Mode Mania: Hearing the Unique Sounds of Each Mode

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger


Misunderstanding the modes of the major scale is common among guitarists. We practice them in all keys, up and down the fretboard, in sequences, with different rhythmic groupings. The secrets to these mysterious inversions of the major scale lie in the chords they are played over. This article will explain some ways we can hear the unique sound of each mode, and develop interesting chord progressions that allow us to hear them in their native habitat.

But First…

I will set up some commonalities among the musical examples. I’m using the same drum track and bassline, which in this case is just a D below the low E on a 4-string bass. These examples are not all in the key of D, however. We will start with D, but then run through all of the modes with D as our first note:

  • D Ionian
  • D Dorian
  • D Phrygian
  • D Lydian
  • D Mixolydian
  • D Aeolian
  • D Locrian

This will have us twisting through 7 different keys, and we will be comparing each mode to D major. Don’t worry, it will get easier as we make our way through all 7.

D Ionian

This is commonly known as D major, and it contains 7 notes:

D E F# G A B C#

We can give these letters numbers:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Tone Home: Examples recorded with a Custom Shop version of the '59/ Custom Hybrid.

Tone Home: Examples recorded with a Custom Shop version of the ’59/ Custom Hybrid.

For these musical examples, I will be using the IV and V chords of each key. I could pick any chords in the key of D to put above our bass note, but I stuck with two easy-peasy major chords- I will be using the IV and V chords in the rest of the modes as well. I am sticking with triads here, so no arty-farty 4 or 5-note chords to muck with our harmony. The IV and V chords of every key are always major. This gives us G and A. For more info on how to derive the chords of every key, read this article …it will come in handy here!

Played over a D in the bass (this helps us hear D as our tonic, or Note We Resolve To), the chords become G/D & A/D*.


*These chords, knows as slash chords, define the lowest note in the harmony. 

These chords don’t sound too weird, but we are used to hearing the major scale in many melodies. By the way, you can also drop the low E to D to have a D and octave lower.

Here is a solo over this chord progression:

This mode has a very happy sound, and that C# resolving to the D gives it a very definite sound.

D Dorian

OK, D Dorian is the 2nd mode. But the 2nd mode of what? To figure out, we ask ourselves “D is the 2nd note of which major scale?”. A whole step lower than D is C, so D Dorian comes from the C major scale. Comparing this to D major, we get:

D Major: D E F# G A B C# or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
D Dorian: D E F G A B C or 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
I see there are two notes different here. I can either flat those notes as I play a solo, although this requires pretty good knowledge of the fretboard. I can also play in C major, but use D as my tonic. The D in the bass helps us hear this. The chords we play over that D are the IV & V chords of the C major scale:


Here is a solo over this chord progression:

To read more about the Ionian & Dorian modes, check out an article I did quite a few months ago.

D Phrygian

To get to D Phrygian, we have to figure out what parent key it belongs to. Phrygian is the 3rd mode, so D is the 3rd note of what major scale? It is Bb:

D Major: D E F# G A B C# or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

D Phrygian:   D Eb F G A Bb C or 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

The IV and V chords of the key of Bb are Eb & F. Played over a D in the bass, this start to sound a little weird:


Now here is a solo:

For more on this Spanish sounding mode, check out this article, yo.

D Lydian

The fourth mode of the major scale has us asking: D is the 4th note of what major scale? It is A:

D Major: D E F# G A B C#  or  1 2 3 4 5 6 7

D Lydian: D E F# G# A B C# or 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7

Wow, one note difference! That is a little easier. The IV and V chords of the key of A are D and E. This gives us these chords (over a D in the bass):

lydianD Lydian solo:

To read more about the unique sound of this substitute for a regular ol’ major scale, check out this article.

D Mixolydian

The 5th mode of the major scale has us asking: D is the 5th note of which major scale? It is G, so:

D Major: D E F# G A B C#  or  1 2 3 4 5 6 7

D Mixolydian: D E F# G A B C or 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

Another mode where there is only one note difference! Crescent Fresh! The IV and V chords in the key of G are:


This mode is pretty common in blues and rock, especially Southern Rock. Here is an especially non-Southern Rock solo:

For more info about the history and application of the mixolydian mode, check out this article.

D Aeolian

By now, you know the drill: Aeolian is the 6th mode, so D is the 6th note of what key? The answer is F.

