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Modes of the Major Scale

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In this tutorial we learned to play and visualize the modes as fretboard patterns.

In summary, modes are a way of looking at a scale. Essentially, we start with a major scale, in this case the A Major scale, and then give each note of the scale a chance to be the first note of the scale. In this way, we are only using notes from one major scale. But by viewing them from a different perspective, using each note in turn to start the series of notes, we wind up with a different set of intervals between the mode degrees.

Further it can be useful to look at each mode individually and see how it is a variation on the "pure" (or "unaltered") major and minor scales.

  • Ionian is the major scale.

  • Dorian is the minor scale, but with a major 6th.

  • Phrygian is the minor scale, but with a flat 2nd.

  • Lydian is the major scale, but with a sharp 4th.

  • Mixolydian is the major scale, but with a minor 7th.

  • Aeolian is the minor scale.

  • Locrian is the minor scale, but with a flat 2nd and flat 5th.

    The modes have essentially two uses:

    1. Structural.

    They are simply different positions of a major scale. So you can use the modes simply as patterns that cover the entire fretboard and use them to play in one scale in any position. Obviously this is a very powerful visual aid when you are trying to "unlock" the fretboard and move around it everywhere at will.

    2. Ornamental.

    For the same reason you use different chords or scales: to get different sounds. You just play whichever mode you like the sound of at the time regardless of the key. This requires that you know & apply the scale or mode interval formula.

    These tutorials cover practicing the modes of the major scale from an ornamental perspective.

    Practicing Major Modes

    Practicing Minor Modes

    The trick here is to become familiar with all the materials of music. Start to categorize the sound of different scales, modes, chords, etc. in your memory. Then when you are after some specific sound you will know which scale, mode or chord to use. Every scale, mode and chord has it's own characteristic sound; as well as certain effect when considered in relation to another scale, mode or chord.

    So if you want a "happy sounding" melody, build it by using the major scale (ionian), then if you want to change to a "sad sound" you change to using the minor scale (aeolian). Now if you want a "happy sound", but with a little "odd" twist ala Zappa, Vai or Satch, then try lydian (major scale for the "happy" part, but a sharp 4th adds a bit of "oddness"!). This is greatly simplfied, but still a true and useful way of looking at how to use scales.

    There are of course more complicated reason (advanced music theory) for why certain scales, modes and chords are used for certain finctions. For example, the lydian mode is "an odd variation on major", as I said before. But, it also has a very specific harmonic structural function. Listen to any Beethoven or Mozart sonata and you will hear lydian being used as melody notes or scale runs over the V of V chord (five of five) to get to the V chord, or dominant function before a cadence.

    Finally, I encourage musicians (beginners, intermediate or advanced!) to always keep in mind that music is an auditory art. And even those complex ideas you get into later on still have to sound good or they are useless. I hope this has given you some insight into what the modes are and how they work. Happy playing.

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    Modes of the Major Scale