Music TheoryHarmonyScales

The Musical Modes: What Are They?

Written by Dan Farrant

Last updated

When learning music, we tend to think of scales as having either a happy, cheerful, and bright sound (major scale) or a sad, melancholic sound (minor). But, in reality, there are a whole host of other scales, each with its own unique mood.

In this post, we’re going to take a look at these other scales, which are known as the music modes.

What are Modes in Music?

Modes, which are sometimes called the church modes, are a series of seven musical scales, each with its own unique qualities and sound.

These seven scales are all types of diatonic scales, which means they have seven notes, contain two intervals that are semitones (half steps) and five intervals that are tones (whole steps).

The Seven Types of Mode

There are seven different types of modes which are:

  • Ionian mode
  • Dorian mode
  • Phrygian mode
  • Lydian mode
  • Mixolydian mode
  • Aeolian mode
  • Locrian mode

We can also categorize these seven modes into two types: major modes and minor modes.

The three major modes are Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian, and the four minor modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

Major modes are major because the third note in their scale is a major 3rd above the tonic, and the minor modes are minor as the third note in their scale is a minor third above the tonic.

Let’s take a look at the seven modes in a bit more detail.

Ionian Mode

Let’s start with the Ionian mode, the foundational cornerstone of Western music.

You may be familiar with the Ionian mode already, albeit unknowingly. That’s because it’s the same as the major scale.

For example, below is C Ionian mode, and you’ll see it uses the same notes as C major scale with no sharps or flats – it is comprised entirely of natural notes.

C Ionian mode

The Ionian mode is characterized by its uplifting, joyful sound, with its unambiguous, consonant harmony, which makes it a popular choice in countless musical genres.

Its familiar, comfortable sound is derived from its specific sequence of whole and half steps, which provide its iconic major tonality.

For a more in-depth exploration of the Ionian mode, its applications, and examples in music, head over to our guide to the Ionian mode here.

Dorian Mode

Next, let’s explore the Dorian mode, the second of the seven musical modes.

In essence, the Dorian mode is a type of minor scale because it contains an interval of a minor third, which provides its distinctive sound.

The structure of the Dorian mode is defined by its unique pattern of whole and half steps. If you’re building it on the basis of the major (Ionian) scale, it is achieved by flattening the third and seventh degrees of the scale.

Here is a C Dorian scale:

C Dorian mode

This gives the Dorian mode a minor tonality with a jazzy, bluesy character, differing it from the natural minor scale, which has a flattened 6th. Thus, it’s an invaluable scale in the toolbox of composers and improvisers who wish to evoke a somewhat melancholic yet soulful mood.

To delve deeper into its theory, examples, and characteristics, check out our comprehensive guide to the Dorian mode here.

Phrygian Mode

Next on our list is the Phrygian mode, the third of the seven musical modes. This mode stands out due to its unique characteristic: it contains a minor second interval, which is the smallest possible interval in Western music.

Just like the Dorian mode, the Phrygian mode is classified as a minor mode due to the presence of a flattened third. However, it further distinguishes itself by its darker and more dissonant tonal character, attributed to additional flattened notes.

To construct a Phrygian scale, we flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees of the major scale.

C Phrygian mode

Having all of these notes flattened makes it a very distinctive, dark-sounding scale that is often associated with suspense, mystery, and certain ethnic musical styles.

For a deeper dive into the theory and examples, check out our guide to the Phrygian mode here.

Lydian mode

Moving on to the fourth mode, next, we have the Lydian mode. Of the seven modes, the Lydian mode stands out as the brightest sounding.

It’s very similar to the Ionian mode but with a single, crucial difference – it contains a raised or ‘sharpened’ fourth degree.

To build a Lydian scale, we follow the pattern of the major scale but sharpen the fourth degree.

C Lydian mode

This results in a scale that has an unexpected, ‘floating’ character, often associated with a sense of dreaminess or wonder.

Explore its theory and examples in music in our guide to the Lydian mode here.

Mixolydian Mode

Next, we move on to the 5th mode, the Mixolydian mode, also frequently referred to as the ‘dominant scale.’

The Mixolydian mode is very similar to the Ionian mode, with just one key difference that significantly impacts its tonal quality. Instead of a major seventh like the Ionian mode, the Mixolydian features a lowered or ‘flattened’ seventh degree.

C Mixolydian mode

This single change results in a scale that, while retaining the cheerful character of the major scale, brings in an added bluesy, ‘unfinished’ feel, making it a favorite among rock, jazz, and blues musicians.

To learn more about it with examples, you can read our comprehensive guide to the Mixolydian mode here.

Aeolian Mode

The 6th mode is another minor mode known as the Aeolian mode. You might recognize this one as it’s the same as the natural minor scale.

As you delve deeper into the world of music theory and composition, you’ll notice the Aeolian mode pops up in a wide range of musical genres, from classical symphonies to modern pop ballads. Its nuanced and emotive character makes it a flexible tool for conveying a range of emotions and moods.

To build the Aeolian mode, we flatten the 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees of the major scale.

C Aeolian mode

While the Aeolian mode or natural minor scale is often the first minor scale that students learn, its emotional depth and versatility shouldn’t be underestimated. It carries a profound sense of sorrow, introspection, and expressiveness, making it a powerful tool in the hands of composers and improvisers alike.

For more detail, you can read our in-depth guide to the Aeolian mode here.

Locrian Mode

Finally, we arrive at the Locrian mode, the last and perhaps the most distinctive of the seven modes.

The Locrian mode is less commonly used than the others, mostly due to its dissonant and unstable tonality. Yet, it’s by no means forgotten, particularly within certain genres.

Notably, it finds a welcoming home in jazz music, where its unique color and tension provide a fresh avenue for musical exploration and expression.

Sometimes referred to as the ‘half-diminished’ scale, the Locrian mode is characterized by both a minor third and a diminished fifth – a rare combination that gives it an eerily unresolved sound. This is in contrast to the other modes, which have a perfect fifth and, thereby, a more harmonically stable sound.

To form a Locrian scale, we start with the major scale and flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th degrees.

C locrian mode

To learn more about this scale, you can see our guide to the Locrian mode here.

The History of Modes

Modes have been around for thousands of years and are named after regions in or around Greece.

Famous Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle thought that the modes that people listened to actually molded their character!

But the modes we know today are actually from Medieval times and are more commonly known as the church modes.

They won’t sound anything like the ancient Greek ones they’re named after!

Summing up Modes

I hope that helps make a bit more sense of modes.

It can be fun to experiment with their different sounds when improvising or composing.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.