Ionian Mode on Guitar: All you Need to Know

Updated August 15th, 2023 . 

Published Categorized as Scales

Much as with the rest of western classical thought and musical theory, the modes owe so much of their basis to logic and near scientific reasoning. Early mathematical thinkers, like Pythagoras, were pretty instrumental in the foundations of western musical theory, and so too are their various influences felt in the foundations of the musical modes, which can at first feel impenetrable.

But they are well worth studying for their inherent logic. What makes the modes unique is their ability to relate to one another, and to trigger specific emotions across a whole spectrum of people no matter their surface differences, making them perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling. If scales are ordered sequences of notes that can feel emotionless in their ability to express, the modes are permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour.

And this ought to be taken very literally. The Ionian Mode, for example, is the major scale, pure and simple. The Dorian mode, by contrast, is one of the first permutations of this root mode. It is the chosen major scale with two of its intervals diminished (flattened), where the Ionian has no flats whatsoever.

Table of Contents

Ionian Mode on Guitar: All you Need to Know

What Exactly is a Mode?

Many often confuse modes for scales and vice versa, and while they are theoretically very similar if not the same, it is when you get down to it that you realise that they are in fact very different, and that the former is wholly indebted to the latter. A mode, instead of being a scale in its own right, is, instead, a permutation of a scale.

More often than not, the modes are worked out in relation to the major scale, this is really where all western classical notions of harmony and what sounds right to our ears comes from after all. The Ionian mode is, in fact, this very same major scale. So, if we were to say that something is in D Ionian, we would be saying that it simply uses the D major scale throughout, without any variation.

Each mode is a separate permutation of this foundational scale. The Lydian mode, for example, is the next stage in this process of metamorphosis. Almost exactly the same as the Ionian bar one interval, the sharpened (augmented) 4th, it is easy to see how this mode has metamorphosed from one stage to the next. All of the modes are like this, all the way from our home scale Ionian, all the way to the Locrian.

Some modes lend themselves better to certain tonalities and harmonic centres. The Lydian and the Ionian are by their very nature rather major tonalities, whereas the Dorian, for example, is inherently minor, owing to the minor 3rd and minor 7th at play in conjunction with the perfect 4th and perfect 5th, all ingredients for your average everyday minor triad.

What is the Ionian Mode?

The Ionian Mode is the major scale, pure and simple. The Dorian mode, by contrast, is one of the first permutations of this root mode. It is the chosen major scale with two of its intervals diminished (flattened), where the Ionian has no flats whatsoever. Taken as the first degree of the key in which the song is set, we approach this key without any of the aforementioned mutations, and it is thus that the Ionian mode is and seeks to be appreciated.

If we were to put more precise theoretical labels on this, we would say that the Ionian mode is a mode that would have been familiar to the medieval church, corresponding to post-enlightenment understandings of tonality; the modern major diatonic scale of the prescribed key. Also, we will sort this mode into the bass modes.

The first mode of any major key is always the Ionian mode, unchanged as it is by any of the permutations that otherwise modify this base scale. For this reason, many people scarcely use the term when referring to the notes that it signifies, though as a way of understanding the modes in general it is a vital stepping stone through which to grapple with these other, more extended modifications. Without understanding the existence of this first degree, how might we understand anything further at all?

Working from the centre of Western tonality, C major, we can begin to map out what this theory looks like in action. Using the major scale formula, we can see that every major scale is comprised of the following formula: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole -Whole – Whole – Half.

Each of these, you would be right in assuming, corresponds to a separate scale degree, and so we can use this formula to calculate any major scale, and any minor scale with only slight modifications (Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole); and this isn’t exclusive to guitar, but to the entirety of Western tonality itself!

So, before reading the diagram below, which itself expands upon all of this vital knowledge in the context of the C major scale, I would encourage you to attempt to chart this out yourself, as it is in your own intuition and initiative that the key to cementing this learning lies. That being said, once you have given this a good go yourself, you can find the full details of the exercise expanded below:

Scale DegreeI
ii (9)
IV (11)
vi (13)
Leading Tone
Steps (from previous)HalfWholeWholeHalfWholeWholeWholeHalf

Why Learn the Modes in the First Place?

While I would be the first to rush to the support of the idea that all music and musical theory and thought should be democratised, the modes are somewhat of an exception, and each individual fan, learner, scholar, or otherwise avid enthusiast of the guitar can choose for themselves whether they wish to pursue this line of thought.

What really sets the modes apart from the scales is the way that each offers, within the parameters of a tonal centre, specific harmonic, melodic, and tonal properties. These very properties are often what are called upon when people seek a specific mode from their toolbox. The Lydian mode, for example, has oft been noted for its more mystical, airy, and magical qualities, which have found apposite use in film soundtracks and even in the suggestive compositional harmonic and melodic writing of more adept film composers.

This is not just some intangible, ethereal aspect of music either. Despite music being so abstract an art form, there are certain scientific and theoretical reasons why these modes make us feel a certain way when they are used in certain contexts, and in this way they have become vital tools of suggestion and evocation in the realms of composition and improvisation.

This Lydian mode, for all its airy mysticism, can’t escape the very reason for its being such a magical sounding mode; some of its mystical aspects are lost in this explanation of the illusion, so to speak, but it is hoped that also one can appreciate anew the magic of what is created from so few elements. In the inherent tension between the sharpened (augmented) 4th and the perfect 5th in the Lydian mode, there is something unexplainable that seems to evoke within a large majority of us feelings of unease. But it is an unease more potent as a tool of magic and deception than it is an exercise in the heightening of intensity.

