and may feel imposed upon it. Given the mode, tendency toward this center ranges from identical (Ionian) to virtually non-existent, or even super-imposed (Locrian). It is this arbitrary nature of modality that gives it a distinct character that can sound so fresh and exciting in jazz and forms of rock music as well as the music of other cultures. Each mode carries with it its own character, while tonal music always uses its own tonal gravity to express the eternal comings and goings of statement and resolution. Beethoven's 9th Symphony, for example, (and Beethoven in general) may be viewed as a thorough exercise in the "complicated simplicity" of this idea.

For a better discussion of this topic than I may hope to render in a few paragraphs here, I encourage you to listen to Leonard Bernstein's master class on this very topic, Here it is on YouTube (updated because of link rot). He covers the physics of modes (scale steps and all that) better than others have done here, but also illuminates the chemistry, which is after all what separates real, organic music from academic discourse.

  • 3
    Um, so what are the critical distinctions between a scale and a mode? I kinda need a simple, bulleted list of the differences or something. Perhaps I need to watch that video! Wow the videos were right at my level (although they could be louder!). Thanks for that! So it's like what's asking the difference between food and fruit, or something (i.e. one is a subset of the other). Commented May 23, 2014 at 13:35
  • Good answer but I would like some clarification on this sentence please - The statement I-V-I has a sense of going forth and coming back that is not available, or at least not available in the same way, in modal music.
    – CurlyPaul
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 11:53
  • @CurlyPaul: There is a sense of resolution to V-I, meaning that the dominant leads the ear back to the tonic once the progression has ventured forth from the "home base" of the tonic. Look at the famous I-V-I of Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (you may recognize it from the opening scene of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey), which is represented programmatically as the "world riddle" (the fact of being born and dying). If one could put that into words, it might be stated as: "I am born, I go forth, I return" (i.e., I am finished, or "I die").
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 12:23
  • Yes there is a definitely a sense of resolution in that sequence, but why is the same sort of feeling not available in modal music? Thank you
    – CurlyPaul
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 13:37
  • Good question but it's a lengthy topic and I don't have time to discuss this just now. You can check out other sources, such as Wikipedia's discussion of tonality.
    – Robusto
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 14:46

A scale is any sequence of ascending (or descending) notes that can be used as an "organizing structure" for a piece of music. There are many types of scales, including diatonic (the "standard" in Western music), chromatic (containing every half note in an octave), whole-tone (containing notes a whole step apart), and pentatonic (which can be formed by taking the twelve tones and “subtracting” a major key; the pentatonic formed by eliminating C major uses the "black" keys on a piano). They can even include quarter-tones and other microtones in the music of other cultures, such as Middle Eastern or gamelan music.

A mode is a very specific type of scale, with origins lying in Ancient Greek music; the names for the modes come from these traditions. Although they may look at times like standard diatonic scales, their origins are very different. For instance, the Lydian mode, which "looks" like C major, is actually F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F rather than C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The difference means that C major is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half, while Lydian mode is whole-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-half. (If transposed to C major, the mode would be C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C.)

A good example to listen to is Bruckner's Os justi meditabitur, which is written entirely in the Lydian mode—but essentially notated in C. It doesn't "sound" like it's in C, though; that's the result of its modal foundation instead of a standard diatonic scale.

  • 2
    "the pentatonic formed from C major uses the 'black' keys on a piano" C pent major uses anything BUT those!! You must be thinking F#.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 7:08
  • @Tim Isn't a pentatonic scale 5 notes, so while you wouldn't be using the "black keys," 2 other notes would also be out, namely F and B?
    – JakeD
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 0:49
  • @JakeD I was actually trying to say a pentatonic scale can be formed by “subtraction” of a major scale from the dodecaphonic scale.
    – aeismail
    Commented Aug 14, 2018 at 2:58

I think some confusion here could be alleviated with a historical perspective. Many of the explanations above talk about present-day relations between the pair of major/minor "scales" and some altered versions of the same notes, reordered, equivalent to "modes" (white notes on the piano = C major scale = A Aeolian mode, D Dorian, etc.). This is doubtless correct in contemporary jazz theory. But there have also been some descriptions of the modes as "arbitrary" or having no tonal center, and that is not quite right, historically speaking.

The "church" modes (of which there were eventually 12) did indeed have tonal centers, just like the major and minor scales, which were, at one time, two of those 12 modes. (As people have noted above, major and minor were once called the Ionian and Aeolian modes.) In fact, modality is where the very notion of the "dominant" and "tonic" comes from: every tone (the old word for mode) used in Western music had both a "tonic" or "final" note and a "dominant" note; in addition, some of the tones had different "ambitus," or range above and (sometimes) below the final, its tonal “center of gravity."

