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Modes as i understand them

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by EchoEcho, Sep 23, 2008.

  1. EchoEcho


    Oct 14, 2007
    After struggling trying to understand modes these last few weeks, i think i have finally grasped them after looking through lots of resources (including virtually every single thread here on TB since 2000 that have "modes" in the thread title). The only thing that i'm not certain about now is the practical application of parallel modes when it comes to chord progressions....but that will be cleared up soon, i hope.

    Here, i want to explain modes as i understand them in the hope that it may clarify some things for some people. I know modes creates a lot of confusion. Rather than try to explain modes as if they exist in a vacuum, i want to explain them in the context of chords and chord progressions because a) that's how i learnt to understand them, and b) i think it's essential to provide a practical context when explaining things so that the concept of modes doesn't seem like it is 'up in the air'. Most of the time, people seem to just explain the concept and theory of modes without a practical context of where they can be used in practice, and that's why it's taken me weeks to be able to understand them.

    Chord progressions
    Up until recently, i thought that chord progressions started and ended on the parent key chord (ie I). For example, the progression I -V - IV -I.
    If we take the key of C major(ie C D E F G A B) and look at the chords within the family of C major, we have:
    C major(I), D minor(ii), E minor(iii), F major(IV), G major(V), A minor(vi), B diminished(vii).
    So the progression I -V - IV - I will be C - G - F - C. The reason why Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and B diminished are all in the key of C here is because we are only dealing with the root, 3rd, and 5th notes of the chords. They, afterall, are what makes the triad of a chord. For example, the triad of G is G B D and the triad of F is F A C. All notes there are in the key of C.

    Playing notes in a bassline other than the root, 3rd, and 5th
    If we are only going to be playing the root, 3rd, and 5th notes, there would be no problem in just playing the root, 3rd, and 5th notes in the Ionian scale(ie major scale) for C, F, and G in the progression. However, what if we also wanted to play the 4th, 6th or 7th note in G or F major to spice up our basslines, yet still be in the key of C? If for example, we played the major scale of G beginning on G, we would find that we have the notes G A B C D E F#. Oh dear, we have a problem. F# is NOT in the key of C major. This is one of the many ways in which modes come in very useful, of which i'll address next.

    Staying in key on different root notes other than C
    We know that if we play the C major starting on C we get the notes C D E F G A B C, so what if we wanted to play starting on G or F but still be in the key of C major? If we play the major scale on D, we get the key of D major: D E F# G A B C# D. Hmmm F# and C# are not in the key of C, so lets try something else.

    Ok, let's play the Dorian scale starting on D - what do you notice? We notice that we play the notes D E F G A B C D. When we play Phrygian on E, we get the notes E F G A B C D E. Likewise for Lydian on F we get F G A B C D E F , and Mixolydian on G we get G A B C D E F G. So we know that if we play the Mixolydian mode on G we can play all notes in the key of C major and still be in key. Likewise for the playing the Lydian mode starting on F.

    It was at this point that i understood what modes are, but i couldn't really see any way of how or why they should be used in a practical manner. But after much reading, it was the following information which answered those uncertainties for me: the tonal centre of a chord progression.

    The tonal centre of a chord progression
    One thing must be noted is that the chord that the progression starts and ends on is VERY IMPORTANT. That is the tonal centre.
    So how do modes come into the equation and how can we use modes to spice things up? Well, this is what took me a while to get my head around. Not because it's difficult to understand, but because of the way they tend to be eexplained. INSTEAD OF HAVING C AS THE TONAL CENTRE, WE CAN START AND END THE PROGRESSION ON THE (for example) 2ND NOTE OF THE KEY OF C TO GIVE THE PROGRESSION A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FEEL. THE MAIN POINT HERE IS THAT D NOW BECOMES THE TONAL CENTRE RATHER THAN C. If the tonal centre was E, the chord progression would have a different feel again. The same for F, and so on. The notes in C Ionian are C D E F G A B, whereas the notes in D Dorian are D E F G A B C. Exactly the same. It is still in the key of C!

