Correct me if I am wrong: While scales are different from modes, they can share the same notes (C major and D dorian). However, they can completely shift its tonality. Say I play a melody in C Ionian, and then I play a melody in A Aeolian. Both have the key signature (same notes), yet one scale sounds more major and "bright" while the other sounds more minor and "dark." This is exactly the same difference between C major and A minor. So my take is that in a modern context of modes, you could be more specific about tonality by referring to a mode than you would with a scale. With a mode, you have 7 parameters based upon the 7 scale degrees, and you have the tonal center of that set of notes. So, one could say that A Aeolian is the C major scale with an emphasis on its 6th scale degree- Aeolian- known for being dark.

Is this a correct way of thinking about this?

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    This question has been asked in different forms many times, but you have framed it up interestingly, and given it a practical slant.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 19, 2017 at 19:45
  • I asked a similar question and received some enlightening responses. Check out the answers to this question. (music.stackexchange.com/q/41225/16897) May 6, 2018 at 18:47

4 Answers 4


All modes are scales, but not all scales are modes, just like all poodles are dogs, but not all dogs are poodles.

Scales are sets of notes portrayed in ordered fashion. The common, simple major scale of C is played from C to a higher C, and back - as far as exam boards (and many teachers) are concerned. The scale called chromatic uses every semitone. The pentatonic scale only uses five notes before they repeat. The whole/half diminished scale uses notes with alternate tone and semitone spaces. There are several minor scales, which differ subtly.

The point here is that any scale is an ordered set of notes, usually named from standpoints of home note, and what successive intervals they contain. TTSTTTS would be the pattern for a major scale, and if the first/home note is F#, we call it the scale of F# major.

All scales will have the propensity to have modes made from them. Taking that F# major, but starting on the second degree, G#, it gets called G# Dorian, or the Dorian mode of F#. Note the difference in name, but using the same notes. Modes, then, are the same set of notes, but centred somewhere that doesn't make them a simple major or minor scale. Dorian, for example, uses the major scale set of notes, but centres on the second degree, making it sound minor (the 3rd degree is a minor third from the root), but it doesn't follow the pattern of tone/semitone spaces that the other minors use. Phrygian follows suite, with another minor third.

Minor scales have modes too, so using the notes from, say, A melodic minor, but making root/home the second degree, (B), that becomes a mode of that A minor. It will use the same harmony, or triads, as are available from the A minor scale notes, but they will come across in a different way, keeping the home as B, rather than A.

Slight anomalies occur with Ionian mode and Aeolian mode, as they respectively, are major and natural minor scales too, but often when 'rules' are made, there are certain factions that get mixed up.

  • Isn't it the case that all modes are cyclic permutations of TTSTTTS and not all scales are?
    – Dave
    Aug 19, 2017 at 19:16
  • @Dave - that is not correct. Every scale has its modes, and they are all somehow cyclical by definition - a clearly defined sequence of notes. Although not all scales one might conceive of would necessarily be cyclical over the range of one octave, those used in the traditional western system of tonality are: In that system, a scale can be defined as a clearly determined pattern for dividing up an octave.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 19, 2017 at 19:41
  • @Stinkfoot your comment creates a contradiction with the answer. if every scale has its modes, and the scale itself without any cycling is a mode, then all modes are scales, and all scales are modes. this has always been my understanding, and the difference between the two terms is a matter of connotation. usually if someone says "mode", they mean a church mode, like lydian or dorian.
    – sleeparrow
    Aug 19, 2017 at 21:16
  • @sleeparrow - also see Do modes exist in the harmonic / melodic minor scales? and the excellent accepted answer to that question from Shevliaskovic.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 19, 2017 at 21:54
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    @Dave - no. TTSTTTS is Ionian mode and major scale, and all the other modes of the major scale are thus cyclic from this pattern. However, other scales also spawn their own modes, which are cyclic from their patterns.
    – Tim
    Aug 20, 2017 at 6:13

Is this a correct way of thinking about this?

IMO that is certainly a correct way of thinking about it, but let's get a little more detailed and specific:

If we want to take a stab at defining scale vs mode, we could say that those ordered collections of notes that have proven to be most useful as building blocks for our "modern" [call that post Renaissance, for argument's sake] music we call scales - for example "The Major Scale" "The Minor Scale", "The Melodic Minor Scale". ( @AlphonsoBalvenie in his answer refers to those as "Established Scales", a good working term IMO. ) Their alternate configurations, as will be explained - for example "Lydian Mode", "Dorian Mode", "Phrygian Mode" - those we call modes. However, that is clearly a subjective definition. An objective definition of scale vs mode differs significantly, as follows:

There is no objective difference between a mode and a scale: Take any key signature, play any ordered collection of notes using that key signature - start on any note in the chromatic octave (which has no accidentals) and play a sequence of notes abiding by that key signature - you now have what's called a scale/mode.

