Modes Formula: All You Need to Know

Published Categorized as Scales, Theory

If you’ve been playing guitar, piano, or any other instrument for any length of time, you might have heard of musical modes (sometimes called “Greek modes” or “church modes”). A mode refers to a variant of a musical scale that creates a different melodic character. Essentially, modes let you find new ways of using notes that you already know.

That’s all well and good, but how do you actually go about learning the different modes? Luckily, it’s easier than it sounds. In this article, we’ll take you through the modes formula for each of the seven musical modes.

Table of Contents

Modes: A Brief Introduction

In order to really explain modes or understand them, you need to know a bit of music history. Musical modes are sometimes called “church modes” because they were used in the music of churches in the middle ages.

But modes actually originated in ancient Greece. Modes were named after regions in Greece, and the mood created by each mode was thought to mimic the general characteristics of each region. For instance, the Ionian region was generally full of friendly people, and you can hear that reflected in the upbeat nature of Ionian mode.

Each mode is a diatonic scale. That means that it is a seven-note scale with characteristic intervals. A diatonic scale contains two intervals that are half steps and five intervals that are whole steps. There are seven modes in total — one for each note of the major scale.

Interestingly enough, modes predated the idea of major and minor keys. The seven modes found in Western music may not be as influential as they once were, but they are nonetheless a valuable tool for musicians and songwriters. Many musicians start out with learning the major and minor scales and don’t progress any further. If you do this, you’re missing out on all the nuances of the modes!

Modes Formula All You Need to Know_Six String Acoustic

The Modes In Series

Now that you know some of the music history behind modes, you’re probably eager to hear what they sound like. After all, each mode makes a relatively slight adjustment to the major scale. So how different can they really be?

Much of the characteristic sound of a mode comes from the fact that modes resolve on different notes. To illustrate that fact, we can use the C major scale on the piano. As you may already know, to play the C major scale, you can start on middle C and play just the white keys until you reach C again. Here’s the progression of notes:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

If you play through the scale in this order, you are playing these notes in Ionian mode, the first of the seven modes.

If you want to use the same notes but play in a different mode, simply start on the second scale degree:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

This is D Dorian mode, the second of the modes. As you may have gathered, the key of the mode is determined by the first note of the modal scale.

Shift over another note, and you’re playing in E Phrygian (third mode):

E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E

Shift another for F Lydian (fourth mode):

F – G – A – B – C – D – E – F

Then it’s G Mixolydian (fifth mode):

G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G

And now on to A Aeolian (sixth mode):

A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A

Lastly, we reach B Locrian (seventh mode):

B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B

If you were able to play through each of these modal scales, you probably noticed something: though you’re using the same set of notes, each mode sounds much different!

This method certainly helps to explain modes, but it can be difficult to extrapolate this knowledge in order to learn to play all the modes in every key. In the next section, you see that every mode has its own formula, and you can use that formula to construct any modal scale you might need.

The Musical Modes Formula List: Two Methods

In this section, we’ll look at the formulas for each of the diatonic modes (or church modes). For each one, we’ll use two methods: the parent scale method and the parallel method. In the parent scale method, we use the order of the modes to count back to the relative major scales. For this method, it’s a good idea to have some familiarity with major scales in different keys.

In the parallel method, we will use each mode’s unique formula to modify the major scale (by raising or lowering certain scale degrees). With this one, as long as you know the mode formula, you can quickly figure out any modal scale in any key. We’ll also show you each mode’s unique pattern of whole and half steps.

1. Ionian Mode

Ionian is the first of the modes. It’s often characterized as being bright or happy-sounding. Songs in Ionian mode tend to be somewhat predictable, and there isn’t a whole lot of tension. That isn’t a bad thing, though! This video shows you some examples of Ionian mode — it’s often used in triumphant songs and fanfares.

You may already know that “Ionian Mode” is just the major scale. And while you might be tempted to just run a quick web search any time you want to learn the major scale in any key, the major scale formula is pretty easy to learn. When you know it, you can take any note and devise its major scale.

To get the major scale you start with your root note and follow this pattern of steps:

whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step

Let’s start with the root note of C to get the C major scale. If we follow this pattern of steps, we get this:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

The C major scale is a good one to work with because it contains no sharps or flats. And if you play piano, you may already know that the C major scale can be played on all white keys!

