Piano Musical Modes – The Complete Guide
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The simple pleasure of an ice cream cone on a hot summer day is a tradition enjoyed by many cultures. Certainly, one of the most exciting things about going to the ice cream parlor is the free samples. Otherwise, it might be impossible to make a decision when faced with the endless frozen mountains just beyond the cold glass shield. Would you prefer Chocolate Cake Batter or Fudge Brownie Batter? And what is the difference between French Vanilla and Vanilla Bean? Fortunately, the practice of free samples means you don’t have to rely on abstract descriptions alone. In fact, sampling is also a great way for piano students to understand musical modes.
Perhaps one of the most confusing topics in music theory is that of modes. One reason why students struggle to understand musical modes is because it can be difficult to know how to apply them. However, in today’s Quick Tip, Piano Musical Modes: The Complete Guide, you’ll discover representative chord progressions that you can use to sample the sound of each mode. You’ll also learn a simple system for how to remember each mode. This lesson includes:
- Intro to Musical Modes for Piano
- Modal Music
- Tonality and Modality
- Musical Modes with a Major 3rd
- Musical Modes with a Minor 3rd
Perhaps you have little or no prior knowledge about musical modes. Or maybe your last encounter left you scratching your head. Either way, today’s lesson on Piano Musical Modes: The Complete Guide will help you get beyond the cold glass shield to the where reality resides.
Intro to Musical Modes for Piano
Perhaps you have never heard of modes at all? If that’s case, it’s important to state upfront that modes are scales. In fact, you probably already know at least one mode quite well, albeit by a different name. Specifically, the Ionian mode is another name for the major scale. Likewise, the natural minor scale is also called Aeolian mode. In fact, there are seven modes in modern musical practice. Each mode is formed by starting on a different degree of a “parent” scale.
What are modes in music?
Modes are scales formed by starting on a different degrees of a source scale or parent scale. While this principle can apply to any type of source scale, musical modes are most commonly associated with the seven modes of the major scale.
Modes of the Major Scale
The modes for each degree of the major scale are assigned the following Greek names: (1) Ionian, (2) Dorian, (3) Phrygian, (4) Lydian, (5) Mixolydian, (6) Aeolian and (7) Locrian. The seven modes of the C Major Scale are shown below. It is important to note that even though C Major is the source scale, each mode is named for its starting pitch…not its source.
Modes of the C Major Scale
Modes are also more than scales. Consider for a moment that the major scale gives us major tonality. In other words, music in a major key is derived from a major scale. Similarly, minor tonality comes from one or more of the minor scales. When considering tonal music and the study of modes, there is a helpful question to ponder upfront: Are major and minor the only possible tonal systems?
If you’ve ever heard music from outside of your native culture, you’ve also probably concluded that there must be other tonal systems that explain how this music differs from the music you are accustomed to hearing. In many cases, this music employs musical modes other than Ionian or Aeolian. In other words, not all melodies and chord progressions are derived from major and minor scales.
We can actually play in “keys” derived from each mode. The word “keys” is in quotes because that word is generally not used outside of traditional major and minor contexts. Instead, the words mode or modal are used to describe music in which the melody and harmony are drawn from a particular mode. For example, music composed in C Lydian has a tonic note of C and uses chords drawn from the C Lydian mode. In the same way, C Dorian also has a tonic note of C, but the Dorian mode provides its own unique harmonic palette.
Why are musical modes important?
The study of modes helps musicians classify and refer to different types of musical sound in the same way that colors allow us to describe spectrums of hue, brightness and saturation. In fact, musicians are even known to use coloristic vocabulary to describe particular modes as “dark,” “bright,” or even “blue.” You can sample each of the musical modes below to get a sense for how they sound on the piano. The modes are arranged in order from brightest to darkest.
Piano Improv Samples of the Musical Modes
[Tap or click each ▷ button below to hear its sound.👆🖱🔊]
Tonality and Modality
If you have been a music student for a little while, you probably are familiar with the term “tonic.” The tonic note in any key is the first degree of the scale. Furthermore, the tonic is also the eventual goal of all melodic and harmonic movement in tonal music. In fact, the term atonal refers to music that lacks a tonal key center and tonic note.
You may also be familiar with the fact that tonic identifies the primary note in both major and minor keys. This presents and interesting question: If the keys of C major and C minor both have the same tonic, then what accounts for their difference? The difference is their modality. The key of C major has a tonic of C and uses the Ionian mode. On the other hand, C minor also has a tonic of C yet it draws on the Aeolian mode instead (or another minor scale variant). In fact, C major and C minor are considered parallel keys. This means they have the same tonic but they use different modes. Therefore, another important way to understand modes is by the intervalic pattern of whole steps and ½ steps used to partition the octave as you ascend a scale from tonic to tonic.
