The Modes of Music

 A statement about the musical modes struck me recently:

“It isn’t where you start and stop in the major scale, it’s the chord or chord progression you play over. A Cmajor scale played over a D minor chord is a D dorian scale whether you start on the C note or not. But you should make an effort to start on a chord tone, in other words, if you are playing D dorian over a Dmin7 chord, you should put emphasis on the D, F and A notes (the 7th is okay as well if the chord is a 7th chord)”

First, take a look at how the modes are constructed. To use this table, simply choose a starting note, then choose a mode, then follow the column down. Example: Start on C, move a Major 2nd from C and you get D. Move a major 3rd from C, you get E. Etcetera.

You can divide the modes into two camps: Major and minor. Once you do that, you end up with Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian on the Major side. And Dorain, Phyrigian, Aeolian and Locrian on the minor side.

The first thing you’ll want to do is start with a chord progression. If you start with the Major modes. The first thing you’ll notice is that they only differ by two intervals. The Augmented 4th found in the Lydian Mode and the minor seventh interval found in the Mixolydian mode.

If the major chords you are using, are of the major 7th, major 9th or above, you may want to use the Lydian mode. Try this experiment:

  • Start at middle C. Strike it and hit the sustain pedal.
  • Move up a major 3rd to E.Hit it!
  • Move up a minor 3rd to G. Hit that!
  • Move up a major 3rd to B. Hit it!
  • Move up a minor 3rd to D. Hit it!
  • Move up a major 3rd to F#. Hit that!

If you’ll notice, the F# is outside the key of C. If we wanted to stay in the key of C, we should have hit an F. Try this experiment again, but this time, hit an ‘F’ and I think you’ll see why the F# sharp sounds better.

The moral here, is that (some people) think Lydian sounds better than Ionian when improvising over major 7th chords, major 9th chords, major 7th(#11) and C major 13th chords.

Mixolydian, with it’s minor 7th interval, is used a lot in just about everything. Rock, blues, jazz. It’s used well with dominant 7th chords, regular major chords, ect.

Now take a look at the minor modes and their differences

Keep in mind here, that these minor modes are compared to the natural minor or Aeolian mode. The Dorian mode differs from natural minor by the Major 6th interval. The Phyrigian mode differs by only the minor 2nd interval. The Locrian mode differs the greatest. It contains a minor 2nd and a diminished 5th.

Dorian Mode

This mode is used a lot. Anytime you see a ii-V chord change, most people will use this mode to improvise. The reason it works so well is the Major 6th interval. It sounds different than the minor 6th interval found in every other mode. It’s a perfect setup to the V chord.

Important: To really HEAR how this differs, play a Dm6 chord with this voicing: D B F A

Hear the pull? The first three notes are the LAST three notes of a G7 chord: G B D F , which everyone knows has the strongest resolution to the I chord.

Now, you don’t have to play a minor 6th chord, if you want to play in Dorian, but it’s going to really emphasize it if you do.


The exotic sounding one. I’ve seen this used over chord vamps seperated by only a half step (E to F) but where it really shines, is over a b9sus chord. I think about it like this: Construct a sus4 chord and then flatten the 9. For Cb9sus, the voicing would be: C F G Db. Sounds really cool.


This is a tough one. It’s similar to Phyrigian, in that it has a minor 2nd. But adds a dminished 5th. I tried this at the piano and really liked the chord: Cb9susb5. Voiced this way: C F Gb Db. This chord gives you the minor 2nd interval, as well as the diminished 5th, which define the 'sound’ of this mode. Pretty eerie sounding chord! If you really want your mind warped, add a G above the Db!!

The Point The chords you play are critical when trying to emphasize the different tonalities of the seven modes. Playing a C Major scale over a Dm chord will still have you playing D Dorian. But a better chord to emphasize the 'feeling’ of Dorian would be any chord that emphasizes the Major 6th interval. In this case, Dm6 would work great.