For many years, modal playing was a concept that eluded and perplexed me on so many levels. In fact, when the term itself was mentioned, it seemed so complex and mysterious that I began to believe that I would never fully intellectually grasp it. Eventually, I started taking lessons from my local guitar teacher, and after a succinct explanation on the topic, I had realized that it's no coincidence that there are 7 notes in the major scale and 7 modes. It was then that I had realized that it wasn't the topic itself that was confusing, but rather I was making the topic more confusing than it needed to be (Thanks, Luke!). If you, too, have been perplexed by this topic, worry no more, as we are going to make the 7 diatonic modes shredible for you.
Introduction to the modes:
Simply put, the modes are simply a particular arrangement of the notes from each step of the major scale, and, since each step leads to different shapes and intervals (i.e. thirds, fifths, etc.), it makes it possible to elicit different emotions. To further clarify, playing modally allows you to use different combinations of minor or major tones while at the same time remaining diatonic, or in the same key. I know it, it may seem a bit confusing, but towards the end, it should make more sense.
*If by the end of this post you're still left confused, feel free to email me, and I'd be happy to continue working on clarifying this topic.
Interestingly, the names of the 7 modes are named after ancient Greek tribes and are as follows:
In my own experience, the exotic-sounding names made the topic all the more formidable to tackle, but remember the major scale? Great news, you're already familiar with the Ionian mode! The Ionian mode is simply just the major scale. As for the rest of the modes, they're simply the same notes of the major scale, just played in a particular order.
For example, if you're playing G Ionian, it would simply be the G major scale. To play the second mode, all you would have to do is start on the second note of the major scale (in this case A), placing the first note of the G major as the last note in the scale. To illustrate, check out the example provided below:
Modal Permutations (interval numbers and corresponding notation):
Ionian (octave) - the sequence begins all over again.
Since all intervalic descriptors are based off of the major scale, we can look at each scale degree of the major scale as a major scale itself, but with our special formula, as described below.
Dorian: b3, b7
Phrygian: b2, b3, b6, b7
Aeolian: b3, b6, b7
Locrian: b2, b3, b5, b6, b7
*b = flat
*# = sharp
To clarify, since the notes in G major are: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, think of A Dorian as A major scale with a "flat 3, flat 7," or B Phrygian as being B major scale with a "flat 2, flat 3, flat6, flat 7," and so on.
*The mnemonic device that stumbled across to help me remember each of the modes is:
Remember how the 3rd interval determined the major/minor tonality of a scale? Same applies with the modes, as they can be looked upon as 7 different scales themselves as they begin on each of the 7 varying scale degrees of the major scale. Below we will examine the tonality of each mode, but before you continue, see if you can spot which modes will be minor or major due to their major/minor thirds.
Term "diminished" may be new to you, and just as the name of the mode sounds itself, its tonality is very nasty, and is often described as "unstable" as the ear expects to release the sonic tension (in our case, F# diminished will resolve nicely to G major)
Additionally, I tend to associate the modes with a certain emotion or genre, as seen below:
Ionian (major scale or children's songs)
Dorian (minor blues)
Phrygian (minor spanish-y)
Lydian (mysterious or ethereal)
Mixolydian (major blues)
Locrian (dark and scary)
Now that you have a better understanding of the modes and their construction, I challenge you to try and apply the formula for each mode. Next time we'll begin to cover the 7 modes by way of three-note-per-string scales.
If you're feeling really ambitious, and wish to learn more on the subject, I recommend the following material: