Have you ever thought to yourself… “Self… what, how, and who could ever come up with a system where every pitch can take a new tonic and create a brand new row of tones outside of major and minor? And why do I have to learn these?” There has been a time in my life where I have wondered the same thing. I’m not going to bore you with the history of it (even though it is good to know), nor will I take the same traditional view that every other music school would entail. I have come up with a system to where each and every mode can be thought of in a very comprehensible way to where even the beginner musician could understand the purpose of these wonderful sets of tones.
Let’s begin with what these modes are and what they are not:
1. They are separate scales that create brand new sound structures and tonics.
2. They do have major and natural minor scales included in the set of tones created.
3. They can be composed of only the white keys on the piano.
4. They are not limited to only the white keys on the piano.
5. They are not to be feared!!!!!!
A successful knowledge of modes can lend any musician a brand new world of insight on how to craft melodies and even how to create new harmonizations to Major or Minor keyed songs. In improv the fact that knowing you can work outside of the key signature to incorporate new notes that sound great on fly without ever even skipping a beat can set you apart from the rest of the players still stuck on blues and major/minor scales and progressions.
So let’s dive into what the modes are… here we go,
Aeolian – Natural Minor – Starting on an “A” there are no sharps or flats. So in theory we are in the key of C Major, BUT the tonic/root is “A”. Play a scale starting on “A” and use the key of C. If you are playing the piano this will be all white keys.
Locrian – Starting on an “A” there are 2 flats. So in theory we are in the key of Bb Major, BUT the tonic/root is still “A”. Play a scale starting on “A” and use the key of Bb.
Ionian – Major – Starting on an “A” there are 3 sharps. So in theory we are in A Major with the tonic/root still on”A”. Play a scale starting on “A” and use the key of A.
Dorian – Starting on an “A” there is 1 sharp. So in theory we are in G Major with the tonic/root still on “A”. Play a scale starting on “A” using the key of G.
Phrygian – Starting on an “A” there is one flat. So in theory we are in F Major with the tonic still on “A”. Play a scale starting on “A” and use the key of F.
Lydian – Starting on an “A” there are 4 sharps. So in theory we are in E Major with the tonic/root still on “A”. Play a scale starting on “A” and use the key of E.
Mixolydian – Starting on an “A” there are 2 sharps. So in theory we are in D Major with the tonic still on “A”. Play a scale starting on “A” and use the key of D.
After I tell this to people they do one of two things:
2. oh… I still don’t get it.
If you are in category 2 please keep reading… if you are in category 1… feel free to keep reading as well.
Now that you are still curious about this subject and haven’t given up too easily let me explain this idea a little bit further. Starting with the simplest of modes let’s examine in more detail how to think about this neat concept.
In the Ionian mode the tonic is the same as the key signature. In my example of the tonic “A” I explained that the key signature would have three sharps. The key of A Major also has three sharps. So the mode A Ionian is the most directly related to it’s key signature of “A”.
Take a moment to wrap your brain around that before you move on, because the next step may take you by surprise if you do not fully understand the Ionian mode.
Moving on up the line we next come to the note of “B” in our movement up the key of A Major. B will be our tonic this time and we will still have 3 sharps. This is the Dorian mode. To find out how to make a Dorian scale the way that I have found is the simplest is to move a whole step down and use the Major key signature of that pitch. So in our example we will go one whole step down from “B” to hit “A” which we will use as the key signature. Now go to whatever Instrument you play and move up and back down a scale starting on “B” using the key signature of A Major.
So in theory “B” Dorian is in the key of A Major. The way to find how to make a dorian scale is simple. All you have to do is take the note you want to be the tonic/root of the Dorian mode and treat it as a 2 (or in solfège it would be “re”). Once you have treated it as a 2 (re) you can find where 1 (do) is and that is your key!! So let’s say you want to have Eb Dorian… Since Eb is going to be your 2 where is 1? The 1 is Db! So this means that you will be in the key of Db Major but the tonic will be Eb, which in turn will make your mode Eb Dorian!
Take some time to really dwell and think hard about these two modes before you read the next article. Next time we will continue on in studying all of the modes in depth just as we have with the Ionian and Dorian modes.