What Is A Mode?

Let’s find out what a mode is

A part of a scale

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 practicing the modes, it makes sense to first answer this question.

A mode is a new starting point of a scale.

For the most common modes, it all starts with the major scale.

The formula for the major scale (also called the Ionian mode) is simply this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

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

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

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Understanding the modes is the first step towards playing over changes

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.

If we rarely resolve to the I chord and instead mainly stay on chord II, we will feel as if the second degree of the scale is home, where we feel content to end the song. Scarborough Fair is a great example of this.

Dgmsd

However, it doesn’t end here. When playing over changes, you want to make each new chord your temporary “home”.

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 modes.

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 is your “home”.


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