Thinking of scales and modes..

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Suckbird, Apr 15, 2005.

  1. Suckbird

    Suckbird Banned

    May 4, 2004
    Why and for what do you use modes?

    I can play the 7mods of Cmajor but i dont understand why i would like to see a let's say E phrygian or D dorian etc as a mod of C major.

    The only relationship i see is that all 7modes have the same notes and the 2nd modes root is the second note in the previous scale...

    And i dont understand why the minor scale is a mod of a major scale...

    Sorry, i'm a bit confused.
  2. The most useful way to think of modes is as alterations to a scale. The relationship between C major and C dorian is much more important than that between C major and D dorian.
    True. That's useful knowledge, but not very applicable to actual playing. Approaching modes mainly from this direction can lead to confusion.
    It just is. :D Those two scales just happened to be in use, and the relative minor happens to be the same as the aeolian mode. There's no deep theoretical reason; it's just historical.

    I don't worry about modes. When I become a hip jazz soloist, I'll make use of them. They're really only useful for playing over strange chord progressions.
  3. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    I strongly disagree with the above statements. If you think fo modes that way you are failing to see how they really work.

    Modes are variations of a given scale that can be used over certain chords to provide a different melodic flavor while remaining entirely within the same key. That's the important thing to note: MODES CONTAIN THE SAME NOTES AS THE ORIGINAL KEY.

    Generally you use a given mode over its corresponding chord. For example: Dorian is the second mode, its starting pitch is based off the 2nd note of the scale. Therefore you play it over the second chord of the scale. Mixolydian is the 5th mode of the major scale, therfore you often use it over the fifth chord.

    But why not just play Major and Minor scales, you might ask? Simple: if you do this you are going to add notes that are not part of the scale you started with. Here's an example:

    A chord progression in C major:

    I-ii-V7-I or C Major - D minor - G Dominant 7 - C Major.

    Lets say you are soloing happily over the C major chord. Then the song moves to the D minor, the second chord of the C major scale. The notes of a D minor chord are DFAD. You could play a D minor scale (DEFGABbCD) over this chord, and it would sound fine BY ITSELF. However it will contain a nasty, not part of the original scale, note: the Bb. Your song is now no longer in C major, its in D minor. While moving keys is certainly well and good, you may not WANT to have the solo feel like its moved to a new key.

    By contrast if you played the D Dorian mode (DEFGABCD) you are playing only notes that are part of the key you started in. Everything still feels like its part of C major.

    This will become even more important on the next chord change: the V7 (GBDF). I picked this for a reason, not only is the V7 a very important chord in nearly all types of music, it has an odd arrangement: it combines a major triad with a minor seventh on top. I'll skip the detailed explaination but trust me that the minor 7 is important to why the V7 has such a strong "hook" pulling back to the tonic (first) chord.

    Now lets get back to your solo: if you play a G major (GABCDEF#G) scale over a G dominant 7 you will get a problem: you have an F# instead of an F. You don't have the minor 7 needed to really great the dominant 7 hook. Solution: Replace the G major with G MIXOLYDIAN (the 5th mode of the major scale) which contains the notes GABCDEFG. Everything sounds smooth, sweet, and you still have your V7 chord pulling the progression back to the tonic.

    There are many, many other uses of modes, but that's the most basic and down to earth one, and probably the #1 reason why a solid understanding of how the modes work together is a great help for a bassist. Oh yeah, these issues are not exclusive to soloing, anytime you are trying to play a melodic line over chords they can come up. And they aren't only useful for "strange" chord progressions, they are very helpful for even the most basic progression (like the one I dissected above).

    That's it, don't think of modes as seperate scales, think of them as different ways to play the same scale.

    The "relative" minor scale is simply the minor scale that contains all the same notes as a given major scale. I don't know the real music history behind it, but I am pretty sure these relationships were identified and studied in Western Tonal Music before the rest of the modes were codified an named, I could be wrong though.

    The only thing you really need to know is that a relative minor is the most closely related key you can get to a given major key. Its probably the most popular target to modulate to, and vice versa. For example its extremely common to have a song in a minor key that has the bridge or solo section in the realative major.

