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Are the Modes all Greek to You? (Super Short Cut!)

Are the Modes all Greek to You? (Super Short Cut!)

Modes course music theory for the bass playe aeolian ionian phrygian lydian mixolydian

Are you Mystified by the Modes?

I have a theory (not a music theory in this case, ha) which is that some are eyeing the modes with suspicion because they have such complicated sounding names. As always, I aim to simplify things and point out the deliciousness of the musical topic at hand. Modes, dear lowenders, are really beautiful. A must know for the bassist, and really, not hard at all!

Have you heard that ionian starts on the first scale degree, dorian on the second, phrygian on the third etc? Okay, this is true yet only partly helpful. Because: if I hear C ionian played, and right after that, D dorian – my ears still have that strong C note in their mind (which we had just established as the tonic ) – so it is really hard to hear the beautifully romantic and somewhat cheery, yet potentially sad sounding dorian.

What’s the fix?

Start all of them from the same root!

  • C Ionian
  • C Dorian
  • C Phrygian


How to figure them out?

Now in order to figure out C dorian, you may go – okay, so dorian, that starts on the second scale degree, so I gotta go down one whole step to find the parent scale. okay, so that is Bb major. And the key signature of that is…. and then dorian is the second mode of that…

Ah!!! So, okay, if you are well versed with music theory, that process is automatic. But if not: too cumbersome!

For the easy route, do this:

Step 1:

know the major scale really well. Know the natural minor scale really well. Play these two in all sorts of keys.

Step 2: 

learn this by heart:

  • There are three major modes and three minor modes.
  • Each is different by only one note compared to the “regular” major or “regular” minor scale.
  • And then there is locrian (a type of minor, but because it has two exceptions, I put it in its own category).

Now let’s learn that difference of one Note:

The three major modes are:

  • ionian – regular major (in a modal context/chord, where both the 3rd and 4th sound, ionian can sound a bit harsh, it has a sus-type quality to it, a bit of a rub)
  • lydian – major with a sharp 4 (a raised fourth scale degree!) – sounds sweet, bright.
  • mixolydian – major with a flat seventh scale degree – sounds bluesy or funky in many contexts.

The three minor modes are:

  • aeolian – regular minor – sounds romantic and longing, somewhat dark.
  • dorian – minor with a raised sixth scale degree – sounds like a “happy minor”. Often used in Celtic music. Check “What do we do with the Drunken Sailor?”
  • phrygian – minor with a b2 (it starts with a half step!) – sounds Spanish, dramatic, dark.

And then there is…

  • locrian – the one with two exceptions: locrian is a minor mode with a flat 5 AND a flat 2. Locrian sounds kinda bleak, very dark and dreary! (Focus on practicing the other ones first)

What to do

Practice them all from the same root to better hear the difference in sound. Then, take two modes differing in only one note – focus on that note and how it affects the intervallic relationships in the next steps. Hear them back to back.

Improvise with them. Record a sustaining chord (looper, digital recorder, computer or use something like iRealPro), then play some lines over it. I find it useful to start with playing the triad and add the surrounding notes. The triad gives you the core sound, surrounding notes give you the extra colors. Practice landing on any of the scale steps and hear how it sounds against the sustained chord.

Finally, start using them in songs (that is for a different post) and compose some music with them.

So, what chords to play over you ask? Here they are:

  • Ionian: maj7 (Example: Gmaj7) or maj711 if you want
  • Lydian: maj7#11 (Example: Gmaj7#11)
  • Mixolydian: Dominant 7 (Example: G7)
  • Aeolian: min7 (Example: Gmin7)
  • Dorian: min6 (Example: Gmin6)
  • Phrygian: min7b9 (Example: Gmin7b2)
  • Locrian: min7b5 (Example: Gm7b5, AKA G “half diminished”)

Be aware that when you hear modes in this context you really hear their modal potential. If you play modes in a functional harmony context (such as in a II-V-I chord progression) you won’t hear their modal beauty as much, because, functional harmony has a different way of expressing tension and release.

So, in the Course Music Theory for the Bass Player, we work our way up from intervals to scales to modes. Then we go through every single mode and practice it with jam tracks and point out its particular beauty. Here is an excerpt – check out a few Phrygian samples!

Music THeory for the Bass Player The Course

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2 Replies to “Are the Modes all Greek to You? (Super Short Cut!)”

  1. Can you think of songs we could listen to using the Phrygian mode ? I’m I’m hearing Jason Bourne about to go off his pursuer.

    1. Totally, Brad. Satriani, Vai, Metallica, Rainbow, Q of the Stone Age. Malmsteen. That would make a fun blog post… digging up some tunes! Film music: definitely whenever dark drama is involved. Not sure about Bourne Identity

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