So if you’re looking for the scale you need to play in Ionian mode, all you need is the major scale. Be sure to keep the major scale in mind, as you’ll be using it to build the other modes on the list.

2. Dorian Mode

The Dorian mode is one of the minor modes. That’s because it has a minor third interval. If you’ve spent any time studying chord theory, you might recall that a minor chord also contains a minor third interval.

But the Dorian mode is a little different, as it doesn’t sound as consistently “sad” as a true minor scale. As a result, songs in Dorian mode sound somewhat mournful with a bit of an uplifting edge.

Want to get a feel for some popular songs in Dorian? This video will show you some well-known songs that use this mode.

Parent Scale Method

In order to use the parent scale method of finding the scale you need for Dorian mode (or any mode), degrees are important. Let’s say we need to find the notes in C Dorian.

Since Dorian is the second mode, we need to know what scale C is the second degree of. That would be the B flat major scale:

B♭ – C – D – E♭ – F – G – A

That would mean that C Dorian is a mode of the B♭ major scale. So all the notes are the same, but the Dorian modal scale starts on a different note. The C Dorian scale starts on C, so its scale is as follows:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭

Parallel Method

The parallel method lets you see each mode in “parallel” to the major scale. So if we want to find C Dorian this way, we start with the C major scale:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

For this method, each mode has a formula that shows you how to modify the major scale to get the mode you need. Here is the Dorian scale pattern formula:

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7

You can also start with your root note (C) and follow the Dorian mode’s pattern of whole and half steps:

whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step

As you can see, the C Dorian scale is a C major scale with a flattened third and flattened seventh. Apply those changes and you get the same Dorian scale that we devised above:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭

Like Dorian, Phrygian is also characterized as one of the minor modes. But it has a distinctively “exotic” feel to it. You might hear this mode characterized as being mysterious, unnerving, or even as vaguely Middle Eastern. It’s not too popular in rock or pop, but it does often make appearances in metal music.

3. Phrygian Mode

That unnerving characteristic comes mostly from the lowered second degree of the scale. If you want some examples of the mystical Phrygian sound, this video will introduce you to a few popular songs that use it.

Parent Scale Method

Let’s stick with the pattern we’ve established and find C Phrygian. Phrygian mode is the third mode. So what major scale is C the third degree of? That would be the A♭ major scale:

A♭ – B♭ – C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G

C Phrygian uses the same notes but starts on C:

C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

Parallel Method

Remember that for this method, we need the Phrygian formula. Here it is:

1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

Or follow the whole step/half step pattern for the Phrygian mode:

half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step

So we have the same flattened third and flattened seventh as the Dorian mode, but we also have a flat second and flat sixth. To get C Phrygian, we apply these changes to the C major scale, or C – D – E – F – G – A – B. Here’s the result:

C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

4. Lydian Mode

The Lydian mode is sometimes described as being “floaty.” It’s very similar to the Ionian mode, but its fourth scale degree is raised by a half step. It’s a nice break from the predictability of Ionian mode, and it often gives a song a more “mystical” feel. This video takes you through some recognizable songs that use this mode.

Parent Scale Method

Now we are on to the fourth mode. If we want C Lydian, we need to know what major scale has C as the fourth scale degree. That would be the G major scale:

G – A – B – C – D – E – F#

And C Lydian starts on C, so we get this:

C – D – E – F# – G – A – B

Parallel Method

Now we’ll figure out C Lydian using the Lydian formula:

1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7

Or the pattern of steps:

whole step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step

As you can see, we just sharpen the fourth scale degree of Ionian mode. Apply that change to the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B) and we get the same scale we devised above:

C – D – E – F# – G – A – B

5. Mixolydian Mode

Now we come to Mixolydian mode. This one is one of the major modes, as it does not have a flattened third. It does have a flat seventh that gives it a distinctively “bluesy” quality. That’s a difference of one note, but it really makes a difference when it comes to a song’s overall mood! This video shows you some songs in Mixolydian mode. It also shows you what they would sound like if they were in Ionian mode. The difference is a lot more pronounced than you might think.