    Nothing to be sorry about. There are lots of different ways to explain what modes are and how they work. I find most do an great job with the first and fall flat on the second, leaving you wonder what the heck these things are for. It took me years before I finally made the connection that modes are PART of a given scale, not seperate things floating on their own.
  4. If all your chords are in one key, why do you need to worry about modes? If you're playing the exact same notes that you would play anyway, modes simply add another layer of complexity. Worrying about chord tones is probably a better approach in that instance. I'm much more interested in the fact that I'm playing the minor seventh of the current chord than in where I am in a mode that shares its notes with the chord I'm playing over. I can extract more useful harmonic information from the former.

    Here's the only way I use modes. Lets say I'm playing over a chord progression. It can be harmonically complex, not suggesting any particular key, or it could be a simple I-IV-V. A harmonically complex progression will probably work better, as the mode I choose to emphasize won't fight with the bold harmony of a simple progression. Now, if I want to have a modal feel, I'll pick a mode of a scale. It's not especially important which; I'll do whatever I'm feeling at the moment. Different choices will have different effects, but my procedure is the same. To emphasize the mode, I harp on its defining notes. If I've picked an Aeolian mode, for example, I play the flatted sixth and seventh a lot. I make its distinguishing characteristics prominent. The contrast between my unchanging mode and my changing harmony is where the modal effect comes in. I can use the notes in my chords to choose a mode that shares notes with most (or all, if possible) of them. It's a good tactic for playing over complex chord progressions. There's not much point in doing it over chords that are all in one key. Just play in that key, and you've got your scale. Choosing a mode as described allows me to use one scale (my chosen mode) over all those chords, making a fluid melody instead of one that too closely follows the harmonic structure of a song.

    I consider modes to be chiefly useful for soloing. When playing backup, you generally want to bring out the changes in the harmony; not smooth them over. I'd take a chordal approach most of the time. Your mileage may vary, of course. You should play it the way you want it to sound.

    There's a lot of pseudo-theory built up around modes. A lot of bad guitarists who want to feel like good ones buy into it. They will switch to different modes of the same scale every chord change, and call that modal playing. If your progression is in C, and you play C Ionian over it, then F Lydian, then G Mixolydian, then brag about your use of modes in that blistering solo, then you're just blowing hot air. What you've done is exactly what most people would do, but you just talked about modes after doing it. You picked a key that fit the chords, then played in it. Modes are useful for picking a scale that fits well with a chain of chords. Properly used they are a valuable tool for finding a scale that fits an arbitrary chord progression. You then then stay with that scale. When you play different modes of a scale, that's all you've done. You're not actually changing modes; you're playing in one mode that fits your harmony well, and then saying you changed. In reality you just played in C major (keeping with my example), wasting a little time with fake theory.

    I agree with this. I don't agree on which approach is which. I feel that viewing modes as a scale begun from a degree other than the root is handy for grasping them at a basic level. To really use them as a unifying force in your song, the other approach is most useful, because it teaches you how a mode differs from the major scale (useful for knowing which notes to emphasize), and it divorces you from the bad habit of pretending to switch modes when it's a useless action, leaving you in the same key you started in.
    I disagree with this. This is the "fake modes" approach. This is picking a scale, then sticking with it. I see no reason that you would change, so I view this as doing nothing, then making up a reason for it. Modes would have been useful when you picked that scale. I would say that in your example you picked the C Ionian mode, then played in it.

    What I meant by this was that the proper mode is generally obvious when the progression is simple, so modes don't bear thinking about. Using use my I-IV-V in C from above: All the chords are in the key of C, so you play a C scale, of course.
  5. ryco


    Apr 24, 2005
    modes are just subtle flavorings. every key has 3 maj, 3 min and a dim. playing the different majors/majors and minors/minors give different sounds. just fun to play with and experiment and see where and how they lead. for instance: try playing dorian ascending and phrygian descending. just something different than staying on a natural minor or a blues minor or a pentatonic minor.
  6. bassjus


    Mar 30, 2004
    Great post Tash, you definantly laid out all of the key parts.
  7. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    I'm not trying to claim that what I explained was THE way of using and looking at modes. But I do feel it misleading to explain what modes are and not go into how they relate to chords within a key. While saying that "Playing a C scale will always work if the song is in C" is technically right, it may not sound right to the ear. If your have say, an extended passage over the V7 chord and you just jam away on the C major scale, it won't have quite the same flavor as the Mixolydian mode would. That's what modes are about, flavor, and the better you know them the better you'll be at matching what you play with what's going on elsewhere in the tune.
  8. Right. You've got to choose carefully. The whole point is to make use of the mode's distinguishing features. Those avoid notes are your friends. Using them a lot will likely sound bad in a bassline, so I consider modes to be more useful as a melodic device.
    I generally try to put some thought into my music. I'm not just playing the odds. It's not chance when I arrive on the right note.

