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For months, I have been trying to understand modes.

Even though I have memorized all the names, what notes they start from and so on, I do not understand their meaning in the real world of music making.

Let's say I have the C Major scale: C D E F G A B.

I always like to have the freedom of picking notes as I see fit.

For example in the background the C major chord is playing, and I am playing a melody on my guitar. One phrase starts from C; 3 seconds later, another phrase I play starts from F.

Does it really mean that each phrase is based on a different mode?

This is insanely confusing for me. Does it really matter what note I start from and which note ends a phrase? It is the same bunch of notes played in a different order.

It would mean that every song in the world is using all the modes all the time...

Some people say it is all about emphasizing some particular notes. Does it mean I have to use D much more than the other notes to underline the Dorian sound in a C major melody?

Why in the world do we complicate the theory so much? We could say that if you start your C major scale from D, it would sound a particular way. All these mode names are literally ruining my music world right now.

Modes do not let me sleep at night for a long time.

Please help me understand, thank you :)

  • 3
    In my opinion you can make music without ever thinking or talking about modes. After all, they are simply the result of combining keys, chords and scales, and not an additional entity. If you don't find them helpful, ignore them. (Although it can be useful to know the terminology, so you can understand what other people are talking about and translate it to your own way of thinking about music.) – Your Uncle Bob Oct 16 at 13:12
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    Mode is much more about the note a melody ends on than about the note it starts on. – phoog Oct 16 at 17:45
  • In my first answer - I’ve deleted it as I’ve realized that I didn’t read correct or misunderstood your concern - I tried to explain the modes, but you obviously know what they are. Now I’m going to rewrite my answer. – Albrecht Hügli Oct 16 at 18:17
  • "...3 seconds later, another phrase I play starts from F note." What chord is in the accompaniment, is it still a C chord? – Michael Curtis Oct 16 at 23:05
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    Do you understand the difference between A minor and C major? It's the same as that, but with all the other letters. – John Wu Oct 17 at 7:03

11 Answers 11

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Try this - play D E F G A and back again. Then play a C major chord (CEG). Does the chord sound like it would fit under the tune? Possibly not. But you've used 5 of the 7 notes that constitute the C major key! What you heard first was a snippet of tune that probably came from D Dorian - a mode from the parent key C. But it sounded minor, and C is major! It worked because it centred around the sound of D Dorian - with the D note being a particular 'home' point.

We don't make the theory any more complicated than it is - in fact, we try very hard to simplify it - but sometimes that's difficult. We understood that given the 7 notes of a major scale, any one of those notes could be 'home', making the relationship it has with the others different for each mode (with the exception of Locrian...). We tried to explain it away - maybe not too successfully for you (and many others!) but that's all we can do.

Does a piece change modes al the time? Probably not - although many tunes wander from major to natural (or other) relative minor, and we aren't even aware that it's happening unless we listen with a very critical ear. It's not that important, unless we're analysing the piece.

Knowing modes exist is often enough. I know polar bears exist, but have nothing to do with them! Keep on making your own music, and one day, you may find you've come up with something a little bluesy, and realise it's more at home finishing on G, even though you've only played C scale notes. When you do, youve been using G Mixolydian. Not that that matters much - it's a technical term, and that doesn't bother lots of players!

For now, just keep modes information safely somewhere, as it maybe won't be much use yet. But keep playing, and keep an open mind as to keys and what they do, and how using notes from them in different ways can affect which direction their tunes can take.

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    The notes D E F G A don't give the characteristic dorian sound even if we have established D as the root tone. This is because they don't contain the sixth interval so we can't pinpoint whether it is in D dorian or D aeolian. Since aeolian (= ordinary minor) is more common than dorian, many people will perceive such a melody correspondingly. – Marc Oct 17 at 19:23
  • Technically, C major doesn't nevessarily point to D Dorian; D natural minor also contains a C major chord. B♮ is the note that would support D Dorian. – user45266 Oct 17 at 23:58
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No, merely starting a phrase on a different note doesn't put you into a different mode. Consistently ENDING phrases on a different note or chord might though! You're in D Dorian rather than C Ionian (equivalent to C major) when D becomes established as the home note.

