Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

In music theory circles, modes are something you often hear mentioned, but what they are and how they’re used still manages to retain an air of mystery.

Think for a moment about an arpeggiator and the different modes it has. This is a unique device, but you can change the mode it works in to make it work differently. It may have one mode that plays arpeggiated notes in an upward sequence, another mode that plays them downward, and one or two modes that play arpeggios that go up and down in different patterns. This principle of changing modes to get different results can be applied to the major scale.

A mode is formed when you play a major scale from any note other than the root note of the scale. Play a C major scale (all white notes) from C to C and you get the usual happy When the Saints Go Marching In style series of notes.

If you play the exact same notes from D to D, however, you get something totally different with a sadder, more minor, What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor feel.

Since a major scale contains seven different notes, each of which can serve as a starting note, so there are seven different modes. They are named after ancient Greek tribes, and they are: Ionians, Dorians, Phrygians, Lydians, Mixolydians, Aeolian and Locrians. Each mode has a distinctive sound and musical character.

The concept of modes is really simple once you understand what they are, but even when you’ve mastered the basics, it can be hard to know what to actually do with them. So, once we’ve covered the theory behind them, we’ll look at a couple of ways to apply modes in your own productions.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 1: It wouldn’t be a basic guide to music theory if we didn’t start by looking at our old friend the C major scale. Here it is, eight notes, played on the white keys of the keyboard, from C to C. Check out the interval pattern between the notes. We have CDEFGABC, so the interval pattern is TTSTTTS, where T stands for Tone and S stands for Semitone.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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2nd step: This means that the interval between the first two notes of the scale, C and D, is one tone (two semitones), between D and E is another tone, between E and F is one semitone, and so straight up the range. If we were to repeat this TTSTTTS pattern starting with a note that is not C, the result would always be a major scale with that note as its root.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 3: The major scale in its standard form is actually the first of seven modes, the Ionian mode. Here it is played from C to C, and emphasized by a long C in the bass. The bass note playing the root, or tonic, of the scale, reinforces its “tonal center” so that we can trust what our ears are telling: that it is a standard C major scale, aka C Ionian.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 4: Now let’s look at the same scale, playing the exact same notes, but instead of going from C to C as before, we now play all the white notes from D to D. These are all the same notes, in the same order, but just starting from a different place, we went to the second mode, the dorian mode.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 5: The reason it looks different is that the interval pattern has changed – it’s now TSTTTST. Our ears now hear the first note of the new scale (D) as the root. Strengthening the new root note of D with a long, low bass note in D confirms the scale’s new minor identity: D Dorian. This is the mode used in Eleanor Rigby and Scarborough Fair.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 6: Continuing in this vein, the next mode is the Phrygian mode, created by starting a major scale from its third degree – in the case of C major, it is from E to E. Its interval pattern of STTTSTT gives to the Phrygian mode a distinctly Spanish style. To feel. It is actually a traditional minor scale with a flattened 2nd degree.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 7: Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, the remaining four modes, follow the same pattern, with each mode moving another note up the scale to use as a starting note. The table below shows the seven modes all starting with C – C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, etc.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

(Image credit: Apple)

Step 8: So how do we put all this to good use in our songs? You can take the notes in each mode and play them in any order or combination on the required bass note. Here we have a lead line playing notes from the C major scale over a sustained E bass to produce a melody in the E Phrygian mode.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 9: Here is a piece based on the key of C whose melody changes from Do Dorien (CD-Eb-FGA-Bb) to Do Lydien (CDEF#-GAB) and vice versa. Notice how each mode that passes through the note of C comes from a different parent major scale. All notes in C Dorian come from the B-flat major scale, because C is the second degree of B-flat major. The notes in Lydian C come from the G major scale.

Basics of Music Theory: How to Understand Musical Modes and Use Them in Your Writing

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Step 10: This tune is composed of notes from the G major scale (GABCDEF#), but it is played on a sustained low E note. What mode does this make it? E is the sixth note in this scale, so playing those same notes from E will give us… Aeolian Mode! The wind turbine, coincidentally, is identical to the minor scale.

Lorde – Royals

The mixolydian mode is a major scale with a flattened 7th degree. Royals’ vocal melody is a perfect example of Mixolydian D (DEF#-GABCD), especially in the verse sections.

Danny Elfman – The Simpsons Theme

Lydian mode gives the famous Simpsons theme its familiar flippant feel. The initial melody is mostly in Lydian C but weaves into a flattened 7th at the end of the phrase.

Pro tips

Individual identities

Although the modes are derived from the parent major scales, once you understand this, it’s a good idea to think of them as scales in their own right. For example, F Dorian (FG-Ab-Bb-CD-Eb) may look like the traditional F minor scale (FG-Ab-Bb-C-Db-Eb), except that F Dorian contains a D, where F minor contains a Db. So another way to think of the Dorian mode is that it’s actually a minor scale with an accented sixth degree.

Relatively speaking

Just as C major is the relative major of A minor, you can also use the term relative major when talking about modes. Let’s take D Dorian as an example. Because Dorian is the second mode and starts from the second degree of its parent major scale, the parent scale of D Dorian must be C major, because D is the second degree of the C major scale. So we can say that C major is the relative major of D dorian.