In the first European systems we have record of, there were basically eight tones/modes, named after the Greek tonoi (but wrongly, as it happens -- ask me about that later. :) There were four "authentic" modes: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, often just called Mode I, II, III, and IV. From our contemporary perspective, it is convenient to memorize the modes by considering them as reorderings of the white note "C major" scale, but that scale did not even exist at this time. There were also four "plagal" modes, designated with the prefix Hypo-, as in Hypodorian. (I'm going to leave them largely out of this answer, for space reasons.)

Theorists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance went wild trying to derive all the modes in use from descriptions in rediscovered Greek theoretical texts, figuring out which names went with which notes, etc., but they made a mess of it.

Clear from practical treatises is that musicians basically thought about building modes by overlapping standardized hexachords, six-note scales, whose tones were named according to mnemonic syllables one sang, syllables designed to remind the singers where the half and whole steps were in the melodies they were singing.

UT = C

RE = D

MI = E

FA = F


LA = A

(To find out where the syllables came from, Google "Utqueant laxis.") I bet you recognize some of these singing syllables from ones laid out for the von Trapp kids by Maria in The Sound of Music, by which time "do" had replaced "ut" (easier to sing), and a seventh syllable, "ti," had been added because seven-note major scales had become fundamental to music.

But back in Ye Olden Tymes, there were only the six notes, with a MI-FA half-step in the middle. To sing melodies with a wider range, you shifted from one transposition of the hexachord to another, which was called "mutation." Here's how a medieval singer would have understood how to sing a full eight note scale in the Dorian mode:

  1. You need to start at the place in the hexachord where the MI-FA is between notes two and three. So, begin on RE. RE-MI-FA-SOL (DEFG in modern note names)

  2. Oops, you've reached the end of the hexachord. But your teacher tells you that if you mutate so that the original LA (the modern A) is renamed as RE, you can continue: RE-MI-FA-SOL (ABCD). Reverting to modern notation reminds us as 21st-ct musicians that your MI-FA stayed correct: C to B is also a half-step.

  3. So, in 1400, you would sing the scale from D to d as: RE MI FA SOL RE MI FA SOL.

See how radically different this is from modern scalar thinking? The octave is not important. (The two "D"s are sung to two different syllables!) The Dorian mode was constructed in practice by conjoining two identical tetrachords, each imagined as the center four notes of a hexachord built symmetrically around a single half-step interval: (C)D*EF*G(A) + (G)A*BC*D(E). Thinking about Dorian worked this way because it fit with the way Dorian mode melodies usually went: they would twist around in the lower tetrachord for a while, then move into the upper one, and eventually back down again. The two centers of modal attraction were the bottom note of the lower tetrachord, D, called the "final"; and the bottom note of the upper, A, called the "tenor," the reciting tone, or, sometimes, "the dominant."

You can run the same exercise for the three other authentic church modes, then play around with the ambitus by adding the second tetrachord below the final. Much later, someone figured out that two tetrachords where the MI-FA interval was at the "top" of each tetrachord (UT-RE-MI-FA + UT-RE-MI-FA) could be a mode, too. (It would have been sung: UT-RE-MI-FA-SOL-RE-MI-FA.) It was named Ionian by late Medieval theorists, and eventually, became the basis of the major scale.

But that's another story.

  • Aren't the authentic modes I, III, V, and VI?
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 12, 2021 at 20:17
  • I mean I, III, V, and VII of course.
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 9:20

I'm a composition student at UCLA who is in the process of writing his dissertation, which on one level, has a lot to do with modes - so it's on my mind a lot these days (which led me to this site). Here are my thoughts:

Robert Fink's answer (above) is an excellent answer. This is the type of answer you would get from someone who has studied music for a long time, the type of answer you might expect from a musicologist. Partially I blame music history textbooks for the confusion surrounding "mode" because within the textbook the above answer does exist, but is spread across many chapters and therefor it is somewhat hard to connect the dots, in fact I think many music students would have a difficult time providing an accurate definition of "mode."

It might help to explain the Greek system of modes (tonoi) first since as far as we know this is where it all started (for Western Europe anyway). As I understand it, the ancient Greeks thought of modes as a series of descending tetrachords ("a descending succession of four tones"). We of course think of scales and modes as ascending, which results from medieval scholars misreading ancient Greek texts. There were 3 different tetrachords, which they called "genera": chromatic, diatonic and enharmonic. I'll focus on "diatonic" since it is the tetrachord that most closely resembles our modern-day scale. Diatonic was comprised of 2 descending whole-steps followed by a half. Today, we could think of this as E-D-C-B. According to Ptolemy's "Harmonics," which is possibly the most accurate description of modes (no one has really figured it out 100% of the way), these tetrachords would be connected to form a mode (just like they did in the Middles Ages and Renaissance). Here is the ancient Greek dorian mode: descending E-D-C-B-A-G-F-E: two descending diatonic tetrachords separated by a whole-step. You can see how off the medieval scholars were when they translated the Greek (not that it was their fault, they did their best), our dorian ascending, D-E-F-G-A-B-C-(D) sounds much different than their dorian. The Greek system of modes was very complex so for the sake of time and space, I'll stop there.

