Modes Explained 2: Meet the Modes

This post introduces the modes of the major scale which are the Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian modes. It also introduces important terms such as ‘parent scale’, ‘relatives’ and ‘scale degrees’.


Scales First

In the previous modes lesson, we learned that modes are simply ordinary scales with different notes being considered as being the root, so its obvious that you must be thoroughly comfortable navigating the basic major and minor fretboard maps, before trying modes. If you need a refresher then this CAGED article is a good place to start, and it would be good to have the scale fingering charts and the modes fingering charts near to hand as well.

Ionian Mode

The first mode of the major scale is the Ionian mode (pronounced I-OH-NEE-UN), which is the mode starting on the first scale degree (first note) of the C major scale, which is C.

C Major C D E F G A B
C Ionian C D E F G A B

Hopefully you’ve noticed that C Major and C Ionian are exactly the same. They contain exactly the same notes, and have the same note as the root. The figure below shows the CAGED shapes for C Ionian – of course, you should already know these shapes because they are identical to the C Major shapes.

The terms ‘Major scale’ and ‘Ionian mode’ are different words for the same thing. The term ‘major scale’ is used most of the time, but the term ‘Ionian’ is usually preferred when talking about modes.

The Aeolian Mode

The Aeolian mode (pronounced A-OH-LEE-UN) is the sixth mode of the major scale, meaning it’s the mode starting on the sixth degree of the major scale. For the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C), the sixth note is A.

We say that A Aeolian is derived from the C major scale or that the C major scale is the parent scale of A Aeolian. Note that these two scales have exactly the same notes – but they each begin on different notes. The root of C major is ‘C’, so the scale begins on ‘C’, whereas A Aeolian has ‘A’ as its root so it begins on the note ‘A’.

C Major C D E F G A B
A Aeolian A B C D E F G

Below is a fretboard diagram showing the notes of A Aeolian. Hopefully you recognise it as being identical to the natural minor scale – if not, you should compare each of these shapes with the ones in the natural minor scale pdf. We know that the terms Ionian and Major both refer to the same thing. Similarly, the terms Natural Minor scale and the Aeolian mode are two terms for the same thing.

Also, compare this Aeolian diagram with the Ionian diagram further up the page. You should noticed that they share the same fingering patterns but the position of the root is different (the dots marked with an ‘R’). Since C Ionian and A Aeolian share the same notes, their fingering patterns should likewise be the same. Modes that share the same set of notes, but have the roots in different places, are known as related modes.

The Other Modes

So far we’ve looked at the modes beginning on the first and sixth degrees of the major scale (Ionian and Aeolian respectively). I started with these modes because you are already familiar with their scalar counterparts – the major and natural minor scales. Now lets look at the modes beginning on the other scale degrees. These are the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and the (rarely useful ) Locrian Mode.

The Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode (pronounced: DOOR-EE-UN), begins on the second degree of the major scale, and is probably the most frequently used mode other than the ordinary Major scale.

Taking a C Major scale as the parent scale, but starting on the second note will give us the D Dorian mode.

C Major C D E F G A B
D Dorian D E F G A B C

Since D Dorian and C Major share the same notes, they must also share the same fretboard map however the roots will be on different notes.

The Phrygian Mode

Pronounced FRIDGE-EE-UN, the Phrygian mode is the third mode of the major scale. Taking C Major as the parent scale but starting on the third note creates the E Phrygian mode.

C Major C D E F G A B
E Phrygian E F G A B C D

Again, since E Phrygian and C Major are relatives of each other and share the same notes, the fretboard map and the fingerings will be the same. Of course, the roots are different though.

The Lydian Mode

The fourth mode of the major scale is the Lydian mode (pronounced LID-EE-UN). A C Major parent scale gives us the F Lydian mode since F is the fourth note of C major.

C Major C D E F G A B
F Lydian F G A B C D E

As with the other examples, F Lydian and C Major are fingered the same, however the position of the roots have changed.

The Mixolydian Mode

The Mixolydian mode (pronounced MIX-OH-LID-EE-UN) is the fifth mode of the major scale. Working in C major will get the G Mixolydian mode.

C Major C D E F G A B
G Mixolydian G A B C D E F

As before, the fingering stays the same, but the roots have moved.

The Locrian Mode

We’ve already covered the sixth mode (the Aeolian), so moving on to the seventh, and last, mode is the Locrian mode (LOCK-REE-UN). Working in C Major gives us the B Locrian mode.

C Major C D E F G A B
B Locrian B C D E F G A

Memorising the Order of the Modes

So far we’ve seen that:

  • The first mode is the Ionian mode. It starts on the first degree of the major scale
  • The second mode is the Dorian mode. It starts on the second degree of the major scale
  • The third mode is the Phrygian mode. It starts on the third degree of the major scale
  • The fourth mode is the Lydian mode. It starts on the fourth degree of the major scale
  • The fifth mode is the Mixolydian mode. It starts on the fifth degree of the major scale
  • The sixth mode is the Aeolian mode. It starts on the sixth degree of the major scale
  • The seventh mode is the Locrian mode. It starts on the seventh degree of the major scale

Memorising the order of the modes can be difficult, so here are a few mnemonics that I found in a quick google search.

  • I Do Phat Licks, Modes Are Lame
  • I Dont Particularly Like Modes A Lot
  • I Don’t Play Like My Aunt Lilly
  • I Dig Performers Like McCartney And Lennon

Related Modes

If this post doesn’t make complete sense to you yet, don’t worry, just make sure that you know the order of the modes and have a good grasp of the following:

  • There are seven modes of the major scale
  • Each mode starts on a different degree of the major scale
  • Modes that share the same notes are “related modes”
  • Modes that are derived from the same parent scale must have the same notes
  • Therefore, modes that are derived from the same parent scale must also be “related modes”
  • All of the modes covered so far have been related modes. They all share the same notes and were all derived from the the same parent scale, C major
  • Related modes must all share the same fingering patterns and fretboard maps
  • The only way to tell the difference between the modes is to know which note is the root

Coming Up…

This article has really only introduced what modes are. Soon we look at what they are for, how they are used, and the characters and moods that each mode creates. Also, we’ve only seen modes of the Major scale, but there are also plenty of great modes based on other scales, particularly the Melodic Minor scale, which we will have a look at too.

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One Comment

  1. Jamezshred says:

    You shouldn’t teach that Locrian is rarely useful. Locrian is VERY useful.

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