What Exactly Does this All Mean for the Guitar?

This is, of course, quite a lot of information to absorb in one go. The modes are a lot in themselves, and much of this won’t immediately be very important to you. In fact, the hope is that a lot of this becomes so innate and part of your subconscious and muscle memory that you won’t necessarily need to think or discuss these things specifically.

However, having an even basic knowledge of how this aspect of Western harmony and tonality is formulated, and subsequently how it functions at a molecular level, can be a massive help in understanding many of your favourite songs, as well as plenty of your favourite guitarist’s finest moments or best improvisations.

As we are talking in terms of the fundamental building blocks of the Western harmonic tradition, this won’t make a whole lot of difference which instrument you’re discussing it on, so long as it’s designed to understand and perform these notes and the kinds of music that it’s attached to. This is vital knowledge for any musician seeking to operate within the so called confines of the Western musical canon established in the last half millennium or so.

However, by the very nature of this website you are more than likely here to learn how to play this on guitar, so below you will find a tablature diagram detailing how to play the C major scale, ascending and descending through two octaves in its simplest form:

Hold this dear, and run through this up and down as many times as it takes for you to feel totally comfortable within its bounds. Once this is the case, it would be a helpful idea to begin from a random point in the scale and see if you can work your way from this point up or down and back to the highest or lowest possible root note.

Getting Your Ionian Mode Just Right

Rather than simply repeating this over and over without considering what the notes mean or represent, I would strongly encourage you to try singing along to each note as you play it.

This has numerous benefits, not limited to:

  • strengthening your sensory connection between the feeling of playing the note, the theoretical understanding behind the note, and the sound of the note itself, as well as the relative connections between these and all your other senses at once;
  • exercising your ability to multi-task and, if it is your aim, to be able to sing and play guitar at the same time – being able to perform notes and sing them at the same time will already set you ahead of simply strumming and singing simultaneously;
  • practising singing and plucking in this way is also an apposite way to practise and perfect your phrasing, not only in making it precise but also unique to you, for at base the voice offers more capabilities for expressive intent than a dry, clean acoustic guitar.

As ever, I would urge you to work this knowledge around your own self and studies. With so much of the learning of guitar, the beauty is that it is so easily transposed. For an instrument like piano, or a brass or woodwind instrument, the modes can be a far more painful process. For guitar, with a fretboard so repetitive and blank as to welcome key changes and adjustments to tuning aplenty, transposition is no more difficult than moving up and/or down the neck in relation to wherever it is that you wish to go.

Along such a line of argument, I would suggest you try picking a key, a favourite or simply one that you come to at random, and to work out, using the diagram and formula above as a guide, the Ionian mode in whichever key you happen to have chosen.

Don’t forget to hold dear the fact that what makes the Ionian mode itself is that, in its relation to the major scale of the given key, its centre is the root or first degree. Thus, whichever key you choose in the above exercise, the scale will gravitate around the tonic. While the chords might not always be on the tonic – as seen in the table above there are plenty of other chords in the Ionian series of any given key – for it to be Ionian, the chords and melodies will almost completely centre on this root; whether it is played or not, its presence will always be felt, as the music will feel like it is returning to this tonic. Thus, though not always essential, I would encourage at least initially that you begin working out this mode simply on the root, working your way from there.

Final Tones

Taking your first steps into the world of modes like this ought only to be commended. By following any of the advice or practising any of the exercises above, you are ensuring that your mind is active and engaging with the topic here, and not simply learning a series of abstract shapes and numbers, but absorbing this information for what it really is: the sounds that they will eventually create, for without these sounds and the music which they comprise what would separate this from the study of mathematics? (Answer: next to nothing at all).

FAQs Ionian Mode

What is Ionian mode in music?

The first mode of any major key is always the Ionian mode, unchanged as it is by any of the permutations that otherwise modify this base scale. For this reason, many people scarcely use the term when referring to the notes that it signifies, though as a way of understanding the modes in general it is a vital stepping stone through which to grapple with these other, more extended modifications. Without understanding the existence of this first degree, how might we understand anything further at all?

What key is Ionian mode?

The Ionian mode is not in any particular key; it will simply be a reflection of whatever key the song is in, or whichever key the user is performing for whatever reason, whether they be for demonstration purposes, musical purposes, compositional purposes, improvisational purposes, or otherwise. The only key an Ionian mode will be in is the precise key that is chosen, given that it is the first mode and thus represents the unmodified major scale of the home key.

What are the notes in the Ionian mode?

Formulaically, the Ionian Mode is comprised, like the corresponding major scale of the given key, of the I – ii – iii – iv – V – vi – vii, scale degrees relating to said key. For this major scale we can use another formula which, when beginning from the tonic, makes calculating the mode a little easier: Whole – Whole – Half – Whole – Whole – Whole – Half (whole being equivalent to two frets, and half being equivalent to one). So, by the logic of modes, the Ionian being the first degree of the parent key, the E Ionian would be the E major scale itself. Mapping it out, we would be left with the exact same notes in each, beginning from the tonic: E (I) – F# (ii) – G# (iii) – A (iv) – B (V) – C# (vi) – D# (vii) – E (I (8) ).

Is Ionian major or minor?

The Ionian mode is firmly major, being as it is entirely formulated from the notes of the corresponding major home key. In this way the Ionian mode is almost entirely the same as the major scale. What separates them is their title, the fact that the major scale is itself a scale, whereas the modes are permutations of this or other scales, the Ionian mode being calculated from the root of the given key. Thus, to anyone on the outside not privy to its inner machinations, they are essentially the same and are played much the same too.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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