Modes Explained 1: An Introduction

Over the next few months we’ll be exploring the theory and usage of the most common scales guitarists use. Specifically we’ll be exploring the seven modes, which include the simple major and minor scales, and we’ll also be looking at the major and minor pentatonic scales as well as the blues scale. After we’ve covered the ‘basics’ we’ll look at the harmonic minor and the melodic minor scales, which are the most common variations on the natural minor scale; and finally look at a few modes of those minor scales. Hopefully, this series will end up as the most thorough and detailed explanation of scales for guitarists anywhere on the web! :fingers crossed:

Today though, we’ll start simple, and find out just what a scale is :) .


So What’s a Scale?

Scales are simply a collection of (usually at least five) notes, with one of those notes being specified as the root. Any collection of notes with a root could be called a scale, so the number of theoretically possible scales is infinite. In reality though, history and common practice has distilled these infinite possibilities down to just a few basic scales, which form the basis of all other common scales.

So What is a Root?

The root note is a note which controls what kind of feeling or emotion a scale will imply. It is the most fundamental note of a scale, chord, or key, and it is the note against which every other note is judged/heard. We perceive every note of a scale, chord, or key as it relates to the root note.

Also the root note is the letter used to name scales, chords and keys. For instance a C major scale will have a ‘C’ as its root note; a Gmin chord will have a ‘G’ as its root; and a piece written in the key of ‘B’ will have a ‘B’ as the root.

The root note is the most important note in a scale, chord or key and so it is the note which receives the most ‘emphasis’. Notes which are emphasised (especially harmonically) stand out to the ear, so we perceive this note as having a special importance in the scale, chord, or piece. In this sense the root is usually referred to as a key centre.

How Can the Root be Emphasised?

Scales are usually rehearsed starting and finishing on the root note – this naturally reinforces the importance of the root. Similarly, songs usually use chord progressions and a harmonic rhythm which emphasise a particular chord and note, and will typically begin or end on the root chord.

Harmonic context (the chords/chord progression) is usually the number one indicator in determining the key centre/root of a piece, and for determining which scales/modes are appropriate for melodic composition or improvisation.

What Are the Modes?

Let’s take the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. If the note ‘C’ is taken as the root then these notes form the C major scale (we’ll talk about this more later); but if we take ‘A’ as the root then these notes form the A minor scale. The same set of notes can create two completely different scales depending on which note is the root.

These same notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) can also be known as D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, or B Locrian, depending on which note is taken as the root.

If scales are collections of notes, then modes are scales but with different notes taken as the root.

So How Do I Know Which Note is the Root?

Context! You need to listen to the underlying chord progression, rhythmic structure and melodic structure to determine which note is sounding like the key centre (i.e. which note is being ‘emphasised’).

Here are a few mp3s for you to listen to. All of these mp3s use the same set of scale notes but every example has a different emotive quality and ‘flavour’ because of them each taking a different note as its root. To create context and hopefully make the differences between each mode more obvious, I have phrased the mode to emphasis the root notes and I have included a chordal backing to create harmonic context.

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Please try again later.

Summary

Hopefully this article hasn’t scared you off modes and scales – I promise everything will become clear in the coming articles. All that you should have taken from this post is that scales are collections of notes. Modes are scales but with different notes taken as the root. And the easiest way to tell one mode from another is to listen critically and decide for yourself which note sounds like a key centre.

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6 Comments

  1. Mot says:

    I’m anxiously awaiting the continuation of this article and the mp3′s you mentioned. Thanks for taking the time to write your blog. Your explanation of the CAGED system was excellent!

    • Ty Quinn says:

      Hiya Mot,

      Don’t worry I haven’t forgotten about the Modes Series – I’ve been flat out since the New Year but things are settling down now, so I can get back to ‘normal’ life :)

      The mp3s to this article (as well as a few in the ‘Lead Guitar Tone’ series) are on my to-do list and should be published within a week or two. Then I’ll post the next Modes article (which is actually nearly finished).

      Thanks for the appreciative comments…. they’re just the thing on need to spur me on and get me off my (occasionally lazy) backside! :D

      Ty

      • Ty Quinn says:

        UPDATE!

        My computer kicked the bucket, so I was without a computer for almost two weeks :( It was absolutely unbearable.

        The new computer is mostly setup and ready to go which means I’ve finally managed to do the audio for this article.

        The next post in the series is the next thing on my list. Its basically written but I still need to draw up the examples/diagrams, so it may be a few days yet.

        Ty

  2. Phil says:

    Hey Ty, fantastic site! Absolutely loving it.

    “but if we take ‘A’ as the root then these notes form the A minor scale. The same set of notes can create two completely different scales depending on which note is the root.”

    Isn’t there a G sharp in A minor? So if I play C major from A to A it wouldn’t quite be A minor would it? Sorry but I find modes confusing, I don’t really see a need for them if they are just describing major scales with different reading frames- from whatever degree of the major scale to the octave above. I struggle :(

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to make such an awesome site!

    • Ty Quinn says:

      Hi Phil,

      Maybe I should have been more specific. The scale A B C D E F G A is the A natural minor (aka the Aeolian mode) – whereas A B C D E F G# A is the A harmonic minor. I’ll try to do a post on the most common different kinds of minor scales in the next few weeks – the natural minor, the harmonic minor, and the melodic minor. Hopefully this should clear some things up for you.

      “I don’t really see a need for them if they are just describing major scales with different reading frames”

      Have a listen to the mp3 examples. Hopefully you hear how each mode has a different mood, feel or ‘affect’. The mp3s all use the same notes but they all have a unique ’sound’ so we use names to differentiate among them. Compare the Phrygian mode and the Lydian mode – these two modes are worlds apart in terms of sound one is dark and brooding while the other is light and airy. It just doesn’t make any sense to lump them all together and give them a generic catch-all term like ‘major’.

      Each mode has its own sound, has its own use and has its own name.

      A more technical answer is that each mode describes a different kind of harmony. For instance Mixolydian describes dominant harmony (e.g. G7 = G Mixolydian), Dorian describes a minor 13th chord (Dm13 = D Dorian) etc.

      Soon I’ll be writing a post on each mode separately which should answer your questions even more thoroughly,

      Regards,

      Ty

  3. Jamezshred says:

    Pretty decent lesson sofar I taught myself the modes from studying charts and you break it down better then a paid guitar lesson I’d say.

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