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The Composer’s Guide to Modes


Guide to Modes
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Alright, so in this document, I’m going to break down each of the modes in a way that, hopefully, should help you begin using them Right away! I’m going to address some of the most common questions you can find in most online music forums:


  1. What are the modes and how do I find them?

  2. What emotional/contextual feeling does each mode have?

  3. How do I write a chord progression that stays in a particular mode?

  4. How do I borrow chords/notes from a specific mode?


We’ll get started with a bit of basic theory, and then I’ll write up a profile for each mode, so that you can get started using them in your own music! If you’re not interested in theory then feel free to skip to the end, where the profiles have tips for each mode.


 

What are the modes and how do I find them?

In essence, the modes are just different kinds of scales. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Major and Minor scale. The Major scale is the stereotypical “happy” sounding scale. The minor is often called “sad” or “dark”. These two scales, or modes, make up the vast majority of all western music. If you’re familiar with these two, then awesome! Pat yourself on the back, because you already know two of the seven modes we’ll be discussing!


In addition to “happy sounding” Ionian and “sad sounding” aeolian, there is also the


“sad but hopeful” Dorian


“exotic-sounding” Phrygian


“quirky and uplifting” Lydian


“serious but optimistic” Mixolydian


and “dark and difficult” Locrian


Now I can already hear the backlash I might get for this. Some music theorists hate it when you try to attach emotion or other “subjective” adjectives to musical concepts.


Yes! All of the descriptions I gave are subjective. Is it possible to write sad-sounding music in a major key? Absolutely! But in my experience, being told that “Scales don’t have inherent emotion, you dolt! It’s how you use a scale that gives you emotion!” isn’t very helpful. Especially for beginners! So for the purposes of this document, we’re going to go ahead and assign an emotional personality to each mode. These personalities come from how they’re often described by musicians and those who use them. Just make sure that you are aware that it is indeed very possible to get different emotions in your music by “how you use” different tools and concepts that you have available.


So now that I’m off my soap-box, let’s get back to the topic at hand. What exactly are Modes? Well, we’ve already defined them as scales, so the next natural step is to discuss how you can write each of these scales. We could go into detail on which intervals are used to write each mode, but that’s needlessly complicated at this moment (although I’ll include this information in each mode’s profile). Instead, let’s take an arguably much simpler route, and talk about how to turn any major scale into the mode of your choice!


Let’s start by discussing relative scales. Just like you, each of the scales/modes has relatives. You share some of your DNA with your relatives, and each of the modes shares its own DNA with its relatives. In this case, we’ll consider the notes of a scale to be “Modal DNA”.


Two relative scales share the same exact notes but in a different order. For example, C-Major and A-minor:


C-Major:


C - D - E - F - G - A - B | C ...



A- minor: (for purposes of this document, all minor scales mentioned are “natural minor” there are a few other types of minor scales, but we’ll tackle that in a different article)


A - B - C - D - E - F - G | A ...


These two scales are relatives to each other and share their DNA. The A-minor has all the same notes as C-Major, but it starts with an A, which is the 6th note (a.k.a “scale degree”) in the C-Major scale. In fact, you can take any Major scale at all, and find its relative minor scale by looking at its 6th scale degree.


What’s the sixth scale degree of D-Major?


D - E - F# - G - A - B - C# | D ...

1 2 3 4 5 6 7


B Natural!


What’s the relative minor scale of D Major? B minor!


B - C# - D - E - F# - G - A | B ...


It’s that simple! Likewise, every Major scale (Ionian mode) has a relative for each mode:


Dorian starts on the 2nd scale degree of a major scale


Phrygian starts on the 3rd scale degree of a major scale


Lydian starts on the 4th scale degree of a major scale


Mixolydian starts on the 5th scale degree of a major scale


Aeolian (minor scale) starts on the 6th degree of a major scale


And Locrian starts on the 7th scale degree of a major scale!


You can remember the order with the Mnemonic: “I Don’t Particularly Like Modes Anyway Lady!”


