Music Theory Tips: Learning Modes for Improvisation and Production

If you're feeling stuck in the major, minor and pentatonic scales box when composing or playing, consider investigating modes. Matt Vanacoro explains how modes can transform your music.  

Modes can be an intimidating topic of conversation for musicians not used to improvising or taking solos. Getting started with modes might be a scary prospect for some but don’t worry—I’m going to make this easy and you’ll be ripping some incredibly creative riffs using modes in no time! This is the first in a series of articles designed to get you ‘out of the box’ of major, minor, and pentatonic scales and out into the glorious world of modal tonality.

What Are Modes?

A mode is a type of scale. Chances are, you already know two of them. The major scale and the minor scale are actually Ionian and Aeolian mode. There are seven different modes in Western music and they are as follows: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Using some modes outside the typical major/minor scale can help jumpstart your inspiration and create some truly unique riffs. Each of these modes has a different sound, and can produce different melodic characteristics. Building chords on each of these modes can also yield different tonal colors and fun or unexpected chord progressions.

What exactly is expected, then? Well, let’s start with Ionian and Aeolian. Ionian (the major scale) gives you a half step between steps 3 and 4. You’ll get another half step between steps 7 and 8. It’s part of what gives us that classic ‘do-re-mi’ sound, (that and Julie Andrews). In addition to the typical major scale sound, we also get the major scale tonality. The first, fourth, and fifth chords in this mode are major—and you can build a heck of a lot of rock songs with them. If you start in the key of C and play a chord on each scale degree, 1 through 7, you’ll get C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor, and B diminished as your chord options for this key. 

C major diatonic chords.

C major diatonic chords.

If you start on the note A and build a natural minor scale, you’ll be working in the Aeolian mode. Build a chord on every note in the A minor scale and you’ll wind up with A minor, B diminished, C major, D minor, E minor, F major, and G major. In this case, you’ll see that chords number 1, 4, and 5 are minor. It’s a big difference from the Ionian (major) mode, and different chords will ‘feel’ like they want to go to different places.

A minor diatonic chords.

A minor diatonic chords.

Which of These Things Is Not Like the Other?

Most musicians learn the major and minor scales early into their musical education. That’s one of the reasons I chose to start with those 2 modes. It’s not the only reason, however. The Ionian and Aeolian modes can be considered the standards from which other modes can be compared. In this line of thinking, the remaining modes can be divided into 2 categories: the major modes and the minor modes. If a mode sounds ‘close’ to the major scale with just a couple of modifications, it’s considered a major mode. If it sounds closer to the minor scale, then it’s a minor mode. Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian all have major 3rds between notes 1 and 3 so therefore they are considered major modes. Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian all have minor 3rds between notes 1 and 3 so they are minor modes.

What’s Next?

In the next article in this series, I will show you how to utilize the major modes to improvise in a variety of contemporary styles. We’ll look at those 3 modes and see how they can be used to create melodies that are catchy, memorable, and (most importantly) different!

Read the next article in this series: Using the Major Modes in Contemporary Styles.

Learn more about music theory in these video courses at AskVideo!


Matt Vanacoro is one of New York's premier musicans. Matt has collaborated as a keyboardist in studio and on stage with artists such as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Mark Wood (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Mark Rivera (Billy Joel Band), Aaron Carter, Amy Regan, Jay Azzolina, Marcus Ratzenboeck (Tantric), KeKe Palmer, C-Note, Jordan Knig... Read More


Want to join the discussion?

Create an account or login to get started!