So here's what I know about modes:

Let's say we're in the key of C major. If you're just improvising in the key of C, you would say you're using the C Ionian mode, right?

But here's where I get confused: If I "shift" up to, say, E, I'm now playing with the scale EFGABCD, known as an E Phrygian.

What I don't understand is, how is this any different from playing in C Ionian? Certainly we're using the same notes in both these modes.

Is the difference between modes somewhat loose or abstract?

6 Answers 6


The difference is all about what is the tonic and how a tone become perceived as the tonic.

In C major C is the tonic. In E Phrygian E is the tonic.

Unless you're talking about Gregorian chant (no chords) I think the most practical way of understanding the tonic is through harmony.

Let's look at the group of tones D E F and melodically target E...

enter image description here

...at this point you could make a case for what the tonic might be, but I think you really want to hear more.

If it were harmonized like this...

enter image description here

...the tonic is C and the mode is major (or Ionian if you want that name.)

If it were harmonized like this...

enter image description here

...the tonic is E and the mode is Phrygian.

The harmony is making the mode clear, or to use an adage from Schoenberg follow the bass to understand the harmony and consequently the mode.

You can define the tonic without literally playing chords, but when you do it melodically you outline in some fashion the important harmonic tones. For example you might melodically target the tones of the tonic chord while including modally important tones.

...E Phrygian ...What I don't understand is, how is this any different from playing in C Ionian

The difference is that not all tones (ABCDEFG) are treated the same. How those tones are given special treatment is basically the study of tonal harmony.

  • 3
    Thanks Michael! That was some very nice insight. What really drove it home was the idea that you treat the notes differently. After half a day of just noodling around with different "home" notes, I can really tell how they help to create different moods... or modes! The harmonization examples were also very helpful.
    – Alec
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 20:23

There have been similar questions on here already.

Yes, it does involve using exactly the same notes, but they're focussed differently. Playing in E Phrygian will involve E F G A B C D, but 'home' will be E. Not the C in C Ionian. Playing in the latter, C will feel like it's the root, or home.

E Phrygian may well start on that E note, and return to it often. The feel will be minory, as the third now is m3 of E, namely G. Unfortunately, there is no leading note in E Phrygian, the D being D♮ instead of a more pushy D♯, that makes the key of E a little less convincing, but going back to root often is as good as it gets.

I agree that there's a danger C becomes the featured 'home', and that has to be avoided when possible. One way is to not use B followed by C, which will re-inforce the C Ionian rather than E Phrygian.

  • 2
    That's interesting. I tried improvising just some random phrases now, trying to keep E as my "home" note, and it's amazing how correct you are when you say that playing B followed by C sort of destroys that "home". As soon as you hear B->C, it just sounds so much more resolved, and it loses this sort of tension I feel by emphasizing that E repeatedly. Even if the B->C is very short and glancing, it just damages the ominious mood. Thanks for the insight!
    – Alec
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 20:19
  • 1
    There is a "leading note" in E Phrygian -- it is the note F. It just leads down instead of up. It can be used to create just as much tension for resolution as the leading tone that moves upward in C major. (One sees this type of resolution present in the historical remnants of the so-called "Phrygian half cadence," which contains a strong push toward resolution in a descending semitone in the bass.)
    – Athanasius
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 1:49
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    @Athanasius - I use the same idea on bass, as a sort of tts, like going from G to C, I'll use Db before C.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 8:00
  • All the published harmonies for the carol "The first Nowell" have it finishing on the third of a major chord, whereas it's actually a folk song in the Phrygian mode. Sir John Stainer has much to answer for! Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 9:38
  • @AndrewLeach - although, to be fair, after the opening anacrucis, the first note is root. So if that root is C, the first and last notes will be E, but the first harmony can't be Em, which is probably what it would be if the tune actually is in E Phrygian (in my case here).
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 13, 2019 at 10:08

The modes have different root tones and also different "tenor tones" this means like music in a major key (ionic) has the 5th as dominant all modes have different recitation tones (fifth or sixth). This makes a melody quite different regarding the finalis (final tone) which usually is the root tone and its leading tone.

