The 7 Modes are sometimes called the Church Modes, because they were used in sacred (and secular) music during the time of the Renaissance. The modes were given names of the ancient Greek tribes by composer-scholar-monks in the late Medieval era, mistakenly thinking that they had discovered the source of the lost classical arts of ancient Greece.

The modes offer a new melodic dimension outside of major/minor feeling, while using the same notes of the key.

The major and minor scales are already a part of these 7 modes. Just as relative major and minor scales share notes from the same key signature, so do the rest of the modes. In fact, each mode is simply the scale built on each note within the key. You could think of modes as “inversions” of the major scale, in the same way that the 3-note triad has three different positions, so the 7 note scale produces 7 different modes.

Modes with C Major Key Signature

1. Ionian (Major) on C
C Ionian Mode
2. Dorian on D
D Dorian Mode
3. Phrygian on E
E Phrygian Mode
4. Lydian on F
F Lydian Mode
5. Mixolydian on G
G Mixolydian Mode
6. Aeolian (Minor) on A
A Aeolian Mode
7. Locrian on B
B Locrian Mode

Now we can see how the modes are derived from one scale. What is missing in this approach is to show the individual character of each mode, and why each mode has its own unique sonic flavor.

The modes are characterized by their relative brightness or darkness. They offer a more nuanced spectrum of musical feeling than the simple Light/Dark of major-minor tonality.

Let’s look at the modes again, this time in order of brightest to darkest, against a single tone.

Modes on the tone C

C Lydian (♯4)C Lydian Mode
C Ionian (Major)
C Ionian Mode
C Mixolydian (♭7)
C Mixolydian Mode
C Dorian (♭3, ♭7)
C Dorian Mode
C Aeolian (♭3, ♭6, ♭7)
C Aeolian Mode
C Phrygian (♭2, ♭3, ♭6, ♭7)
C Phrygian Mode
C Locrian (♭2, ♭3, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7)
C Locrian

Practicing the modes in this order of bright to dark against the same tonic is the best way to grasp the feeling for each mode’s subtle distinction in sound and feeling.

Notice how Lydian, the brightest mode, is essentially the major scale with a sharp fourth tone. Compare all of the modes to the major scale in this way. Dorian is the major scale with a flat third and seventh, and so on. Also notice that with every flat added, the mode becomes darker, and that the new flat is in the order of the circle of fifths!

Now play them in every key.


For a deeper insight into the qualities of the modes, have a look at the discussion on a jazz theory blog: Harmonic Brightness & Darkness

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