The point of the previous (and somewhat tedious - sorry) paragraph, is that perhaps the best way to think of "mode" as it's been used for millennia, is to think of trichords, tetrachords, pentachords, or hexachords that are connected by an interval (like a whole-step or half-step) or that overlap to create a "larger scale-like structure." So dorian as Robert Fink pointed out is two hexachords that overlap, but are really thought of as two tetrachords:

overlapping hexachords: [C-D-E-F-{G-A]B-C-D-E}  which result in
       two tetrachords:    D-E-F-G -A-B-C-D.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, composers started using "synthetic modes" (because they are not derived from the mojor/minor/modal system). The first were whole-tone and octatonic (8-notes). Whole-tone is created by connecting nothing but whole-steps for example: C-D-E-F#-G#-A#-C. Octatonic is created by connecting whole-steps and half-steps or vice versa, for example: C-C#-D#-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C. But, like the Greek and medieval modes, you could also think of them as connected trichords or tetrachords:

whole-tone as trichords: [C-D-E]-[F#-G#-A#]

Octatonic as trichord or tetrachord: [C-C#-D#]-[E-F#-G]-[A-Bb-C] or [C-C#-D#-E]-[F#-G-A-Bb]-[C-C# etc..]

In both, notice that the whole-step (W) half-step (H) interval pattern is maintained: whole-tone - [W,W]-W-[W,W], octatonic - [H,W]-H-[H,W]-H-[H,W] [H,W,H]-W-[H,W,H]. (Note: the two "synthetic modes" above are symmetrical, so they can basically be divided up in any way and still maintain a clear interval pattern - it's what makes them so interesting and so boring).

The hexatonic mode followed somewhat later and is created by alternating half-steps and minor-thirds: C-C#-E-F-G#-A-C and could be divided like this: [C-C#-E-F#]-[G#-A-C-C#] or [H,m3,H]-m3-[H,m3,H]-m3-[H,m3,H] etc…..

Later form the 1920s/30s on, composers like Bela Bartok, Olivier Messiaen Witold Lutoslawski and Henri Dutilleux (among many others) created their own "modes." Lutoslawski for example would have done something like this: P5,M3,m2,P5,M3,m2-etc.

So, I think that in the most generic sense, a mode is "some pattern of intervals, that may or may not be separated by another interval," like the Lutoslawski example, or even something as complex as:


This has in my experience been the way that most of the composers I talk to today conceive of "mode" as a concept. The reason we think of the "dorian mode" as being a C major scale that starts and ends on D is because we have been playing historical "telephone" (like the kids game) for 2500 years; the Greeks say into one end of the telephone in 500 BCE "here is dorian" and 1000 years later western europeans say that it's phrygian and call something else dorian, another 1500 years later Russians and French impressionists and jazz guys say "remember those old scales that started on different degrees of C major, those sounded cool"

So yes, in jazz theory it's appropriate to call all-the-white-notes from D to D "the dorian mode" because that's how they thought of it, but it's not appropriate to think of it that way if you're studying ancient Greek or medieval music - it's all about context.

Lastly, thought's on scale vs. mode. Here are some generalizations that are to some extent, my opinions, or rather how I think of scale vs. mode:

  • scales have a beginning and an end (sort of). C major is based on functional western tonal harmony, that means when you ascend the scale and arrive at B, you're almost at "the end" of the scale "harmonically speaking." Syntactically speaking, B is the last chapter and C is "and they lived happily ever after." If you hit B and stop there, the audience will feel very uncomfortable, think of it as "harmonic edging."

  • modes, if not run through the 19th century, Western European functional harmony model (like they are in Jazz) have no beginning or end, they can keep going in any direction forever.

  • scales have functional degrees. So too do modes, but the system is somewhat more extensively worked out with scales. Modes have a final and a dominant, and melodic patterns as do scales, but scales have a tonic and a dominant, AND a subdominant, mediant, submediant, supertonic and leading tone.

  • modes tend to place more weight on intervals, scales on scale degrees and harmonic function.

Ok. I'm done. I hope this helps and doesn't make things more confusing. It definitely helped me clarify my thoughts on "mode vs scale" before I had to insert them into a section of my dissertation:).

Actually, there is one other way to think of a mode which is a very 20th century way of thinking about it, which is creating modes by "cycling" or "rotating" through all of the degrees of a given scale. This shouldn't be confused with the above explanation, they are related, but different.

Traditionally most people think of a mode as a scale that starts on a different degree of the major scale other than the tonic, so scale degree 2 = dorian, 3 = phrygian, 4 = lydian, 5 = mixolydian, 6 = aeolian, and 7 = locrian. When you do this, you are "cycling" through all the degrees of the major scale. This idea can also be extended to other scales, like the harmonic minor scale and the pentatonic scale. So you can have pentatonic mode 1 (major), pentatonic mode 2, pentatonic mode 3 (minor), pentatonic mode 4 and pentatonic mode 5.

