Musical Modes

Musical modes explained.

Ionian

Starting on the 1st scale degree, this mode is the same as a major scale. It has the same W W H W W W H (whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half) pattern. The naturally occuring half steps of this mode are between the 3rd & 4th and 7th & 8th scale degrees.

The Ionian mode produces an uplifting, innocent, happy, and upbeat style of song. You hear it in pop music, children's music, and gospel.


Dorian

The dorian mode starts on the second scale degree of the major scale, which changes the pattern to W H W W W H W. The naturally occuring half steps are between the 2nd & 3rd and 6th & 7th scale degrees. For ear training purposes, think of this mode as a natural minor scale with a raised 6th.

You hear this mode used in lots of Celtic and Irish music and those genres heavily influenced by them like Folk, Country, Blues, and Bluegrass.


Phrygian

The phrygian mode begins on the 3rd scale degree of the major scale, and the naturally occurring half steps are between the 1st & 2nd and 5th & 6th scale degrees. The pattern is H W W W H W W. Think of this mode as a natural minor scale with a flatted 2nd.

This mode is not used in music so much as in film scores. This strangeness can create a sense of mystery, dread, tension, and an impending negative event while still having a sense of warmth. You'll catch some classical artists using it as well as metal bands. It's also known as the Spanish Gypsy Scale.


Lydian

Starting on the 4th scale degree, the lydian mode's naturally occurring half steps are between the 4th & 5th and 7th & 8th scale degrees. It's pattern is W W W H W W H. For ear training purposes, think of this scale as a major scale with a raised 4th.

The sharp fourth strongly wants to resolve to the 5th and it's important that you use this to your advantage or you might as well just be writing in a major scale. The Jazz genre and many show-tunes have exploited this very well to keep you engaged in the performances.


Mixolydian

The mixolydian mode begins on the 5th scale degree of the major scale, and the naturally occurring half steps are between the 3rd & 4th and 6th & 7th scale degrees of a major scale. It's pattern is W W H W W H W. Think of this as a major scale with a flatted 7th.

You hear this a lot in rock and country songs in major scales, especially in solos and bridges. It can provide a smoother, less innocent sound to otherwise happy songs. It provides the same sense of not resolving like Dorian does if exploited.


Aeolian

The aeolian scale begins on the 6th scale degree of the major scale and is also known as a natural minor scale. It's naturally occurring half steps are between the 2nd & 3rd and 5th & 6th scale degrees, and it's pattern is W H W W H W W.

It gives a slight sense of the Renaissance era at times due to the 6th and 7th scale degrees being flattened instead of natural. There are no lack of examples for the Aeolian mode as it appears in hundreds of thousands of minor key songs.


Locrian

This mode starts on the 7th scale degree of a major scale. It's pattern is H W W H W W W. It's naturally occurring half steps are between the 1st & 2nd and 4th & 5th scale degrees. For ear training purposes, think of it as starting and ending on the leading tone of a major scale.

The Locrian mode stands out due to its flat fifth pitch, giving it its characteristic darkness. Because so much Western music depends on the major I and major V chords, you don't hear Locrian that much due to the diminished V chord. Many Western composers have gone as far as to categorize this mode as theoretical with no practical application.