Interval Sequences of Each Mode
The following chart lists the modes of the C major scale and illustrates how each mode possesses a unique pattern of whole steps and ½ steps. This unique interval sequence is what gives each mode its distinctive tonal color. The last column of the chart provides a formula to quickly construct each mode by comparison to a major scale built on the same tonic. For example, according to the chart, the Mixolydian mode is nearly identical to a major scale with the exception that it has a lowered 7th tone (indicated by the ♭7). Therefore, G Mixolydian would have a F♮ instead of the F♯ that is found in G major. The complete scale for G Mixolydian is G-A-B-C-D-E-F♮.
Piano students who know their major scales can quickly learn to play any of the musical modes by simply memorizing how each mode compares to the major scale.
In the following sections, you’ll play each the musical modes on piano with a tonic note of C. You’ll also learn which chord types correspond to each mode. Finally, you’ll play a representative chord progression for each mode that will allow you to better detect and appreciate the unique tone color of each mode. The seven modes are arranged into two groups—those containing a major 3rd and those containing a minor 3rd.
Musical Modes with a Major 3rd
So far you’ve considered how modes are formed, sampled the sound of each mode and examined their intervalic structures. Now let’s dig into each of the modes containing a major 3rd: Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian.
All of the following examples are excerpted from today’s lesson sheet PDF. The complete lesson sheet is downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also quickly change the key of this lesson material using our Smart Sheet Music.
The Ionian mode is the equivalent to a major scale. It is also technically the 1st mode of the major scale. Ionian has a bright tone color and it evokes feelings that are happy and hopeful. Since so much popular music uses Ionian mode, Jonny rightly describes it as “The Pop Mode.”
C Ionian Scale
Shortcut for Ionian Mode
- Equivalent to a Major Scale
- 1st Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on Major Chords
Chord Compatibility with Ionian Mode
Since the C Ionian mode contains a major 2nd, major 3rd, major 6th and major 7th, it can be used to improvise over a C major triad as well as common jazz voicings associated with a major sound such as C6, C△7, C△9, C6/9 and C△13.
C Ionian Chord Progression
If you want to improvise with the C Ionian scale, just about any diatonic chord progression in C will be compatible. You can get started with the following popular progression.
For a deep dive on how to improvise with the Ionian scale, check out How to Improvise a Solo With the Major Scale (Level 2, Levels 2 & 3). If you want to explore additional diatonic chord progressions to use with Ionian mode, check out our Contemporary Progressions and Improv (Level 2, Level 3).
Great job, now let’s take a look at another mode.
The Lydian mode is the brightest of the musical modes. Film composers such as John Williams and Hans Zimmer frequently draw on the Lydian mode to create a sense of magic, mystery or hope. Therefore, Jonny calls it “The Magic Mode.”
An easy way to construct any Lydian scale is to start with a major scale and raise the 4th note a ½ step. This is called a “#4” for short. (However, keep in mind that if you are in a flat key like F major, raising the fourth tone a ½ step requires ♮ rather than a #.) For today’s lesson, we’ll look at C Lydian.
C Lydian Scale
While the #4 shortcut helps us quickly get the C Lydian scale from a C Major scale, this trick does not identify the parent scale for C Lydian. To find the parent scale, you must know that Lydian is the 4th mode of the major scale. Therefore, finding the parent scale for C Lydian requires some backwards thinking. You must ask and answer the following question: What major scale has the note C as scale tone 4? The answer is G major: G-A-B-C-D-E-F#. This is why C Lydian contains an F#.
If you are still learning your major scales or would like to review them, check out our Scales Reference Smartsheet.
Shortcut for Lydian Mode
- Major Scale with #4
- 4th Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on Major Chords
Chord Compatibility with Lydian Mode
Just like Ionian mode, Lydian mode also contains a major 2nd, major 3rd, major 6th and major 7th. Therefore C Lydian can be used to improvise over a C major triad as well as C6, C△7, C△9, C6/9 and C△13. In additional, the slash chord D/C is a staple Lydian polychord that sounds magical and dreamy.
C Lydian Chord Progression
To practice improvising with the Lydian scale, try the following chord progression which moves from a major 1-chord to a major 2-chord. In C Lydian, these chords are C major to D major.