With symmetrical scales such as whole-tone, octatonic, hexatonic (and all of Messiaen's "modes of limited transpositions," some of which are mentioned above), there is no point in thinking about them this way, as for the most part, starting on a different "scale degree" will result in a repetition of the original scale, i.e.: whole tone will always just map onto itself if you start on any "scale degree," octatonic has 2 modes, whole/half or half/whole and the situation is the same for hexatonic.

However, if you create a "synthetic mode" that is not symmetrical, then it is possible to think of it in the same way you might think of a C major scale, and rotate through the various modes in the same way that you can cycle through all of the "modes" of the C major scale.

For example:

Here's my made up mode - m2,m2,m3,M3

This will give you, starting on C: C,C#,D,F,A,A#,B,D,F#,G,G#,B,D# etc.

mode 1: C,C#,D,F,A,A#,B,D,F#,G,G#,B,D#

mode 2: C#,D,F,A,A#,B,D,F#,G,G#,B,D#,E

mode 3: D,F,A,A#,B,D,F#,G,G#,B,D#,E,F


The difference is the order of the intervals, nothing more:

mode 1: m2,m2,m3,M3

mode 2: m2,m3,M3,m2

mode 3: m3,M3,m2,m2

So, mode 1 stacks the small intervals to the left of the tetrachord, mode 2 places them on either side, and mode 3 stacks them to the left.

I'm of the opinion that this doesn't mean a lot unless you can apply some sort of functional harmony to the different modes the way musicians did to the different Impressionist/Jazz modes in the 20th century. Otherwise they are just set classes.


While the terms can be used fairly interchangeably, that only speaks to the practical applications; where each comes from is slightly different.

A scale is an ordered sequence of notes with a start and end. A mode is a permutation upon a scale that is repeatable at the octave, such that the start and end points are shifted.

For example, the major scale is repeatable at the octave. Since it contains seven distinct pitch classes within the space of an octave, there are seven possible modes on the major scale. These are known as the church modes, and have different names like Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian, Lydian, etc.

Major pattern in half/whole steps:


2nd mode of major (Dorian) in half/whole steps:


Modes in general, however, are not limited to this. You can extend the definition to other octave-repeatable scales. For example, consider the harmonic minor scale. Its pitches don't line up with those in the major scale or any of its modes, but the scale is repeatable at the octave. You can play in modes of the harmonic minor scale.

Harmonic minor pattern in half/whole/aug (augmented 2nd) steps:


5th mode of harmonic minor in half/whole/aug steps


Obviously, when you take a mode of a scale, the result is still an ordered sequence of notes; so you can call a mode a scale. And, for all scales that are octave-repeatable, you could, if you like, refer to them as modes. But for the reasons stated above, they are -not- the same in how they are generated. It is possible to have a scale that is not octave-repeatable (that takes up more notes than can be fit into an octave), but all modes come from a particular named scale (including the 1st mode of each scale, which is isomorphic to the scale).

  • Could you please explain your last para. to me. Octave as in 8 notes, or octave as in the next highest note of the same name, i.e. 2x frequency. Or do you mean a scale which has extra notes that .....I'm confused !
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 14:11
  • 1
    A scale that is octave-repeatable has a pattern that repeats itself at every 2x frequency note, or note with the same name in a different octave. It is possible to have a scale that is not octave-repeatable, that instead repeats at an interval larger or smaller than an octave. Say, WHWHHWHH -- this would repeat at the major 7th. If I knew more about indian music I'd be able to speak with more authority about what might be considered a mode (or not) of that, but in typical western parlance, we only consider modes to be permutations of octave-repeatable note sets.
    – NReilingh
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 15:22

I miss the fundamental distinction between scale and mode in the answers here. A scale is an ordered set of notes (usually functionally repeating after an octave). A mode is the harmonic framework built from it. The difference is similar to that of floor tiles and a floor. Even if the floor contains nothing but floor tiles, it is conceptually different from the constituting tiles.

A mode is basically what you get from making musical and harmonic sense of a scale, putting the notes into relation with each other focused on the respective tonic, and using the various notes of the scale to build a harmonic framework.


Think of C Major:

C D E F G A B.

Notice how there are 7 notes.

There are 7 modes in a scale, one for each note of the scale.

Modes are the scale, starting from a different note. In this instance, C Major is the parent scale and all the modes are derived from it.

So using the notes of C Major we get:

C Ionian (The same exact thing as C Major) D Dorian E Phyrgian F Lydian G Mixolydian A Aeolian (The same exact thing as A Minor) B Locrian

In theory, if I play D E F G A B C D and the key of the song is in C Major, then I'm playing in D Dorian. However, actually using modes is a bit more complicated. There's as much theory with them as any other aspect of music. This is just an overview of what they are. In fact, you can spell modes relating them to major scales, which gives you formulas that you can use to make modes on the fly.

