Scale Modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian (What are these things anyway?)

If you’ve been around guitar players long enough, you’ve probably heard some of these terms. They’re confusing, and they’re often thrown around by some of the most annoying guys in the room – probably to make you feel bad about yourself.

Well, it’s not that difficult of a concept to grasp, if you put in a bit of time. It’s probably best to keep away from the tonic and gin, for now.

Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian
These are the names of the “modes” of scales.  A “mode” just tells you the pattern of intervals that the scale adheres to. You probably already know the Ionian mode by another name – the major scale. The pattern that the Ionian mode adheres to is root-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole. That means that no matter what note you start on, if you then follow these steps above that note – you’re playing a major scale and you’re using the Ionian mode.

Ionian Mode (I) (the Major Scale)
As I just mentioned, the Ionian mode just tells you that the steps you need to use are root-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole.
So, in the key of C ( chosen only because there are no flats or sharps in that key, so it’s easier to type, and easier to read! ) the major scale looks like this:
C-D-E- F-G-A-B
or as expressed as intervals Root-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole
and you can also think of it in terms of position as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.
If you’re thinking about this scale in terms of positions, you may start to notice some things. For instance, the 1, 3, and 5 note are C E and G. These three notes makes a C major chord. Want to make that a 7th chord? Add the B. What a 6th chord? Add the A.
What is that (I) up there in the title for? That’s because this is the “first” mode. That will make more sense as you move to the next parts!
What you need to take away from this, is that whether you describe this set of intervals as C Major or C Ionian, you’re right in both cases.

An Aside:
In modern music, you typically consider the intervals of the “natural major” and the “natural minor” as the “standard” intervals.
So, if you look back at the C Major scale C-D-E- F-G-A-B, starting at the beginning, you have the root (C), also called 1. Then the second(D) also called 2, the third(E) also called 3, and so on. So when you refer to the major third, what you’re actually saying is “the note two whole steps above the root note” because you said “major” which means “follow the major scale pattern”.
The natural minor scale, contains a flatted third,a flatted 6th, and a flatted 7th when compared to the Major scale. So the C Minor scale would contain C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb.

Dorian Mode (II) (Santana’s favorite, so I’m told)
Sounds like a Minor Scale!
So, now we have our Ionian mode. But we really want to try out something new, and we heard of this Dorian thing so how do we get there?
Well, if Ionian Mode (I) looks like root-whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole.

If we conveniently stick numbers on the intervals like this:

I(root),II(whole),III(whole),IV(half), V(whole),VI(whole),VII(whole)

Then all we need to do is start with the II, and move the I(root) to the end.

So the Dorian pattern is:
II( new root),III(whole),IV(half), V(whole),VI(whole),VII(whole), I( old root, half),

Looking back at our C scale, we can now rewrite it as D-E-F-G-A-B-C, and rename it D Dorian since it starts on D – and it’s now following the Dorian interval pattern.
You might have also noticed – this still has all of the same notes as C Ionian. So C Ionian, and D Dorian are related scales and contain all of the same notes. However, if you look at the 3rd note of D Dorian, that’s considered a minor to a D – which means that this scale also sounds a bit like D Minor. In the real world, what that ends up meaning is that you can play a C Major scale in the key of D minor, and it will often “sound right”.  The catch, if you want to call it a catch, is that some of the other intervals have also changed in relation to D that are different in Dorian mode than in Natural Minor. D Minor natural has the notes D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C, so our D Dorian has a sharped (also called major) 6th when compared to the D Minor natural scale. Does that matter? Sometimes. That’s why it’s art. Sometimes that sharped 6th will make sense musically – even if it shouldn’t theoretically. Personally, I’m less concerned with whether something makes sense – than if it sounds interesting, or it’s just fun.

