Understanding modes in modal and other music

One area of music theory that seems to cause more than its fair share of confusion is modes, a set of note systems comprising the so-called ecclesiastical or church modes plus later Renaissance Period additions.I hope this hub will present a short but clear description of what modes are, where they came from and their various uses in music.

The Modes - What are they?

In modern terms, they are seven diatonic scale types called: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. Four of them, which are of medieval origin, were modelled and named (albeit incorrectly) after ancient Greek tone systems: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. The others came later.

When written out as scales, each has its own specific starting note, which, originally, was a note of the natural diatonic note set: A B C D E F & G. Later, with the use of flats or sharps, they could start on any note, just as long as the interval arrangement between the notes is unchanged as that's what gives each mode its distinct flavour.

Each mode has a unique interval arrangement, similar to how today's major and minor scales have unique interval arrangements that are responsible for the different feel between major key music and minor key music. Music composed using modes is called modal music.


Nowadays, we normally list them as modes 1 to 7 with mode 1 based on C, 2 on D, etc. (originally the mode starting on D, the Dorian mode, was mode no.1).

The note that each mode was based on was known as its final (finalis), and, as the name suggests, was (and still is) the note that music in that mode usually ends on. In modern modal music, though, we would call it the tonic or tonal centre rather than the final.


It’s a common misconception that these modes date back directly to ancient Greece. In fact, the oldest four of them (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian) were devised by medieval monks around the 8th century for classifying existing sacred music of the Church (plainchant, etc.) and providing approved frameworks for new music written by Church composers.

The names of the four original modes were applied (mistakenly) by the monks who had tried to model their system on the ancient Greek system of notes. However, they misinterpreted a Latin translation of Greek music theory and believed their system to be the same as the original Greek note system. It wasn't the same, but the wrong Greek names have stuck. In addition, these four so-called authentic modes had accompanying modes known as plagal modes with even fancier Greek names such as Hypodorian, Hypolydian, etc. The prefix hypo meaning ‘below’ referred to the same mode (and final) but starting four notes lower. Plagal modes simply extended the range downwards. The final was now in the middle of the scale. With a few exceptions, if a modal plainchant melody never descended in pitch below its final, it was in an authentic mode (e.g., Lydian). If it descended and made use of the lower range below the final, it was in a plagal mode (e.g., Hypolydian).

The Dorian Mode and Hypodorian mode share the same notes and final but have a different range.
The Dorian Mode and Hypodorian mode share the same notes and final but have a different range.

The remaining three modes, Ionian, Aeolian and Locrian (plus their plagal ‘hypo’ versions) came along much later and weren’t admitted to the modal system until the mid 16th century. They were named simply in keeping with the tradition of applying Greek names. Two of those authentic modes (Ionian and Aeolian) had existed, unnamed, as scales or note sources in secular music for some time, but were virtually ignored by the Church and not accepted as official modes until the music theorist Heinrich Glareanus in 1547 reordered the modal system and expanded it to include those two. This was recorded in his important treatise called 'Dodecachordon', which refers to a new system of 12 modes comprising six authentic modes plus their plagal (hypo) versions.

The Locrian mode was then named and later included for the sake of completeness (every natural note now having an associated mode) but it was considered to have no musical value due to its awkward interval structure.

The reason that the modes were restricted to natural notes in notation is simply that there were no flats and sharps at this time. There was only the seven-note diatonic note set (which did come from ancient Greece). The first accidental, B flat, (indicated by a lowercase "b" was gradually making an appearance, but it wasn't yet an official part of the music system. It was simply a temporary pitch modification of B.

The Dorian mode, for example, was based on D (its final). In practice, singers could take that D at any convenient pitch decided by the choirmaster. Whatever the pitch, it was still called D, and the other notes would also be named in relation to that D. In the earliest (pitch based) modal notation system, however, the notes couldn't be transposed to any other pitch as that would change the strict order of intervals between the notes. It would, effectively, be a different mode. Later, with flats and sharps available, modes could easily be transposed and notated at any pitch level while preserving the modes' distinct interval arrangement and musical character. Nowadays, we usually name the actual note that is the final and call the mode D Dorian or E flat Lydian, or whatever.

How modes were used

In their original church use, with few exceptions, the notes of any new sacred music would lie within a certain range (ambitus) The final usually also had to be preceded by a higher note called the reciting tone or dominant, so that the music ended with a distinctive fall to the final. (The latin term for this fall is 'cadere', which is where the musical term cadence comes from).

That being the case, the use of the word ‘mode’ rather than ‘scale’ makes sense. The word 'mode' comes from the Latin word, modus, meaning manner, method, means, way, etc. The word 'scale' (from Latin: scala meaning steps) simply refers to the notes arranged in order of pitch. A piece of music written in a mode would have been composed according to the required method of using the notes. So, modes then weren’t just scales, but scales used in a certain way according to the accepted practices of the time as approved by the Church.

