Understanding Modal Theory

This is Meyoumusic’s mode lesson. Before moving on, make sure you have a good understanding of intervals and extensions, as well as fluidity using the Major scale, natural minor scale and the harmonic minor scale. If you aren’t prepared, you can get all these lessons at MeYouMusicOnline. 

Firstly, remember the following order:

  • Ionian  (Major Scale)
  • Dorian  (Minor Mode)
  • Phrygian  (Minor Mode)
  • Lydian  (Major Mode)
  • Mixolydian  (Major Mode)
  • Aeolian (Natural minor scale)
  • Locrian   (Minor Mode)

This is the terminology and order of the 7 modes. Before we go on to understanding how to apply the modes, we need to understand the modal formulas. These are listed below with whole tone and half tone intervals (we have also wrote it in tones and semi-tones in case you’re more familiar with those terms):

  • Ionian – W W H W W W H   (T-T-ST-T-T-T-ST)        1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8
  • Dorian – W H W W W H W     (T-ST-T-T-T-ST-T)      1-2-♭3-4-5-6-♭7-8
  • Phrygian – H W W W H W W   (ST-T-T-T-ST-T-T)    1-♭2-♭3-4-5-♭6-♭7-8
  • Lydian – W W W H W W H     (T-T-T-ST-T-T-ST)      1-2-3-#4-5-6-7-8
  • Mixolydian – W W H W W H W     (T-T-ST-T-T-ST-T)   1-2-3-4-5-6-♭7-8
  • Aeolian – W H W W H W W     (T-ST-T-T-ST-T-T)    1-2-♭3-4-5-♭6-♭7-8
  • Locrian – H W W H W W W    (ST-T-T-ST-T-T-T)     1-♭2-♭3-4-♭5-♭6-♭7-8

You can see i also added the interval formulas (1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 etc). If you have trained your interval skills, you should be able to build modes is your head just as easily as building scales. If you are unaware of how to use intervals, there will be a link at the bottom of this page to our in depth, yet simple explanation.

Now we are going to analyze the difference in these modes and then move on to understanding to the chord progressions that go under the modes.

Modes are used to simply Emphasize different key notes in the same collection of notes. Using the list above you can see that you only move one placement to the right per modal change in this order. Putting this into notes, we will use the C Major scale as our example, since it has no sharps or flats.

Ionian – C-D-E-F-G-A-B

Dorian – D-E-F-G-A-B-C

Phrygian – E-F-G-A-B-C-D

Lydian –  F-G-A-B-C-D-E

Mixolydian – G-A-B-C-D-E-F

Aeolian – A-B-C-D-E-F-G

Locrian – B-C-D-E-F-G-A

By moving the starting position of your scale, you are altering the mode you play in; yet using the exact same notes! Doing this changes the expression and feeling that the piece of music lets of; yet it’s such a simple task to do once understood. If you were to play in G Major (which has an F#), the Ionian mode would be – G-A-B-C-D-E-F# and the Dorian mode would be A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. It’s very simple to work these out, but if it’s a new concept to you, writing out the notes of the scale you are playing in would be very beneficial for you.

If you are following the C Major scale, the term order would be – D Dorian – E Phrygian – F Lydian – G Mixolydian – A Aeolian – B Locrian.

If you are following the D Major scale, the term order would be – D Ionian – E Dorian – F Phrygian – G Lydian – A Mixolydian – B Aeolian – C Locrian.

Simply name your root as Ionian, number your note order (in roman numerals) and then apply the modal name for each note.

Now we need to know what chords each mode is suitable to play over. We can do this by simply looking at the intervals in each mode.

Ionian – Your I Major 7th chord

Dorian – Your ii minor 7th chord

Phrygian – Your iii minor 7th chord

Lydian – Your IV Major 7th chord

Mixolydian – Your V Dominant 7th chord

Aeolian – Your Vi minor 7th chord

Locrian – Your Vii half diminished chord (m7♭5)

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