The Musical Modes: What Are They?

Last updated

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

In this post we’re going to taking 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 their own unique qualities and sound.

These seven scales are all types of diatonic scale which means they have seven notes and have 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 mode which are:

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

We can also categories 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

Up first is the Ionian mode. You most likely have already come across the Ionian scale without knowing about it.

That’s because it’s the same as the major scale.

For example, here is C Ionian mode:

C ionian mode

As you can see above, it’s exactly the same as C major scale with no sharps or flats.

Dorian Mode

Next we have the dorian mode.

A dorian scale is a type of minor scale as it contains an interval of a minor third.

To make a dorian mode scale we flatten the 3rd and 7th notes of the scale.

C dorian mode

Phrygian Mode

The third mode is the Phrygian mode which is very recognisable as it contains a minor second interval.

Like the dorian scale, it’s also a minor mode as it contains a flattened third.

To build a Phrygian mode we flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th notes making it a very dark sounding scale:

C phrygian mode

Lydian mode

The fourth mode is called the Lydian mode.

It’s the brightest sounding of the modes.

It is like the Ionian mode except it contains a raised 4th note.

To play a Lydian scale we sharpen the 4th note of the scale:

C lydian mode

Mixolydian Mode

Probably one of my favourite modes is the Mixolydian mode or sometimes it’s called a dominant scale.

The only difference between this mode and the Ionian mode is that it has a flattened 7th note as shown below.

C mixolydian mode

Aeolian Mode

Another minor mode is the Aeolian mode.

If you’ve seen our post on minor scales you might recognise it as it’s the same as the natural minor scale.

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

C aeolian mode

Locrian Mode

And lastly we have the Locrian mode.

It’s probably the most uncommon mode and isn’t used very often although is used quite a lot in Jazz music.

It’s sometimes known as a half diminished scale as its 3rd and 5th notes are flattened.

To make a Locrian scale we flatten the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th notes.

C locrian mode

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.

If you have any questions that I haven’t answer just post a comment below and I’ll try to answer them.

Photo of author
Written by Dan Farrant
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.