To learn even more about the Lydian mode, including tips and tricks for improv, check out How to Improvise a Solo With the Lydian Mode (Level 2, Level 3).
There is one more mode that contains a major 3rd—the Mixolydian mode.
The Mixolydian mode is common in Blues and Rock music. Jonny describes it as “The Blues Mode” because its ♭7 gives it a bluesy aura. In fact, you can easily construct a Mixolydian scale simply by starting with a major scale and lowering the 7th (♭7 for short). Here is the scale for C Mixolydian.
C Mixolydian Scale
To find the parent scale for Mixolydian, you must know that it is the 5th mode of the major scale. Therefore, you must ask: What major scale has the note C as scale tone 5? The answer is F major: F-G-A-B♭-C-D-E. This is why C Mixolydian contains a B♭.
Shortcut for Mixolydian Mode
- Major Scale with ♭7
- 5th Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on Dominant Chords
Chord Compatibility with Mixolydian Mode
Mixolydian’s unique combination of a major 3rd and a ♭7 makes this mode perfect for improvising over Dominant chords including C7, C9 and C13. You can also use it to improv over Dominant “sus chords” such as C7(sus4), C9(sus4) and C13(sus4).
C Mixolydian Chord Progression
A great chord progression to improvise with the Mixolydian scale is: I–♭VII–IV. You will likely recognize the sound of this progression from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” In C Mixolydian, these chords are C–B♭–F. In this context, we will just use major triads—not dominant 7th chords. However, you should note that the B♭ major chord is derived directly from building a triad on the ♭7 scale tone.
For a deep dive on how to solo with the bluesy Mixolydian sound, check out our course entitled How to Improvise a Solo With the Mixolydian Mode (Level 2, Level 3).
The next section covers the four remaining modes, each of which have a minor 3rd.
Musical Modes with a Minor 3rd
The Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Locrian modes are grouped together in this section because they each contain a minor 3rd. As a result, these modes emanate tone colors of a darker spectrum. The Dorian, Aeolian and Phrygian modes contain both a minor 3rd and perfect 5th are are considered minor modes. By contrast, Locrian is the only mode to contain a diminished 5th above the tonic note. Consequently, some authors may opt to place Locrian in a category by itself.
Are you ready to play scales, chords and piano progressions for each of the musical modes containing a minor 3rd and learn to hear the difference?
Examples of Dorian mode occur in nearly ever genre of music. Because Dorian contains a minor 3rd (♭3 for short), it has a darker color than the major modes. However, Dorian also has a major 6th which makes for a unique combination of darkness and brightness. For example, the tonic chord in Dorian is a minor triad, but the 4-chord is a major triad. Film composers lean on this duality to create music that suggests haunting, uncertainty, longing or sadness. In addition, the Dorian sound is considerably less “poppy” than the major modes and is more common in folk music. Finally, modal jazz such as Miles Davis’ “So What” is another example of the Dorian sound.
The simplest way to construct a Dorian scale is to start with a major scale and modify it to contain ♭3 and ♭7 instead. Alternatively, if you are proficient with your natural minor scales, the Dorian mode is also like the natural minor scale, except with the 6th tone raised by a ½ step. Both methods will give you the C Dorian scale shown below. Since the Dorian sound is the most commonly used scale to improvise over minor chords in jazz music, Jonny calls Dorian “The Minor Mode.”
C Dorian Scale
To find the parent scale for Dorian, you must know that it is the 2nd mode of the major scale. Therefore, you must ask: What major scale has the note C as scale tone 2? The answer is B♭ major: B♭-C-D-E♭-F-G-A. This is why C Dorian contains a B♭ and an E♭.
Shortcut for Dorian Mode
- Major Scale with ♭3 and ♭7
- 2nd Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on Minor Chords
Chord Compatibility with Dorian Mode
The C Dorian scale works to improvise over a wide variety of C minor chord voicings shown below including a C minor triad, Cm7, Cm9, Cm11, Cm13, Cm6 and Cm6/9.
C Dorian Chord Progression
A great chord progression to get the Dorian sound in your ear is moving from a minor-1 chord to a major 4-chord. In C Dorian, these chords are Cm to F major.
To discover additional Dorian chord progressions and improv techniques, check out our full-length course on How to Improvise a Solo With the Dorian Mode (Level 2, Level 3).