Here's an example.

enter image description here

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    That is not terribly helpful, accurate as it may be. Can you explain a bit more or annotate? – RedSonja Oct 17 at 10:33
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    It uses the notes of C major but is demonstrably rooted on D. What more do you want me to say about it? – Laurence Payne Oct 17 at 11:50
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    If it's demonstrably rooted on D, demonstrate it's rooted on D. I.e. how do you deduce that? – Creynders Oct 18 at 7:25
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    You don't understand. Which is something I see a lot with people who are knowledgable in something. Try to place yourself into someone's shoes who knows very little about music theory. They see your post where you talk about D dorian and C Ionian. And then you post an example of music with a repetition of A notes, then some other ones, a repetition of G notes, etc. You don't see how that might be confusing? And how with just a little bit of extra explanation your post and example would be better? And the fact that 6 people have upvoted the "that is not terribly helpful" comment? – Creynders Oct 18 at 11:04
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    Except the second part of the first line, the song seems to be mainly written between A (the fifth of D) and D (the er... fundamental of D). That would mean the base note for the song would be D. Were it in mode of C (the usual), you would need a signature with 2 sharps (F# and C#). The signature is empty and there is no accidental (including on F and C) so the scale used seems to have only unaltered notes ABCDEFG based on D, so the scale used is D E F G A B C D, which puts the song in mode of D. I'm not a music expert, so I may be wrong. – Laurent LA RIZZA Oct 18 at 11:45
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For example in the background there is playing C major chord and I am playing melody on my guitar. One phrase starts from C note, 3 seconds later, another phrase I play starts from F note.

Does it really mean that each phrase is based on different mode?

No. Modes are not a classification system for melody snippets based on starting or ending notes. Forget about starting and ending notes, they have nothing to do with modes. Modes are about harmony around a tonic. Harmony is about things that sound or could sound simultaneously and how the simultaneously played combinations would make you feel, not about sequential start/stop positions. Forget about starting notes, forget about melody lines, forget about scale runs, forget about note sequences, modes are about harmony. Those things can be said to affect modal feeling only if they affect the overall harmonic feeling. Do they? Ask yourself. Looking at starting and ending notes will not tell you how you feel about harmony.

Where is the tonic? If you don't know what tonic means, you don't know what modes mean. Tonic is not a starting note or ending note in a note sequence you could look at. The tonic doesn't even have to be played or sounded at all, yet it can exist in the listener's mind. It's the expected home note, home base, origin, place of reference, zero point, center of the world.

Modes are harmonic feelings created through specific intervals relative to a tonic i.e. home note. Mood would often be a better term. For some reason modes are explained in a misleading way, by talking about starting or ending notes for a scale. Even though the starting note thing is a technically justifiable way for constructing mode definitions and it's not incorrect for that purpose, it won't help you get familiar with modes like you can get familiar with, say, what foods taste like.

If you're familiar with chords and how they're used in songs, and how they move the harmonic feeling around, it might be much easier to understand modes via chords. For example, if in regular A minor tonality you have Am and Dm chords, in A dorian mode, you have Am and D major. And if you know how D minor and D major differ, you'll know that the difference between regular A minor and A dorian is that in A dorian there's an F# note instead of F natural.

So, what are modes in the real world? If you encounter part in a song that's clearly "in A" so that A is the home note, and it's clearly A minor, but instead of F and Dm there's D major, then chances are the feeling or mood at that point is A dorian. Or the other way around, if you have a song that's in Am and you feel that the home note is A, if on top of that you play a D major chord, you have created an A dorian feeling.

Another example. Take "Happy Birthday" in F major, and play it to the end. When the song is in the final note and the final F major chord is playing, if on top of that F chord you play a G major chord, then you have created an F lydian feeling.

I'll copy-paste examples of lydian and dorian modes from this answer https://music.stackexchange.com/a/88298/51766


Here is a small etude in A lydian, (constructed with guitar chords), with the open A string as a pedal tone, fixing the sense of home note to A. The scale has the same notes as the E major scale, but the tonic is not E.

