Understand the modes in music: From theory to emotions

Last updated on January 13th, 2024


As you progress in your music skills, you’ll likely come across the music theory concept of modes. If you ever tried composing music but found it difficult to come up with chords that bring out a specific mood, then this concept will give you clarity on how to do so.

In this post, we’ll demystify what the modes are, how to play them on guitar with tabs and audio examples, and how to create related chords for composing music.

Let’s get started!


What are modes in music?

A mode is a scale that comes from starting on different degrees of one main scale (sometimes called a parent scale). Starting a scale at different points creates a particular sound or mood in the music as you’ll see in the following examples.

For example, we can create 7 modes out of the Major scale which has the scale degrees 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

We’ll take a look at each of the modes related to the Major scale one by one.

*The moods listed for each mode are my opinion but I suggest you hear and play them to come up with your conclusions.

Ionion mode

The 1st mode is called Ionian and has the scale notes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 1st degree of the Major scale.

Here is an example of the C Ionian scale which is just the C Major scale starting on the 1st degree.

Ionian scale guitar tabs
C Ionian scale audio example

The audio examples will repeat the scale over a chord so you can get a better grasp of the sound of each mode.

You can also build chords to create progressions from each mode, which we’ll look at later in the post.

Dorian mode

The 2nd mode is called Dorian and has the scale notes 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, and b7. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 2nd degree of the Major scale.

You can think of the Dorian scale as a minor scale with a natural 6th degree.

Here is an example of the C Dorian scale which is built by starting on the second degree of the Bb Major scale.

Dorian scale guitar tabs
C Dorian scale audio example

See this other post to learn the 5 Dorian scale shapes on guitar.

Phrygian mode

The 3rd mode is called Phrygian and has the scale notes 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, and b7. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 3rd degree of the Major scale.

You can think of the Phrygian scale as a natural minor scale with a flat 2nd degree.

Here is an example of the C Phrygian scale which is built by starting on the third degree of the Ab Major scale.

Phrygian scale guitar tabs
C Phrygian scale audio example

See this other post to learn the 5 Phrygian scale shapes on guitar.

Lydian mode

The 4th mode is called Lydian and has the scale notes 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, and 7. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 4th degree of the Major scale.

You can think of the Lydian scale as a Major scale with a sharp 4th degree.

Here is an example of the C Lydian scale which is built by starting on the fourth degree of the G Major scale.

Lydian scale guitar tabs
C Lydian scale audio example

See this other post to learn the 5 Lydian scale shapes on guitar.

My Music Composition Notebook is meant to help you write down your musical ideas with printable sheet music for different instruments.
This ebook also includes simple guides to understand basic music symbols and concepts such as note names on the staff, time and key signatures, note values, and the circle of 5ths. 
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Mixolydian mode

The 5th mode is called Mixolydian and has the scale notes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and b7. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 5th degree of the Major scale.

You can think of the Mixolydian as a Major scale with a flat 7th degree.

Here is an example of the C Mixoydian scale which is built by starting on the 5th degree of the F Major scale.

Mixolydian scale guitar tabs
C Mixolydian scale audio example

See this other post to learn the 5 Mixolydian scale shapes on guitar.

Aeolian mode

The 6th mode is called Aeolian and has the scale notes 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, and b7.  (Commonly known as the natural minor scale). This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 6th degree of the Major scale.

Here is an example of the C Aeolian scale which is built by starting on the 6th degree of the Eb Major scale.

Aeolian scale guitar tabs
C Aeolian scale audio example

See this other post which covers the 5 Aeolian scale shapes.

Locrian mode

The 7th mode is called Locrian and has the scale notes 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, and b7. This is the sound you get when you play the notes starting on the 7th degree of the Major scale.

You can think of the Locrian scale as having all flat scale degrees except the 4th note. This is similar to the Phrygian scale except the Phrygian has a natural 5th degree and the Locrian has a flat 5th degree.

Here is an example of the C Locrian scale which is built by starting on the 7th degree of the Db Major scale.

