What Is A Mode?

Let’s find out what a mode is

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.


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
  T T S

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
  T S T
Dorian
1   2
  m3   4   5 6 b7  

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”.


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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
  S T T
Aeolian
1   2
  m3   4   5 b6 b7  

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”.


Related Pages


Course

Learning how to play guitar is best done through playing and learning from songs.

The advanced songs require you to learn 7th note chords, arpeggios, and modal scales. This will be revolutionary for your understanding of the guitar fretboard.

To see all lessons in the advanced course, go to Advanced Guitar Course


Exercises

These are pretty advanced exercises. You’ll be playing 7th note chords, arpeggios and modes all over the neck.

But don’t fret – As you’ve already mapped out the fretboard with pentatonic scales and barre chords, extending the concept is actually really simple.

Preview the exercises from the course here: Advanced Guitar Lessons


Tunes

Learn how to play famous advanced songs.

‘Angels’, ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home’, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Cannonball’, ‘Close To You’, ‘Creepin’ In’, ‘Don’t Wait Too Long’, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, ‘Over The Rainbow’, ‘Roxanne’, ‘Scarborough Fair’, ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’, ‘Take Me To The River’, ‘Tears In Heaven’, and ‘Wish You Were Here’.

To preview each song, go to Advanced Acoustic Songs


Sign Up Now

A monthly subscription with access to all acoustic and electric step by step lessons, each one designed to bring your guitar playing skills to the next level.

Including detailed, but bite-sized explanations on how the music theory of each song is applied to the neck.

To sign up now, go to Monthly Subscription