Try to stay with me.

So if I have D Dorian in C Major, I can think of it as D Dorian in C Major. But what if I don't know what the key is, or I don't know what the mode is? This is where parallel majors come in handy.

Parallel majors are just the major scale of whatever mode/scale you're playing in. So if I'm in D Minor, D Major is the parallel major. G Lydian's parallel major is G Major.

So let's say I have a lot of notes:


And I don't know the key of the song. I can compare this to the parallel major just to see how it's different, and this will tell me which mode it is because every mode has its own formula, which make it unique. The notes of F Major:

F G A Bb C D E F

So comparing the notes that we had before to F Major, we realize we have a #4 (Bb to B). Lydian is the mode that has a #4, so the first group of notes I had was F Lydian!

You can repeat this process for any mode. In fact, I recommend spelling each mode against its parallel major to understand how they're different yet the same. Here's each formula for the 7 diatonic modes of the major scale:

Ionian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (This is just the major scale)

Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 7 (So D Dorian differs from D Major because D Dorian has a flat 3 and 6 while D Major doesn't)

Phyrgian: 1 b2 3 4 5 b6 7

Lydian: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Aeolian: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 (This is just the natural minor scale)

Locrian: 1 b2 3 4 b5 b6 7


I think the musical answers already given are the most useful, but the dictionary answers may also be informative. From the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) we get:

Scale: Any of the graduated series of sounds into which the octave is divided, the sounds varying according to the system of graduation adopted.

Mode: A scheme or system specifying the disposition in a scale of the constituent notes of a melody or harmony; spec. each of a conventionally agreed set of such schemes or systems.

The OED also notes each word's first recorded use (with this meaning). For 'scale' it comes in T. Morley's 1597 'Plaine & Easie Introd. Musicke', where he writes "Here is the Scale of Musicke"; while for 'mode' it is C. Simpson's 1667 'Compend. Pract. Musick' where he writes "That which the Grecians called Mode or Mood". The next printed occurrence for 'mode' listed in the OED is A. Malcolm's 1721 'Teat. Musick" where he writes "I would propose the Word Mode, to express the melodious Constitution of the Octave"


Assuming everyone is oriented to what music is for most practical purposes of the "western" world (which is code for European and Caucasian), scales are groups of notes whose absence of some of the notes which leaves spaces called intervals gives the scale its identity (regardless of octave where each repeats or key).

Modes are said to be scales too, but they are not if your definition of a scale is that all its notes are always sounded and the intervals between notes that are kept quiet. Modes then are the accounting for specific the possibilities of notes moved into those intervals which are now played (although not usually linearly)--each or which gives the scale it own NEW modal identity. Since there really aren't that many notes on a "western" instrument where the system of tones and semitones is only practical to be voice within a few perceptible octaves, modes are an identification system of sound for every scale where there is an interval to be shortened or lengthened. Modes unharness music to allow for new realms of character and individual style and signature of a composure or improvisationalist including dissonance. But unlike scales, it is almost never so that one plays a mode in its entirety completely linearly. I can sound like a mistake if not used deliberately to take the music in a new direction.


A mode is a type of scale.

Consider a Diatonic scale. For each tone in the scale (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7), you get a different mode when you start on that note.


The seven inversions of the major scale are the modes. So every mode is a scale; but not every scale is a mode (eg. the harmonic minor scale is not a mode).

The seven modes starting with C are (watch the half-steps ripple across)

C   D   E F  G   A   B C  Ionian mode  (major scale)  
         h            h  
C   D E♭  F  G   A B♭  C  Dorian mode   (enharmonic to B♭ major)
     h            h  
C D♭  E♭  F  G A♭  B♭  C  Phrygian mode  (== A♭ major)
 h            h  
C   D   E  F♯ G  A   B C  Lydian mode  (== G major)
             h        h  
C   D   E F   G   A B♭  C  Mixolydian mode  (dominant scale)  (== F major)
         h         h  
C   D E♭  F   G A♭  B♭  C  Aolian mode (natural minor scale)  (== E♭ major) 
     h         h  
C D♭  E♭  F G♭  A♭  B♭  C  Locrian mode  (== D♭ major)
 h         h  
  • 2
    To confuse things further, you can have modes of scales other than the major scale, e.g. the fifth mode of harmonic minor is similar to the so called Spanish gypsy scale (raises 7th). Commented Sep 17, 2012 at 20:45
  • 1
    So, you are saying that the harmonic minor is not a mode, (it's a scale), whereas the Ionian mode is a scale (the major), i.e both ? How can that be?
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 7:05
  • That is what I am/was saying. But perhaps it is wrong. Now that you raise the question, I doubt what I thought I knew. ... I always thought of mode like modus operandi, like it was the use of the material of scale pieces. ... Hmm. that doesn't lead anywhere.... Commented Jun 24, 2017 at 16:54

Aeismail's answer is confusing - using the black notes on the piano will give either F# maj.pent (Gb maj pent.) or D# min.pent (Eb min pent). However, all the basic modes (dorian, mixolydian etc., ) are still scales - groups of notes that work with each other- but the only modes that are scales as we know them are the Ionian as in major, and the Aeolian as in the natural minor. It's interesting that a composer may state 'this is in D dorian, then writes in the key of Cmaj !! Also don't be messed up with the other naming method - the dorian OF C is in fact, D dorian !!


