Modes are an integral part of music theory: notes, time signatures, and chords, modes help build the foundation of all music. This is true in both classical music as well as other genres of music.
The modes have interesting names inspired by the theory of Ancient Greek music. Modes are not new: in fact, they have been present in music since the Middle Ages.
Today, we are going to explore two significant topics:
First, we dive into the essential modes of music theory.
And secondly, we will discuss how you can use these modes to compose, perform, and improvise.
Throughout this article, we will also provide examples of the modes used in different music pieces.
Here are the eight essential modes, as well as a few more “advanced” modes not commonly taught in music theory classrooms that can advance your music theory knowledge and musicianship significantly.
The Ionian mode is identical to the Major scale and is the most prevalent mode in all music.
More than 99% of all Western music – both classical and contemporary – is based on the Ionian mode.
Above, you can see a diagram of the Ionian mode in the key of C Major.
Emotionally, the Ionian mode is associated with feelings of happiness, serenity, calm, and a sense of resolution.
The last point, the sense of resolution, is due strongly to the tendency tone of the Ionian mode’s final interval between the 7th and 8th scale degrees.
This half-step gives the listener a resolution that is classic to Western music.
The next mode is the Dorian mode, a popular mode widely used in music genres as diverse as Gregorian chant and contemporary jazz.
What makes the Dorian mode so interesting? Like any mode, it feels like both a major and minor scale.
While the flattened 3rd and 7th – compared to the Ionian mode – give it a distinctly minor feeling that it has the same sixth as the Ionian scale makes it feel lighter and less dramatic than, say, the natural minor scale.
One of the most iconic uses of the Dorian mode is in the track So What by Miles Davis. This piece has a melody famously played by the bassist.
This scale makes the track feel cool and aloof, a perfect representation of Miles Davis in just one mode. The entire album Kind of Blue is an excellent primer into modes.
The Phrygian mode is interesting as it is identical to the minor scale – see Aeolian mode later in this article – except the second note is flattened.
Depending on the composer’s intentions, this can make for exciting usage.
Naturally, in a minor scale, the second chord is a diminished chord. Here, however, it is a major chord.
The Phrygian mode is perhaps not as widely used as the Dorian mode; however, interesting Phrygian uses are still abundant throughout the classical literature.
One exciting example is in the final movement of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, which we recently labeled the greatest Minimalist music work of all time.
The soloist in this piece, in a true minimalist fashion, sings nothing but the Phrygian scale repeatedly.
Seriously – the singer only sings this scale in the exact order it is studied and performed in consistent quarter notes.
Here is the example:
The Lydian mode is characterized by its 4th scale degree: the mode is identical to the major scale except the 4th scale degree is raised by a half step.
The raised 4th scale degree is a favorite among composers for centuries for its characteristic “sentimental” feeling.
Try it yourself – play a C Major triad in the left hand starting on Middle C, then in the right hand perform the notes F♯ then G. There is a sentimental quality to the music, is there not?
The interval between the first and fourth note of the Lydian mode is a tritone, which has often been dubbed the Diabolus in musica, or the “devil in music.” Without a harmonic context, the interval is dramatically dissonant and “scary” sounding.
However, when backed by the right harmony, the tritone becomes sentimental, no longer devilish.
An example of the sentimental – and not devilish – usage of the tritone is in the classic musical by Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story.
You can hear the tritone below when the singer vocalizes the first and second syllables of the name “Maria” 30 seconds into the song.
The Mixolydian is a favored scale in Blues music, with its characteristic flattened 7th.
The best way to think of the Mixolydian mode is as an Ionian mode/major scale, but with said flattened 7th.
The Mixolydian mode feels like a gritty version of the major scale.
The classic “leading tone to tonic” resolution between the 7th and 8th scale degree of the major scale does not exist here.
One of the best places to utilize the Mixolydian scale is when improvising over the “Blues” chord progression.
In a typical Blues chord progression, every chord is a dominant 7th progression.
What is a dominant chord composed of? A major scale with a flattened 7th!
Thus, the Mixolydian finds itself perfectly applicable in a Blues progression.
The Aeolian mode is extraordinary as it has its own, more common name – the minor scale!
While there are technically several kinds of minor scales, the Aeolian is the classic “natural minor” scale.
Anytime you hear that a song is in “C minor” or “B♭ minor,” you can be confident the music is based on the Aeolian mode.
(Of course, a minor key song could technically be based on a minor scale variant, like the harmonic or melodic minor scales. However, the primary minor scale used in minor key compositions is the natural minor Aeolian mode).
I would describe the Aeolian mode as sad, nostalgic, reflective.
In its most simple terms, the Aeolian has an “opposite” feeling to the Ionian. Aeolian is sad, and Ionian is happy. All other modes fall in between these two extremes.
There are endless uses of the Aeolian scale/minor key in all of classical music.
The Locrian mode is perhaps the “darkest” of all modes.
Compared to the Ionian mode, the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th scale degrees are flattened!
It is the most dramatically different mode from the Ionian mode than any other mode.
Perhaps the Locrian mode feels so dark and “frightening” because the first triad in the scale is a diminished chord.
With the Ionian, Mixolydian, and Lydian modes, the first triad is major. With the Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian, the first triad is minor. So, Locrian is the only mode with a diminished triad as the first triad.
Although I have not read any official statistics, I would guess the Locrian mode is the least often used mode in classical music or any genre of music.
It naturally sounds the least “aesthetically pleasing” of all the modes, though that label is subjective.
Going From Here
With enough study and application of the eight modes above, you will know your modes thoroughly, understanding them intricately from the ground up.
Every mode has a unique feeling and sound. In all tonal music, which is 99.9% of all music you will ever listen to, modes are the building block foundations.
There are modes above the ones we have talked about here today. Altered modes, while uncommon, are useful tools for composers and producers of music.
For example, take Ionian mode and flat every single note in the scale, except the first note of course. This is known as the “altered dominant” and has an exotic, other-worldly flavor to it.
However, composition does not need to adhere to any specific mode. As the creator and progenitor of your music, you can try sharpening and flattening any note in any mode to create a sound unique to you. The possibilities are endless.