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Inside Music:
"Inside Major Scale Modes" (Part 1)
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, April 2002.


This is the first of a two-part exploration of a family of musical scales called "modes." Part One will explain how modes are constructed, and Part Two will discuss how they are used.

"Mode" is a term and a concept that many musicians find confusing. Most know that a mode is a kind of scale, but that's about it. To understand modes, you need to first understand how the major scale works. The following material may be review for some of you, but read it through anyway to be sure.

The major scale is the pattern of pitches we know as "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do." Let's see how it's actually constructed, i.e. what intervals it's made of. To do this, we'll use the C Major scale because it's easy to visualize: C Major is every letter of the musical alphabet played sequentially from C to C: C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. On a piano, C Major is all of the white keys played in a row from one C up to the next:

What's important to understand, however, is that the white keys on a piano are not the same distances apart — some are whole steps apart, and some are half steps. Look closely at the keyboard above, and notice that some white keys have black keys between them and some don't. Those with black keys between them are a whole step apart, and those with no black key between them are a half step apart. C and D are a whole step apart, as are D and E. But E and F are directly adjacent, making them a half step apart. F-G, G-A, and A-B are all whole steps, but B-C is a half step.

So, some of the intervals in our Major scale are half steps, and some are whole steps. The half steps occur between the 3rd and 4th pitches ("mi" and "fa"), and the 7th and 8th pitches ("ti" and "do"); all the other pitches are whole steps apart. If you list the Major scale steps in sequential order, they are: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half (abbreviated as W-W-H-W-W-W-H).

Play this sequence starting on any pitch you choose, and you will hear the familiar Major scale pattern of "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do." Remember, the W's and H's are the distances between the pitches, not the pitches themselves — the first W doesn't occur until you move from the first pitch to the second. For example, if we start the W-W-H-W-W-W-H sequence on G, we get the following scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and G. The F# is necessary because, in order to follow the sequence, we need a pitch that's a whole step higher than E. F isn't high enough, so we need to use F#.

Armed with this information, we can now look at modes. A mode is a scale that is based on the original Major scale pattern (W-W-H-W-W-W-H), but starts at a different point in the sequence. To illustrate, let's return to the keyboard diagram above. We'll use the white keys as before, but now we'll go from D to D instead of from C to C. This gives us a brand new sequence: W-H-W-W-W-H-W.

If we go from E to E, we get H-W-W-W-H-W-W. F to F is W-W-W-H-W-W-H. G to G is W-W-H-W-W-H-W. A to A is W-H-W-W-H-W-W. And B to B is H-W-W-H-W-W-W.

In music theory, each new sequence is considered a different scale or "mode." This may be puzzling at first, because we're still playing pitches that are in C Major. However, in each of these new modes, C is no longer considered our tonal "home base." Instead, we have a new home, which is the pitch with which we begin each new sequence, and in each case, the resulting scale has a unique flavor of its own that's different from the Major scale.

If you're having trouble with this idea, and stuck on thinking that D Dorian is "really" C Major, try using the Dorian scale sequence (W-H-W-W-W-H-W) on C. If you follow the sequence correctly, you get C, D, E-flat, F, G, A, B-flat, and C. This scale is called C Dorian, because C is "home base," and it follows the Dorian sequence.

Returning to the white keys, let's go from E to E. This scale/mode is called E Phrygian. As we saw above, this sequence is H-W-W-W-H-W-W. If you played this sequence starting on C, you'd get C, D-flat, E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, and C.

Here are all the mode sequences, their names, and where they can be found on the white keys of a piano:

C to C: W-W-H-W-W-W-H Ionian mode (Major scale)
D to D: W-H-W-W-W-H-W Dorian mode
E to E: H-W-W-W-H-W-W Phrygian mode
F to F: W-W-W-H-W-W-H Lydian mode
G to G: W-W-H-W-W-H-W Mixolydian mode
A to A: W-H-W-W-H-W-W Aeolian mode (Natural minor scale)
B to B: H-W-W-H-W-W-W Locrian mode

Again, as we saw above, any of these modes can be played starting on any note. For example, if you play the Lydian sequence (W-W-W-H-W-W-H) starting on C, you get the C Lydian scale: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, and C. If you play the Mixolydian sequence (W-W-H-W-W-H-W) starting on C, you get C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, and C.

Notice that C Lydian and C Mixolydian each have only one pitch that's different from our original C Major scale. C Lydian has F# instead of F, and C Mixolydian has B-flat instead of B. Other than that, each of these two modes is much like C Major.

This fact is useful because we can now visualize and remember our modes as "bent" versions of a Major scale. For example, you can think of C Lydian as being just like C Major with a "raised 4th." That is, if you take the C Major scale and raise the 4th pitch a half step — from F to F# — you get the C Lydian scale. Similarly, if you take the C Major scale and lower the 7th pitch a half step — lower B down to B-flat — you get the C Mixolydian scale.

The other modes work the same way, each deviating from the Major scale in its own way(s). The chart below shows how to "bend" the Major scale to create any of the other modes. All "raised" pitches are raised a half step; all "lowered" pitches are lowered a half step:

Ionian mode: same as Major scale — no "bending" required
Dorian mode: Major scale with lowered 3rd and 7th
Phrygian mode: Major scale with lowered 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th
Lydian mode: Major scale with raised 4th
Mixolydian mode: Major scale with lowered 7th
Aeolian mode: Major scale with lowered 3rd, 6th, and 7th
Locrian mode: Major scale with lowered 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 7th.

Try playing these modes starting on different pitches. Play them first as W-H sequences, then as "bent" versions of the Major scale. In Part 2, we'll look at some of the ways these scales are actually used. Enjoy!


© Copyright 2002 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.


Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.


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