    Changing to a different mode of the same scale isn't going to accomplish anything. There will be no change of mode, no matter how you try. You'll just be continuing your melody from a different point in the scale. If you had started the song there then you'd have a decent shot at staying in the mode you started in, but you can't change to a different scale by using the same set of notes.

    If you want to use modes, you either need to pick one and stick with it, or switch to scales made up of different notes. There is no other way to switch modes. If you're looking for a way to make your playing agree with the rest of the harmony, then it's a chordal approach you're after. If you're looking to create a modal feel, then you'd best learn to use them properly.
    If you mean it won't have the same flavor that "switching" from C Ionian to G Mixolydian will, you're wrong. If you want any modal flavor, you'll need to change to a mode that does not share all its notes with the C major scale. Maybe G Ionian. That would make a nice Gmaj7 chord, and also maintain the Ionian modality.

    EDIT: I'd just like to add a little support for my point. Tom Serb, author of Music Theory For Guitarists, says, "Now comes the sticky part: if you're playing in C, and you decide you'll switch to a mode related to C major (like F Lydian) and play there for a while... it won't work. You'll think you're doing something, but it's a waste of time; the tonal center determines what the ear expects, so all people will hear is C major - no matter what you do."
  9. Tash


    Feb 13, 2005
    Bel Air Maryland
    That's the definition of "change of mode". Its a different thing from "change of scale". As a matter of fact many composers and theorists don't consider a modulation to the realtive major/minor a change of scale. Its a change of mode, even though the pitches are the same.

    If you insist that modes have no meaning, fine, that's up to you, but its a viewpoint that ignores the blatantly obvious: modes exist to highlight particular chords, and you can and will hear a difference between them and the tonic scale because they emphasize totally different notes, despite being an identical collection of pitches.

    C Major Emphasizes C, and to a lesser extent G. G mixolydian places the greatest emphasis on G and F. If you play a chord that is built primarily on G and F, and play a scale centered on C over it, the important notes just won't click. I know you don't and won't belive me, but thats the way tonal harmony works. If you really think C major and G mixolydian sound the same, you've either never played both scales, or are tone deaf.

    If you want to toss tonality and begin working in set theory, 12 tone or interval vectors the rules change, but thats another thread.
  10. emjazz

    emjazz Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2003
    Boston, MA
    Suckbird, please be aware that Tash and Slybass have it right. It's very difficult for someone learning to hash out the truth from the assumed. I don't want to get down on anyone but as a music educator myself I see misinformation being passed around all the time and it's very frustrating. Take a look over what Tash and Slybass have said and be sure to PM them for more info if you need it. It sounds like they're willing to help you out.
  11. emjazz

    emjazz Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2003
    Boston, MA
    Also, if you email me at than I'd be happy to send you some pages that help explain the modes.
  12. Correlli


    Apr 2, 2004
    New Zealand
    This is a diagram that helps me to understand modes. It shows all the notes, of the C Ionian (Major Diatonic) scale on the fretboard, from the Nut (N) to fret 12. Using the same pattern, you can get D Dorian just by changing the root note, which now D. Changing the root to E, and you have E Phrygian. So if you had a chord progression in the key of C, you can just use the one pattern to get all the notes you need.
    N   0000
    1   0|||
    2   |000
    3   000|
    4   |||0
    5   0000
    6   ||||
    7   0000
    8   00||
    9   ||00
    10  0000
    11  ||||
    12  0000
  13. Bassist4Life


    Dec 17, 2004
    Buffalo, NY
    I don't know if you've ever heard of the bassist Bunny Brunel, but he has a website that can help you with your modal confusion. His website has several lessons with sound clips, notation, and a video where he demonstrates and explains things for you.

    Go to
    and be enlightened. Near the end of the video, Bunny creates a bass line using all of the notes in a given mode, then transposes the same bassline into the next mode. The "flavor" of the line changes a lot. It's a real eye opener.

    I hope a lot of people are able to benefit from this website.