Locrian scale guitar tabs
C Locrian scale audio example

See this other post to learn the 5 Locrian scale shapes on guitar.

Major scale modes chart

Here is a chart of the 7 modes of the Major scale and the scale degrees belonging to each mode.

Mode
Ionian scale1234567
Dorian scale12b3456b7
Phrygian scale1b2b345b6b7
Lydian scale123#4567
Mixolydian scale123456b7
Aeolian scale12b345b6b7
Locrian scale1b2b34b5b6b7

*Note that many people use the word ‘mode’ with ‘scale’ interchangeably. For example, they might say D Dorian mode or D Dorian scale to mean the same thing. However, modes are also used to refer to a sound in a series of chords which we’ll look at next.

Composing with modes: Related chords

We looked at how to create scale notes for each mode related to the Major scale. However, we can even build related chords based on the notes of each mode! This is done by looking at the chord qualities that are formed from intervals of a third. For example, in a C Major scale, the notes C, E, and G make a C Major chord; D, F and A make a D minor chord, and so on…

To quickly recap, the triads and 7th chords in a Major scale are:

  1. Major chord or Major 7
  2. Minor chord or minor 7
  3. Minor chord or minor 7
  4. Major chord or Major 7
  5. Major chord or Dominant 7
  6. Minor chord or minor 7
  7. Diminished chord or diminished 7

You can learn all the related chords of Major and minor scales here.

When creating chord progressions out of modes, the same order of chord qualities get shifted to different starting points. Here’s a chart that shows you the related triad chords for each mode.

Related triad chords for each mode

Maj = Major
min = minor
dim = diminished

Mode
Ionian1 Maj2 min3 min4 Maj5 Maj6 min7 dim
Dorian1 min2 minb3 Maj4 Maj5 min6 dimb7 Maj
Phrygian 1 minb2 Majb3 Maj4 min5 dimb6 Majb7 min
Lydian1 Maj2 Maj3 min#4 dim5 Maj6 min7 min
Mixolydian1 Maj2 min3 dim4 Maj5 min6 minb7 Maj
Aeolian1 min2 dimb3 Maj4 min5 minb6 Majb7 Maj
Locrian1 dimb2 Majb3 min4 minb5 Majb6 Majb7 min

To find the related chords, you can think of the notes of the mode (or scale degrees), and then simply attach the chord qualities from the chart above.

For example, the related triad chords for the G Lydian mode would be G Major, A Major, B minor, C# diminished, D Major, E minor, and F# min.

Related 7th chords for each mode

Here is a similar chart but now including the 7th for each chord quality.

(7) = Dominant 7

Mode
Ionian1 Maj 72 min 73 min 74 Maj 75 (7)6 min 77 dim 7
Dorian1 min 72 min 7b3 Maj 74 (7)5 min 76 dim 7b7 Maj 7
Phrygian 1 min 7b2 Maj 7b3 (7)4 min 75 dim 7b6 Maj 7b7 min 7
Lydian1 Maj 72 (7)3 min 7#4 dim 75 Maj 76 min 77 min 7
Mixolydian1 (7)2 min 73 dim 74 Maj 75 min 76 min 7b7 Maj 7
Aeolian1 min 72 dim 7b3 Maj 74 min 75 min 7b6 Maj 7b7 (7)
Locrian1 dim 7b2 Maj 7b3 min 74 min 7b5 Maj 7b6 (7)b7 min 7

An example of the related 7th chords for the G Dorian mode would be G minor 7, A minor 7, Bb Major 7, C 7, D minor 7, E diminished 7, and F Major 7.

Wrapping Up

Learning the theory of modes in music can be a powerful tool to create distinct moods in your playing. Whether you want to bring out brighter or darker sounds, these modes will help express a wide range of emotions.

We learned that modes are a way to not only create unique scales but also related chords which you can use in improvisation or creating music. If composing is an area you want to learn more about, see the 7 steps to start composing your own music.

If you’re interested in improving your soloing skills, check out these 9 tips to get better at improvising on guitar.

Get the free guitar practice guide here!

All the best,

JG Music Lessons

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