Modes And Scales

Modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian and Locrian) are based upon patterns similar to major and minor scales. You can use them in place of major and minor to create songs of subtly (or not so subtly) different character. The blues scale and pentatonic scales are frequently useful in blues and rock.

In addition to major and minor keys, we can also use modes, in which we’ll take the major and natural minor patterns (W W H W W W H and W H W W H W W, respectively) and displace them, moving W’s and H’s from the beginning of the pattern to the end. To see what that might mean, let’s take the C major scale.

C    D    E    F    G    A    B    C

Now we’ll use the same notes as the C major scale, but we’ll begin and end on D.

D    E    F    G    A    B    C    D

This is a mode called Dorian. Try playing it. You’ll probably shrug and think, “Huh. Weird.” We’re using all the same notes as the C major scale, but now the pattern is based around D, not C.

Note that our D E F G A B C D pattern is also similar to D natural minor (D E F G A Bb C D). The only difference is that we have a raised sixth scale degree – B instead of Bb.

Natural minor:  
D    E    F    G    A    Bb   C    D

Dorian:
D    E    F    G    A    B     C    D

(Note that we call this mode “D Dorian” because it starts on D. We do not call it “C Dorian,” even though it has the same notes as the C major scale.)

If we were to construct E Dorian, we would first make the E natural minor scale (E F# G A B C D E) and then raise the sixth note by a half step (E F# G A B C# D E).

The Dorian mode is used occasionally in pop music. It can sound sad, but perhaps not as distinctly sad as minor can sound. The Dorian mode also has a hint of ambiguity that can make it an effective alternative to natural minor. For example, Simon and Garfunkel’s version of “Scarborough Fair” is in E Dorian.

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Initially, the song feels like it’s in E natural minor (E F# G A B C D E), but pay attention to the way “y” in “rosemary” sounds. That “y” is a C#, which is in E Dorian but not in E minor. “Scarborough Fair” is an old English folk tune, and the C# — a raised sixth degree compared to natural minor – seems to point back to an earlier time. Modes were widely used in Medieval and Renaissance church music, before the emergence of the tonal system that dominated classical music beginning in the 17th century. Modes also frequently appeared in old folk music, and the sea shanty “Drunken Sailor” is another example of an old tune that’s in Dorian. Other contemporary pop songs in Dorian include Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle.”

Modes will probably turn out to be less crucial to you as a songwriter than major and natural minor scales. You can have a nice career as a pop songwriter without even knowing them. They can, however, provide a nice change of pace from songs in major and minor, as “Scarborough Fair” demonstrates.

Here are four other modes.

Phrygian (notes of the C major scale, but beginning on E; like natural minor, but with a lowered second)

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Lydian (notes of C major but beginning on F; like major, but with a raised fourth)

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Mixolydian (C major but beginning on G; like major, but with a lowered seventh)

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Locrian (C major scale but beginning on B; like natural minor, but with a lowered second and a lowered fifth)

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The scale we commonly know as “major” is called “Ionian” in mode-speak. The C major scale that begins on A is, of course, A natural minor, and natural minor is known as “Aeolian.”

We need not write modes using the notes of the C major scale. That’s just a way of remembering them. You can construct them based on any note by beginning with either a major or natural minor scale and then modifying it slightly, as we did in the Dorian example.

Dorian Natural minor, raise 6
Phrygian Natural minor, lower 2
Lydian Major, raise 4
Mixolydian Major, lower 7
Locrian Natural minor, lower 2 and 5

With that in mind, let’s try making the A Lydian mode. As we see above, Lydian is major with a raised fourth scale degree. So first, we’ll take our A major scale.

A     B     C#    D      E      F#    G#    A

Now, we’ll raise the fourth scale degree by a half step, from D to D#.

A     B      C#    D#    E     F#     G#     A

Presto. Now let’s try F Phrygian. Phrygian is natural minor with a lowered second scale degree. So first, here’s F natural minor.

F      G      Ab    Bb     C     Db    Eb    F

And now we’ll lower the second degree.

F     Gb    Ab     Bb     C     Db    Eb    F

See? Easy. Now, you might play around with these modes and see what you find useful.

In pop music, Mixolydian is the most common of the modes. Here’s a famous example of Mixolydian: Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”

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The song is based around G, as we can hear when Madonna arrives on “test,” which clearly feels like the tonic and which is on G. But we use both B natural and F natural, creating a G Mixolydian mode: G A B C D E F G.

The other modes are less common in pop music – they feel irregular, and they point our ears in directions that, at least at first, seem odd.

Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” begins in an F# Phrygian mode (F# G A B C# D E F#).

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The use of Phrygian gives the song a mysterious, sinuous feel that seems appropriate to the psychedelic era in which it what written.

Lydian sounds unusual and appears in direct form in pop music only rarely. The theme song to The Simpsons is in something resembling C Lydian (C using the notes of the G major scale).

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The theme to The Simpsons isn’t a perfect example of Lydian, since there are also B-flats in the melody. So it’s more precisely described as being in Lydian Dominant, which means a Lydian mode with a lowered seventh — C D E F# G A Bb. Nonetheless, the theme is so close to Lydian that it’s worth examining here.

In fact, if you think about how odd The Simpsons theme sounds, you can probably see why Lydian doesn’t appear in pop songs very frequently, at least not for long.

Several songs that are frequently cited as examples of pop songs in Lydian, including Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” and the verses of Tom Petty’s “Here Comes My Girl,” feel more to me like songs in major that prominently feature the IV and V chords, giving the false impression that the songs are in whatever the key of IV is. It’s worth briefly looking at both songs to figure out why.

“Jane Says” repeats G and A chords throughout, perhaps creating the sense that the song is in G Lydian. But the vocal melody seems to revolve around D, not G, as shown below.

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And the verse of “Here Comes My Girl” repeats A and B chords (with a repeating A in the bass), but these are used to set up a chorus that is plainly in E.

These songs do have Lydian elements. But they illustrate how fleeting these modes can be in pop music. Using the Lydian mode can be a way to create a feeling of uncertainty or dislocation. Try writing a verse in Lydian and see how it sounds.

Quick Quiz 8.1

Spell the following modes:

F Dorian
B Phrygian
D Lydian
E Mixolydian

 

Quick Quiz 8.2

Listen to the beginning of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

The tonic is B. Once we know that, the first three bars of the vocal (notated here without a key signature) are enough to identify the mode of the entire song.

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What mode is the song in?

The Blues Scale And Pentatonic Scales

The blues scale also gives us another potential scale option that’s useful in playing rock & roll, although, as we’ll see later, the blues scale is only a simplistic approximation of the way the best blues musicians typically perform.

To make a blues scale, we’ll begin with a natural minor scale (C D Eb F G Ab Bb C).

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Next, we’ll remove the second and sixth notes of the scale (D and Ab, in this case).

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Now we’ve made what is called a pentatonic scale. It’s called “pentatonic” because it has five distinct notes before it loops back to the tonic (C, Eb, F, G and Bb before heading back to C). The term “pentatonic scale” can refer to any number of potential scales that have five notes to the octave, but this one (the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh notes of the natural minor scale) is especially useful.

Anyway, to get our blues scale, we’ll add the chromatic note in between the third and fourth notes of our pentatonic scale, giving us a scale of C Eb F F# G Bb C.

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Try playing this scale. Notice, especially, the way the F# sounds. Note, also, that with the blues scale, it’s not convenient to write one note per letter name, the way we would if we were writing a major scale or a mode. With this added chromatic F#, we won’t worry about its letter name – either F# or Gb are fine.

Now let’s try to make a G# blues scale. (This is easier than you might think.) We’ll take the G# natural minor scale (G#, A#, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G#), remove the second and sixth notes (A# and E) and add our chromatic note.

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These blues scales are useful as a starting point for playing blues or bluesy rock, but don’t make the mistake of thinking the blues starts and ends with these scales. In every guitar store there’s some clueless person playing these scales through an overdriven amplifier. Learn these scales, but don’t be that person! In Chapter 16, we’ll discuss the complex relationship of the blues scale to the harmonic underpinnings of the blues.

Quick Quiz 8.3

Write the following blues scales:

D
Bb
C#

If you’re so inclined, there are many other scales and modes for you to discover, including whole tone scales, octatonic scales, various types of pentatonic scales, and many more. Most of these appear infrequently in pop music, but might prove useful if you’re trying to write something in a different vein. These scales are beyond the scope of this site, but feel free to explore them elsewhere online.

Next Chapter: Transposing Instruments

Quick Quiz Answers

8.1
F Dorian = F G Ab Bb C D Eb F
B Phrygian = B C D E F# G A B
D Lydian = D E F# G# A B C# D
E Mixolydian = E F# G# A B C# D E

8.2
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is in B Mixolydian (B major with a lowered seventh, or B C# D# E F# G# A B).

8.3
D blues scale = D F G G# A C D
Bb blues scale = Bb Db Eb E F Ab Bb
C# blues scale = C# E F# G G# B C#