This post and possibly another, is about real world use of
modes. This assumes you already at least sort of understand
what modes are, which is asking a lot. This post is taken in
part from a short appendix section in my book “Take Control:
for guitar”, published on Amazon. However I will add a short
general explanation about modes in the beginning so the rest
of the post will make more sense. As always, you can refer to
my book for a more in depth explanation and actual examples
if my limited explanation isn’t enough, it really isn’t that hard.
A lot of people are put off by the Greek names, which are
beside the point. Just focus on the concept, not the names!
THE BASIC CONCEPT: A mode tells which chord or note of
the key you’re in is the root of the song. All keys contain; a
scale with 7 notes (melody), 7 chords built from those notes
(harmony), and 7 modes. All a mode does is tell you which
chord/note is the root of your song,(what your chord
progression is based on). I will use the key of A as an example
KEY OF A MAJOR
SCALE CHORDS MODES
A A major A Ionian/Major
B B minor B Dorian
C# C# minor C# Phrygian
D D major D Lydian
E E major E Mixolydian
F# F# minor F# Aeolian/Minor
G# G# dim. G# Locrian
In the key of A, if the root chord of your song is an A major,
(the 1st chord in the key), you are in A Ionian mode. Your
song can go to any other chords in the key; E,F# min.,D etc.
you’re still in A Ionian mode. If the root chord in your song
is B minor (2nd chord in the key), you’re in B Dorian mode.
You can go to any other chords in the key, you’re still in B
Dorian mode. Same thing if you play a scale; play an A major
scale from A to A, you’re playing A Ionian mode. Play the same
A major scale from B to B and you’re playing B Dorian mode.
The mode names are always in the same sequence for any key.
The first mode is always Ionian, the second mode is always
Dorian, etc. Pros use the term “degree” to describe a notes’
place in a key, so you will often see Ionian mode referred to as
starting from the 1st degree of the key, or Phrygian mode as
starting from the 3rd degree of the key. Degree equals the
number in the scale sequence. Easy!
SO WHAT’S THE POINT?
If it’s the same scale and group of chords and all I’m doing is
changing the root why do I care and why do I have to give it a
hard to spell Greek name? I’m glad you asked! By basing the
chord progression or scale around different degrees you get 7
entirely different sounds. Try playing an A major scale from A
to A; (A,B,C#,D,E,F#,G#,A). Now play the same scale from C#
to C#; (C#,D,E,F#,G#,A,B,C#), it’s almost like a different scale.
The modes are always in this sequence for any key; the 1st mode
is always Major, the 2nd mode always Dorian, etc. Each mode
has a different sound and understanding and using modes allows
you to get 7 different sounds from the same scale! In fact, if you
are playing over modal chord changes (with the correct root
chord), all you need to do is play the scale, the chords will give
you the modal sound. If you are playing the scale by itself, or
superimposing it over a different song, you will have to start &
stop your riffs on the correct root. After all somebody has to
do it. The easy way to do this is to count up the correct number
of notes from the root of whatever scale you’re playing. In the
key example above if I wanted C# Phrygian sound I would just
start and stop my riffs on the 3rd note of the A scale. The more
I emphasize the C# root the more Phrygian I sound. If somebody
asks me to jam in C# Phrygian, I just play an A major scale and
locate my riffs around the C# note, 3 notes above the A major
This has been a basic overview of modes, just enough to get the
idea (modes are the same scale played from different roots).
While all of this is nice to know, you really don’t have any
practical way to use this information. Most popular songs are
in either Major, Minor, or Blues keys. Unless you have a song
written in a different mode, (Dorian, Lydian, etc.), it seems the
other modes are useless. Hang on, part 2 of Superimposing
Modes will show you how to use exotic modes over “regular
songs”. It’s easy!