What are modes? Modes and scales with examples

What are Modes? How do modes become definitions and be referred to as scales. Explanation using the modes of the major scale. Modes are important because they let us understand better, the scale relationships used in music. This further relates to the choice and use of harmony.

Let us start with the diatonic chords

The diatonic chords from each note position

We have seen the diatonic chords of the major scale. Below are the diatonic chords of the C major scale.

i    C-E-G
1-3-5    Cmaj

ii    D-F-A
1-b3-5    Dmin

iii    E-G-B
1-b3-5    Emin

IV    F-A-C
1-3-5    Fmaj

V    G-B-D
1-3-5    Gmaj

vi    A-C-E
1-b3-5    Amin

vii    B-D-F
1-b3-b5    Bdim

Diatonic chords are formed from each note of the scale, by choosing alternate notes.

Similarly, if we take the notes of the major scale starting from each note of the major scale, through the notes of the major scale to the note one octave higher, we get the modes of the scale.

Modes of the major scale

Below are the modes of the major scale along with its names. Here we use the notes of the C major scale as example. Notice that each mode starts with the note in the corresponding position of the major scale, follows the sequence of notes till the starting note one octave higher.

i    C D E F G A B C
     Ionian mode

ii    D E F G A B C D
      Dorian mode

iii   E F G A B C D E
      Phrygian mode

IV   F G A B C D E F
      Lydian mode

V    G A B C D E F G
      Mixolydian mode

vi    A B C D E F G A
      Aeolian mode

vii   B C D E F G A B
      Locrian mode

Modes as relative positions

For example, the third mode of the major scale starts from the 3rd note of the major scale. If we are talking about the C major scale, the 3rd mode starts from the 3rd note in the scale, which is E. 4th mode of the major scale will start from the 4th note of the major scale.

We can talk about modes for any scale. The fourth mode of the harmonic minor scale will have the same note sequence as the harmonic minor, starting from the 4th note, through the sequence of notes till the 4th note an octave higher.

Modes are with respect to the original scale's first note.

Modes on their own: scales

The third mode of the C major scale, the phrygian mode has the notes: E F G A B C D E

Let us write the interval that each note forms with the note E. Now we are starting to consider E phrygian as a scale on its own, as a sequence of notes with the root E, and not just as the C major scale starting from E.

E F G A B C D E
root minor 2nd minor 3rd perfect4th fifth minor 6th minor 7th octave

The interval pattern (root – minor 2nd – minor 3rd – 4th – minor 6th – minor 7th – octave) is unique to the phrygian mode. So, the term phrygian can be used to define this set of intervals, and therefore can be used as the name of a scale. In The Jazz Theory Book , Mark Levine clearly states that the terms mode and scale are used in the book to mean the same.

When we say D phrygian, start with the D note, follow the interval pattern, and we get the D phrygian scale, which is the third mode of a major scale at the same time.

Below chart shows the notes of the C phrygian scale, got by starting with the C note as root:

C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C
root minor 2nd minor 3rd perfect4th fifth minor 6th minor 7th octave

The set of notes – C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C – form the C Phrygian scale. The set of notes is the phrygian mode of a major scale, at the same time. The interval relationships of the phrygian scale are derived from the third mode of the major scale. Since the interval set is unique, it can be used to define a scale. The scale formed using the interval relationship of the phrygian mode, starting from a root note, can be called the phrygian scale.

Which major scale has the C phrygian scale?

Phrygian is the third mode of a major scale (definition).

So, we just have to find which major scale has C as the third note.

Take a guess. Let us try the note A. Find the third note of the A major scale: A (skip A#) B (skip C!) C#

The major scale that has C as the third note is therefore Ab – one note to the left of A in the sequence of notes.

C phrygian is the third mode of the Ab major scale.

Modes and scales

Each mode of the major scale (or harmonic minor or melodic minor or any scale) gives us a unique set of interval relationship between the notes, so that the the mode can be referred to as a scale from the starting note (root of the scale, position of the mode).

For example the mode from the 4th note of the major scale is called the Lydian. The only difference between the lydian mode and the ionian (the major scale) is that the lydian has a sharp fourth while the major scale has a perfect fourth.

This can be used as the definition of the Lydian scale: major scale intervals with a sharp fourth instead of the perfect fourth.

For example, here are the notes of the C Lydian scale: C D E F# G A B C

As you may notice, the only difference of C lyridan from the C major scale (C D E F G A B C) is the fourth note F# instead of the F in the C major scale.

Talking about lydian as the fourth mode of the major scale is similar to referring to John as the 4th son of Thomas. At the same time John has his own unique identifying characteristics, just as the notes of the lydian mode has a unique set of interval relation between the notes. Now if we make a set of notes which follows the interval patterns got from the lydian mode, we can call that set of notes the Lydian scale with the starting note as root.

Posted in Music Theory

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