This is the first of two lessons covering the popular topic of Modes. Part 2 of the lesson coming next week.

What Are Modes?

Modes are scales that begin on different degrees of the major scale. Let’s take the C major scale for example:

C D E F G A B

If we play this scale from the 2nd degree (D), we get:

D E F G A B C

This is known as the Dorian mode.

There are seven modes and each one begins on a different degree of the major scale. Here are all the modes, the degrees they are built from and an example of each one in C major:

Mode 1 – Ionian – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 – C D E F G A B
Mode 2 – Dorian – 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 – D E F G A B C
Mode 3 – Phrygian – 3 4 5 6 7 1 2 – E F G A B C D 
Mode 4 – Lydian – 4 5 6 7 1 2 3 – F G A B C D E 
Mode 5 – Mixolydian – 5 6 7 1 2 3 4 – G A B C D E F
Mode 6 – Aeolian– 6 7 1 2 3 4 5 – A B C D E F G
Mode 7 – Locrian – 7 1 2 3 4 5 6 – B C D E F G A

Constructing The Modes

Each mode is made up of a different set of intervals, which gives each one its own unique sound and characteristics. Some of the modes contain usual intervals, which is interesting because they actually already exist within the major scale. Hearing it from a different perspective makes the unusual intervals stand out and broadens your options when it comes to writing music.

Ionian – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Dorian – 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Phrygian – 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 7
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

Modes Of The Major Scale in One Position

These patterns are all played in a single C major shape at the 8th fret of the E string

This exercise takes you through all seven modes of C major while staying in one position. Work through every scale and notice how the only thing that changes is the starting note. This is a useful exercise because it allows you to extend scales past the original box shape and connect more areas of the neck together.

Modes Of The Major Scale

A string Tonic

Here is the same exercise again but starting on the A string every time. It is really important to practice every scale you learn in multiple positions and areas of the neck so you will be prepared to use them in any situation.

Modes Of The G Major Scale

E string Tonic

Modes Of The Major Scale

In isolation on C Root

Now, try practising every mode using C as the tonic every time. This will enable you to compare the scales so you can understand the construction, sound and application of each mode.

Similarity Between Modes

As you work through each scale in isolation, you will notice that some of them are similar to each other. We can split these up into two groups – major type scales and minor type scales. 

Major Type Scales:
C Major – C D E F G A B – 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
C Lydian – C D E F# G A B – 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
C Mixolydian – C D E F G A Bb – 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Minor Type Scales:
C Natural Minor – C D Eb F G Ab Bb – 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
C Dorian – C D Eb F G A Bb – 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
C Phrygian – C Db Eb F G Ab Bb – 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
C Aeolian (same as Natural Minor) – C D Eb F G Ab Bb – 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
C Locrian – C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb – 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

As the same suggests, major type scales are more suited to being played in a major key, and minor type scales are more suited to being played in a minor key.

Chords Built From Modes

The application of each mode correlates to the chord that can be built from its tonic note. For example, we know that the fifth chord in a major key is always dominant. This means that the chord is major but contains a minor 7th. We also know that the Mixolydian mode is a major type scale, the only difference it has from the major scale is a flattened 7th. Therefore, the Mixolydian mode must fit over the dominant 5th chord in a major key. Here is a list of the chords that each mode is related to:

Relationship between Modes and Chords within a Major Key


 

Riff Examples

Here are some examples of riffs created using different modes so you can hear how the scale influences the sound.

Characteristic Scale Steps

As we already discussed, each scale is made up of a different set of intervals and this is what gives each one a unique sound. Every mode uses either the major or minor scale as a base and has one or two notes different to make it unique. Here are the scales the modes are based on and the intervals that give them their characteristics:

Major Type Scales
Lydian – #4
Mixolydian – b7

Minor Type Scales
Dorian – 6
Phrygian – b2
Aeolian – b6
Locrian – b2, b5

Difference between Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian

Each scale shares a Cm7 root chord: C Eb G Bb. The 2nd and 6th degrees are the differentiating factors. This is due to the characteristic scale steps.

Exercises

1. Create 5 riffs for each mode from any root note in any feel or tempo
2. Create a melody for each mode. Any number of bars. Try using the riffs or a backing track for inspiration

Key Signatures

Method 1: Use the parent major scale. Eg. D Dorian uses C major key signature. No need for accidentals.
Method 2: Use the closest major or minor scale to the mode. Eg. D Dorian uses D minor key signature and use Bb accidental where necessary

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