The Aeolian musical mode is more commonly known to beginner piano students as the natural minor scale. Beginner students are taught that a natural minor scales shares a key signature with its relative major. Relative keys such as C major and A minor have different tonics but their modality is drawn from the same parent scale. However, another way is to construct the Aeolian mode is to start with a major scale and insert the ♭3, ♭6 and ♭7. Jonny calls Aeolian “The Superhero Mode” because action films like Batman and Spiderman use the Aeolian sound to underscore these fantasy worlds.
C Aeolian Scale
To find the parent scale for Aeolian, you must know that it is the 6th mode of the major scale. Therefore, ask yourself: What major scale has the note C as scale tone 6? The answer is E♭ major: E♭-F-G-A♭-B♭-C-D. This is why C Aeolian contains B♭, E♭ and A♭.
Shortcut for Aeolian Mode
- Major Scale with ♭3 , ♭6 and ♭7.
- 6th Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on Minor Chords
Chord Compatibility with Aeolian Mode
The C Aeolian scale works to improvise over several C minor chord types including a C minor triad, Cm7, Cm9 and Cm11. However, you should not combine C Aeolian in the right hand with chord voicings in the left hand that contain the ♮6 such as Cm13, Cm6 and Cm6/9.
C Aeolian Chord Progression
A common Aeolian chord progression is a minor-1 chord to a minor 4-chord. In C Aeolian, these chords are Cm to Fm.
To take a deep dive on the Aeolian sound, check out our full-length course on How to Improvise a Solo With the Aeolian Mode (Level 2, Level 3).
The Phrygian mode is a minor mode with a ♭2 scale degree. This distinct sound is commonly associated with middle eastern music. To construct a Phrygian scale, start with a major scale and insert the ♭2, ♭3, ♭6 and ♭7.
C Phrygian Scale
To find the parent scale for Phrygian, you must know that it is the 3rd mode of the major scale. Therefore, you should ask yourself: What major scale has the note C as scale tone 3? The answer is A♭ major: A♭-B♭-C-D♭-E♭-F-G. This is why C Phrygian contains B♭, E♭, A♭ and D♭.
Shortcut for Phrygian Mode
- Major Scale with ♭2, ♭3 , ♭6 and ♭7.
- 3rd Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on some Minor Chords
Chord Compatibility with Phrygian Mode
The C Phrygian scale works to improvise over several C minor chord types including a C minor triad and Cm7. However, the ♭2 (D♭) is generally used as a passing tone because of the built-in dissonance between the ♭2 and the root. In additional, the the slash chord D♭/C and the polychord D♭/Cm both epitomize the Phrygian sound.
C Phrygian Chord Progression
To practice improvising with the Phrygian scale, try using the following chord progression: Cm–Fm–D♭–Cm (i-iv-♭II-i).
The Locrian mode is the darkest of the musical modes. Locrian is unique in that it has a diminished tonic triad. Jonny appropriately calls Locrian “The Dark Mode.” To construct a Locrian scale, start with a major scale and insert the ♭2, ♭3, ♭5 ♭6 and ♭7.
C Locrian Scale
To find the parent scale for Locrian, you must know that it is the 7th mode of the major scale. Therefore, you should ask: What major scale has the note C as scale tone 7? The answer is D♭ major: D♭-E♭-F-G♭-A♭-B♭-C. This is why C Locrian contains B♭, E♭, A♭, D♭ and G♭.
Shortcut for Locrian Mode
- Major Scale with ♭2, ♭3 , ♭5, ♭6 and ♭7.
- 7th Mode of the Major Scale
- Works on Diminished Triads and Half-Diminished 7ths
Chord Compatibility with Locrian Mode
The C Locrian scale works to improvise over a C° triad, Cø7, Cm11 and Cø11.
C Locrian Chord Progression
To improvise with the C Locrian scale, use the following chord progression: Cø7–D♭–E♭m.
Congratulations! You’ve come to the end of today’s lesson on Piano Musical Modes—The Complete Guide. On behalf of the PWJ Team, we hope the samples in this lesson will allow you to taste and see the value of learning to hear and improvise on piano with musical modes.
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out our other in-depth guides:
- Diatonic Chords—The Complete Guide
- Piano Chords—The Definitive Guide
- Jazz Piano Chords—The Complete Guide
- Jazz Piano Chord Voicings—The Complete Guide
- Block Chords—The Complete Guide
- Piano Chord Substitution—The Complete Guide
- Tritone Substitution—The Complete Guide
- Jazz Scales—The Complete Guide
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Practice Guide
- The Beginner Jazz Piano Accompaniment Guide
- Jazz Piano Accompaniment—The Definitive Guide
- New Orleans Blues—The Complete Guide
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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