If we take the same notes, but move the pedal tone from A down to F#, we get an F# dorian sound. The pedal tone moves the tonic i.e. home note. (the sense of tonic is somewhat subjective, but I'd claim that most people will say the pedal tone here is the tonic)


Did I say it clearly? Forget about starting notes. Modes are about harmony. If the played notes, whatever notes they are and in whatever order and start/stop anything, if they don't affect your harmonic feeling, they don't affect the mode. It is possible to use solo instruments so that single-note lines affect harmonic perception very effectively, but even then you consider the overall harmonic feeling, you don't mechanically look at starting and ending notes.

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    I understood modes much better when I started thinking about them harmonically rather than just melodically – mkorman Oct 17 at 9:56
  • D major can also exist in A minor - F# is present in A melodic minor, so the piece doesn't necessarily have to automatically be in A Dorian. And what's 'regular Am'? – Tim Oct 17 at 11:24
  • @Tim Playing a D major chord in an Am context gives me a dorian feeling. And I said there's an F# in A dorian, not that every time there's an F# it has to be dorian and cannot be anything else. Melodic minor is a scale for melodies, and if you play E - F# - G# - A, behind the F# there can be e.g. B7, which has a D# note, which does not belong to A melodic minor. Modes are much better seen as harmonic, not melodic concepts, IMO. The way modes are usually explained is confusing, as if the people couldn't tell the difference between melody and harmony. :) – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 17 at 13:39
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Modes are more useful for harmonic purposes than they are for melodic purposes.

Lets imagine you're playing a II-V-I chord progression in C Major (Ionian). Your chords are going to be Dm-G-C.

If you play the same progression in D Dorian (same notes), you're going to be playing Em-Am-Dm. This will still have the same general cadence, but will have a very different feel, so some composers find it interesting to write modal harmony.

Furthermore, when writing or improvising a melody it can be useful to put the chord tones of the current chord on the down beats, so playing in the correct mode and knowing where the passing tones fall within the key can be useful.

Ultimately modes are just a way of re-conceptualizing a scale, and while understanding them can be essential for playing in a specific style, such as hard bop, if they aren't an interesting tool they may not be worth diving too deeply into.

  • You have to be very careful with modal cadences. Em-Am-Dm doesn't sound dorian to me. Say I have establish D as the root note by playing Dm for a while. The change to Em now does sound very dorian but changing to Am afterwards makes me perceive Am as the new root chord. – Marc Oct 17 at 19:05
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What are modes in the real world?

A common description of the modes is they are the permutations of the major scale. Ex. the C major scale is CDEFGABCDE..., Dorian modes uses that sequence of tones, but starting on D as DEFGABCDEF..., Phrydian starts on E as EFGABCDEFG....

Historically that is partly true. In old Church music the system used the gamut of letters ABCDEFGA... and the various modes started on the different letters. But what is left out of simplistic descriptions of the modes is that in the old Church music chromatic alterations would occasionally be used for harmonic reasons like avoiding a tritone or forming a proper cadence. So, in D Dorian mode a sharp would be added to make C# for a cadence. Or a flat might be added to make Bb to avoid a tritone with F.

A more modern approach can view modes as flavoring or shading of major and minor scales. Those flavorings and shadings are made by raising or lowering tones. For example, if we lower the second degree of a minor scale (Aeolian mode) it produces the Phrygian mode. One way this can occur is with a Neapolitan chord. You could say the Neapolitan chord brings in a Phrygian flavor to a minor scale. Another common example is Mixolydian in rock and blues music. The progression I V bVII IV is an example where a major key gets a Mixolydian flavoring.

So, in the real world, using modes isn't simply playing a scale on a different starting note. Using modes changes the tonal - the harmonic - palette of music.

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I agree with Michael Curtis and other answers that bring out the importance of harmonization and the harmonic character of "modes" as used in contemporary musical styles.

But I also would add one thing that's missing in the answers here so far, which is that modes are not scales, at least not as traditionally understood. A mode is more than a scale, and a mode (at least historically, and as still used to talk about older repertoires and various repertoires of traditional music around the world) is traditionally a melodic phenomenon.

