Full Tilt: Modes — As Easy As Pizza

Remember back in elementary school when your cafeteria, auditorium and gymnasium were all in the same room?

Yeah, the all-purpose room. Depending on the time of day, that room got used for everything from pizza to dodgeball to latchkey to the sock hop. You could say the room had a few modes ...

In music, the major scale is like an all-purpose room. We use that freakin’ thing to make many different sounds and emotions.

It is the basis for everything ever created in Western music. Yer good old-fashioned C major scale has seven notes and thus, seven chords.

This is what those chords look like in order:

… and if you wrote a progression with these chords that went …

  • C maj/A min/D min/G maj
  • (I/vi/ii/V)

… you would have yourself a tidy little progression in the key of C major. Play through this progression and your ears will easily hear the C major chord as “home.”

That’s just chord chemistry—it’s been working the same way for centuries. Don’t question it. Don’t ask why. Just accept it and internalize it. Finished internalizing yet? OK, good. Moving on …

Now let’s say you want to put a wonderfully self-gratuitous solo over this progression. You already know the key is C major, so what better scale to use than a C major scale? This scale will work perfectly over all four chords. Why? It works because all these chords are related in the key of C major (also said to be diatonic to C major).

So remember how we said the major scale is an all-purpose room for different uses? Well, when you play a C major scale over the C major chord in your progression, that scale is functioning in the C Ionian mode because Ionian is the traditional pure major mode. But over the A minor chord, that very same scale will then function in the A Aeolian mode. Over the D minor chord, it will be in the mode of D Dorian and over the G major chord it will be in G Mixolydian.

If your brain is starting to overheat at this point, take a moment to cool down. You also might be asking yourself, “OK, but why complicate life with these ricockulous Greek words?”

Think about it this way: If you could get away with playing one scale over four chords instead of four scales over four chords, life would be a heck of a lot easier, right? Hell yes. Not only does it require excessive thinking, changing scales every time there is a diatonic chord change will actually obscure the key center “home base” (in this case C major). An experienced improviser will recognize that all the chords in the progression are diatonic to C major. Therefore, he or she will use the C major scale to play over all four chords (knowing that as each chord changes, the scale will be functioning in a different mode).

In this progression, the C major scale (like an all-purpose room) changes its function constantly. The modes it functions in can even be compared to the different uses of a real all-purpose room; we’ll call Ionian pizza, Aeolian dodgeball, Dorian latchkey and Mixolydian sock hop.

Now before you go off improvising in the ancient and glorious mode of C Pizza, realize that the real power of modes is in knowing how to make your scale choices and ensuing improvisation most efficient. Learn to analyze chord progressions so that you can spot chords diatonic or native to the same key. For many songs, most of the chords will be in the same key. For these chords you would use the same scale for soloing.

Here’s the complete order of modes over their corresponding chord in any given major key:

Using the chords from our nifty progression above:

• C maj is the I chord and so the C major scale functions in C Ionian mode when played over it.
• A min is the vi chord and so the C major scale functions in A Aeolian mode when played over it.
• D min is the ii chord and so the C major scale functions in D Dorian mode when played over it.
• G maj is the V chord and so the C major scale functions in G Mixolydian mode when played over it.

Here’s a different progression:

C maj/E min/F maj/G maj

Our ears and knowledge of key centers and modes tells us that this progression is in C major and all the chords are diatonic to C major. This means we can use a C major scale to blaze over this one too (it’s a very straight-laced ditty so blaze gently).

The C major scale you play will change modes with every chord change starting in C Ionian and going into E Phrygian then F Lydian and finally G Mixolydian…or G sock hop if you prefer.


So the next time you see a progression, analyze the chords to determine:

01.The key and I chord of the progression
02.For all the chords diatonic to this key, use the scale based on that key/I chord (like the C major scale for a C major progression).

That’s how you use modes. If you are utterly perplexed by this information, reach out and ask for help in the comments section. If you got this stuff down, don’t worry; there’s more where that came from. So until next time, grab your favorite instrument and make some beautiful music.

The world is waiting.

Photo: Corbis

Blake Scopino is a guitar player, songwriter and audio engineer. To see if he can back up his big mouth, listen to his band here. For more tips, tricks and other handy information for your musical journey, head on over to Cool Drifter Music Motel.

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