    The original progression was C Ionian - G Mixolydian - F Lydian - C Ionian. So how does this get changed now that we want to change the tonal centre from C Ionian to D Dorian? Very little, in fact. Instead of the progression being I - V - IV - I, it now becomes ii - V - IV -ii. In terms of chords, it is now Dm - G major - F major - Dm. Play the progression C major - G major - F major - C major, and compare it to Dm - G major - F major - Dm. BIG difference because the total centre is now D minor instead of C major. And everything is still in the key of C major. How do the modes change? Now they are D Dorian - G Mixolydian - F Lydian - D Dorian. Neither the G Mixolydian nor the F Lydian change. Whatever notes from D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and F Lydian you decide to play, everything is still in the key of C major(this is now the parent key). The new progression is now in the key of D Dorian rather than C major(ie C Ionian). C major is the parent key from which D Dorian is derived.

    Summary of the practicality of modes
    1) Using derivative modes to play on a different root note and still be in key

    2) Changing the tonal centre of a chord progression.

    3) Somewhere within a progression, you may decide to play in the Phrygian mode to give a solo a Spanish feel even though one or 2 notes may not be in key. Rules are meant to be broken, and many bassists seem to do this, but i'm not sure how it works yet.

    4) Parallel modes. Not sure about the practical application of these yet, although i know what they are.

    Hope this can be of help.
  2. JTE

    JTE Supporting Member

    Mar 12, 2008
    Central Illinois, USA
    "The reason why Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and B diminished are all in the key of C here is because we are only dealing with the root, 3rd, and 5th notes of the chords. "

    Nope. They're in the key of C because when you harmonize the C major scale you get those chords. Write out a C major scale, stack the thirds on it, and analyze the chords. You'll get this. Look at each stack and figure out the chords.

    B C D E F G A B
    G A B C D E F G
    E F G A B C D E
    C D E F G A B C

    You'll come up with Cmaj7, Dmin7, Emin7, Fmaj7, G7, Emin7, and Bmin7b5. Those aren't just triads.

    For most chordal playing, I still think modes add an uneeded level of complexity. I don't think of your original I V IV I progression as Ionian, Mixolydian, Lydian, Ionian. The tonal center there is C, and I think of it as I V IV I in C. Knowing the chord tones allows me to use any note in the key of C and target specific chord tones as the important notes to outline the harmony.

    Similarly with your second progression. Dmin7 G7 Amin7 Dmin7 still looks like ii V vi ii to me. That ii to V spells the key of C. And I'll build bass lines and solos around the chord tones of DFAC, GBDF, and ACEG for the specific chords, but my passing tones are still in the key of C. The key of C is my available pallet of notes, but the framework is chord tones.

    Now if you have modal vamp that goes back and forth between Dmin7 (D F A C) and Amin7 (A C E G) I'd probably still be thinking C and focus on chord tones, but the key of F works for those two chords also.. Those two chords don't have either a B nor a Bb so that would determine what mode or scale to use. If there was a G7 chord or a C7 we'd know.

  3. EchoEcho


    Oct 14, 2007
    Ah ok, thanks for the correction.
  4. mambo4


    Jun 9, 2006
    I gather that 'parallel modes' have little musical application in and of themselves. It's just playing every mode on the same root instead of moving the root up the scale.

    the term is just there to distinguish them from the harmonized major scale modes, and help you be aware that any root can begin any mode.

    for example:

    the modes of c major:
    C major (ionian)
    D dorian
    E phrygian
    F lydian
    G mixolydian
    A aeolian
    B locrian

    the parallel modes of c major:
    C major (ionian)
    C dorian
    C phrygian
    C lydian
    C mixolydian
    C aeolian
    C locrian

    basically, what youd play over a C chord if the song is in other keys than C maj
  5. +1. This is IMO a much more efficient way to think about it, at least for stuff that involves more or less functional harmony.
  6. DocBop


    Feb 22, 2007
    Los Angeles, CA
    Modes are one of those things you have to go thru at some point they are important to know. The problem for many comes is they get to hung up on them or think they are the only tool they need. Modes are one of the tools of scale, modes, arpeggios, chord substitutions, target tones, chromaticism, composition, and on and on. One spend time with each get their sound in your ear and under your fingers, then focus on making music with it. Then combine with your other tools to see what you can come up with. Its a constant building, combining, and exploration process that can last a lifetime.
  7. sackvegas


    Dec 1, 2006
    Good thread modes still confuse the **** out of me
  8. DocBop


    Feb 22, 2007
    Los Angeles, CA
    The problem I see people have is they try to learn modes like learning a handful of scale all at once. Treat them like you learned scales one at a time. You discover only a few modes are commonly used, Dorian, Lydian, and as you get into Jazz Locrian.

    Associating the modes with harmonized scale is more of a theoretical exercise than practical. I say learn the modes from a chordal POV.

    Major chords modes
    Ionian (major scale) Lydian. Lydian is valuable because it raises the 4th of a major scale that is a avoid note in general. Lydian is the default scale/mode for major chords for many.

    Minor chord modes
    Aeolian (natural minor scale) Phrygian and Dorian. Dorian for many is the default scale mode for minor chords. It's like a natural minor scale, with the maj6th for a little color.

    Dominant chord modes
    The Mixolydian mode is it and usual first scale/mode players learn after major and minor. For me and many others Lydian b7 is the default scale for dominant, it is actually a mode of the Melodic Minor. You can look at it as a Lydian with a b7th or Mixolydian with a #4. Bottom line it is used for same reason Lydian is used over Major it takes care of the 4th that tends to be an avoid note.

    Minor 7b5 chords
    Not your typical rock chord, used more in Jazz and Latin music. The Locrian mode work over it. Now some use Locrian over dominants for a fully altered dominant sound.

    So all that boils down to these common defaults

    Major chord = Lydian
    Minor chord = Dorian
    Dominant chord = Mixolydian (or Lydian b7 variation)
    Half-Diminished chord = Locrian

    So only three modes to learn to get started. Two of those modes are only changing one note (Lydian and Dorian.) Mixolydian doesn't change anything and probably know it already. Locrian you don't need to worry about until you start playing jazz or Latin tunes with minor II-V's.

    Now the important part listen and work on making music with them. Record the chord and play the scales against the chord. Listen to each note against the chord. Try the notes on strong and weak beats. Where are the chord tones in the modes. See It, Feel It, Make it your own.
  9. onlyclave


    Oct 28, 2005
    Modes made easier:

    Step 1: Learn all 12 major scales. Learn them in 2 octaves and actually memorize the notes, not the patterns on the fingerboard (this is where a piano come in very handy).

    Here are the formulas for playing any mode in relation to it's parallel major scale:

    Major = Ionian. Congratulations, you've already learned one of the modes.
    Dorian = Major with a b3 and b7
    Phrygian = Major with b2, b3, b6 and b7
    Lydian = Major with a #4
    Mixolydian = Major with b7
    Aelion = b3, b6, b7. Also known as Natural Minor.
    Locrian = Major with b2, b3, b5, b6, and b7

    So here's another way to remember that: "I Dig Pot, Leave Me Alone, Loser" (Thank you University of Oregon School of Music)

    Get it? If you just play the white keys on the piano from C to C you get an Ionian scale. (I). Likewise if you play all of the white keys from D to D you get a Dorian scale (Dig). "But OnlyClave," you say, "A D Major scale has a F# and C# in it. White keys aren't sharps and flats!" And I can then say "Cool, you just realized what 2 notes are altered to make a dorian scale."

    Like DocBop said above me there are some modes that really aren't used that often. I would like to offer these other formulas for other scales you should learn:
    Lydian Dominant: Major with #4 and b7 (4th mode of Harmonic Minor)
    Superlocrian (7th mode of Harmonic minor): Major with b2, b3, b4, b5, b6 and b7.

    I personally think you're better of practicing arpeggios myself. People think modes are some kind of magical way to learn to improvise but those people end up sounding like someone practicing modes when they are blowing.

    Try practicing diatonic 13th chords up and down.

    F A C E G Bb D, and then go up to the next chord and start at the top going down E C A F D Bb G, up A C E G Bb D F, down G E C A F D Bb etc.
  10. DudeistMonk


    Apr 13, 2008
    Newark, NJ
    Hey Doc, whats the point of raising the 4th a half step if your only raising to be a half step from the 5th, which still leaves it being an avoid note?...Maybe I'm missing something here.
  11. onlyclave


    Oct 28, 2005
    Because the natural 11th clashes against the 3rd. A minor 9th in an inner voice is horribly dissonant. If you raise the 4th a half step you now have a major 9th and it sounds good again. It's also why Dominant 13 chords either have the 11th omitted or it is a V13(#11) chord.

