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By "non-standard" I mean all the modes other than Ionian and Aeolian.

By "how are they used", I'm referring to how often when I discuss modes I'll end up hearing something along the lines of "Phrigian(or whichever) is used in jazz". What I'd like to know is something along those lines for each, but also how. I understand that many aren't used much anymore, so that's why I added the "were" to the question.

  • Personally, I don't really see any use for the different modes other than possibly as a tool to help you learn diatonic scales in several positions (on guitar for example). I mean, all the A Phrygian mode is is an F major scale played starting on the third note. When I was in music school, I figured out that for me at least, it didn't make any sense to look at the modes as anything other than different ways to play a major scale. – mikeford Mar 18 '17 at 17:56
  • @mikeford I remember when I saw modes like that and then I started studying jazz. Modes are incredibly powerful tools. See my answer below. – 02fentym Mar 19 '17 at 2:29
  • Well, all I can say is that I have a degree in jazz theory and composition and I find the concept of modes completely worthless. A Aeolian, G Mixolydian, E Phrygian, - all I see is the C major scale and by seeing it all in terms of key centers it helps enable me to bypass the thinking process and play from heart to instrument without the impediment of thought. If it works for you that's great. For me, it just complicates what I consider a pretty simple process. – mikeford Mar 19 '17 at 5:29
  • @mikeford to you, how does the "concept of modes" differ from taking a given major scale and "seeing it all in terms of key centers"? I thought that taking a scale and considering that any note could be the tonal centre pretty much was the concept of modes... – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 19 '17 at 8:15
  • Maybe using the term "concept of modes" was unfortunate choice of words by me. As I'm primarily an improvisational player, I'm most interested in getting the lines/intervals/chords I hear in my head to the instrument without thinking as the act of thinking takes me "out of the moment". To me, modes are the same scale with 7 different names and why learn 7 different things when I can learn one that covers them all. Anything that complicates the process (for me anyway) hinders the ability to spontaneously create. – mikeford Mar 19 '17 at 13:05
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Pop Music

I'm not sure how much you're into today's popular music, but modes are used extensively in pop music today. Here are some examples with their chords, keys and an explanation:

Dorian

Work - Rihanna: Based on the notes that we find in the song, we could categorize it as B major, but the chord B major is not the chord that brings the most resolution. I would argue that the starting chord (the ii chord) brings the most resolution to this song. Here are the chords:

C#m    D#m   Emaj7    F#    (each chord is 2 beats each)

Phrygian

If you've ever heard of "trap" music, it's a sub-genre of EDM, but it's really today's sound for rap music. Trap music uses the phrygian mode and aeolian mode exclusively. The main issue with writing out chords for the "trap" sub-genre is that they don't really use chords explicitly, but they can be implicitly derived by analyzing melody notes and bass notes in the beats.

Lydian

Hotline Bling - Drake: This would be considered F major, however, the chord that resolves this progression the most would be Bb major (the IV chord). Here's the chord progression:

Bb    Am    Bb    Am    (each chord is 4 beats each)

Mixolydian

Royals - Lorde: If we're looking for a major key to represent this as, then it would be G major. However, we're really in a mode because of the chord progression.

D   D   C   G   (each chord is 4 beats each)

In the key of G major, we'd have V, V, IV, I since D is the V chord, C is the IV chord and G is the I chord. When a phrase begins on something other than the I chord, this usually indicates that we're in a mode. In the case of this song, the D major chord brings resolution and the C and G major chords create tension.

Aeolian

This One's For You - David Guetta ft Zarra Larsson: In major key terms, this would be in C major, but the chord that resolves at the end of the song is Am, so we're in the Aeolian mode. We wouldn't call it A minor (usually in the harmonic form) because there's no G# anywhere in the song. Here are the chords:

F    Am   C    F   (each chord is 4 beats each)

Jazz

In jazz, modes are used for soloing all the time.

Soloing

In the following jazz standard, "Tenderly", we'll take a look at how to use modes in soloing. The key of the song is Eb major.

enter image description here Note: For each chord, there may be more notes played than just the typical notes for the chord listed. Colour tones (9s, 11s and 13s) are frequently omitted from scores for simplicity and it's also assumed that the player will know how to add them.

Bar 1: The chord is Ebmaj7(Eb G Bb D) and the most typical method to choose notes for soloing would be to use the Ionian mode (Eb F G Ab Bb C D...). For the I and IV chord of a key, we can use any of the major modes for soloing, which means that we can also use Eb phyrgian (Eb F G A Bb C D...). Both modes fit with the notes of Ebmaj7.

Bar 4: The Ab13 chord indicates that we have the notes Ab C Gb Bb and F, most typically, but there are other variations. For soloing, since this is a dominant 7th chord, one mode to use would be Ab mixolydian, which is Ab Bb C Db Eb F Gb...

Modes By "Brightness" (For Soloing)

I'll list the modes from light to dark below

Lydian: A major mode (#4 is the distinguishing note)
Ionian: A major mode (7 is the distinguishing note)
Mixolydian: A major mode (b7 is the distinguishing note)
Dorian: A minor mode (6 is the distinguishing note)
Aeolian: A minor mode (b6 is the distinguishing note)
Phrygian: A minor mode (b2 is the distinguishing note)
Locrian: A minor mode (b5 is the distinguishing note)

Additional Resources

There's a great channel on YouTube here (Rick Beato). Hope this helps.