Briefly, modes as understood melodically had to do with the usage of various notes in the scale, along with the patterns and stereotypical melodic gestures they would create (including cadences). There's often an emphasis placed on the idea of a "home note," so that what makes C Ionian different from E Phrygian is the fact that the "home note" changes from C to E.

But that's only a small part of actual modal practice around the world. Gregorian chants in "Phrygian mode" were originally classified by several things, including the most common notes other than the "home note" and the typical melodic cadential gestures. (That's part of the reason for the distinction between Phrygian and Hypophrygian modes, which both have a finalis ("home note") on E. Yes, the difference between Phrygian and Hypophrygian is often discussed as a difference in register or range of the melody, but it was more complicated than that -- these two modes have different characteristic melodic gestures.)

It may seem that this is far from modern practice, but we still have this embedded in the traditional "minor mode" as practiced in more classically-oriented genres. The "minor mode" is NOT the Aeolian scale. In fact, more confusion has been created by trying to discuss "natural minor" and "harmonic minor" and "melodic minor" scales, when really they're just trying to get at what it means to be in the minor mode, which is more than a scale.

To be in the minor mode isn't just to have a home note (say, C) with a minor third typically used above it. It's not just a key signature either. To be in the minor mode also means having a leading tone that tends to move up (B-C). It also means having a flattened sixth scale degree that tends to move down (Ab-G). It also means that when one wants to create a smooth stepwise melody, one uses gestures like G-A-B-C, but C-Bb-Ab-G. It means that G is often felt as a secondary point of stability - a possible arrival point at middle cadences. It means that final cadences usually happen on C, and the strongest melodic ones move D-C or B-C. And there are many other tendencies that constitute the classical "minor mode," and its melodic characteristics. It's more than a scale -- it's a mode.

Similarly, to be "in E Phrygian," at least from a traditional melodic standpoint, often includes cadences that emphasize the descending leading tone motion F-E. In chant, often an emphasis on the notes A or C was common (as a sort of equivalent to the "dominant," then called the "tenor" note). There were stereotypical melodic cadences and other stereotypical melodic gestures (turns around certain notes of the scale, patterns that might fall or rise to a certain note, etc.).

Such principles are alive and well today in "modes" as used around the world. Again, modes can be seen as more than a scale, but one can go even further. Is an Indian rag a "mode"? I'd say it's probably more than a mode, as the gestures in particular raga are often even more strictly determined than in most modes. Go further in terms of making music that's more melodically determined, and you end up with things like Irish tune families, patterns of melodies that sound very similar with whole phrases alike (used both in standard tunes and in improvisations around them).

Broadly speaking, "modes in the real world" when one steps outside of pop/jazz/contemporary theory often refers to a really fascinating concept of melody that's somewhat more determined than a scale, but less determined than a specific tune. One might also even think of it a bit like the kinds of stereotypical riffs and gestures one might learn in jazz to improvise in a particular style over a particular standard progression.

I mention all of this because the concept of "modes as a primarily harmonic phenomenon" is somewhat recent. The more traditional meaning of "mode" as a collection of melodic characteristics for playing in a particular style (as well as a particular scale) is still alive though, if increasingly relegated to the usage of ethnomusicologists and historians.

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It is like you say! Don‘t worry about modes.

They are very rarely in usual Popmusic, in Jazz they may be more often used but you can handle the modes like I do in Baroque music:

When I play music e.g. by Fisher or Bach in a Dorian or Phrygian mode I don’t mind the mode at all. It is possible to read them by adding (imaging) another flat or sharp that it will fit with a related (nearest) minor or major key.

So don’t bother. I agree that the role of the modes is rather a theoretical problem than they would be of practical interest.

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For some reason, many guitar teachers use modes as a short-hand for playing the same scale in different positions rather than because the student is really ready to understand modal theory. If this is what you've encountered, then just concentrate on learning the patterns of the major & minor scales across the fretboard.

