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Modes in a Nutshell

Take the major scale as a starting point.

C major gives us the notes C D E F G A B

If you take that same note collection and make it sound like some kind of D scale, you get the D Dorian mode.

If you take that same note collection and make it sound like some kind of E scale, you get the E Phrygian mode.

If you do the same thing from the remaining notes in the collection you get the remaining modes – F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, B Locrian, C Ionian.

The important point is that in order to get the mode, you have to make the notes sound like a different scale.

How modes correlate to fingerboard patterns is that many people make the mistake of thinking that the modes are just the different finger patterns you learn for playing the major scale. It’s not the finger pattern that makes the mode. Any finger pattern for the major scale can be made to sound like every mode. It’s the sound that makes the mode.

There are a few commonly used ways of getting familiar with the sound of each mode.

The first way is to learn the interval structure of each mode so you can play each mode from the same starting note. For example, starting each mode from C would give you:

C D E F G A B = C Ionian

C D Eb F G A Bb = C Dorian

C Db Eb F G Ab Bb = C Phrygian

C D E F# G A B = C Lydian

C D E F G A Bb = C Mixolydian

C D Eb F G Ab Bb = C Aeolian

C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb = C Locrian

Playing each mode like this allows you to compare the sound quality of each.

Another method is to play each mode over a static pedal tone to establish the root for the mode.

You can also play each mode over a chord built from the root of the mode.

Another good way to help get the sound of each mode is to split them into major modes and minor modes. For the major modes start with major pentatonic and then add the remaining notes to get each mode. Do the same thing with the minor modes and the minor pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scales give you the basic major and minor sound. Each mode colors that basic sound in a unique way.


How to Learn the Sound of the Modes

Playing modes over a pedal tone is going to nail the sound of each mode down, but it can also be misleading in that you can wander around aimlessly within the mode and think you’re really “doing it”.

What you need, though, is to develop a sense of the strong and weak notes in each mode, the color tones of each mode and how each mode resolves to it’s tonic note.

One thing that can help is to play the major scale and get that sound in your ear. Then raise the 4th to get Lydian. Notice how you still have a major scale sound, but that #4 adds a different character.

Go back to the major scale. Then lower the 7th to get Mixolydian. Notice how you still have a major scale sound but that b7 sort of rounds off the edge of the natural 7th leading to the octave.

Do the same with Natural minor. Play it until you really get the sound in your ear. Then raise the 6th to get Dorian. Notice how the Dorian sort of brightens up the somber/serious sound of natural minor.

Go back to the natural minor. Then lower the 2nd to get Phrygian. Notice how the sound becomes more intense, exotic or mysterious. Also notice how strongly that b2 wants to resolve to the tonic note. It acts a lot like the 7th of the major scale, just coming from the opposite direction.

Locrian is the odd duck of modes. It doesn’t really fit and isn’t used nearly as much as all the other modes. You can think of it as a darker version of Phrygian. Switching between Phrygian and Locrian can help you get he sound of Locrian happening.

The next step in this process is to do the same thing but start with major pentatonic. The major pentatonic is Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian without the 4 and 7. What you do with that 4 and 7 gives you the color tones of each of those modes. Switch back and forth between major pentatonic and each major mode.

The same thing goes for minor pentatonic. Minor pentatonic is Dorian, Aeolian and Phrygian without the 2 and 6. What you do with the 2 and 6 gives you the color tones of those modes. Switch back and forth between minor pentatonic and each minor mode.

So major and minor pentatonic give you the base major and minor notes to work with. The missing notes add the individual flavor of each mode. How much flavor you want to add will dictate how much you lay on those color tones.

The final step in the process is to pull out the chord that is hiding within each mode and play it as an arpeggio. The arpeggio for each mode is the 1 3 5 and 7 of the mode.

