Major Scale Modes

Modes are basically scales which are built upon each of the notes of a “mother” scale, in this case the Major scale. There are seven notes in any Major scale, and so there are seven modes which can be derived. Watch the video below and then read the text for a better explanation of what is being demonstrated:

The names of these modes are:

Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.

Let’s look at how to derive these modes, using C Major as our Major scale from which they will be derived. The C Major scale is made up of the following notes: C D E F G A and B, and to play it, one would start on a C and end on a C. But what if we use the same exact notes but instead of starting on a C, we start and end on a D? This would give us the D Dorian mode. Starting on an E would give us the E Phrygian mode, starting on an F would give us the F Lydian mode and so on.

But what happens if we want to use a mode that is not derived from a C Major scale?

Remember, I am only using C Major as an example, these modes can be derived from any major scale. Let’s say we want to figure out how to play the B Phrygian mode. The Phrygian is the third mode, so which major scale has B as its 3rd degree? The G Major scale (G A B C D E #F). So the B Phrygian mode is a G Major scale but starting and ending on a B:

B C D E #F G and A.

Let’s find another mode, for the sake of practice. Let’s say we want to play the G Dorian mode. The Dorian is the second mode, so which Major scale has G as its 2nd degree? The F Major scale (F G A Bb C D E). So the G Dorian mode is an F Major starting and ending on a G:

G A Bb C D E and F.

Another way of thinking about modes

The first way to think about modes is the one described above, i.e. in relation to the Major scale from which the mode has been derived. For example a D Dorian mode is a C Major scale starting on a D because the Dorian mode is the second mode and C Major has D as its 2nd degree. The other way to think about a mode is in relation to the Major scale which shares the same root note. So, instead of thinking of the D Dorian mode as a C Major scale starting on a D, you can think of it as a D Major scale with a flattened 3rd and a flattened 7th. To understand this, compare the D Major and the D Dorian scales:

D Major D E F# G A B C#
Scale degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
D Dorian D E F G A B C

Now you can see that, in relation to the D Major scale, the 3rd and 7th degrees of the D Dorian mode are flattened. To use this way of thinking about modes, you will need to know the “formula” of each of the seven modes. You have already seen that the formula of the Dorian mode is: 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6 and b7. Here is a table with all seven of the formulas so you can use them to derive modes:

Mode Formula
Ionian 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
Dorian 1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7
Phrygian 1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Lydian 1-2-3-#4-5-6-7
Mixolydian 1-2-3-4-5-6-b7
Aeolian 1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7
Locrian 1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7

I hope this lesson gave you an insight about what modes are and a better understanding of how to figure them out. Modes are used a lot in many styles of music, and Jazz is no exception, so soon I will be adding another lesson on how and when you can use these modes to enhance your playing.