Easy Guide To Understanding Modes For Intermediate Guitarists
By Dhanesh Sarangadharan
Modes are generally perceived to be advanced level stuff which beginner and intermediate guitarists or musicians struggle to initially get their heads around understanding and applying modal concepts.
I’ve tried to summarise the key elements to understanding modes and it’s application into this article.
This is not meant to be an advanced level write-up that dives deep into the concepts of Modal Harmonies or Improvisation.
Instead it aims at helping you get started with Modes to easily understand the concepts and begin their application.
Before You Read Further
1. It is assumed that you are an intermediate guitarist or musician who is well versed with the basic concepts of Whole Tones (Whole Steps), Semitones (Half Steps) and Scales.
2. I’m assuming that you are familiar with the basic concepts of Intervals. I.e. Major, Minor, diminished, augmented, perfect etc.
3. Also that you have a basic understanding of how the Major Scale (Ionian Mode) is formed through a series of Whole steps and half steps that’s common to any Major Scale. The notes found in a Major scale is unique to that Scale, however the formula is common to all Major Scales.
4. You are familiar with the interval layout (Formula) for the Major Scale and know the notes of the Major scale for the Keys discussed below.
5. An understanding of Triad Chord Harmony will be extremely helpful.
6. I highly recommend learning the seven 3 Notes per string scale shapes for Major Scale at least in one key, before you move further.
Sound Of A Mode
If you have practiced Major and Minor scales on the Guitar or any other instrument, and if you listen to the notes you are playing, which I highly recommend you do, you’ll observe that every Major scale has a certain type of sound, which is common to the Major Scale, irrespective of the Major Key that you are in. This stands true for the minor scale as well.
However, there’s a lot of difference in the way any Major Scale sounds, when compared to any other Minor Scale. If you have not observed this, then I recommend you play any Major Scale followed by any Minor Scale on the instrument and notice this.
For easier understanding of further information, we’ll broadly categorize the sounds of every Mode or Scale we discuss, into either Major or Minor tonality. Bear in mind that just because a Mode is categorized as Major or Minor, does not necessarily mean they are happier or sad sounding. There are various other sounds and moods that music can create, other than plain Happy or Sad music. You’ll observe that the scales that will contain a Minor Third interval (A whole tone followed by a Semitone) will be categorized as having Minor Tonality, and the scales containing a Major Third Interval (Whole Tone followed by another whole tone) will be categorized as having a Major Tonality. Look at the below comparison of the C Major Scale with the relative A minor Scale. Look at the Flat 3rd or Minor third interval happening in the A minor scale compared to the Major 3rd Interval in the C Major Scale.
C Major (Ionian Mode)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th
C D E F G A B C D E F G A
1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 1
A minor (Aeolian Mode)
An easier way to understand the interval is to compare it with the Parallel Major scale or key, i.e if you compare the A minor scale to an A Major scale, the 3rd note should be C#, whereas in A Minor it has been flattened by one half-step making it a minor third interval.
As you saw in the above example, the A minor scale contains the same notes as the C Major Scale, and is derived by starting the scale on the 6th Note or degree.
Just like the above example, we can derive a scale from every step (Note/degree) of a Major Scale, and that gives us our 7 Modes of the Diatonic Scale.
1st Ionian (Major Scale)
6th Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale)
Now let's look at the different modes derived from the C Major Scale and categorize them as Major or Minor sounding modes based on the 3rd Degree of the mode.
C Major Scale (Ionian)
A Natural Minor (Aeolian)
(All the modes have the same notes as the Major scale
i.e C in this case)
C D E F G A B
D E F G A B C
E F G A B C D
F G A B C D E
G A B C D E F
A B C D E F G
B C D E F G A
Notes Of The Parallel Major Scale
(E.g D Dorian Compared To D Major Scale)
C D E F G A B
D E F# G A B C#
E F# G# A B C# D#
F G A Bb C D E
G A B C D E F#
A B C# D E F# G#
B C# D# E F# G# A#
Interval Layout Of The Mode Based On The Comparison With Parallel Major Key
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
Modes Categorized Based On Tonality
All the modes with a b3 note, we’ll categorize as Minor tonality modes, and others with the Major 3rd will be major tonality modes for easier understanding.
Major 3rd will be major tonality modes for easier understanding.
Ionian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Lydian - 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Mixolydian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Dorian - 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Phrygian - 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Aeolian - 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Locrian - 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
How To Apply Modes To The Guitar And Understand Them Better
Play each of these modes following the Interval layout, and observe the sound of the scale. Start every mode on the same note, and observe how either the raised or flattened tones provide the scale it’s own unique sound when compared to the Parallel Major Scale.
E.g. Start on the note G on the 6th string, and play the intervals that form the Ionian mode first (Fret No 3-5-7-8-10-12-14-15), then go through the intervals of Dorian starting from G (Fret No 3-5-6-8-10-12-13-15). Repeat this process for G Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.
If you know how to Harmonize a Major Scale, then play the chord corresponding to the Mode you play and listen to how the sounds gel and resolve together.
E.g. Harmonized C Major scale
C Major Chord - C Ionian
D minor Chord - D Dorian
E minor Chord - E Phrygian
F Major Chord - F Lydian
G Major Chord - G Mixolydian
A minor Chord - A Aeolian
B diminished Chord - B Locrian
Remember, the notes you play here are the same as the C Major Scale, but starting on different notes for each mode.
When just starting to understand modes, it’s more important to internalize the sound of each mode. Your goal here is to become familiar with the different modes of the Major Scale, as this would help you understand much advanced concepts in future.
Focus on learning the names of the modes and corresponding sounds, and as a bonus exercise, try to sing the modes as you play them on your instrument.
If you are not familiar with any of the concepts outlined here, then I recommend you approach the right guitar teacher who can help you understand and apply this information easily.
About The Author:
Dhanesh Sarangadharan is a certified guitar teacher in Pune, Maharashtra India, who is passionate about helping students progress faster towards their guitar playing and musical ambitions.