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I am 70 years old, have played (strummed) guitar all my life, with some multi-year gaps. I never wanted to know theory; was more interested in the occasional surprise of learning something new. I started over sixty years ago with three fingered chords (taught by my father) and slowly graduated to bar chords, never interested in picking out lead notes, only interested in strumming chords and singing my own lyrics to my chords. I have occasionally heard of modes, now have an interest in them, but feel quite confused. I bought a Major Modes chart, thinking that would help.

I typed chords of the first four modes (after Major) from the chart into Band-In-A-Box, looked for what seemed to be the key of each set of chords and then transposed those chords all into the same key, expecting to learn the secret of modes. That didn't work. Although the sequence of chords was different in each mode, the transposed chords within each sequence were the same chords.

I learned nothing, except that I still don't understand modes.

Can you help me understand Modes from the aspect of chord changes? What would a piece of music sound like using a particular mode - say Dorian . What would be a chord sequence for a song written with the root note Cm? (that came from the chart and may be an incorrect way to ask the question)

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(at the bottom of this answer, there are youtube example videos with sound)

Definition of modes

Different modes produce different harmonic feelings. These differences are caused by the notes of the scale having different distances to the home note than in the "normal" major or minor scales you've used to hearing. Because of these differences, the set of chords existing in the mode is different from what you're used to. The modal feeling has two ingredients that have to be exactly right for each mode: (1) the set of chords/notes, and (2) the home note i.e. tonic.

Examples:

  • the chords/notes of the C major scale + tonic at D --> D dorian mode
  • the chords/notes of the C major scale + tonic at F --> F lydian mode
  • the chords/notes of the C major scale + tonic at G --> G mixolydian mode

How to break the mode

The set of chords and the home note are very specific in each mode. If you play the wrong chord, or if you mess up the feeling of where the home note is, you're not in the same mode anymore. You broke the modal feeling. So, here are the two ways to break the mode:

  • Wrong chord: using a chord that has a note that doesn't belong to the mode's scale. If you play a chord that doesn't belong to the mode, you might stay within the same key, as in, the tonic stays the same, but the modal feeling is changed. For example if you're in A dorian mode that has Am and D chords, but if you play a Dm (or F) chord, you break the dorian feeling. There is no F note in the A dorian scale, and no Dm chord in the A dorian harmonic feeling. It might still sound perfectly fine and beautiful, and the tonic probably doesn't move, and it may be some other mode, just not A dorian. In regular major/minor tonalities in pop music, it doesn't matter if you play D major or D minor every now and then, you can still say that you're in the key of A minor. But if you play a D minor (or F) chord, you're not in A dorian mode anymore, at least for the duration of that "wrong" chord. You can get back to the modal mood by continuing to play the right chords (and notes) for the mode.
  • Wrong tonic : if you play something that leads the listener to think that the home note is not where it must be in that mode, then you're not in the original mode anymore. For example, if you try to play G mixolydian which has the chords G, Am, Bdim, C, Dm, Em, F ... if you put the bass in C and move the melody to C as well, chances are that it might sound like the tonic is actually C, and so you're not in G mixolydian anymore, even though the set of chords and scale notes remains exactly the same. In G mixolydian, the tonic has to be G. If the tonic moves, it might be perfectly beautiful music, and it might be some other mode, just not G mixolydian.

In your unsuccessful experiments with Band-in-a-Box, I suspect that if you just typed in chords from a list, it also meant that BIAB played the corresponding bass notes for each chord, making it much more difficult to retain a modal feeling. Try using bass inversions for creating a pedal tone instead, by having the same bass note for all chords, e.g. Dm - G/D - F/D - Em/D - C/D - Am/D - G/D - Dm. This progression should create a D dorian sound, as long as BIAB doesn't add any out-of-scale notes.

Changing or creating a modal feeling deliberately

In the key of C minor you normally have Cm and Fm chords, and C being the "tonic" i.e. home note, where a melody feels to be at rest, and a natural ending for a song. C minor has three flats in its key signature and the notes of the scale are C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb. In C dorian, C is also the home note, but instead of F minor, you would have e.g. F major or D minor chords, and for melody lines, A natural instead of Ab. C dorian has the notes C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb. The A natural is the "dorian note" for C.

You can basically change a "normal" C minor song to C dorian modal feeling by changing all Ab notes to A naturals and all F minor chords to F major chords, provided that the original melody only uses notes from the C natural minor scale. For example, if the song uses a G major or G7 chord somewhere - with a B natural note - then at least for the duration of that G chord the song steps away from a possibility for a C dorian feel. The same goes for any other "out-of-scale" chord like D7, which contains an F# note but is common in songs in the key of C minor. Some other modes could have an F# note, but C dorian doesn't.