Mode is a relative term: when you decide, for whatever reason, to make one particular note of your ordered collection of notes the root - the first note of your scale according to the key signature - that configuration is called the scale, and becomes a 'parent scale', as it were, to its other modes: Building a scale with the same key signature but using a different root than the 'parent' root becomes a mode: A different fashion/manner of playing the parent scale.

So using the example of C Ionian - which we call the C Major Scale, the 6th mode of that scale - a scale that starts on the 6th degree of the parent scale, (whose key signature has no sharps and no flats) in this case A - becomes the Aeolian mode, commonly known as the A Minor Scale. But note that C major also has a modal name: Ionian. In fact, if we decide that A Aeolian is the parent scale, C Ionian would then be considered the third mode of A Minor. And so it goes with all modes and scales.

Because today we tend to think of the C Major and A Minor Scales as the basis for our tonal system, everything else we refer to as "modes", but it's by no means so clear-cut, and in truth it's simpler than one might think.

However, they can completely shift its tonality...

Correct. As you work through the different modes of a parent scale, the tonality constantly shifts - some modes have what we call major tonality, some minor tonality, and some tend to be a bit ambiguous as well - most notably dominant tonality, as will be explained. Generally how we classify tonality is determined by the 3rd and 7th scale degrees. Those distinctions are somewhat subjective, fuzzy and arbitrary, but are useful for discussion and analysis and can be helpful when developing harmonies or improvising over a mode or scale.

  • Using the C Major scale (Objectively speaking, it's called the Ionian mode), the 3rd degree is E, a Major 3rd, and the 7th degree is B, a Major 7th - decidedly a Major tonality.
  • Moving to the 2nd mode of C Major, built on D and referred to as the Dorian mode, the 3rd degree is F, a Minor 3rd, and the 7th degree is C, a Minor 7th - decidedly a Minor tonality.
  • Moving to the 5th mode of C Major, built on G and referred to as the Mixolydian mode, the 3rd degree is B, a Major 3rd, and the 7th degree is F, a Minor 7th. This "split" or "ambigious" tonality, which creates a tritone - 3 'whole steps' or 6 chromatic tones and considered the most dissonant of intervals - between the 3rd and 7th degrees of the scale/mode - is called Dominant tonality. [Manipulating dominants in contrast to overtly major or minor scales and chords is idiomatic for creating a sense of tension and movement in the European/Western traditional musical system. Almost all rock, blues and jazz emphasizes dominants, which makes those genres both very flexible and often quite difficult to analyze according to the traditional rules of harmony.]

Aside from the tonality of the scale/mode with reference to itself, the diatonic chords, and therefore diatonic harmonies, also shift as modes change. For example:

  • The diatonic 7th chord for the root note of C Major (C) is comprised of C-E-G-B - a Major 7th chord: Both the 3rd and the 7th are major.
  • The diatonic 7th chord for the root note of D Dorian (D) is comprised of D-F-A-C - a Minor 7th chord. Both the 3rd and the 7th are minor.
  • The diatonic 7th chord for the root note of G Mixolydian (G) is comprised of G-B-D-F - a chord that includes a major 3rd and a minor 7th - creating a Dominant 7th chord (the default 7th chord when unqualified)

So, one could say that A Aeolian is the C major scale with an emphasis on its 6th scale degree- Aeolian- known for being dark.

That's fair enough, but be cognizant of the fact that using C Major/Ionian mode as your reference point is based on the conventional western tonal system (as reflected in the piano keyboard - all white keys== C Major). Objectively speaking "all modes are created equal".

(As an aside, in modern jazz/pop parlance, the "default" minor scale is Dorian, not Aeolian. The m6 [F using A Aeolian] creates difficulties when building 'tasteful' chords and harmonies that are solved when using Dorian, which contains a M/Dorian 6th [B using D Dorian] - one might say Aeolian is a bit too dark.)


My comment got too long, so I'm posting as an answer. This is additional information to the excellent answers posted so far, and will likely not directly answer your question.

From what I've seen with the difficulty in understanding what the Modes are doing comes from some variance in terms, and different conceptualizations of tonic/scale/harmony relationships.

Some considerations:

Modes will sometimes be described in the sense of "pure" or "diatonic" modes, where you don't consider chromatic alteration when describing the mode. This uses the diatonic pattern established by the notes A through G, with half steps at B/C and E/F. In this description, setting one of the seven notes as a "Focus" note, or Tonic, creates in the listener the sense of a scale, with the whole-step/half-step pattern relative to that tonic. Thus, if C is the focus we hear Ionian or Major scale. With D as the focus we hear Dorian scale. The modes or scales may be chromatically modified when in use for a melody, especially with the modes that contain a minor 7th interval in the pattern, which may be raised to create a leading tone to the tonic.