  14. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    I think there are a couple of things missing from this discussion. One is just a simple question. When we play over different chords in a diatonic progression--say, C, F, and G7 in the key of C--what exactly are we doing? Are we shifting through three different modes, or are we just emphasizing different tones of the parent major tonality, related to the chords being employed? I would submit that in many if not most cases, it's probably more useful and sensible to think of it as the latter. This is *not* to say that you can always just play any old notes from the C scale, it's to say that in a diatonic harmonic situation, you are often playing within a single overarching tonality, and it's often better to think of yourself as doing that, rather than thinking of yourself as changing tonalities or modalities. The reason is is that in most standard forms of major-minor tonality, the chords don't just sit there as isolated harmonic statements, they're part of a harmonic progression. They come from somewhere, and they go somewhere.

    To me the key thing about modes is NOT that they contain the same notes as a major scale from which they can be derived. To me, that's actually the least interesting and useful thing about them. It's relatively trivial. The really interesting thing is that they convey a different tonality/modality. A tune, or section of a tune, that's largely in A dorian sounds different from one in A aeolian. IMO as lemur said above, the difference between C ionian and C dorian is more useful than the difference between C ionian and D dorian.

    Modal thinking is most useful IMO when there is an overarching modal tonality (as in, say, "So What"), not so much when you're playing diatonically within a single major key. For example, in "La Bamba," which is just I-IV-V-IV going by fairly quickly, there's no real need to think I ionian, IV lydian, V mixolydian, when you can just think of what you do as making intelligent selections from a single major tonality. IMO this is more economical and more harmonically sensible. I mean, why think of yourself as doing three things when at a fundamental level you're doing one?
  15. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    Hey sly, I understand what you're saying, but I'd still argue that what I'm suggesting is actually easier in most (not necessarily all) cases of relatively diatonic harmony. You don't need to know the modes to play the right notes in a diatonic chord progression. All you really need to know in many cases is the overarching tonality and then how to select appropriate "emphasize" and "avoid" notes within that tonality. You can do that without thinking that you're changing to a new mode every time. In fact, I've come to think that sometimes the approach of new chord=new mode/scale can obscure what's going on harmonically. For example, suppose you're playing diatonically in C major, then all of a sudden you hit a quick Bm7b5 E7 Am. Since what that is is really a ii-V-i in a new key, Am, you're probably better served by thinking of that whole 3-chord sequence as being in A harmonic minor, rather than in a B mode followed by an E mode followed by an A mode. To me this is both easier and more musically effective.

    I also think that some of this is affected by how long the chord is played for. If a chord is played for, say, 8 or 16 measures, you may be hearing it as having established a local "temporary* tonal center, so that thinking of that chord in terms of a mode based on its root might be useful. But when the chords are going by 2 to the bar, coming up with a new mode for each one seems needlessly complex, when you can get the same results by IMO more elegant means.
  16. Correlli


    Apr 2, 2004
    New Zealand
    One of the criticisms I have with your post, is that you appear to be making the subject of modes, more difficult than what it really is.

    I found it very difficult read and understand the point you're trying to make.
  17. I believe he's saying that we don't have to invoke modes to explain our choice of notes, and that thinking in modes when we are playing in one key tends to obscure what we are really doing, rather than to make choosing the right note easier. Pretending to change modes [remember, you can't shift to another mode of the same scale] on every chord only serves to isolate us from the underlying tonality of the piece.

    In the next paragraph he agrees with me, which is refreshing. :D

    Why introduce another layer of complexity? Even if you did "change modes" on every chord, wouldn't you still need to choose your notes wisely? Modes are cool, and are a very simple concept, but they are not usually useful.
  18. emjazz

    emjazz Supporting Member

    Feb 23, 2003
    Boston, MA
    Other than modes are cool, I couldn't disagree more.
  19. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    With respect, read it again, and give it some thought. lemur pretty much got it.
  20. Richard Lindsey

    Richard Lindsey

    Mar 25, 2000
    Metro NYC
    I was with you until the "not usually useful" part. IMO modes are very useful to know, but not really for the purpose of changing modalities with every chord in diatonic or nearly diatonic music. They're more useful for playing in modal tunes and modal sections of tunes. But I'd say that a lot of pop, folk, and rock is actually more modal than conventionally major-minor, and modes can be very useful in those settings. As well as--obviously--in modal jazz.