Parent Scale Method

By now you’ve probably gotten the hang of the parent scale method. Mixolydian mode is the fifth mode. So if we want C Mixolydian, we need to know what major scale C is the fifth scale degree of. That’s the F major scale:

F – G – A – B♭ – C – D – E

Starting on C gives us the C Mixolydian scale:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B♭

Parallel Method

The Mixolydian scale formula doesn’t change a whole lot. All you do is take the relevant major scale and flatten the seventh degree:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7

Alternatively, start with C and follow this pattern of whole and half steps:

whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step

When we apply this to the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B), we get C Mixolydian:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B♭

6. Aeolian Mode

If you’re looking for a mode that sounds unmistakably sad, look no further than the Aeolian mode – another name for the natural minor scale. This one has the same flattened third as other minor modes, but it also has a flat sixth and a flat seventh. This video shows you some examples of famous songs written in Aeolian mode.

Parent Scale Method

Now we’re at the sixth mode. If we want C Aeolian, we need to know which major scale has C as its sixth degree. That’s the E flat major scale:

E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭ – C – D

The C Aeolian scale starts on C:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

As a side note, Aeolian mode is the same as what’s called a “natural minor” scale. If you prefer, you can find the Aeolian mode of any key by following the formula of whole steps and half steps for a minor scale:

whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step

If we do this starting with C, we get the same scale as we got above:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

Parallel Method

For this method, we need the Aeolian scale formula:

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

Or a pattern of whole and half steps:

whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step

Apply it to the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B) and we get the same scale as above:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

7. Locrian Mode

Lastly, we come to Locrian mode. This one is not too commonly used, as it tends to sound tense and downright scary. Songs in Locrian tend to sound dissonant. That’s because this mode contains what’s called a “tritone,” or a triad with a flat third and a flat fifth. Tritones sound unstable and unresolved, so it’s no wonder you don’t hear a whole lot of songs in Locrian.

Because it can sound scary, this mode is sometimes found in heavy metal. This video will show you some examples of songs using this odd-sounding mode.

Parent Scale Method

To get C Locrian, we need to know which major scale has C as its seventh degree. That’s the D flat major scale:

D♭ – E♭ – F – G♭ – A♭ – B♭ – C

So we start on C to get C Locrian:

C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G♭ – A♭ – B♭

Parallel Method

Now we need the Locrian formula:

1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7

Or the Locrian pattern of whole steps and half steps:

half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step

To get C Locrian, we just apply this pattern of flattened scale degrees to the C major scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B). Here’s the result:

C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G♭ – A♭ – B♭

A Note On Learning Modes

As you can see, there’s more than one way to learn modal scales. But the parallel method can sometimes give you a clearer picture of why the modes sound different. You get acquainted with the pattern of flats or sharps in each mode formula, and that helps you internalize how each mode differs from the major scale.

To really get a feel for each mode’s unique sound, play through each of the modes with the same root note. Playing through them with different root notes makes it a lot harder to hear the differences!

Want a quick preview of how switching the mode can completely change a song? Check out this video. It runs through the first part of the Beatles hit “Hey Jude” in each of the seven modes.

Using Modes to Write Chord Progressions

One of the most fun ways to use modes is to use each mode formula to create chord progressions. In particular, if you’re a songwriter, creating modal chord progressions can be an excellent way to revitalize your writing or get out of a creative rut.

Each mode has its own pattern of major, minor, and diminished chords. You simply use each modes formula above to get your modal scale and then apply the relevant chord types.

1. Ionian

Here’s the formula for chord types if you’re writing a progression in Ionian mode. Note that we’re using the Arabic numerals we used above instead of the more typical Roman numerals used for chord progressions:

  • 1. Major
  • 2. Minor
  • 3. Minor
  • 4. Major
  • 5. Major
  • 6. Minor
  • 7. Diminished

For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick with the key of C. Remember that this is the C Ionian scale:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

So the chords you would need for a basic C Ionian progression would be C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, and Bdim.