Another way of using/describing the modes occurs when the mode is a description of changing the focus note or Tonic in an established scale. An example of this would be using Jazz Melodic Minor scale and re-focusing on one of the other scale degrees, changing the tonic but keeping the modified pattern of Melodic Minor. This creates a different scale than would be available using the "pure" mode patterns, and alters the corresponding harmonies available.

To add to the confusion, there is also a practice of teaching the modes as they relate to the Major scale only. This is an easy way to remember where the scale degrees in a mode are. The method is to learn the position of the Major Scale degrees (WWHWWWH) and then learn the mode by what changes from that pattern, usually using flat and sharp to describe the degree motion. For example, Dorian Mode may be described as Major Scale with a flat3 and flat7. This implies that modes are merely modifications of the Major scale, which isn't true, but is an easy way to remember them.

There is also some modal terms used in Jazz theory which can cause some confusion. For example the term "Lydian Dominant" is using Lydian to describe a Major Scale that has the 4th degree raised, as the Lydian mode would, and the term Dominant to indicate that the 7th degree is lowered as if you were using a Dominant chord. This terminology is used to describe the notes available or scale to use when improvising under a specific chord. That is to say, changing the scale to match the chord.

  • you jazz guys may have to correct me on the use of Lydian Dominant... Aug 19, 2017 at 20:12
  • An example of this would be using Jazz Melodic Minor scale... Not sure why you chose the melodic minor. It's same with any scale, including (especially) the major scale. (It is true that a great deal of "modern" jazz is built around the modes of the melodic minor - maybe that's why you chose it?). To add to the confusion, there is also a practice of teaching the modes as they relate to the Major scale only... Indeed - not good practice at all. Very poor teaching IMO. +1 for noting that.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 19, 2017 at 21:04
  • Or harmonic minor. The example is that using a chromatically modified scale as the base scale, and maintaining the new pattern that scale creates, while shifting to the relative position that the mode suggests. Aug 19, 2017 at 22:10
  • OK - I understand: At that point in your answer, you are working with the notion of an established scale - NP. See the note I just added to my answer, which expands on what you're saying about about an established scale.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 19, 2017 at 22:57
  • There is a term that is taking the music world by storm and ripping through the blogosphere like corn through a goose. At least, it would, if anyone besides my students knew about it. And the term is modalise (or modalize if you are an American and you must). When I show them a new scale I say, 'now modalise it', by which I mean start on the second note, then on the third note, etc. Ok, it's not a cure for cancer, but I think it's a useful verb. Just sayin'. Aug 29, 2017 at 12:07

I think focusing on the collection of notes misses the essential fact:

Chords drive the expectations for a melody.

C-F-G-C has no relationship to Am-Dm-Em-Am but both point to the same collection of melody notes available (i.e. scales).

What is the resting target of the chord progression? A mode is just the collection of options the chords support as sounding correct. In a lot of jazz tunes the modes actually shift for 4-8 bar segments as the tune changes targeted "root" notes with temporary modulations to adajent keys or modes.

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    Chords do not drive the expectations for a melody when the melody is the focus. There are many melodies that can have different harmonic interpretations. Folk tunes such as Irish Tunes, non-chordal instrumental music such as flute solo, bagpipes, ocarina music are all melody based first, and harmony, if any, is added to what the melody implies. Aug 19, 2017 at 7:32
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    @Stinkfoot- when the first "true" chords came into use is a matter of opinion, but many medieval pieces, for instance Sumer is icumen in, feature triads on strong beats. Zarlino specifically identified the triad as a concept in the middle of the 16th century. Aug 19, 2017 at 23:19
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    @Stinkfoot- no problem. But keep in mind that triads were used, even if they weren't identified as such, much earlier- at least by the 13th century. And the earliest (notated) polyphony goes back even further, to the ninth century. upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9e/… Aug 20, 2017 at 0:21
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    @ScottWallace - very interesting graphic! Regardless, I believe we can be certain that melody preceded harmony - it's virtually imperative - the timeline isn't that important. The notion that "Chords drive the expectations for a melody" is, AFAIK, recent - perhaps dating from Miles's "Kind of Blue" - and it's by no means ubiquitous except in certain forms of "modern" jazz. Perhaps Alphonso Balvenie in his comment above articulated it better than I did: Generally speaking, harmony serves as an enhancement to melody.
    – Stinkfoot
    Aug 20, 2017 at 4:37
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    @Stinkfoot- I agree completely. Cheers from rainy Vienna, Scott Aug 20, 2017 at 9:05

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