Musical Modes: How to Use Different Modes in Music

Musical melodies and harmonies hold the power to touch even the hardest of hearts. That's one reason why musicians all over the world are on a constant lookout for ways to better their compositions. Incorporating modes in music is one of the best ways to do that.
The modes of music, as we know today, originated in ancient Greece, from where they got their Greek names. Later, they were adopted by the Romans and soon used extensively in the Church. As time passed, these modes were replaced by chromatic and diatonic scales. But recently, the use of modes in various forms of music is on the rise. The unusual sounds and nuances of musical modes are adding to their popularity.

(If you know the modal theory and key construction of scales, you may skip the information on it as well as the basics of key construction in music, and read the formation of modes.)

What is the Theory of Modes?

The modal theory is the concept and key construction of the various types of modes. At the first glance, the modes of music seem very complex and difficult to understand, but if you dig a little deeper, it becomes simpler to grasp and interesting to use. As such, modes are just variations of the major scales. In other words, the major scales are basic forms derived from the modes of music. In fact, major and minor scales are synonyms for two of the modes that we will see below.

What are the Modes of Music?

Musical modes can be defined as an arrangement of intervals and tones in a fixed pattern for any given note. There are seven modes in music:
  1. Ionian (i-o-nee-in): Also known as major scales, this is the most well-known of all the modes. The intervals in this scale create tension and release.
  2. Dorian (door-e-in): When any scale in the ionian mode is played with its second note as the first, it becomes a scale in the dorian mode. It ends on an incomplete note.
  3. Phrygian (fridge-e-in): The phyrgian mode of any key is when the ionian mode of that key is played with the third note as its first. The notes of this mode gels well with ionian scales.
  4. Lydian (lid-e-in): If the 4th note of the major scale is used as the first note, the result is the Lydian mode of that scale. It has a surprising blend of majors and minor notes.
  5. Mixolydian (mix-o-lid-e-in): Any major scale starting with the 5th note of its root key scale becomes the Mixolydian Mode of that scale. It's a blend of mostly major notes with few minor notes in between.
  6. Aeolian (a-o-lee-in): When the 6th note of a scale is played as the first note, then the scale thus formed becomes its Aeolian Mode. It is commonly called the minor scale.
  7. Locrian (lo-cree-in): When the first note of a scale is actually the 7th note of the root key in the major scale, it is called the Aeolian Mode of that root key. Mostly theoritical, the Locrian Mode is rarely used due to unworkable mixture of major and minor notes.
An easy way to remember the names of all the modes is by remembering that 'I Dislike Philip, Like Mary And Lucy'.

Basics of Scales in Music

Before understanding the construction of modes in music, few concepts related to musical scales need to be understood.

♫ Chromatic Scale
When 12 musical notes are used subsequent to each other, the sequence becomes the chromatic scale for the first note in that sequence. The first note is called the Root.
Example: The chromatic scale for C is: C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B

♫ Diatonic Scale
A scale of seven notes which has 6 major or minor triads and one tritone is called a diatonic scale. Triads are three alternate notes and tritones are three augmented or diminished notes.
Example: The C diatonic Scale is: C D E F G A B

♫ Steps for Key Construction
The key construction for musical notes involve 12 steps: R - m2nd - M2nd - m3rd - M3rd - P4th - D5th - P5th - m6th - M6th - m7th - M7th - R
Here 'R' stands for 'Root Note', 'm' stands for 'minor note', 'M' for 'major note', 'P' for 'Perfect' and 'D' for 'diminished'. The musical notes in this formula increase successively by half note till the octave.

♫ Intervals in Notes
Scales or modes are formed by taking any musical key as the root and giving intervals between the notes. Another way of understanding the intervals in music is through breaks of whole notes and half notes.
  • The well-known 'major scales' is formed by intervals (or exclusion) of all the minors and using only the majors and perfects from the key construction formula.
  • The other formula for major scales using the second method is: W-W-H-W-W-W-H (where W is a Whole Note and H is a Half Note).
    For example: The C Major scale can be formed using the formula like this: R - M2nd - M3rd - P4th - P5th -M6th -M7th - R.
  • Using both of these formulas, the C Major Scale would be: C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C
How to Use Modes in Music?

The modes in music are an interesting fascination for musicians of all genres. They enhance any composition and are capable of making an ordinary piece an extraordinary one. Given below are the genres in which each mode is commonly used. However, you can always use them according to your preference.
  • Ionian The sounds in this mode sound complete and give a feeling of satisfaction to the listener.Used In: Most of the popular songs make use of this mode.
  • Dorian The unresolved final note makes it melancholic but is more of a balance between happy and sad sounds.Used In: Celtic music, early American folk songs and country or rock music make use of this mode. Eleanor Rigby, a well-known song by the Beatles, is played in the Dorian mode.
  • Phrygian It has a feeling of mystery and sounds a little brooding.Used In: Preferred in guitar leads or solo compositions, they are also used in classical metal music. This mode was often used by Randy Rhoads.
  • Lydian The unexpected sounds in this mode makes you feel very upbeat and joyous.Used In: It is often used in music meant for kids and in jazz and pop music.
  • Mixolydian The blends in this mode make it sound hopeful and reflective.Used In: Due to its compatibility, it is used as a contrast to Ionian notes in solo music. Light rock, pop and blues are sometimes played in this mode.
  • Aeolian The sounds in this mode are sad, almost like a lament or distress.Used In: Modern blues and rock music are usually played in this mode.
  • Locrian The sounds in this mode are depressing, glum and very sulky.Used In: The unusual interval in notes makes it ideal for heavy metal and dark classical music.
How are Modes Formed?

The formation of the ionian mode is similar to that of the major scale. So the ionian mode of C is: C D E F G A B C. As explained before, the dorian mode is formed when the second note in the ionian scale becomes the first.
  • So, dorian mode of C will be: D E F G A B C D.
  • The C Ionian Mode now becomes the D Dorian Mode.
  • If the intervals in this mode are considered, they will be: W H W W W H W.
  • Also, it can be seen that the 3rd and the 7th notes have been lowered by half a note from the ionian scale, i.e., they have been replaced by their flats.
All the seven modes are formed similarly and are shown below:

(For examples of mode construction, illustrated for piano and guitar, the 'C' note will be used as the root key to avoid confusions of sharps and flats.)

You can go back and see what are modes, its theory and basics of key construction in music in case you wish to recall them.

Now that the description for the modes has been given, it will be easier to use them in compositions. But before you use them, find out the scales for each mode from the given formulas and practice them. You're sure to be blown away by the sounds they create!