As time passed, changes were afoot. The manner in which modal music was composed was becoming looser and less strict, with composers granting themselves more and more freedoms. The distinction between the plagal modes and the authentic modes disappeared.

The demise of the modal system

More important changes were afoot, though. Harmony was evolving rapidly, sharps and flats were now an integrated part of the system and the concepts of transposable keys and tonality were emerging. Basically, tonality involves arranging the notes and harmonic progressions of a composition in such a way that one note (called the tonic or key note) assumes greatest importance, and all the other notes relate to that note (at any octave) to a greater or lesser extent. For this purpose, some modes were found to be less suitable than others. That is, they had their notes arranged in a way that wasn't conducive to creating a strong enough final, now increasingly seen as a tonic and expected to function as the 'tonal centre' of the music.

As a result, the modal system gradually fell into disuse, and by the end of the 17th century, it was all but replaced by a new tonal system that emerged based on two scales, which were identical in interval arrangement to the Ionian and Aeolian modes. These became known as the MAJOR AND MINOR scales, respectively, the note sources of our present MAJOR – MINOR KEY system.

Survival and revival

The old modes didn’t die out completely. Folk music is often modal, too. The well-known folk song Scarborough Fair, for example, is a Dorian mode melody. Greensleeves (c 1580) is another but in modern interpretations, you can hear it's been modified to sound less modal and more tonal. The Ionian & Aeolian modes, had actually come from folk or popular music, (although they weren't named as such).

Classical composers such as Debussy and Sibelius sometimes revived modes too, especially to capture an exotic or olde worlde feel or to capture the essence of folk melodies in their compositions. The composer, Vaughan Williams often turned to them to express the rustic atmosphere of his native English countryside in his orchestral compositions.

Modal jazz

Jazz composers such as Miles Davis sought them out in the late 1950s as a note source for an alternative style to the fast and furious bebop styles prominent at the time. Modal jazz, as it came to be known, was much spacier, staying on one or two chords or a repeating drone like bass figure (modal vamps) while players improvised over the chords using suitable modal melodies. The Miles Davis classic, So what, is an early example of a modal jazz composition in the Dorian mode. It alternates between D Dorian and Eb Dorian,

Modal pop and rock

Dorian and Mixolydian influences are often found in pop and rock, especially pop and rock chord progressions of the 60s and early 70s, which were more heavily influenced by folk music. The verses of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood are Mixolydian, as is the end section of Hey Jude and the verses of the Stones' Sympathy for the devil. A few of Bob Dylan's early songs are Dorian, as are extended sections of Pink Floyd's, Dark side of the Moon (e,g., Breathe). A few of Santana's extended lead breaks in songs such as 'Oye como va' are popular examples of a common Dorian chord vamp of Am7 - D7, which is improvised over by using the notes of A Dorian (A B C D E F# G A). Most modal pop, rock or folk songs aren't intentionally modal - they just turn out that way due to the song writers choosing notes and chords to get the sound they want - which just happens to be modal. Most are unaware that they're writing in a particular mode.

Modal flavours

Modes beginning on A
Modes beginning on A | Source

Transposing modes to begin on the same note lets us see the differences between them in terms of interval structure, as the chart above shows. It's the unique arrangement of intervals that gives each mode its distinctive character when used in modal music.

When composing with modes, It can be useful to think of them as variations of major and minor scales, which most of us are more familiar with.

Three of the modes, Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian are considered 'major modes', that is, they contain the interval of a major 3rd above the tonic, and all have something of a major quality about them but with subtle differences.

Three others: Dorian, Aeolian and Phrygian are considered minor modes as they have a note which lies a minor 3rd above the tonic, giving a similar minor feel to that found in minor key music, again with subtle differences.

The remaining mode, Locrian, is considered a diminished mode because, although it contains a minor 3rd above the tonic, it also contains a note which is a diminished 5th above the tonic. This is the reason that this mode was never considered to be of practical use. Melodically, that flat 5th note makes an awkward interval with the final, and the later practice of building chords on the notes results, in this case, in a diminished chord. Diminished chords weren't seen (or heard) as effective tonal centre chords because they're dissonant. Tonal centres, by definition, needed to be stable.

Differences summarised


This is exactly the same as the major scale, although it wasn't used in the tonal way that the major scale is.


This is similar to the natural minor scale but the 6th degree is raised. This mode is common in Renaissance Church music and Western folk music.


This is also similar to the minor scale, but the 2nd degree has been lowered, which gives it something of an exotic flamenco sound.


This is similar to the major scale except that the 4th degree is a semitone higher than that of the major scale. Originally (before sharp and flat notes were introduced), the Lydian mode started on F and consisted of the notes F G A B C D E F. In many Lydian compositions, the note (B) was often temporarily lowered by a semitone, at first tacitly, with a wink from the choir master, but later, more formally, by the addition of a lower case letter b, (an instruction to the performer to lower the note B by a semitone).This evolved into the first flat sign used in music.

