What Is A Mode?

Let’s find out what a mode is

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A part of a scale

One of the most common questions a guitar player ask themselves and others is: What is a mode? 

Before we start practising the modes, it makes sense to first answer this question.

A mode is a part of a scale or a new starting point of a scale.

It all starts with the major scale, the formula for the major scale (Ionian) is simply this:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

The formula in itself doesn’t mean much unless we understand the intervals between the numbers.

Below you’ll find a diagram of the major scale, complete with intervals.

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Between each interval, we have either a tone or a semitone. On the guitar, this is two frets or one fret.

T stands for Tone (two frets) and S stands for Semitone (one fret).

Ionian
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Intervals
T

T
S

T

TTS

It’s the relationship between the numbers (tone or semitone) that makes the sound of the scale.

Cesi
Here’s what it looks like as an E shape on the guitar.

The key is not important, focus on what the shape looks like.

Let’s now look at the second mode, Dorian.

New
2
3
4
5
6
7
1
Intervals
T

S
T

T

TST
Dorian
1
2

m3
4
5 6b7

As you can see, the distance between the notes has changed, so has the scale formula, Dorian becomes: 1 2 m3 4 5 6 b7.

However, the notes are the same, compare this chordacus image of a Gm shaped Dorian scale, to the one of the E shape Ionian above.

Dgmsd
If we never resolve to the I chord, we will feel as if the second degree of the scale is now our home, where we feel content to end the song.

So when the chord is II, phrase as if Dorian is “home”.


What I described using Dorian as an example above is true for all other modes.

Should we see the sixth degree of the scale as our “home”, then we would play in Aeolian.

New
6 7 1 2 3 4 5
Intervals
T

S
T

T

STT
Aeolian
1
2

m3
4
5 b6b7

Looks like this in Chordacus as a Dm shape. Still, the notes are the same, it’s the starting point that has changed.

The Aeolian scale formula is: 1 2 m3 4 5 b6 b7. A new scale that shares the same notes as our Ionian and Dorian scales.

Compare all three images to see how all modes are the same, yet different.

When using modes, you have to be able to zoom in like this as a chord progression moves on.

When the chord is VI, phrase as if Aeolian was your “home”.


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