If/when you are actually interested in forms of music that truly use modes—such as modal jazz—then proceed. (In that case, other answers are probably more useful than any I could give.)

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Modes are simply different ways to construct scales; instead of making alterations to key signatures with which you're already familiar, changes that make no rhyme or reason other than, "You do it this way to get this sound," you're taking key signatures you already know (because they're the key signatures for all 15 major scales) and applying them to different progressions.

A saxophone professor once explained the concept this way to me, and it made modes make perfect sense: there are seven modes, and each has a different, distinct tonal quality. Some are major, some are minor, and there's even a couple that are diminished. These tonal qualities can be ranked from brightest to darkest thus:

Lydian

Ionian

Mixo-Lydian

Dorian

Aolian

Phrygian

Locrian

...with Lydian being the brightest mode and Locrian being the darkest.

I remember that order using the first letters as a word: LIMDAPL. I admit it's not the best mnemonic device, but it works for me.

The wonderful thing about modes is that you only need to know three things in order to be able to construct any mode at a moment's notice: all 15 key signatures (which you should know anyways), how to construct a circle of fifths (which you should know anyways), and the meaning of the non-word LIMDAPL (which I've explained above).

Let's say you want to construct a mode that started on D. To do so, you'd draw a circle, write "I" at 12:00, "L" at 1:00, "M" at 11:00, and continue writing the first letters of each of the modes at each of the subsequent hour marks, with the second "L" landing on 7:00, like so (forgive the crudeness):

Circle of fifths with mode initials

Since you want to construct a mode starting on D, place D at the 12:00 spot, like so:

Preparation to make modes starting on D

From here, say you want to make D Lydian: you'd move to that spot on the circle and adjust the key signature by the appropriate amount. In this case, you've moved one spot to the right, so you'd add one sharp to what D Ionian is. If you have three sharps, they are F#, C#, and G#, in that order. Strangely enough, those three sharps are also how you make A major/A Ionian. Therefore, D Lydian is a D scale in the key of A:

D E F# G# A B C# (D)

It works every single time. Say you want E Phyrygian: put E at 12:00, then move around the circle until you get to "P". Count how many steps you've made, then adjust the key signature: from Ionian to Phrygian is

I > M > D > A > P

That's four steps around the circle. To make the adjustment, subtract 4 sharps from E's key signature. E major only has four, so E Phrygian has no sharps and no flats; in other words, E Phrygian is an E scale with the C major key signature.

What about G Dorian? Ionian to Dorian is

I > M > D = two steps.

G only has one sharp, so you have to both subtract a sharp and add a flat. In other words:

G Ionian is a G scale in the key of G major

G Mixo-Lydian is a G scale in the key of C major

G Dorian is a G scale in the key of F major

Once you're able to do this on the fly, modes become a cinch.

As others have noted, modes are used often in jazz: when you're trying to solo, you're thinking about the chords as they change through the piece, which can be daunting. Using modes is a way to simplify the process.

Hopefully this was helpful. Just remember to add sharps/subtract flats and add flats/subtract sharps in the right order (order of flats is BEADGCF, order of sharps is FCGDAEB).

Let me know if I need to clarify something. Good luck!

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Confusion concerning the modes mostly comes from ignoring the root note.

The root note is the note which creates a feeling of being at home, fully released tension, etc. and it is the most important thing in music. Instead of looking at the modes as "starting" from different notes of the major scale, I suggest to look at the different modes using the same root note for all of them.

The familiar characteristic sounds of ordinary major and minor tonality are determined by which intervals in relation to the root note occur. Using C as root note, here are the two scales:

Scale of C-major:  C - D  - E  - F  - G  - A  - B  - C
Scale of C-minor:  C - D  - Eb - F  - G  - Ab - Bb - C

As you can see, the differences between the two are the third, the sixth and the seventh interval. The modes simply are different collections of intervals which lead to different characteristic sounds. These sounds can be roughly sorted from bright to dark. You can hear them in the following example songs:

lydian:           "Flying in a Blue Dream" by Joe Satriani
ionian (= major)  "Blowing in the Wind" by Bob Dylan
mixolydian:       "Norwegian Wood" by The Beatles
dorian:           "Scarborough Fair"
aeolian (= minor) "Lady in Black" by Uriah Heep
phrygian:         "Wherever I May Roam" by Metallica
locrian:          the first part of "Army of Me" by Björk