2. Dorian

We’ll plug in our modal scale formula for C Dorian (relative to the major scale) from above here. All we need to do is flatten the third and the seventh:

  • 1. Minor
  • 2. Minor
  • ♭3. Major
  • 4. Major
  • 5. Minor
  • 6. Diminished
  • ♭7. Major

Here’s the C Dorian scale:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭

So our basic progression includes Cm, Dm, E♭, F, Gm, Adim, and B♭.

3. Phrygian

Now we plug in the Phrygian formula. We flatten the second, third, sixth, and seventh degrees:

  • 1. Minor
  • ♭2. Major
  • ♭3. Major
  • 4. Minor
  • 5. Diminished
  • ♭6. Major
  • ♭7. Minor

Recall that our C Phrygian scale is this:

C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

So our basic C Phrygian chord progression includes Cm, D♭, E♭, Fm, Gdim, A♭, and B♭m.

4. Lydian

Remember that for Lydian, all we do is sharpen/raise the fourth:

  • 1. Major
  • 2. Major
  • 3. Minor
  • #4. Diminished
  • 5. Major
  • 6. Minor
  • 7. Minor

Here’s our C Lydian scale:

C – D – E – F# – G – A – B

So our basic C Lydian progression would include C, D, Em, F#dim, G, Am, and Bm.

5. Mixolydian

Remember that for Mixolydian, all we do is flatten the seventh:

  • 1. Major
  • 2. Minor
  • 3. Diminished
  • 4. Major
  • 5. Minor
  • 6. Minor
  • ♭7. Major

Here’s our C Mixolydian scale:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B♭

So a basic C Mixolydian chord progression would include C, Dm, Edim, F, Gm, Am, and B♭.

6. Aeolian

You might remember that Aeolian mode has a flat third, sixth, and seventh:

  • 1. Minor
  • 2. Diminished
  • ♭3. Major
  • 4. Minor
  • 5. Minor
  • ♭6. Major
  • ♭7. Major

Here’s our C Aeolian scale:

C – D – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭

So our basic C Aeolian progression could include Cm, Ddim, E♭, Fm, Gm, A♭, and B♭.

7. Locrian

Our Locrian formula has a flat second, third, fifth, sixth, and seventh:

  • 1. Diminished
  • ♭2. Major
  • ♭3. Minor
  • 4. Minor
  • ♭5. Major
  • ♭6. Major
  • ♭7. Minor

Here’s our C Locrian scale:

C – D♭ – E♭ – F – G♭ – A♭ – B♭

So our basic C Locrian progression could include Cdim, D♭, E♭m, Fm, G♭, A♭, and B♭m.

Going Forward With Modes

If you’re like a lot of musicians, you might not especially enjoy music theory. But taking the time to learn the modes is something that will pay off in the future. Modes offer a whole palette of moods that fall between the brightness of major scales and the darkness of minor scales.

That said, don’t feel as though you need to absorb everything about the modes at once. The music theory behind them can be intimidating at first, so it’s often a good idea to take your time delving into the modes. It can take some time and practice to master the modes to the point of being able to use them in your music, but we promise it’s worth the effort!

Modes Formula: All You Need to Know_six string acoustic

FAQ

Need some quick answers on the diatonic/church modes? Here are some common questions:

What is a mode and its formula?

A mode is a version of a musical scale that offers a different feel or flavor to a melody. Here are the formulas to find each modal scale. Simply choose the major scale in the appropriate key and adjust accordingly:
1. Ionian Mode: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
2. Dorian Mode: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7
3. Phrygian Mode: 1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7
4. Lydian Mode: 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7
5. Mixolydian Mode: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7
6. Aeolian Mode: 1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7
7. Locrian Mode: 1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7
Or start with your root note and follow a mode-specific pattern of whole steps and half steps:
1. Ionian Mode: whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step
2. Dorian Mode: whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step
3. Phrygian Mode: half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step
4. Lydian Mode: whole step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step
5. Mixolydian Mode: whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step
6. Aeolian Mode: whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step
7. Locrian Mode: half step – whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step

What are the 7 modes?

The seven modes (in order) are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Be sure to remember the order — it’s important for figuring out modal scales!

What’s the point of knowing modes?

If you want to be a versatile guitarist, knowing modes is key. Each mode gives a different color and feel to your playing and can make your songwriting and/or improvisational playing a lot more interesting!

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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