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How Music Works - What Are Modes?

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

Greetings dear reader!

Over my 10+ years of teaching in private music schools, I'm surprised to see that not much has changed regarding how information about modes is presented to students (generally speaking).

Even in this age of information, there still seems to be a lot of mystery surrounding the modes and what to do with them once you learn them.

This always makes me excited because then I get to do my job! WOO!

Seriously, I love talking about the modes and discussing ways of how you can use them whether it's in the service of songwriting or soloing.

Even if you're not shreddy Mc Shred Shred, you will have so much to gain as a musician in terms of improvisation and composition by some focused study and application of these modes.

Anyway, let's get into it. I'm going to do my best to break down (cough cough cough)


What they are

Why you need them

How to use them

Let's go.

What Are Modes?

In essence, a mode is a rearrangement of a pre-existing scale.

For example, let’s look at a C major scale.


So in music, the sound of a scale is defined by the space in between the notes. The name we give these spaces is called "intervals" and specifically, they are a measurement of the distance between two notes (example: C to D is a whole step interval.)

This C major scale is constructed out of a unique series of whole step and half step intervals.


W=Whole step (2 frets on the guitar)

h=Half step (1 fret on the guitar)

We call a pattern of intervals an "intervallic pattern" if we're feeling fancy.

Here’s how our C major scale looks all laid out including the intervallic pattern.


The scale starts on the first note “C” and Ends on “C”

The easiest way to hear this would be to play a "C" to a "C" using only the white keys on the piano. 

What a mode is essentially is the same scale but starting and finishing on a different note.

For example, what if we took this scale and started on the second note “D” and ended on “D”? Using all the same notes as before?


We would end up with this.  


This is best heard by playing a “D” to a “D” on the piano using all the white keys.

The pattern of intervals would change From this



To This



Same exact notes, yet the order is changed. As a result, you have a completely different sounding scale.

Now let’s play an “E” to an “E” Using all the white keys.

We would end up with this.  


The pattern of intervals would change From this



To This



 And so on and so on.  You can do this for all 7 notes in the scale.

If you have a piano handy, try this out right now to see what I mean. You're using the same collection of notes ( C D E F G A B ) and yet by continuously changing the order in which these notes occur, you're changing the very sound of the scale itself.

( It still blows my mind to this day! )


A great way to simulate this piano approach if you're a guitar player is to simply play the mode across one string. You'll really begin to see and hear the nature of the scale I guarantee.

I love this way of thinking about modes because it allows you to see them all in a linear form rather than as a vertical box pattern on your guitar.

Free Guide

If you'd like to go more in-depth on this topic, I've put together a free guide to help you navigate the modes with scale construction, corresponding chords as well as popular songs that use the modes to serve as a reference. You can grab that by clicking the link here.

Names of the Modes

I used to make the mistake of beginning each lesson by talking about the modes and explaining what the names were long before showing how they even sounded. I wanted to make sure you understood what they are before I give the names.

Here they are.








Why You Need Them

For the remainder of this writing, I will be speaking directly to guitar players as I have exhausted what little I know of the piano.

As I mentioned above, you will have so much to gain as a musician in terms of improvisation and composition by some focused study and application of these modes but let's list off a few things

- Learning all 7 of your 3 string major scale shapes (yes, those are the modes of the major scale) will help improve your technical ability and dexterity on the instrument.

- Learning the modes will tune your ear and make you become a better improviser.

- These improvisational skills are often associated with soloing over chord changes but it also pertains to the act of songwriting itself. Understanding each of these 7 tasty flavors will breathe some color into your melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions.

- Speaking of chord progressions, did you know that you can write and play modal chord progressions? Check out Sweet Home Alabama for an example in G Mixolydian.

How To Use Them

Alright so I've explained the what and the why. Now onto the how

As I feel that showing is much better than telling, I've put together a video explaining the modes in greater detail plus how I like to use them in my writing and improvising.

I've also included in the video a little trick on how to use your root position pentatonic scale to string the three minor modes together.

Feel free to check that out here.

The subject of the modes is vast and I'm only scratching the surface here so I'd love to know your thoughts on this. What is the most challenging thing to you about the modes?

Leave me a comment. I'd love to answer any questions you have!

Thanks for reading!


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