A scale is a set of notes. For instance, the D Dorian scale contains the notes D, E, F, G, A, B, C, and D.

A mode is a scale or scales with musical functions attached to the notes. For example, the Dorian mode of Gregorian chant (sample here) has

  • D is the tonic
  • A is the reciting note (listen 1:34)
  • B is often replaced by B-flat, especially in progressions leading downward to A.
  • The remaining notes are unstable and gravitate toward the lower D.

For another example, the minor mode of classical music consists of natural, harmonic, and melodic forms with downward and upward tendencies attached to the 6ths and 7ths.

  • Most notes have functions attached, in scales too. Leading notes in maj. and harmonic (and melodic)min. Maj. or min. 3rds.If D is the tonic, and there are Bb notes, it's not Dorian any more - it's D minor.
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 14:21

I propose the following to encompass the modern usage of these words in western music theory:

A FREQUENCY is a fixed number of vibrations per unit time.

A NOTE is a finite or infinite set of frequencies.

A MODE is a fixed set of notes.

A SCALE is a fixed set of modes.

There are two ways to designate a note: alphabetical and scientific. The alphabetical notation does not assign a fixed frequency to the note but rather stands for every possible frequency. In distinction, scientific notation assigns a specific frequency to a specific note. Thus C stands for any and every C possible while C0 specifically identifies 16.35 Hz from the infinite possibilities.

A mode is thus defined as a collection of seven notes. Notice that by our prior definition, this means that a mode can reflect an infinite set (CDEFGABC) or a finite set (C0D0E0...), but the fact that it is a collection of prior definied notes stays the same.

Likewise, a scale is defined as a collection of seven modes. Regardless if you consider notes or modes finite or infinite, the definition of a scale will still apply.

As a final note (pun intended), mode and scale are often interchangeable and one is free to switch the definition around. But if a scale is designated as a set of notes, for example, then the mode automatically becomes a collection of scales (a definition I personally find awkward). Notice also that pitch is not on the list. This is because the scientific notation of a note is the same as pitch and thus in my opinion there is no need for an extra term aside from note to distinguish this collection.

  • 1
    Your definitions don't work for the chromatic scale and other non-heptatonic and calling a scale a set of modes really don't make any sense.
    – Dom
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 17:24
  • Thank you, you are correct. I can remove the "seven-element" condition and then it would fall in line with dodecatonic (a 12-note, one mode scale), hexatonic (the 6-note one mode whole-tone scale) and even octotonic (an 8-note, 2 mode scale, the whole-half/half-whole scale) . Thanks! Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 17:26
  • 1
    "calling a scale a set of modes really don't make any sense." - Think of it in the sense of the Major Scale has seven modes: ion, dor, lyd, myx, aeo, phr, and loc. These seven modes define what the Major Scale is abstractly, in no key, as much as CDEFGAB defines the Major Scale absolutely, in a specific key. Thus a Scale "has" Modes is more personally confromable than Scale "is" Mode (since there is only one Major Scale but Seven Mode) or Mode "has" Scales (which is awkward to me as to Ionian and Dorian and etc all "having" the Major scale...) Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 17:30
  • 1
    No, a scale is not defined by the modes. Modes are more of a relationship between different patterns as when you start a scale pattern on different scale degrees you have a much different sound/feel. A key can also use many different scales while sill being in the key for example it's pretty common for something in a minor key to go between the natural, melodic, and harmonic minor scales. If I say I'm playing a C major scale, it's pretty clear C is the root and the other notes clearly define this. The modes don't come into play unless you want to shift what you see as root.
    – Dom
    Commented Aug 7, 2016 at 21:24
  • " A key can also use many different scales while sill being in the key " -- that is correct, yet I don't see how this observation affects the organization I presented. My organization is key-independent; in other words what we call a mode or a scale should not depend on which key we are in. As an example, C Myxolydian and G Myxolydian are in different keys but that doesn't change the Myxolydian "flat seven" nature of the Mode nor that you are stillin the Major Scale. Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 0:03

A "mode" is simply a scale that has been altered in some way. The unaltered natural major scale is playing in Ionian mode. The unaltered natural minor scale is playing in Aeolian mode. The other modes can be constructed by altering the natural minor or major scales.

For example the Phrygian mode can be formed by a natural minor scale with a flattened 2nd.

A good explanation of this is given here: http://www.mandolincafe.com/niles2.html


All modes are scales but not all scales are modes. All scales try to achieve is to give you a series of notes that are a set pattern of whole tones and semi tones apart.

