Scale Theory: Part 3

Scale Construction – Part 3 What Are Modes

This is probably one of the most awaited articles in the scale theory series! Lots of people seem to be somwhat confused by modes. (-:

If you don’t read music (“notes” on the staff) and if you’ve never encountered any music theory in the past, this is a good place to start. Go slow, read on and don’t be afraid to ask questions! In the course of this scale theory article series about scale construction, you’ll find music theory info about the major scale, how to read key signatures, modes and more…

Are you ready to know (and finally really undertsand) modes?! Let’s go!

Jump to a page:

Scale Construction 1: The Formula
Scale Construction 2: Building All the Keys (Signatures)
Scale Construction 3: Intro to Modes [You’re Here]
Scale Construction 4: 21 Most Common Modes


  • Scale Formulas: using scale degrees to show how a scale is built in comparison to the major scale. For instance, the major scale is simply 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. We alter the notes with flats (b) or sharps (#) to completely describe how another scale is built. For instance, a scale with a “flat 7” is written using this formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7.

Scale Theory: Modes Introduction

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard about modes somehow, somewhere. It still fascinates me that there’s this big aura of mystery around what a mode actually is! In very few words, a mode is a scale built from starting NOT on the root of an already existing familiar scale (the “parent scale”).

Simplest example, take C major scale as our parent scale. Instead of looking at it from C to C, start on a different note, say D. You are now looking at the second mode of C major, also called D dorian.

The implications of starting a simple scale from a different root are huge. It’s NOT just about playing the exact same tones in a different order! Seeing everything from this “modal” perspective (for instance, all the notes in C major but with the note D as the root) changes the overall “gravity” of the notes. It changes harmony and everything else. D dorian doesn’t imply a beautiful C major CHORD anymore… it sounds like Dm7!!!

To relate back to the good old major scale theory formula: The order of the intervals WWHWWWH is still there, but it’s going to be re-arranged, in the case of D dorian, to be WHWWWHW (moving everything one notch).

Think of the C major scale as a solar system. The notes organize themselves around the “gravity” of C. When we play in D dorian, the gravities are completely re-organized and everything evolves around D… but all the same “planets” and “moons” are there! Same notes, same order (formula), same everything…with different implications.

So, in brief, a mode is still a scale… we simply call it mode because we know it relates back to a well know parent scale. We can build a mode upon each note of the major scale, and it’s exactly what we’ll do now.

Scale Theory: Modes from the Major Scale

What’s coming up is simply, once again, just the major scale but starting on different roots. We’ll use the key of C major to demonstrate AND all the starting notes will be shown (thus demonstrating the 7 modes of major).

To relativize, I’ll also include the formula using scale degrees to explain the modes. Using such formulas will show you how much different each mode really is from anything else! It’s the aural perspective on each mode that makes is sound the way it sounds… not just the notes contained within.

So in brief: the modes of C major are seven distinct ways of looking at the exact same old thing. (-:


Mode 1: C Ionian (aka major scale)
Formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C major chord. The foundation of it all.

Mode 2: D Dorian (aka Dorian minor)
Formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Implies a Dm7 chord. Often used in jazz. It’s the iim7 chord.

Mode 3: E Phrygian
Formula: 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
This is like a Em7 chord with a b9. Often used over E7sus4(b9)

Mode 4: F Lydian
Formula: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Same as a major scale with #4. (Think of F major with a “B natural”)

Mode 5: G Mixolydian (aka dominant)
Formula: 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Same as a major scale with b7. Implies a G7. Bluesy-ish. It’s the V7 chord.
The is the dominant sound.

Mode 6: A Aeolian (aka Natural Minor)
Formula: 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
The simplest “most stable” type of minor tonality. Sounds like Am7.

Mode 7: B Locrian
Formula: 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
Bm7(5) chord sounding. A very “odd” mode.

To further understand these modes and all the scale theory, please see also the chords “up to the 13th” on the “Chord Construction – Part 4” page…

Scale Theory: “Seeing” C major modes

modes of C majorModes: 7 modes of C Major Scale

Scale Theory: Key Signatures for Modes

This is very easy: often you can use the signature of the parent major scale.

Let’s say you were playing a tune in C major (key signature is explicitly C major)… even if parts of the tune can be in other modes (see any of the 7 modes above), the key signature can still remain the same!

“OMG, I need to learn ALL the modes!!!”

Ok, breath and relax now. Here’s a simple way to hear and learn the modes…

Remember that you are not “learning all the modes” you are simply looking at the major scale from a different perspective each time. It’s nothing new! (Shouldn’t feel like something new in your mind at least.)

Practice steps:

  1. On the guitar, find all the notes of the C major scale on the 2nd (B) string. The frets are 1 3 5 6 8 10 12 13. Play the scale a few times and memorize the sounds / location of all the notes.
  2. Strum a simple C major chord (and possibly let a “C” bass note ring out by tuning down your lowest string)
  3. Explore the C major scale on the 2nd string by relating it to that “C” bass note. (You’re now playing in C Ionian, the major scale).
  4. Stay on that “sound” for about 3-5 minutes. Listen, explore.
  5. Repeat steps 2-3-4 SEVEN times by changing the bass note to D, E, F, G, A, B … you will have “learned” the modes of C.

So, whenever you think you have to learn 532 new fingering patterns on the fretboard because you’re stressing out about “all the modes” in scale theory, just come back to this exercise. You may do it in all the keys… but always remember: the important is NOT to learn “new* things, it to see common scales in a different light. (-:

Scale Theory: Modes in other Keys?


If C major has D dorian then G major has A dorian … and F major has G dorian and so on. Each individual major key has its seven assorted modes. They’re always the same, in the same order with the same implications … except they’re in a different key! (-:

Remember the idea of “constant structure”. That’s what I meant!

Next, in the last page in this scale theory series, we’re going to take a final look a modes through two more “parent scales”: C melodic minor and C harmonic minor.

Jump to a page:

Scale Construction 1: The Formula
Scale Construction 2: Building All the Keys (Signatures)
Scale Construction 3: Intro to Modes [You’re Here]
Scale Construction 4: 21 Most Common Modes

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