Modes of the major scale, pt.1

This is part one of a three part lesson on modes of the major scale (and modes in general).

Part one consists of a general review of scales, a definition of modes, a derivation of the modes of the major scale, and other pertinant information used in parts 2, and 3.

Part two covers a brief analysis of the modes individually, fretboard maps, associated chords, etc.

Part three gives some applications of these modes.

Recall that we defined a scale as:
a group of notes within an octave (and any octaves of
those notes) usually played one at a time.

We can describe (define) a scale in any of these ways:
- by letters (representing specific pitches)
- by numbers (representing specific intervals)
- by step pattern (describing intervals from note to note)

We will now define a mode (of a scale) as a scale within a family of scales that are related by their step patterns 9and therefore also by their specific pitches).

Let's just jump in...

Recall that The major scale (ionian mode) has the following step pattern: W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2, intervals 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and in the key of C, the notes C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.


We can derive the modes of a scale by using its step pattern. We do this by moving the first step of a step pattern to the end, and repeating until we return to the first scale we started with.

We now derive the modes of the major scale (major scale = WW1/2WWW1/2). We remember that we sometimes call the major scale the ionian mode (or ionian scale), and we sometimes call the minor scale the aeolian mode.

WW1/2WWW1/2 = Ionian
W1/2WWW1/2W = Dorian
1/2WWW1/2WW = Phrygian
WWW1/2WW1/2 = Lydian
WW1/2WW1/2W = Mixolydian
W1/2WW1/2WW = Aeolian
1/2WW1/2WWW = Locrian

Now taking these step patterns and (with the help of a transposition chart if necessary) turning them into an intervallic notation (numbers), we have:

Ionian = 1,2,3,4,5,6,7
Dorian = 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7
Phrygian = 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
Lydian = 1,2,3,#4,5,6,7
Mixolydian = 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7
Aeolian = 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7
Locrian = 1,b2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7


We define a major scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,3,5.
(In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct a major chord off the root note)

We define a minor scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,b3,5.
(In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct a minor chord off the root note)

We define a diminished scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,b3,b5.
(In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct a diminished chord off the root note)

Comparing the above definitions with the scales (modes), we see that Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian are major scales. Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian are minor scales. Locrian is a diminished scale.

Recall, (from Aug 9's lesson) that we can harmonize chords from the major scale. we did this by stacking thirds to get the following triads:
and the following seventh chords:

In a similar proceedure to finding the modes from the step pattern, we can find the chords harmonized from the modes. the general proceedure is to move the first chord to the end of the list, and then renumber all the chords using the numbers/ intervals for the respective mode.

Here's an example: (going from ionian chords to dorian chords)
Ionian chords: I-ii-iii-IV-V-vi-viio
first move the first chord to the end,
Renumber the chords using the numbers from Dorian (Dorian = 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7)
These are the chords for the Dorian mode. We can continue doing this to find the chords for the other modes (I'll leave it up to you to derive the chords from mode to mode, in case you need proof).

By continuing to stack thirds, we can add further extensions to our chords to create 9th chords, 11th chords, and 13th chords. Without much explanation, let's generally say that a ninth chord (of some type) consists of a root note, some 3rd, some 5th, some seventh, and some ninth (a ninth being an octave higher than a second). An eleventh chord consists of the same types of notes as a ninth chord and also an eleventh note. And a 13th chord consists of the same type of notes as an 11th chord plus some 13th note.

The ninth chords for the Ionian mode are :

The eleventh chords for the Ionian mode are:

The thirteenth chords for the Ionian mode are:

I leave it up to the reader to find the extended chords for the other 6 modes.

Before discussing each mode, we'll consider an alternate (though more frequently seen) way of viewing modes.

Consider the key of C (no sharps or flats), we can define the modes this way:
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C = C-Ionian
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = D-Dorian
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = E-Phrygian
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = F-Lydian
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = G-Mixolydian
A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A = A-Aeolian
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = B-Locrian

We find the following chords by stacking thirds (for Ionian mode):
Triads: C-Dm-Em-F-G-Am-Bo.
7th chords: Cmaj7-Dm7-Em7-Fmaj7-G7-Am7-Bm7b5.
9th chords: Cmaj9-Dm9-Em7b9-Fmaj9-G9-Am9-Bm7b9b5.
11th chords: Cmaj11-Dm11-Em11b9-Fmaj9#11-G11-Am11-Bm11b9b5.
13th chords: Cmaj13-Dm13-Em11b9b13-Fmaj13#11-G13-Am11b13-Bm11b5b9b13.

We can consider the above (2 paragraphs) to be in the form of relative modes (analagous to relative major and minor, see 's lesson). Whereas the previous examples could be seen as parallel modes (all starting from a common 1).

So from relative modes we gain a sense of how the modes progress through a key (in what order they follow one another). We can also get that from the step pattern. From parallel modes we gain an understanding of the different mood brings us.

1.) Given the names of the notes in 1rst position (frets 1-4), from the key of E, play the modes of E major in order.
2.) Given the moveable shapes of the modes, play all seven modes in the same shape starting from the same root note (shapes below).

Modes of E major:
E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E = E-Ionian
F#-G#-A-B-C#-D#-E-F# = F#-Dorian
G#-A-B-C#-D#-E-F#-G# = G#-Phrygian
A-B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A = A-Lydian
B-C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A-B = B-Mixoldian
C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A-B-C# = C#-Aeolian
D#-E-F#-G#-A-B-C#-D# = D#-Locrian

First position (frets 1-4)

   1   2   3   4

(ionian mode)"E-shape"


(dorian mode) "E-shape"


(phrygian mode) "E-shape"


(lydian mode)"E-shape"


(mixolydian mode) "E-shape"


(aeolian mode) "E-shape"


(locrian mode) "E-shape"



It is much easier to hear the differences between modes when playing them in parallel (from the same root note) then when playing them relative (in same key).

And last, we recall that we can create progressions from groups of chords. We can create modal progressions (progressions that come out of /go with the mode) out of chords from the mode.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

Back to the Scale lessons index
Next lesson - Modes of the major Scale, pt.2
Previous lesson - Mixolydian scale

Last updated January 1, 2003
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