Take the Major scale for instance. This scales has two semi tones that are between 3/4 and 7/8 scale degrees. It does not matter on which note you start from if your semitones are at that place you have yourself a Major scale.

A mode is just a scale with the semitones in an unusual place. Dorian for instance has its semitones in between 2/3 and 6/7. It has the unresolved feeling to it because the leading tone is a whole tone from the tonic (Which is the antithesis of virtually all western music traditions). The same is true of Modes you can in this case start on any note and as long as your semi tones are where I mentioned you will have a Dorian.

They need to be consider in the same way you would consider any other scale.


A scale is an ordered set of notes, usually defined by a starting note and a pattern of intervals. For example, the C major ascending scale starts at the note “C” and follows the “major scale” pattern: tone–tone–semitone–tone–tone–tone–semitone. The starting note is called the tonic, first degree, or key of the scale, depending on context.

In modern music, a mode is a scale that belongs to a group of scales with related interval patterns. This is easiest to see with the diminished scale, an octatonic scale that only has two modes:

  • tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone
  • semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone–semitone–tone

Notice that this is essentially the same pattern, but the first mode starts with the tone, and the second mode starts with the semitone. If you change the first degree and the mode in parallel, you get two scales with the same notes but a different starting point. For example:

  • C–D–D♯–F–F♯–G♯–A–B (C diminished, mode I)
  • D–D♯–F–F♯–G♯–A–B–C (D diminished, mode II)

You can apply the same principle to the major scale, which has seven modes. All of these modes of the major scale use the same notes, but a different first degree:

  • C–D–E–F–G–A–B (C Ionian/mode I)
  • D–E–F–G–A–B–C (D Dorian/mode II)
  • E–F–G–A–B–C–D (E Phrygian/mode III)
  • F–G–A–B–C–D–E (F Lydian/mode IV)
  • G–A–B–C–D–E–F (G Mixolydian/mode V)
  • A–B–C–D–E–F–G (A Aeolian/mode VI)
  • B–C–D–E–F–G–A (B Locrian/mode VII)

Note that when you start at the sixth degree and sixth mode of the major scale, you get the relative minor key, which has the same key signature. Likewise, if you start at the third degree and third mode of a natural minor scale, you get the relative major key.

Any scale with a mixture of intervals in its pattern will have modes like this. Common modal scales have names, like the Lydian scale for the fourth mode of the major scale or the Phrygian dominant scale for the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale.

  • So, are you saying that a half/whole diminished is a scale or a mode, and why? Same for whole/half dim.Modal scales, scalar modes - what's that?
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 29, 2014 at 14:26

After reading all the comments, I'm feeling so thankful to have known such great things. Though there is nothing much to add from here but I'd still like to add a little which I feel has some importance while going through the concept of modes. This is just to ease out the perceived complexity of modes and their application in practical guitar playing.

As we know that the major scale notes are spread out across the fretboard and we classify them into 5 positions as per the CAGED mechanism. No matter where we play a major scale on guitar across the positions and no matter which note we start or end it with, a major scale remains a major scale. So either we play a C Maj scale from C to C or from A to A, it remains a C Maj scale. Just by playing a C Maj scale from A doesn't make it an A Aeolion as a large number of guitarists tend to believe. The real decisive factor here is not which note we start our major scale with. The decisive factor is the backing track.

Now, as we know that there are 7 modes 'of' a major scale namely Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian; each starting with each of the seven notes of the major scale. So the C Maj scale has 7 modes on each of its notes which I named earlier. I don't feel that if we start and end C Maj scale on C then its C Ionian and if we start and end C Maj scale on d then its D Dorian. We have to see it in the following way. If a C Maj scale is played, no matter in what order, on a C Maj backing track then its C Ionian. If a C Maj scale is played, no matter in what order, on a D minor backing track then its D Dorian and so on and so forth.

So the main factor is the backing track. For example, if we play an F Maj scale on A minor backing track then its A Phrygian as A note is the third note in F maj scale. Further, we don't have to learn separate positons for modes. Lets say we want to play B Locrian. Now all you we to think of is that of which major scale, B comes at 7th position. And the answer is C Maj. So all we have to do is to play C Maj scale on a backing track of B diminished and we get your B Locrian. And we already know the major scale postions. That's the way I see it. Looking forward to the reviews of fellow friends here.

  • You appear to be mixing up a 'scale' with 'notes that work in a particular key'. They're not the same.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 25, 2015 at 18:05

One very minor point: while the Ionian mode uses the same notes as the major scale, it doesn't always work the same way harmonically. An example: the medieval English canon "Sumer is icumen in" is based on alternating C major and d minor triads- there's no dominant chord on G, so it has a rather different feeling than a piece in C major. This is true of many Ionian pieces, so a (slight) distinction should be made between Ionian and major.