    This is not to be confused with a minor 9th against the root, that is a different, pleasing dissonance.
  12. EchoEcho


    Oct 14, 2007
    I think a lot of the difficulty with modes is because most people have different ways of perceiving modes and there are different schools of thought. So it means that beginners get mixed messages and jumbled information rather than getting anything definitive.
  13. onlyclave


    Oct 28, 2005
    The difficulty with modes is people think they are a lot more important than they really are.
  14. Thanks, Echo, et. al.

    This is an awesome thread.

    Echo - your efforts to share your newly acquired knowledge are very helpful, as are the subsequent clarifications.

  15. DocBop


    Feb 22, 2007
    Los Angeles, CA
    The third is key identity note of a chord and the 4th a half-step causes issues. The fifth isn't really an identity note and the #4 sound like a b5 which is a classic Blue note.
  16. deekay911


    Nov 4, 2007
    Charleston SC
    Well you just confused the hell out of me - I thought F was IV not VI....isn't A the VI ?
  17. DocBop


    Feb 22, 2007
    Los Angeles, CA
    IMO to many just try to run the mode and think magic will happen. They don't think/listen to the chord the mode relates to. They don't learn where the chord tones are located in the mode finger pattern. They will do exercises, but don't just sit the mess around with the mode and check out each notes and how it sound against the chord. That is the one thing about ear player is that is what they do all the time play and listen. Knowing theory won't do you much good if you don't know what it sounds like.
  18. StyleOverShow

    StyleOverShow Still Playing After All These Years Gold Supporting Member

    May 3, 2008
    Hillsdale, Portland
    Noticed that when he gave the not often used sample I-V-VI-I.
    Definitely not Louie-Louie.

    I find modal stuff interesting when creating arpeggios in the relative major/minor key- Like C-E-G-B-D-F-A-C. If the F is sharp then you can make it a passing tone to the A and not upset too many apple carts.
  19. EchoEcho


    Oct 14, 2007
    You're welcome :). If it helps, then i'm glad.

    Ah damn! Thanks for that. I've corrected the typo now. And yes, the F is the "IV" note and A is "vi", in this case (the small "vi" denoting minor chords and capitals denoting major or dominant. I forgot to mention that it the first post for people who may have been wondering).
    Thanks for spotting it.

    I dare say there is a lot of truth in that. There is a lot of mixed messages - some people swear by modes and say that they are all-important and should never be under-emphasised, whereas others say that they are overestimated.
  20. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    Modes happen. There isn't a need to understand them. They happen as a result of a note sequence, ie scales.

    As JTE pointed out:
    as his stacking diagram shows, stacking the Ionian mode you come up with 3 minor triads.
    The minor chord tones are the same - what changes are the other scale degrees; the supertonic (the second) and the submediant (the sixth).

    If you went and took JTE's stacking diagram one step farther and stacked the whole scale you would see (from bottom to top)

    A B C D E F G
    F G A B C D E
    D E F G A B C
    B C D E F G A
    G A B C D E F
    E F G A B C D
    C D E F G A B
    I ii iii IV V vi viiº

    I = Major scale (Ionian) or Major chord
    ii = minor scale w/ M6 (Dorian) or minor 13 chord
    iii = minor scale w/ m2 (Phrygian) or minor b9 chord
    IV = Major scale w/ A4 (Lydian) or Major #4 chord
    V = Dominant scale "Major triad w/ b7" (Mixolydian) or Dom V7 chord
    vi = natural minor scale (Aeolian) or minor chord
    viiº -= minor scale w/ b5 "mb5" (Locrian) or half-diminished chord. {or even a V7 w/o the root]

    It's a matter of taking a scale = a sequence layed out in seconds, and instead stacking it in thirds.

    You can do this for any scale sequence, for example Ascending Melodic Minor is very popular.
    Take the Mel min scale, stack it in thirds and see what chords come out as a result.

    Modes are a result, not necessarily a starting point. The late 50s/60s be-boppers and rock fusion bands experimented with writing and playing songs in certain modes (a lot of Dorian, Lydian). Also used certain modal scales over chords, but there are no "rules" - just preferences.

    DocBop makes a good point about playing these scales and making up exercises to see how they sound.
    Getting the sound under your fingers and into your ear.
    But it's not necessary just to run these scales up and down forever.

    Eventually you may want to get away from thinking about patterns and let your ear guide you and your fingers.

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