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It really depends how you want to use them, as mikeford says in his comment guitar players use them to learn different pattern of the major scale at various positions on the neck, but they do serve a purpose. Western music lends itself to songs in major and minor keys, but there is no reason that you couldn't write I song in a modal key.

You are more likely to find modal keys in things like progressive metal, but I can assure that modal keys are still used. Here are a couple of examples I can think off:

  • Sweet Home Alabama Lynyrd Skynyrd (Mixolydian)
  • Creeping Death Metallica (Phrygian)
  • Scarborough Fair Simon and Garfunkel (Dorian)

To answer the root of your question, how are they use:

Well they are used like any other scale! Lets take a typical major scale progression (let's say G)

I - IV - ii - V - I

G C Em D G

You can apply this exact same logic to any other scale. Lets take this same example and apply this logic to a G Mixolydian scale

I - IV - ii - v - I

G C Em Dm G

Because G Mixolydian is the same notes as C Major, you get this interesting sound because the v chord is actually a Minor chord. You can still build progressions on modal scale, they just aren't the same as major scales (typically). If we look at the chords in G Major, we get

I ii iii IV V vi Viio I

G Am Bm C D Em F#dim G

G Mixolydian would give us:

I ii iiio IV v vi VII I

G Am Bdim C Dm Em F G

Experiment with the different chords in the different and see what you like. It is not uncommon for people to default back to the major and minor keys because the western music has kind of forced us into a "this is what sounds good" mentality.

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  • I can't make my chord names directly line up under the roman numerals, maybe someone with a better understand of the markup could edit this for me – SaggingRufus Mar 18 '17 at 18:24
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    Scarborough Fair predates Simon and Garfunkel just a little bit. – Bob says reinstate Monica Mar 18 '17 at 19:56
  • @Bob yes it does, but they were the first that came to mind – SaggingRufus Mar 18 '17 at 19:58
  • @SaggingRufus, I wasn't able to edit it but on your last example you mean Dmi not D, correct? – mikeford Mar 19 '17 at 1:05
  • YES!, maybe I should have another coffee – SaggingRufus Mar 19 '17 at 1:08
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Also, consider the later 'classical' musicians like Sibelius, Bartok, Debussy, etc. Ex. Satie, Gymnopédies #1 uses dorian mode in the middle section.

16th century polyphony was an example given above. Be sure to include the earlier church music of Gregorian chant. It used the modes in a purely melody style.

If it's not too far a stretch, you could include borrowed chords/mode mixture. Where chords from parallel modes are used with basic diatonic chords. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borrowed_chord

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16th century polyphony (and the modes thereof) is quite different from modern music, where then "counterpoint was the basis of practically all musical composition" versus the subsequent emphasis "on the harmonic aspect of music"[Merritt1939, p.x]. To summarize the material of Merritt, the plainsong modes are classified according to their final note (D, E, F, G) of two different forms depending on whether the range is from the final note upwards for an octave or so (authentic) or instead from a fourth below the final (plagal, mnemonic: submerged Hippo). Also the melody will tend to especially for psalms revolve around a Dominant note, which for the authentic modes is a fifth above the final, except where it is not, and the plagals are even stranger. Also there's a "mediant" though Merritt does not define it well, and as the following shows, it can be nothing like the Harmonic Mediant. Compare these to the major/minor duopoly:

Range Final Dominant Mediant
D-D'  D     A        F       Dorian 
A,-A  D     F        E       Hypodorian
E-E'  E     C        G       Phrygian
B,-B  E     A        G       Hypophrygian
F-F'  F     C'       A       Lydian
C-C'  F     A        D       Hypolydian
G-G'  G     D'       C'      Mixolydian
D-D'  G     C'       A       Hypomixolydian

There are also melodic differences where the cadence involves not a Dominant-Tonic harmony, but instead plays around with the intervals adjacent to the final note, and a paucity of melodic sequences (rare) or transpositions (Dorian: by a fifth upwards, yes, Mixolydian, no; by a fourth upwards, rarely, and usually only the Phrygian). Add counterpoint and the "chords" allowed are extremely limited, and might be considered artifacts of the resultant horizontal motion of the melodic lines.

I would suspect that most modern uses of "Phrygian mode" involve instead an emphasis on E and B chords (alien to plainsong), harmonic sequences and transpositions (alien) or tritone subs (also alien) with possible rhythmic sets of X many bars (and again alien, with rhythm being very free in plainsong). This is much like two very different branches of math using the same symbol for wildly different purposes at a distance of about half a millenium.

Merritt1939 "Sixteenth-Century Polyphony: A Basis for the Study of Counterpoint". Merritt, Arthur Tillman. Harvard University Press. 1939.

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  • While it's true that the modes were used differently in the 16th century than nowadays, I don't see what's wrong with saying, for example, that What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor is in Dorian. – Scott Wallace Mar 19 '17 at 20:40
  • @ScottWallace they ask how dorian was used, and harmonic dorian—stumbling drunkenly from chord to chord, as one might put it—is little if nothing like polyphonic dorian. – thrig Mar 20 '17 at 14:50

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