Engines of Creation with Joe Satriani: An Introduction to Modal Theory

In this classic Guitar World column, Joe Satriani goes in-depth with understanding modal theory.

A major stepping stone in my musical development was when I was introduced to the study of modes.

Learning how modes work really opened my eyes and ears and gave me a lot of insight into how melodies relate to chords.

The term “mode” refers to a set of notes that can be derived from a specific scale. For example, the C major scale is spelled C D E F G A B; this is also known as the C Ionian mode.

If you were to take this same set of notes and start from the second scale degree, D, and continue up to D one octave higher, the resultant “scale” is known as the D Dorian mode (D E F G A B C) (see FIGURE 1). As you can see and hear, both modes (C Ionian and D Dorian) are composed of the same seven notes, the only difference being the way they’re oriented.

This same modal relativity concept can be applied to each degree of the C major scale: if we begin on the third scale degree, E, and continue through the same note series to E one octave higher, we’d be playing the E Phrygian mode (E F G A B C).

The remaining modes that are built from the C major scale are F Lydian (F G A B C D E), G Mixolydian (G A B C D E F), A Aeolian (A B C D E F G) and B Locrian (B C D E F G A). These seven modes—Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian—are all simply different orientations of the “parent” major scale, each beginning on a different scale degree, and are known collectively as the “fundamental modes.”

I used this particular scale to illustrate the theory of the fundamental modes because, unlike the other major scales, it contains no sharps or flats and is easier to “think in.” Realize, however, that this same principle of modal relativity applies to every key, not just C. For example, the G major scale (G A B C D E F#) spawns seven modes, one for each note of the scale.

Though thinking of a mode as being the same as some other major scale is a very useful learning device, it is only when one fully understands and internalizes the sound of each mode’s intervallic structure that one will master the modal concept.

One day, back when was in my first year of music college, I was taking a piano lesson when my teacher and I came to a particular section of improvisation. I said, “This is in the A Dorian mode.” My teacher said, “Well, it’s really the same as playing in G major,” but I disagreed. I said that if I’m playing in A Dorian, I’ll emphasize the notes differently than if I were thinking G major.

As I began to study the seven fundamental modes, I became fascinated with the differences in their intervallic structures and the inherent chord forms that can be constructed out of them. I also liked to compare them by playing them off of the same root note (as parallel modes, as opposed to relative modes). I discovered that certain modes were nearly identical in form, except for a single interval.

An example of this would be the E Phrygian (E F G A B C) and E Aeolian (E F# G A B C D) modes, the former being the third mode of the C major scale and the latter being the sixth mode of the G major scale. Comparing modes this way—back to back, in the same key—helped me understand the differences in their structure and sound.

One of my early mentors, a very open-minded high school music teacher who also taught Steve Vai, once told me that one should not change the way one listens to music in order to understand the theory behind it. He said that the whole point of studying theory and harmony should be to discover more ways to better express one’s own musical vision.

My song “Time” (hear it below) is based on the B Phrygian mode (B C D E F# G A). As illustrated in FIGURES 2a and 2b, this mode is theoretically formed by taking the G major scale and using the third, B, as the root note. FIGURE 3a illustrates the B Phrygian mode in the seventh position. Memorize this fingering pattern by playing it up and down repeatedly.

The exercises depicted in FIGURES 3b-3e are intended to get the unique sound of the B Phrygian mode into your mind. Before playing these patterns, tape-record yourself strumming sustained B5 chords, enough to fill about 5 or 10 minutes of tape. Listening back to the tape while you play these modal exercises will reinforce the sound of the B root note beneath these Phrygian “melodies.”

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49