It was Glarean who added to the already known antic church modes in his Dodecachordon the Ionian and the Aeolian mode which became after Tinctoris the most usual "modes" of today called now Major and minor:

The authentic modes were the odd-numbered modes, 1, 3, 5, 7, and this distinction was extended to the Aeolian and Ionian modes when they were added to the original eight Gregorian modes in 1547 by Glareanus in his Dodecachordon (Powers 2001a). An authentic mode has its final as the lowest note of the scale, though in modes 1, 3, and 7 it may occasionally descend one note further, in which case this added scale degree is called the "subfinal" which, since it lies a whole tone below the final is also the "subtonium" of the mode. The range of mode 5 (Lydian) does not employ a subfinal, and so always maintains the note F as its lower limit (Powers 2001d). These four modes correspond to the modern modal scales starting on D (Dorian), E (Phrygian), F (Ionian = the Gregorian Lydian), and G (Mixolydian). The tenor, or dominant (corresponding to the "reciting tone" of the psalm tones), is a fifth above the final of the scale, with the exception of mode 3 (Phrygian), where it is a sixth above the final. This is because a fifth above the tonic of mode 3 is the "unstable" B♮/B♭.


The picture shows Rockstro's fourteen modes, showing the range, final, cofinal (or dominant), mediant(s), and participant(s) of each, that gives to each mode (authentic or plagal mode) its unique specific character.

enter image description here

  • Der Glarean war sicher ein interessanter Typ. Ihr Schweizer seid nicht ohne :) Kennst du seine Vertonungen klassischer Gedichten, z.B. von Horaz? Genial. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:17
  • 1
    I’ve downloaded 2 books about him. He wrote a poem for the emperor Maximilian when he was a young student. Well, I’m not such kind of a patriot but your compliment honored me! ;) no, the Horaz Odes I haven’t looked at yet, but just read yesterday about this subject. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:22
  • Btw. Do you know a recording? Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:28
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    I've performed one of his settings of Quid inmerentes hospites by Horace. Very mitreißend, in a fast seven. And according to my philologist friends, quite accurate as to his scansion. Don't know about any recording, but I'm thinking about recording it myself, I'll let you know. Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:29
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    I’d like to have a choir singing that Renaissance works! Commented Dec 12, 2019 at 19:31

Others gave good answers, but I'll try to be more to the point. You must feel the tonic, the home note. If you don't feel the tonic, you can't understand modes. You think mode means scale. Wrong! It's a scale around a tonic.

Edit: to demonstrate what the change of home note means, I'll add the same videos I've been using in other "what are modes" questions.

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 you get that? Everything stays the same, but home note is moved - different mode, different harmonic feel.

  • 1
    I've been playing around with these ideas all day, and I have to agree; the note you emphasize as "home" really gives a different mood.
    – Alec
    Commented Dec 11, 2019 at 20:21

If you're familiar with the song "Sweet Home Alabama" I think it offers an excellent example of playing in a mode. Everything in the melody and harmony is diatonic to the key of G major or E minor (lots of F#'s but no C#'s), and the song's primary chord progression, "D C G", would normally make the most sense in G major and essentially no sense in E minor, but the vocal melody doesn't contain any G notes. Every phrase in the song ends with the melody on D, and thus the song is in some kind of D, but it isn't really D major (since there are lots of C naturals in the harmony but no C#'s anywhere), nor D minor (because there are lots of F#'s and B naturals and no F naturals nor Bb's). Instead, it is in D mixolydian, which would be like D major but with no C#, or D minor but with a B natural and F#.


There are a lot of great answers, and I'd like to propose an ancilliary one to help illustrate the point: Minor Key.

A song in the standard minor key has its own name: Aeolian.

But you wouldn't say, "Hey, that song isn't in A Minor/Aeolian - it's in really in C Major/Ionian!"

You probably have a lot of familiarity with the minor key - so you intuitively understand why that statement wouldn't make sense. But the same reasons it doesn't make sense for Aeolian->Ionian are the exact same reasons Phyrgian->Ionian don't make sense (with the main difference being that we don't have a lot of experience listening to songs in Phyrgian.)

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