Modes Explained in Easy Language for Guitarists and How To Use Them Practically!

To fully understand the so-called “mysterious” concept of modes in western music, you must have a basic understanding of major scale, major third and minor third – from which major and minor chords are built.

The concept of modes has been a confusing topic for years amongst the most expert musicians and instrumentalists in the world, and guitarists are no different.

The entire concept of modes revolves around one single thing – the tonal center. So in order to grasp this concept with ease, you must first have a basic understanding of what a tonal center is.

Tonal Center

The tonal center can be thought of as the root chord or the first chord in a chord progression, on which the whole song is based, or in other words, you can think of it as the scale or key of a song.

To explain this concept easily, let’s take the example of a common 12 bar blues chord progression in the key of C Major using the I-IV-V, or the C-F-G or G7 chords.

When you start playing this progression, you will quickly realize that the center of tonality (or the tonal center) is the C Major Chord. You may ask “how”, but for that, you must play or listen to the actual chord progression.

So here it is,  (it is on Piano, but enough to  understand the concept)

In an I-IV-V chord progression, immediately after you hear the V chord i.e. G (or G7) Chord (in the case of C Major Scale), your mind automatically wishes or expects to hear a much stable tone or chord, and that is C Major Chord.

This is nothing but the tonal center or musically known as the Cadence, where a point of rest or resolution is reached, in this case, it is the V chord, which is G and back to the I chord, which is C Major Chord in the Key of C Major.

How to Derive Modes from a Major Scale?

Modes have their roots in the medieval and early Church Music and are also known as the “church modes”. These modes were originally derived from the “modes” named by the ancient Greeks.

You can derive 7 relative Modes from a Major Scale – starting (and ending) with each note on the scale, with the first mode being the Major Scale itself – from which all other modes are derived.

You may also do a parallel derivation of the modes if you know the mode formulas. But here I will derive them from a C Major scale.

  1. C Ionian Scale – W W H W W W H – C D E F G A B C
  2. D Dorian Scale – W H W W W H W – D E F G A B C D
  3. E Phrygian Scale – H W W W H W W – E F G A B C D E
  4. F Lydian Scale – W W W H W W H – F G A B C D E F
  5. G Mixolydian Scale – W W H W W H W – G A B C D E F G
  6. A Aeolian Mode – W H W W H W W – A B C D E F G A
  7. B Locrian Mode – H W W H W W W – B C D E F G A B

Chords Corresponding to the Degrees of the Major Scale Relative to the Modes

I – C Major Chord – Ionian

II – D Minor Chord – Dorian

III – E Minor Chord – Phrygian

IV – F Major Chord – Lydian

V – G Major Chord – Mixolydian

VI – A Minor Chord – Aeolian

VII – B Diminished Chord – Locrian

Note: You get these chords by “Harmonizing” the C Major Scale, which I will be covering in my next lesson.

Modes can be more easily understood practically rather than theoretically. So the only way to get a firm hold on the modes is to record different chord progressions, then pick up your guitar and play these modes along with the chord progressions, and listen to the mood variations.

Since it is more dependent on the tonal center or that root chord of the song, a mode will only retain its mood only when a corresponding chord progression is played in the background.

For e.g. if you are playing a E Phrygian over a C-F-G chord progression, it will sound more C Ionian or C Major, but if you are playing it over an E Minor progression, it will naturally sound like Phrygian.

Creating Chord Vamps for Supporting the Modes

This is a popular method to create supporting chord progressions for a mode.

Chord vamps are created by picking the IV and V chords of the related major of the mode and replacing the root notes with the root note of the mode.

For e.g. if you want to create chord progression for D Dorian mode from its related Major (Ionian) scale which is C Major, then you need to pick the 4th and 5th chords, i.e. F and G and replace their root notes with D.

This is also known as playing F over D (denoted as F/D) which is nothing but a Dmin7 chord and playing G over D (G/D), which already has a D note in it.

Freaked out? You need not be. Because this following video by Claus Levin will clear up all the confusions that you may have built up in your mind about modes. Cos he clearly explains how to plug these modes in, in a practical musical scenario and also sound melodic and musical with it. So please watch this video, it’ll be worth your time.

Wrapping Up

I hope I was able to shed some light on this rather confusing concept of modes to a certain extent. I have just tried to explain my perspective on this rather confusing topic. Maybe I am wrong somewhere and was unable to successfully get across the concept to you, so please bear with me.

Remember, the only solid way to understand this concept is by just practically experimenting with it. So for mastering this area of modes, I reiterate you on recording different chord progressions relative to the major scale and then playing different modes derived from it along with it to feel the tone or mood variations.

Please do let me know your feedback and doubts regarding this article by leaving a comment. Thanks for stopping by, I hope you enjoyed reading this.

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