Phrygian Mode (III)
Sounds like a Major Scale!
You might have already figured this out, but I’ll keep going. We can make a Phrygian mode scale just by starting our scale on the 3rd note of the major scale, and moving the first 2 notes to the end.
So our Phrygian scale will go:
III(new Root),IV(half), V(whole),VI(whole),VII(whole), I(original root, half), II(whole)
From that C Major scale, we can see that the notes for E Phrygian will be E-F-G-A-B-C-D, and here again E Phrygian has the same notes as D Dorian, and the same notes as C Ionian/C Major!
There again, we look at that 3rd note, and see that this is going to sound like the E Major scale, but again with some minor changes to some of the other relationships. So, now you know that C Major, D Dorian, and E Phrygian – all contain the same notes, but describe a different set of relationships to a different “root note”.

Lydian Mode (IV)
Sounds like a Major Scale!
The pattern for Lydian Mode will go:
IV(New Root), V(whole),VI(whole),VII(whole), I(original root, half), II(whole),III(whole)
Here, this is going to sound like F Major, and has the same notes as all of the previous modes.

Mixolydian Vode (V)
Sounds like a Major Scale!

The pattern for Mixolydian Mode will go:
V(new Root),VI(whole),VII(whole), I(original root, half), II(whole),III(whole),IV(half)

Aeolian Mode(VI) (Natural minor)
This is the natural minor scale pattern!
VI(new Root),VII(whole), I(original root, half), II(whole),III(whole),IV(half),V(whole)
This is arguably the most useful of these modes, because this is the “relative minor”.
If you look back at our C Major Scale, and use this new pattern you’ll see A minor emerge.


That’s because A minor is the relative minor of C Major!

Locrian Mode (VII)
Locrian is going to sound like a minor scale.
VII(new Root), I(original root, half), II(whole),III(whole),IV(half),V(whole),VI(whole)


Here’s the thing: I want to memorize all of the scale patterns, but I also want to start using these ideas right now! How do I do that? It’s that old standby – the pentatonic scale.
You see, if you memorize the major scale pattern, starting on the A string like this:


Starting on the 3rd fret of the A string, this is the Major Scale “C D E F G A B C”







If you then look at the relative minor of this scale, – which in this case will be A Minor, If you start your A Minor scale on the 5th fret,  you can see that these modes “link” together like this:


C Major in Green, A Minor Full Scale in Red.







Then, you can strip all of those “extra” minor notes out of that minor scale – leaving only pentatonic:

C Major in Green, A Minor Pentatonic in Red.




So, hopefully now you can see, that if you want to find the relative minor of any major, as long as you can find that root note of your major key on your A string (in this case a C, the starting note of the green pattern), and notice how these two modes link together, you can find the relative minor of any major key instantly.

So how does this work for the rest of the modes? You need to look at the green part of this pattern, choose which mode you’re trying to hit, and look for the note that matches the key at that position of this pattern. For instance,  let’s say you’re trying to play in D Dorian. All you need to do to find the Dorian mode is to look at that pattern in green. Find the major scale where the 2nd note of this major scale lands on the note that you would like to play in Dorian (Because Dorian is the 2nd mode!). That’s means you’re looking for the major scale, where the 2nd note is D. In this case, since we’re starting on a C, the 2nd note is a D – so D Dorian, C Major, and A Minor pentatonic will all have the same notes. That means (generally speaking) you’re A Minor Pentatonic licks are also D Dorian. Want to play in C Dorian? Easy. Move the whole pattern down the neck 2 frets, so the second note of this green  is a C. Now you’ll notice that you’re pentatonic pattern sits in the G spot, so you’re G pentatonic licks are also C Dorian!
Now, let’s say you want to play in Lydian Mode. Well, that’s the 4th note of this pattern. If we want to play in let’s just say “C Lydian”, then we need to find the starting position for this pattern where the 4th note of that green scale is a C. That turns out to be at the 10th fret, which then translates our pentatonic pattern to E minor – so C Lydian and E Minor have the same notes.








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