D Major: D E F# G A B C#  or  1 2 3 4 5 6 7

D Aeolian: D E F G A Bb C or 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7

This is commonly known as D minor, so I am sure you have played this scale, even if you didn’t realize it. The IV & V chords of the key of F are Bb and C.


And, the required solo:

The Aeolian mode is one of the most common in all of music. You can read a more in-depth article about it here.

D Locrian

The last and strangest of the modes, but you should be a pro at this by now. Locrian is the 7th mode, so D is the 7th mode of what key? It is Eb. To compare against D major, we have:

D Major: D E F# G A B C#  or  1 2 3 4 5 6 7

D Locrian: D Eb F G Ab Bb C or 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7

The IV and V chords in the key of Eb are Ab & Bb. With a D in the bass, this will sound odd.


And another solo:

More about the locrian mode can be found in this article.

And in the end…

The confusion that many guitarists have when it comes to modes have to do with the underlying chords. Playing D Dorian over a C-F-G chord progression will sound like you are resolving your phrases to C, not D. Use a Dm7- F/D- G/D progression, and your ear will hear D as the tonic, even though you are using chords from the C major scale. You can always change bass notes later, but having them stay static- I use a looper pedal- is a great way to hear and explore these unique sounds. If you want the backing track to play with, here it is:

Who was the first player you heard that used some exotic sounding notes? Do you have any favorite scales?

Written on May 27, 2014, by Dave Eichenberger

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  • wisho

    the bass have to be in the mode of the melody or just on the mayor scale ?

    • The bass notes come from the ‘parent’ major scale, but the key center is the tonic. I kept it easy by playing one note- but feel free to bounce around, keeping in mind the parent scale and the note the melody is resolving to.

  • Marc Volgers

    I’ve been studying the (church) modes for some time. I would like to add a few things to the discussion:
    I would make a distinction between the major(ish) modes and the minor(ish) modes. E.g. comparing Dorian to the major scale makes it unnecessary complex. Seeing Dorian as a a variation of the minor scale (with a raised or major 6th) is for me easier and more logic.
    Major(ish) scales (i.e. every scale with 3): Ionian (maj), Lydian, Mixolydian
    Minor(ish) scales (i.e. every scale with b3): Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian (min), Locrian

    Also, I often see when song are played in a specific mode (not ionian or aeolian), why not have a correct notation? For example, a song in E Phrygian is often notated as Emin (i.e. a sharp on the F line), but wouldn’t it be easier to notate as C (no sharps or flats), since it’s the third mode from C?

    • Absolutely, and this is the exact subject of a future article. This just explains where they come from. For instance, I think of lydian as major #4. This does make more sense, I agree. But we gots to start somewhere, and thanks for reading!

      • Marc Volgers

        Good to read there’ll be future articles! I just thought of one thing: I think that modes are often mixed. For example, in metal (a main influence for me), songs are often played in Emin, but with emphasis on the b2 (making it Phrygian) and/or the b5 (making it Locrian). Either way, in locrian I see the ‘original’ 5th is still used (of course by using often 5th chords).
        Thinking in modes is quite nice. I once wrote a song in a some sort of C, but didn’t realise it was C lydian (but more thinking of Em with C root) (oh wait: i put on SoundCloud

  • Shane

    The history of these modes is very rich and goes back thousands of years – definitely consider mentioning that in the future! Good article.

  • Cody Aureli Ingersoll

    even if you “know” what the modes do and how they augment one’s ability, it always helps to have a fresh perspective and a new look over it. I think many guitar players especially kind of “glaze over” when you get into the technical side of things or they do things with talent. When you know what you are doing instead of simply going on talent it ends that whole plateau limitation relationship between practice and writing etc. etc.. Similarly like I wrote about a fresh perspective for me at least, seeing this article I was first hesitant I think because we can all admit there is a reason some “glaze over” some of the methodology is kind of off putting or hard to comprehend. That’s why a fresh perspective, or even just a restatement and retreading can be revolutionary to some player’s abilities especially in the modern internet age. So yea man, sweat read.

  • Giovanni Serratos

    Phrygian for a minor heavy sound as well some iidian for a mayor sound goes for me

  • James Metcalf

    I use Aeolian and Dorian a lot sometimes throw in some Phyrigian dom but I really don’t like Ionian for me it’s just to artificial and closed ended same for Locrian…

  • とます へるなんでず

    I think the real challenge is to play and hear the modes played in one key in a chord progression. The author just played the modes every time in a different key. He didn’t highlight the unique intervals of each mode.

  • apolo