A 1953 work by George Russel: The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization emphasises the importance of the Lydian mode and has been influential on famous jazz composers and performers such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. One commonly cited example of a more popular Lydian melody (or Lydian influenced melody) is the Simpsons theme tune.


This is similar to the major scale but the 7th degree is lowered. This mode is commonly found in rock, pop and folk music. The 'major' quality of the mode plus the lack of a leading note are what give the Mixolydian mode its distinctive sound.


This is exactly the same as the natural minor scale.


This is similar to the natural minor scale but with the 2nd and 5th degrees lowered. Its awkward interval structure has ensured its virtual absence from modal music.

Modes (as rotations) of the major scale

Since the 17th century, modes have been seen as rotations of the diatonic note set. Within any given key signature, they're all just the same notes as each other but starting from their own specific note. The Dorian mode starting on D, for example, has exactly the same notes as the Phrygian mode starting on E or the Lydian mode starting on F and so on.

In more recent years, however, because of the predominance of the major scale, it has become increasingly common, to name different rotations of the major scale after the modes that happen to contain the same notes. The diagram below shows each rotation of the C major scale considered as a mode.

'Modal' rotations of the scale of C major
'Modal' rotations of the scale of C major | Source

For example, C major starting from the note G, instead of C, consists of the notes: G, A, B, C, D, E & F. These happen to correspond exactly with the notes of G Mixolydian, but there's an important difference. The key and scale of C major (wherever you start it from) always has the note C as its tonic or key note, while music in G Mixolydian mode has G as its tonic (formerly called its 'final').

In the following oversimplified example, let’s say we have a song in the key of C major consisting of just 2 repeating chords of one bar each, C & G7th (both chords consist of notes that are contained in the C major scale).

Forgetting about modes for a moment, if someone wants to improvise over these repeating chords, say, a lead guitar or sax solo, the obvious way of doing it is by using notes of the C major scale. The key is C major throughout, so the notes of the C major scale will work well over both chords. When the C major chord is being played, the player can target and emphasise the root (and key note) C, as well the other chord tones of C major (E & G). Other scale notes will be included too but will usually be treated less importantly, such as dissonant passing notes between chord tones. When the chord changes to G7, the player will still keep the C major scale as their principal note source, but will switch emphasis and target the root and chord tones of G7, (G B D & F) all contained within the same C major scale and key.

Attaching modal names to guitar fretboard patterns in key-based music

Some guitarists prefer (or have been taught) to think of it differently. When the chord changes to G7, they will switch scale to the fretboard pattern that they have previously memorised as G Mixolydian. Now, G mixolydian, as mentioned above, happens to have exactly the same notes as C major. C major is CDEFGABC and G Mixolydian is GABCDEFG, so musically speaking, they're not really changing scale at all. They're still picking and choosing from the same set of notes in whichever order they like. Nobody listening would hear any difference apart from, perhaps, a shift of emphasis to the chord tones of G7.

Rather than changing scale, what they're really doing is changing scale shape. Their memorised fretboard scale shape of G Mixolydian allows them to target and emphasise the root and chord tones (G B D & F) of G7 with a more efficient fingering. The C major scale shape was fine for improvising over C major, but may not be the ideal fingering for improvising over G7.

So Mixolydian’in this case is just a convenient label or memory aid, not to be confused with the Mixolydian mode of modal music. It may look like it and have exactly the same notes, but it won't sound like it, because it doesn't have the right tonal centre to actually be G Mixolydian. From a strict modal perspective, what they're playing is not the Mixolydian mode at all. It's just C major (but counted from G), as the song’s tonal centre throughout is C and not G, which is the true tonal centre of G Mixolydian.

Advanced players wouldn't think this way for such a simple example. They know the major scale too well to need to start giving its rotations different (and potentially misleading) names every time the chord changes to in-key chords. If they're using the major scale as their note source, they will automatically adopt whichever fretboard pattern of the major scale provides the best fingering and pitch range without calling it a mode.

They may think this way for improvising over songs with a lot of out of key chords, however, using the method known as the chord-scale method, which builds unique seven-note scales based on the chord tones plus notes that belong to the key.

Unfortunately, this 'convenient' label is the source of a lot of confusion. Many who learn (or teach) this method of applying mode names to different rotations of the major scale in key-based (not modal) music without first having some knowledge of how modes are used in modal music think that the modes are no more than the major scale starting from different scale degrees. I hope that this article has shown that they're much more than that.

© 2011 chasmac

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Comments 4 comments

raulz 3 years ago

This is the first article I found about modes which explain WITH EXAMPLES the use and taste of all of them.

Excellent material.

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chasmac 3 years ago from UK Author

Thanks raulz - I'm glad you found it interesting.

Jerry 2 years ago

Thank you. was starting to worry that this information had been lost over the years when I was having a hard time finding anything about it in the "information age".

My father was well versed in this musical history. I should be, too.

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chasmac 2 years ago from UK Author

Thanks Jerry - I'm glad you found what you were looking for.

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