The whole song doesn't have to use the same mode. Different sections of a song can use different modal moods for short periods of time, even as short as a single bar or half a bar. If you have a song that's in C minor, and if it has a section of just Cm chord and with no Ab in the melody during that section, you can deliberately create a dorian feeling to it by e.g. alternating between Cm and F chords, or Cm and Dm chords, instead of just the Cm. Tricks like this are used by guitarists and other players. If the chords and melody only use the six other notes of the minor scale, it's a chance for a creative player to pour some dorian sauce on it.

Another example. If the song is in A minor, and the written melody and chords only use the six notes A, B, C, D, E, G ... then you can throw in some quick D major or B minor chords, because the "F natural or F sharp" decision is left open and for you to play with.

The challenge is, you have to know (or hear) what notes and when the melody and any other players are going to use, and if they're going to clash with your modal endeavors. For example if the song is in A minor and you'd like to twist it into A dorian, if there are chords like Dm, F, B7, C7, G7, those are going to more or less step on your dorian mode's toes.

Dorian mode is probably one of the easiest examples, and it's very widely used. Another mode that's quite easy to do for a chord-player guitarist is mixolydian. For example in a basic pop/rock song that's in A major, to give it mixolydian feeling, throw in an A7 or G major chord every now and then, except in places where there's an E major chord, or any of the out-of-scale ones like B7. A mixolydian has the G natural note, instead of the G# that A major songs normally use.

For introducing these modal feelings, here are a few guitar chord shape examples.

A dorian

To twist a song that's originally in the key of A minor into A dorian modal feel, alternate between Am and Bm/A chords when there's originally an Am chord:

A dorian modal feel with guitar chords

In regular A minor key, a corresponding alternating chord pattern would be Am - Dm6/A (or Bdim/A), but in the A dorian mode it is Am - Bm/A. The F# note played with the 4th fret of the D string is the "dorian note", when in regular A minor you would have F natural.

For a slightly different feeling, alternate between Am7 and this other chord which I won't try to name. (well... Dadd2/A maybe?)

A dorian modal feel with guitar chords 2

A mixolydian

To twist a song that's originally in the key of A major into A mixolydian modal feel, alternate between A and Em/A chords when there's originally an A major chord:

A mixolydian modal feel with guitar chords

In regular A major, a corresponding alternating chord pattern would be A - E/A, but in A mixolydian it is A - Em/A. The open G string is the "mixolydian note" here, but in regular A major you would have a G#.

A lydian

To twist a song that's originally in the key of A major into A lydian modal feel, alternate between A and B/A chords when there's originally an A major chord:

A lydian modal feel with guitar chords

In regular A major, a corresponding alternating chord pattern would be A - Bm/A, but in A lydian it is A - B/A. The D# note played with the 4th fret on the B string is the "lydian note", when in the regular A major scale you have a D natural.

Here is a small etude in A lydian, constructed entirely with chords, and with the open A string as a pedal tone. To play a lydian mode solo you could basically use these chord grips and pick just one or two of the notes at a time.

You might notice that all of the chords are ones that are often used in songs in E major. If we use the chords and notes of E major, but so that the tonic i.e. home note is A, it creates an A lydian sound. The key signature, four sharps, is what you'd normally find in E major (or C#m minor).

If we take the same chords, but move the pedal tone (the bass note that stays the same all the time) from A down to F#, we get a dorian mode feeling. YMMV, but the pedal tone is meant to make it feel like that's the tonic i.e. home note.

(Theory enthusiasts might want to explain modes a bit more pedantically, but in this answer I tried to introduce modal feelings from a chord-playing perspective to someone who's familiar with guitar chord accompaniment, and perhaps not so much into soloing and playing individual notes.)

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Think of modes as an entirely different scale with a different sound. Personally, I don't like the word "mode", just think "different scale". They like to say mode because it just means a given scale has been circularly shifted left, but that's a bit too technical for most people.

But because you've changed the order of the intervals of the notes, that's what makes the song sound completely unique. For example, you won't be able to mimic the sound of Dorian using a major or minor scale because you've changed the interval pattern.

The pattern of the intervals is what makes a song sound the way it is. Because the song is always in the context of its root note:
Major: Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half (sung it sounds like, do re mi fa so la ti do).
Minor: W H W W H W W
Dorian: W H W W W H W

For example, Dorian to me sounds introspective. An example of that is Scarborough Fair, paper bag song in American Beauty, C.R.E.A.M by Wu-tang, etc. Phrygian sounds middle eastern (esp. Phrygian Dominant which is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale). Lydian sounds silly/spacey as heard in first few bars in Simpsons.

As far as the chords to use in each mode. Just emphasize chords that are unique to the mode.

