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Modes – A Step Further


If explained properly, the following diagram unlocks the secret of the modes.


For context:  Everything mentioned here is in the key of C.  With that, the center part of the diagram – the chord harmonization – shows us how the chords in the key of C can be arranged end to end.  Lower case symbols are minor chords.


Any pairing or smaller grouping of chords from the harmonized group that center on the modal tonic (the first chord of the harmonization) could also suffice as a modal vamp or progression.  Select from the choices available on the far-right side of the diagram.  For example, G to C could be a C Mixolydian vamp.


Let’s keep it simple and regroup.  Your rhythm is selected from the chords on the right.  All the chords or some of the chords, just keep returning to the first chord in the harmonization as the center that you keep going back to.


Your key is C major.  If the harmonization of the chords is Ionian, the notes you play are all the C major notes C D E F G A B C - all of the tones are natural to the key.  There are no unusual modal key tones.


Next.  Compare.  Your key is C major.  Your rhythm is Dorian.  By playing and emphasizing the b3 of C major scale (Eb) and the b7 (Bb) … you are in the land of Dorian.  These are the key tones you reach for to create the modal sound.


It’s driven by the rhythm.  Identify the mode by the rhythm, then reach for and emphasize the key tones.  The key tones on the left side of the diagram are the tones that create the modal sound.  As you can see, except for the Ionian, many key tones are atypical to the key.  The Ionian note selection is all natural to the key.


The notes you play can be in any order.  Much modal confusion is caused by the explanation of how the notes of the scale determine the mode by the order in which they are played.  Erase that thought.  The harmonized chord scale is the basis.  Look at the chart, when C moves to Dm, it does so horizontally and vertically.  Dm to Em, same thing, and so on.  Each time a chord steps up, the mode progresses accordingly.


By emphasizing the key tones against a modal background – you begin to play modally by reaching for tones you may not have previously considered as observed in the chart.


We all should have the Ionian down first.  Pick your favorite major key position. Work down the chart.  Work Dorian till you know it by heart.  Then comes Phrygian.  After a while, you get used to the names – kind of. 

The recommended practice is to create a modal background and go long until you get it down, one at a time patiently.  Just like everything else.

Have fun.

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