Modes. What are they? What is their purpose? How do we use them? Why should I care? Is it important that I learn all of them? Hopefully as we go through this series of lessons we can gain a better understanding of all of these questions and you can incorporate your favorite sounding modes into your playing. Modes doesn’t have to be as confusing a topic for guitarists and musicians that it seems to be. As a player and teacher, I’ve come across many great lessons and insights as well as many poor examples of modes and their application. The latter has inspired me to share my experience with modes and ways that you can incorporate them into your repertoire. Yet to fully understand modes we need to familiarize ourselves with some music theory. Boring? Perhaps, but having a firm understanding of these concepts, or at least being familiar with some of the language, will make our application and incorporation that much easier. So before we begin our modal journey let’s take a look at some core concepts.
What is chord quality? Generally speaking, there are only three types of chord quality: Major, Minor, and Dominant. These three terms are used to describe how a chord sounds. It’s flavor or colour. Every one of us is taught that Major Chords sound “happy” and Minor Chords sound “sad”. Experienced players will surely view these chords as other “flavors” no doubt, but to avoid the risk of arguing adjectives and synonyms till we’re blue in the face, we’ll stick with these terms for simplicity sake. So where does Dominant fit in to all this? Well, Dominant Chords are tension chords and usually function as such. Now I’m sure some of you are reading these and saying to yourselves, “well what about diminished or augmented chords?” Well, for our purposes, those chords are just different types of Dominant Chords or tension chords. So again, for simplicity, we will lump them into the Dominant Chord family. As we gain a deeper understanding of modes (and chord structure) we can start to separate these tension chords and their corresponding modes further. Which leads me to my last point. The connection between Chords and Scales (Modes) is unbreakable. As you will see, there will be Major Modes, Minor Modes, and Dominant Modes. When playing over a chord progression or single chord vamp, the chords being playing (the quality of each), will create our harmonic backdrop and will determine what type of mode (scale) we should play. Experience with modes will allow us which flavor or colour of modal quality we prefer to incorporate in any given musical situation.
In music, the term Interval refers to the space between to notes. And just like chords, intervals have three qualities: Major (M), Minor (m), and Perfect (P). Let’s take a look at the Musical Alphabet starting on the note C and explore every tone until we reach C again. (I will leave out enharmonic spelling of notes to reduce clutter.)
C | Db D | Eb E | F | F#/Gb | G | Ab A | Bb B | C
R | m2 M2| m3 M3| P4 | Tritone | P5 | m6 M6 | m7 M7 | P8
As you can see, the top row starts on C and progresses by half steps up to the next C. The bottom row corresponds to the Interval Quality of each pitch in relation to the starting point C. Let’s take another look, this time identifying Scale Degree rather than Interval Quality. (These terms are still tied together; a b2 is an m2 and so on.)
C | Db D | Eb E | F | F#/Gb | G | Ab A | Bb B | C
1 | b2 2 | b3 3 | 4 | #4/b5 | 5 | b6 6 | b7 7 | 1
It’s important to realize that when we build scales we move in alphabetical order, from one Note Letter to the next (C to D, D to E, E to F, etc.). So in our case D would be the second Scale Degree, regardless of whether we moved to Db or D. We just have to make the distinction of Interval Quality, Major Second (2) or Minor Second (b2). This process is already done for us based on which Mode we are playing (as we move along this will become evident), we just have to become conscious of this as we digest a particular modes flavor.
So what’s a Perfect Interval? It’s an interval that can’t be changed. The simplest one to point out is your Octave (P8). If I change it up/down a half step it will become either a Major 7th (7) or a Minor 2nd (b2). As shown above, C would fall to B (7) or up to Db (b2)
TIP: It’s important to note that a b7 or b3 or #4 (or any altered interval) doesn’t mean that that note will be a contain a sharp or flat in it’s name (Db for example). It’s just letting you know the distance or interval from the Root. For example, a M3 (3) from the note B would be D# and a m3 (b3) would be D. Having a good foundation of Key Signatures will help this recognition.
So now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the basics of Intervals, it’s time to take a look at chord tones and structure. Chords Tones are just the specific notes that make up any given chord (quality). Each Chord Quality (Major/Minor/Dominant) will have it’s own unique structure (how it’s built). This (intervallic) structure is universal for every possible chord, the only thing that changes with each different chord are the notes themselves (Letter names).
Major: R 3 5 (7)**
Minor: R b3 5 (b7)**
Dominant: R 3 5 b7
The most important thing to understand here is the impact the 3rd scale degree has on any given chord. This particular scale degree denotes Chord Quality. Even if you just play these two notes, Root and it’s 3rd (either Major 3 (3) or Minor 3rd (b3)), you will be implying that overall Chord Quality.
Notice that the Dominant chord has a b7 (Minor 7th) added to it? Well, a Dominant chord will always be a 7th chord. It’s this note (and combination of all four notes) that creates our feeling of tension.
**Major and Minor Chord frequently have the extensions of a 7th added to them. This adds a certain amount of sophistication to the chord quality, hopefully enhancing your musical experience. Try playing/singing this extension on top of a basic triad (R35) and listen to its effect. Wonderful!
A Brief Introduction: Ionian (Major Scale)
Now that we’ve (un)covered some core concepts, let’s see them in action with our first mode, the Major Scale (Ionian). The Major Scale is (western) music’s most fundamental scale. It’s the basis for our entire musical system and all the modes will be referenced as alterations to it. Everyone should be able to recognize (even sing) a Major Scale. That being said, let’s take a look at its “formula” based on Scale Degrees (in the key of C Major since there are no accidentals, i.e. sharps or flats).
Major Scale Example: C D E F G A B (Note Names)
Modal Scale Formula 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (Scale Degrees)
As you can see, there are no alterations (raised or lowed intervals, i.e. #/b’s) and all of the intervals are Major. That doesn’t mean there aren’t Minor Chords within this Scale/Key, just that all of the intervals, in relation to the root note C, are Major (M2, M3, M6, M7…remember it’s just distance). The 4th and 5th scale degrees are Perfect. We’ll be taking a closer look at the Major Scale in our next Modal Lesson. I just wanted to give you a brief introduction as this scale (mode) will be our reference point moving forward. To get a head start, I’ve attached the Scale Patterns or Finger Patterns (guitar based) for you to work on. I’ll go into further detail next lesson but you should memorize these patterns and incorporate them into your playing immediately.
TIP: As you learn these patterns and start connecting them, try to maintain the view of one octave. Keep your attention focused on root notes, chord tones, and pattern recognition within one octave.
Now I know what you’re saying, “Get to it already and bring on the modes!” Well have patience. We will be diving right in with my next lesson. Hopefully that wasn’t too painful for all of you. If you’re already familiar with all of this information be proud. You’ve set yourself up nicely for furthering your modal experience. Please share this with someone who is curious about modes yet doesn’t have too much theoretical background. If you have any questions at all please leave them in the comments section and I will be sure to respond with further insights. As we move forward we will be exploring the following modes in the immediate future (and grouping them by quality and function):
-Ionian (Major Scale) and Lydian
-Aeolian (Minor Scale)