A Natural Minor (aka Aeolian mode): A B C D E F G
A Dorian: A B C D E F# G

Dorian, which is considered a minor mode, is unique in that its IV chord is major, but its i chord is minor. so going from i->IV progression is unique in that neither the major or minor scales do that.

  • This is good, particularly that modes are really just scales (that don't follow the major or minor pattern as those two are built from the WWHW and WHWW ... this is what makes them diatonic. A 'mode isn't built from these patterns so they're going to have notes that are harmonically 'odd'. Don, the example of A-dorian ... A-dorian must come from key of GMajor, the second note, and Gmajor has one sharp. So A-dorian gives you a scale outside of the realm of major/minor. The first chord in A-dorian is ACE, A-minor ... but A-dorian isn't A-minor as foreyze says above. – Randy Zeitman Aug 25 at 13:39
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There is a lot of good information here already. It is common for modern guitarists to eventually learn that the modes in western music are, in some sense, all the same. They are just the major scale starting on different degrees. As Albrecht Hugli points out in his second answer. For example D dorian is in the key of C. This does not mean that they are the same. The ancient modes have some cultural roots, Ionian, Dorian, Lydian, etc. When music is written it is more common in my experience to write melodic themes first. The Chords exist to support the melody, not the other way around. So you may not like my answer from the very start. I would not try to understand modes from the aspect of chord changes. Rather, try to understand how chords support a melody. I realize this is probably the reverse of how you are viewing things but that is driven by the order that you have learned things so far. Melodic themes can be written in any mode and will have a particular mood or feel associate with them. They will also, in some cases, have an ethnic flavor to them (e.g. Greek, Spanish, Irish). This also depends on the choice of rhythm. Chords are a supporting structure that focus attention on the tonal centers used in the melody, the melodic focal points. As the melody changes its focus the chords move in support of that. Many Western musical styles really just circulate around the same set of chords (the Circle progression, or the I-IV-V, etc). Thus 1000's of songs can have the same chords. This is part of the natural mathematical structure present in music. When learning to improvise in Jazz it is not uncommon to learn which mode matches which chord in every key. Just as there is a pattern to modes, there is a pattern to chords.

Every note in the major scale has a 7th chord.

Do -- Maj 7

Re -- Min 7

Mi -- Min 7

Fa -- Maj 7

Sol -- Dom 7

La -- Min 7

Ti -- Min 7 (b5)

The order of the modes is given in other answers. So one might learn that to solo over (C, F, Am, G, C) one should use the following modes

(C Major, F Lydian, A Minor, G Mixolydian, C Major)

While this is not "wrong" it is really not helpful. For one thing it's hard to try and execute all that movement when in fact there isn't really that much movement. Most players would recognize that the progression is in C and make up melodies in C using their ear to guide them to the best tones to "match the chords", even though that kind of puts the cart before the horse imo.

Matching modes to chords in the above context can get a little confusing since there is more than one Maj7 and min7 in the list of chords. So, why not just play natural minor over each min7 chord, and major over each maj7 chord? Well, there is nothing to say you cannot! Sometimes people do. When you deviate from the set of patterns listed you are modulating key and that's fine. But to avoid sounding disconnected there are sensible ways to modulate and since the chords are circling back around you need to modulate back to your home key at some point. How we view the natural home key in a piece of music (baring the actual key signature) is by the functional purpose of the chords in the progression. By that I mean, what are the chords doing and how long are you staying on a given chord. If the movement is rapid then the chord sequence is likely indicating a path to a resting point. If a chord lasts for a couple bars then that chord has the tonal centers you want to focus on. For example in Jazz you have the traditional (ii, V7, I). You can say that the correct set of modes is (dorian, mixo, major) but really these are all in the same key. On the other hand if you were hanging on the ii for a few bars than moving quickly to the V7-->I there is no reason why you couldn't play with using minor or harmonic minor on the ii for a while, then change character by using dorian to indicate the move to V7-->I in the given key.

Lastly I would mention (and this is somewhat speculative) that since the ancient modes were probably used on instruments that were not tuned using the equal tempered method (12 equal half steps to an octave) the current pattern of them all fitting in the major scale may not be historically accurate. It may be a consequence of modern tuning.

In closing I'd recommend listening to So What by Miles Davis for a good Dorian mode example. Just my 2 cents.

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First you have to learn the names of the modes (the scales like the white keys of the keyboard, every of the 12 keys can be the root tone of a scale) so the system can be transposed to all keys of the circle of fifths.

Imagine the keyboard with 7 white and 5 black keys. between ef and bc is no black key, this means there is a step of a halftone, all other steps are whole tone steps, as ther is a black key between. So you have from C to C the folling steps W-W-H-W-W-W-H : (do-re-mifa-so-la-tido) mind mifa and tido are half steps, as you play the scale on the guitar.

the dorian mode in C: Re-MiFa-So-La-Ti-Do (in C major scale Re is d: d-ef-g-a-bc-d)

the aeolian mode in C: is a bc d ef g a (the halftones are bc and ef)

so you can practice the scales of all modes in all keys.

First try it in C, then in G, mind that the root chord of the Ionian mode is identical with the tonic (I) of all major keys, the aeolian root chord is like the tonic (i) of minor keys: so a-Aeolian is the same as the natural scale of a minor.

LADY IN BLACK is a good example to illustrate the aeolian mode:

Am Am Am Am G G Am Am

Am is the root chord in this aeolian mode : note the triade of the root chord (i=minor) is the Am-chord the triade/chord of the 5th degree (v) is e-minor, the 7th degree (VII) is G-major

The dorian mode in the C-majors scale is d,ef,g,a,bc,d:

WHAT SHALL WE DO WITH THE DRUNKEN SAILOR

Dm C DmC Dm

Transpose this 2 songs in different keys: e.g. starting with f#m: what will be the VII degree? Yes, E-major!

Typical for dorian is the major sixth (ti = 6th degree from re) and the minor triades of the root chord (i), also the VII is a whole tone below of the root chord and a major chord, you can compare the d-minor natural scale (or Aeolian) with the Dorian scale d and listen to the difference of the 6th degree: in d-minor the 6th is a b-flat in the dorian it is a natural b and a half step (halftone) higher.

A good example of the Dorian mode is GREENSLEAVES: re fa so la ti la so mi do ...

Edit:

As you‘ve probably noticed there ia no 6th degree in the tune of LADY IN BLACK. So we could consider it aswell in Dorian mode, as Dorian and Aeolian only differ in the 6th.

The phrygian mode (the scale of Mi) you may know from the phrygian cadence: am-G-F-em (E!)

As you‘re asking Cm:

Cm would correspond to cm-aeolian (cm relative key of Eb) so Mi will be G. The phryg. cadence in Eb (Cm) is Cm-Bb-Ab-G

The names of the modes are the old church names (authentic and plagal).

A easier method to study the modes is to name them by the relative doremi.

Ionian = Do-scale

Dorian = Re-scale

etc.

  • Ahem... The "Lady In Black" example is a bad example, no offense. Am and G major occur in both A Aeolian and A Dorian. Perhaps it is indeed in aeolian mode, but the reader of this post will never know from the chord symbols you provided. The "phrygian cadence" is kind of a strange concept to mention in this post, since when used in most music, it isn't heard as being a modal sound, rather as a walk down to a dominant chord. It's kind of a misnomer. – user45266 Aug 22 at 23:46
  • And perhaps the "Drunken Sailor" example isn't great either. The ♮6 degree only occurs once in the melody as a passing note that most audiences miss. Worse, that isn't even mentioned in your description of the song, since you only told the reader that the chords were Dm and C, inconclusive yet again. And going back to the "phrygian cadence" again, no theorist I know calls [Cm B♭ A♭ G] the phrygian cadence in E♭. All in all, I don't think this post "helps [OP] understand modes from the aspect of chord changes" very much. -1. – user45266 Aug 22 at 23:51
  • May be, but it will help to understand that the modes can’t be exchanged by band in a box. (While just the song examples and the P.C. would fit here!) The Phrygian cadence is mentioned to demonstrate the typical scale (down step) wwh that OP surely will know. – Albrecht Hügli Aug 23 at 5:57
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Reading your question again I’ll try to give another answer regarding your problem you have with biab and respecting that you have no idea of theory.

Let’s assume that you know the absolute scales and the major and minor scales, and the triads built on these scales, the difference of major and minor chords, the circle of fifths and the move able doremi.

What are the modes?

The modes are scales, older than our major and minor scales, and if you know the system of the do re mi as a scale of whole and half tone steps wwhwwwh, you can imagine, that you can build a scale from each starting point of this doremi ladder.

Do-Do (wwhwwwh)

Re-Re (whwwwhw)

Mi-Mi (hwwwhww)

Fa-Fa (wwwhwwh)

So-So (wwhwwhw)

La-La (whwwhww)

(Ti-Ti) (hwwhwww)

Our major and minor scale (coomon practice) are derived from the do- and the la scale.

But most songs of today are built on one of this 2 modes: either do (major) or la (minor). Band in a box can transpose a song in major or minor to all 12 keys, but it can’t transpose from major to minor - the melody wouldn’t fit and sound weird (like beginning a tune doremifa sososo at the key f: f-g-a-b-c-c-c. (The minor version is not a transposition, it is a variation of the original tune).

Now the same problem you have if you expect biab transposing a song from one mode into another. It will only fit when songs don’t use a certain degree like LADY IN BLACK but then biab doesn’t transpose from dorian to aeolian, it transposes dm to am ...etc.

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