beginning students, the word “modes” sound intimidating—not
unlike the word “theory.” But much like we found our basic theory
to be much simpler than we thought, the same applies to the modes.
basic seven modes—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian,
Aeolian, and Locrian—come from the major scale formula. They’re a
byproduct of playing the notes of any given major scale starting on
any number other
than the 1. So if you were in that particular note’s key, you would
be playing a mode. In the grand tradition of giving things multiple
names to confuse us, two of the modes simply are the major and minor
scales: the Ionian and Aeolian, respectively. That leaves five modes
and four of them are only one note different than the
formula for a major or minor scale. Here’s
minor scale with a major
minor scale with a b2.
major scale with a #4.
major scale with a minor seventh.
The final mode, Locrian, differs from a minor scale by
just two notes: the b2
and the b5. All told,
the modes “justify” using a b2,
and major sixth in a minor scale and the #4
and minor seventh in a major scale. If you use these single
substitutions every time, you’re playing modally. When you look at
the modes this way, they’re much simpler to conceptualize and use
in your playing. Your comfort with the sounds of the numbers will
help infuse your note choices with intention as you play, because in
the end, every note is somehow justifiable by context.
Like spoken or written language, musical language is meant to be
adaptive and flexible.
In order to practice the modes, simply make the above
substitutions in every key. Since C
major gives you the modes right on the white keys, it’s the easiest
place to start playing modally. To play Dorian, play a D
bass note (I like to play an octave to reinforce that tonally) in
your left hand and play up the white keys with your right, starting
on D. It’s the D
minor scale but notice the sound of the major sixth and the
difference it makes. For Phrygian, move to an E
octave in the left hand and play up the white keys in the right.
Listen to the way the b2
sounds in the E minor
scale. An F octave in
the left hand will turn the white keys into the Lydian mode and
suddenly your F major
scale has a #4 in it.
Move up to a G octave
in the left hand and the white keys give you the Mixolydian mode: a G
major scale but with a minor seventh, which sounds kind of bluesy.
We can skip Aeolian for now, as we’re hopefully
already familiar with the minor scale. Lastly the Locrian mode can be
heard with a B octave
in the left hand and the white notes in the right. You can hear the
b2 and b5
and they sound distinct in the B
minor scale. Don’t just learn what we’ve gone over here; learn
the substitutions based on transposing to all 12 keys.
Other modes and scales were invented along the way, and
they’re also closely related to our major/minor scale formula.
Plus, they also justify note substitutions. Two common examples are
the harmonic minor and harmonic major scales. The harmonic minor
simply uses a major seventh in a minor scale, while the harmonic
major uses a minor sixth in a major scale. Much like we saw with the
basic modes, if you play those note substitutions every time, you’ll
be playing in those alternate scales. However, you can also use those
justified substitutions on demand to color your melodies while
writing or improvising.
There’s one note that’s justified for both the major
and minor scales: the b5 (or
#4) between 4
and 5. That note is
not used in the major or minor scale, but it is used in the blues
scale, and is in fact the main reason the blues scale fits over major
and minor chord progressions alike. Much of its justification comes
from its appearance in the Lydian and Locrian modes. Remember, every
note can be justified in one way or another, and improvisation is
just creating that justifying context in real time.
Practice these modes while consciously speaking or
singing the numbers of the notes out loud to reaffirm them in your
mind. You can also play modally and then switch back from the
substitution to hear the difference between the mode and the scale
it’s close to. Your understanding of this is important, as is the
ability of your fingers to move dexterously on the keys. But it’s
your ears’ ability to “hear those numbers” that will help your
brain learn to interpret and apply them.
Robbie Gennet is a touring keyboardist, guitarist, longtime Keyboard contributor, and educator at Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood, California. His book, The Key of One (Alfred Music) outlines a thorough method for understanding music without learning traditional notation. You can get it at alfredmusic.com, and take private lessons from Robbie at thekeyofone.com.