For the modes starting with C Ionian, you get:

C E G B = 1 3 5 7 = Cmaj7

D F A C = 1 b3 5 b7 = Dmin7

E G B D = 1 b3 5 b7 = Emin7

F A C E = 1 3 5 7 = Fmaj7

G B D F = 1 3 5 b7 = G7

A C E G = 1 b3 5 b7 = Amin7

B D F A = 1 b3 b5 b7 = Bmin7b5

The arpeggio acts very much like major and minor pentatonic with some slight differences on the major modes. You’ll find that minor pentatonic already has the same notes as the arpeggio for each minor mode.

Play the arpeggio for the mode, then add in the rest of the notes.

All of these drills are to get you hearing the character of each mode as well as the character of each note/interval within the mode and how they interact with the tonic of the mode. Your ability to exploit these characteristics of each mode depends on how familiar you are with these details.


What Makes a Mode

What make the modes is where the music resolves… comes to rest… feels at home.

If you take a pool of notes – C D E F G A B – and make the C sound like home, you get the major scale or C Ionian mode (at this point think of mode as meaning way of playing the notes). If you make the D sound like home you get the D Dorian mode.

The same thing is true of the chords built from the scale:

Cmaj, Dmin, Emin, Fmaj, Gmaj, Amin, Bdim

If you arrange some of these chords to sound like Cmaj is the home chord (where the progression comes to rest), you will be playing in the key of C major. An example would be C F G C.

If you arrange some of these chords to sound like Dmin is the home chord, you will be playing in the key of D minor and using the Dorian mode. An Example would be Dmin C G Dmin or Dmin C Emin Dmin.

Another way of looking at it is You can make a D minor chord progression – Dmin Amin Gmin Dmin – and by utilizing the major 6th interval instead of minor 6th interval (B instead of Bb) you can make a D minor progression based on Dorian – Dmin Amin Gmaj Dmin.


How to Practice Modes

There are many good ways to practice modes.

Start in a major scale position and alter the notes in that position to get the modes:

Lydian – raise the 4th

Ionian – return the 4th to natural

Mixolydian – lower the 7th

Dorian – lower the 3rd and 7th

Aeolian – lower the 3rd, 6th and 7th

Phrygian – loser the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th

Locrian – lower the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th

Do this for every major scale position you know.

Start with pentatonic scales and add the missing notes to get the modes:

Major pentatonic = 1 2 3 4 5 6

Ionian – add 4 and 7

Lydian – add #4 and 7

Mixolydian – add 4 and b7

Minor pentatonic = 1 b3 4 5 b7

Dorian – add 2 and 6

Aeolian – add 2 and b6

Phrygian – add b2 and b6

Locrain – lower the 5 and add b2 and b6

Do this in every pentatonic position you know.

Play each mode over a pedal tone. Use your low E string as a pedal and practice switching between various E modes. Use the order I listed above:

E Lydian – E Ionian – E Mixolydian – E Dorian – E Aeolian – E Phrygian – E Locrian

You can tune the low E to different pitches to practice in different keys.

All of the above exercises are working with the modes in parallel – they all start from the same pitch. This is the most important way to work with modes in order to get the sound and interval formulas in your ears and under your fingers.

Once you’re comfortable with each mode, you can go on youtube and find backing tracks for each mode in a variety of keys. Noodle over the backing track with whichever mode is appropriate. Work the mode up and down the entire fingerboard. Spend a lot of time working up and down the strings rather than across the strings in a pattern.

For derivative mode practice, you can practice scale harmony and modes at the same time. You have to know scale harmony, though.

In C, you would play:

Cmaj chord – Cmaj7 arpeggio – C Ionian

Dmin chord – Dmin7 arpeggio – D Dorian

Emin chord – Emin7 arpeggio – E Phrygian

Fmaj chord – Fmaj7 arpeggio – F Lydian

Gmaj chord – G7 arpeggio – G Mixolydian

Amin chord – Amin7 arpeggio – A Aeolian

Bdim chord – Bmin7b5 arpeggio – B Locrian

Cmaj again

Do this ascending and descending and in every key.

Change the order of the chords/arps/modes to Cmaj – Fmaj – Bdim – Emin – Amin – Dmin – Gmaj – Cmaj.

Do this in every key.



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