Congratulations! You’ve now mastered the basics of modal theory! If you really wanted, you could stop right here and start writing in any one of these modes. However, in my opinion, the most fun to be had with modes is writing with more than one! For that, it’ll be important to understand our next topic: Parallel scales!


Borrowing Chords from different modes

Parallel scales are any scale that share the same first note. So a C major scale and a C minor scale would be considered Parallel. So would an A major and an A minor.

Since the tonic note (first note of a scale) is the home for each scale, it means that chord progressions written in parallel major and parallel minor scales want to resolve to the same home note. So how is this useful? Well, let’s look at the diatonic chords of the major and minor scales to find out (fancy word for chords that occur naturally in the major and minor scales).


If you didn’t know already, you find the diatonic chords of any scale by starting on the first note and following the pattern “skip, add, skip, add”. In other words, you start with the first note, skip the one right after it, add the 3rd, skip the 4th, and add the 5th. You then continue this pattern for each note in the scale. Each chord is named after the first note used to make it (also called the “root note”)


So for example; a C major scale goes: C D E F G A B C


Following this pattern, we’d find our first diatonic chord by starting with C, skipping the D, adding the E, skipping the F, and adding the G. This would create a C Major chord, which contains C, E and G.


C D E F G A B C


We’d then find our second chord by starting on D, skipping E and G to create D, F, G which is a D minor chord. Make sense?


C D E F G A B C


Since this pattern is used for every single scale, and since every mode uses a specific pattern of intervals to become that mode, it means that every type of mode has its own specific order of diatonic chords.


For example, all major scales follow the diatonic chord pattern:


I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii°


In which:

A capital roman numeral = a major chord

A lower case roman numerals= a minor chord

And a “°” = a diminished chord.


So a C major scale would have the chords:


C Major, D minor, E minor, F Major, G Major, A minor, B diminished.


This pattern applies to ALL major scales.


Likewise, all minor scales follow the pattern:


i-ii°-III-iv-v-VI-VII


So why is this important? Well, let’s say you’re writing a chord progression in the Major scale.


I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-vii°


You’ve played around for a bit and come up with the following progression:


I-iii-IV


You’re working in the key of C major, so this comes out to a:


C Maj/E min/F Maj


You like the feel of it so far, and know that you want it to end with another minor chord, but you don’t like the way the ii, iii, or vi sound at the end of your progression (D minor/E minor/A minor). What do you do? Just pick a chord you don’t think feels right? Nope! Because here’s where it all comes together!


Since parallel scales share a tonic, you can borrow chords from any scale parallel to the one you’re working in! So in this scenario, you’re looking for another minor chord so you look at your parallel minor scale: the C minor scale.


i-ii°-III-iv-v-VI-VII


The minor scale has three minor chords of its own: i, iv, and v: C minor, F minor, and G minor respectively. You decide to try the F minor (iv) from that scale and add it to the end of your progression, which is now:


I-iii-IV-(iv)*

*the last chord is in parentheses because it’s borrowed.


You love it! The progression now feels exactly how you wanted it to feel! And all because you understood how to borrow chords from different scales!


Following this premise, you can borrow chords from any of the 6 parallel modes you’re working with!


So at any given time, you have 6 parallel modes that you can borrow from!


When looking at all parallel modes, your chord options look like this:



Where a “b” means the root note is lowered a half step, compared to the parallel major scale, and the “#” means the root is raised a half step compared to the parallel major scale.


So if you’re working in the Key of C Major, your chord options would look like




Where a “b” means the root note is lowered a half step, compared to the parallel major scale, and the “#” means the root is raised a half step compared to the parallel major scale.


So if you’re working in the Key of C Major, your chord options would look like


And with that, you should now have a basic understanding of how modes can be used in your music! This, of course, is only scratching the surface, but the more practice you get in the more ways you'll learn to use these tools!


Below you'll find some "Modal Profiles" that I've put together with basic information on how you can start using each mode right away!


Modal Profiles:

W= whole step, H= half step