I've been trying to figure out how modes apply to musical scales. The problem for me personally, is that the explanations get too technical, with all the explanation of interval differences, history of modes etc. Here is what I found works for me. When you listen to a song theres usually a backing rhythm playing a chord progression...So pick a key, any key and then pick a chord progression. Your leads or solos will be played over those chords. If you listen to a song that is played in perfect harmony the rhythm guitar will play a chord and a lead player will play the note that corresponds with the chord. For example, C major chord, the lead starts on a C note. This is known as Ionian mode. But if the you play that same C major chord and start your lead on an E note, it becomes Phrygian mode. Now here is the fun stuff...I dont know one guitarist that plays leads chromatically. They all improvise and that is how you get a quality of ascending, descending...its what I called music to my ears because the "feel" captures you. So, if you focus on the intervals of each mode its not going to take you anywhere, because the intervals dont really change. Yes you might go from WWHWWWH on the C scale to HWWWHWW on the E scale but the notes in the scale never change. If you're playing along to a C-D-G chord progression then you can use the new note interval to figure out which notes become the root note for the chords that are played in the progression. So your lead roots become E over the C chord, F over the D chord and B over the G chord. I'm not suggesting that I play this, I'm just using C major as an example. I dont really know how this would sound. But, each mode creates a whole new quality to the leads over chords. If you dont have backing guitars, do it over bass notes.


If you understood the answers previously presented here, it is likely you already understand enough music theory to have not asked the question in the first place. I'm assuming you know very little music theory and are just looking for a working knowledge of the terms modes and scales. I will attempt to provide a non music theory-like sounding explanation. This is not an attempt to insult anyone with an elementary answer, but I feel if I explain the concepts like I'm turning in papers to impress the Professor of Music Theory, the novice still won't get a satisfying answer. This is not to suggest the various answers are incorrect, they're fine, I just think the original poster probably won't understand the answers if he/she is a newbie to music theory. I think perhaps I can provide a general response, or intro answer, THEN the poster can go back and look at the various well thought out and detailed answers listed here.

For the most part the terms scales and modes are interchangeable. In Western music we consider certain 12 tones the Mother of all tones for creating our music. We list these 12 tones in order of ascending/descending pitches. We call this pitch order a scale, the chromatic scale. We then determined that we didn't need ALL the 12 tones AT THE SAME TIME to produce say a song, or melody. So, we went pitch by pitch, and asked what are all the other pitches that work well with this one? For example, if we took the pitch C, what are the other "usable" notes/pitches that will sound harmonic with C? A formula was devised to figure this out based on a series of whole tones and half tones. The result was that they started out with a single pitch, and then added only six other pitches to create a family of 7 pitches. This was done for all 12 pitches, and thus creating a unique, or new family of pitches.

Let's summarize exactly what has happened. We started out with a slate of 12 raw or aboriginal tones from a scale. We then MODIFIED that singular chromatic scale of 12 tones, by throwing out some tones and thus creating a new adjusted set, or new family of 7 tones. This was done, tone by tone. So, what do we call these MODIFICATIONS of the chromatic scale? We could call them "modifications," or "tonal adjustments," or say "abridged tonals, or whatever. The winner is the word "scale." Thus now we have specialist groupings of notes designed to evoke certain "moods."

But wait, what if we wanted to create even more specific note groupings that can provide yet even more and exotic tonal details and moods? We can, and we did. We then took the existing Major Scale (C) and further MODIFIED that scale! Yes, we MODIFIED an already MODIFIED scale. Any suggestions as to what we might call these new MODIFIED scales? These additional modifications of the major scale simply moved all the other pitches where the C existed. For example the 4th degree of scale C (CDEFGAB) is F, (C is the first, and D is the second, etc.) and if in the C major scale your tonal root if F (instead of C) then you're in the Lydian "mode." I know that sounds awkward, but when you make these movements and MODIFICATIONS to an existing scale you call them just that--Modifications. Thus Modification F, Modification G, Modification B, etc. These are scales within a scale, or just a subset scale of major scale C. The word "scale" is already used, so how about "Modification," or better yet let's just abbreviate it and call it "mode." I did this simply on my own initiative. We could call these scale subsets say "Major Scale C, subset D etc." since they ARE scales, but that's rather confusing and not very sexy! To pay homage to the ancient Greeks for their contributions to music we gave each of these "mode"fications of the major scale a Greek name.

I don't know if you will find in music theory that the term "mode" is just a short way of saying modification, but that's what these modes are, modifications of a scale. It is easier to think of them that way, though not necessarily for word origin accuracy. All the major/minor scales are modes. They are modifications of the chromatic scale. All the "modes" are, well modes, they are modifications of the major scale. The chromatic scale is not a mode, it is only a scale, while the others are modes. They are ALL scales, however. The chromatic scale are the parents. The major/minor scale are modes, or children of the chromatic scale. The modes (Greek) are children of the C major scale, (it is a mode too) thus they are the grandchildren of the chromatic scale.

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