Again using C as root nore, the notes which are used in the modes are the following:

C-lydian:              C - D  - E  - F# - G  - A  - B  - C
C-ionian (= C-major):  C - D  - E  - F  - G  - A  - B  - C
C-mixolydian:          C - D  - E  - F  - G  - A  - Bb - C
C-dorian:              C - D  - Eb - F  - G  - A  - Bb - C
C-aeolian (= C-minor): C - D  - Eb - F  - G  - Ab - Bb - C
C-phyrigian:           C - Db - Eb - F  - G  - Ab - Bb - C
C-locrian:             C - Db - Eb - F  - Gb - Ab - Bb - C

The first three of these modes contain the C major chord C-E-G, the second three contain the C minor chord C-Eb-G and the last one contains the diminished chord C-Eb-Gb. If you want to play in a certain mode, simply chose the chord quality which is associated with the mode for the accompaniment and use the notes of the mode from the table for the melody.

For example, if you use a C major chord for the accompaniment you perceive C as the root note. If you play the notes of the ordinary major scale in the melody you get an ordinary major sound. You can now pass to a lydian sound by raising the 4th interval by a semitone (playing F# instead of F) or to a mixolydian sound by lowering the seventh interval by a semitone (playing Bb instead of B).

Let me again emphasize the importance of the root note: C-ionian (= C-major), D-dorian, E-phrygian, F-lydian, G-mixolydian, A-aeolian (= A-minor) and B-locrian all have the exactly same notes. If you play these notes over a F-major chord, the root note is F and you get the bright lydian sound. If you play these notes over an E-minor chord, the root note is E and you get the dark phrygian sound. So which of these sounds you get depends on the root note of the musical situation.

This corresponds exactly to the situation in ordinary major (= ionian) and minor (= aeolian). The scales of C-major and A-minor contain the same notes. Whether you get a major or a minor sound depends on the musical situation, i.e. on whether C or A is perceived as the root note.

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I disagree with others on here that say you shouldn't worry about modes. Modes are extremely important and you'd be really limiting yourself musically if you don't understand them. They're all over the place in various songs and they're very distinct.

But you're thinking about this in a wrong way. It's not about the notes. It's about the intervals and how they are ordered.

For example the ordering of intervals in major is:W W H W W W H
Order of dorian is: W H W W W H W
And each other mode has its unique ordering.

Melodically this means that each mode has a distinct sound. You don't get the "do re mi fa so la ti do" sound that major makes. You get a completely different sound for example here's solfege for natural minor/aeolian. Harmonically, because of these intervals each mode has a different ordering of minor and major chords. You were partially right saying you'd emphasize the root note in the mode, that's for melody, and that's the tonal center. Harmonically you'd emphasize the first chord of the mode and this chord serves as the "home" or resolution chord. every other chord serves a harmonic function that relates back to this first chord.

You'll notice, because of these intervals, that some modes (Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, Locrian) are considered minor modes. And the others (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian) are considered the major modes. This is due to their first chord being either minor or major.

The more you practice modes, the more you'll start to recognize them. Scarborough Fair for example is in Dorian. Pieces that sound middle eastern are usually Phrygian, for example white rabbit by jefferson airplane. or more often a tweak to phrygian called phrygian dominant (which is actually a mode from the harmonic minor scale). Spacey sounding modes like Lydian is used in ET theme and simpsons. Each mode has its own character and purpose and people use them to get a certain sound/feeling. Especially look into movie theme music, they make use of different modes in order to get a certain feel.

The more versed you are with modes the more you'll hear them in songs. you can't mimic a mode. It has its own character. For example Scarborough Fair a song in Dorian, cannot be played in minor or major. Its distinct ordering of intervals is what makes it sound Dorian.

Lastly, don't think of modes as "modes". Just think of it as an entirely different scale, with its own character and set of chords.

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