Music Theory Tips: Using the Major Modes in Contemporary Styles

Following on from his article on how modes are constructed, Matt Vanacoro explains how you can utilize the major modes in your improvisation and melodic compositions. Music theory made easy.  

A few weeks ago, we took a ‘top down’ look at all of the modes and how they are constructed. I shared a basic idea of what the modes are, how they are constructed, and how they are commonly grouped. In this article, I’ll be showing you how to utilize the major modes in your improvisation and melodic composition.

Ionian

D major could also be called D Ionian mode.

D major could also be called D Ionian mode.

Ionian mode is the major scale. It’s the typical do-re-mi formation of notes, and I’m sure you’re already familiar with it. When constructing melodies and improvising with it, you’ll want to utilize the key points of the scale to create tension. The root, third, fifth, and sixth degrees of the scale are great places to match up with the associated major chord. The second and seventh degrees will be a little more dissonant, and the fourth degree of the scale will typically be the weakest. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t use them, just be aware that they will sit outside of the box a little bit.

Lydian

By raising the 4th note of the scale, you turn D major into D Lydian.

By raising the 4th note of the scale, you turn D major into D Lydian.

To get out of the box a bit, raise the 4th note of the major scale to turn it into Lydian mode. This raised 4th will do a few things for you. It will take that weaker 4th note and turn it into one that really stands out of the crowd! It will also give you another leading tone into a powerful note. As I’ve already mentioned, note number 5 is a good one to start or resolve a phrase onto, and now you have the added bonus of being able to use that #4 scale degree to resolve to the 5th scale degree. Whenever you have a half step between notes, you can create a powerful resolution! Lydian will work great over just about any major chord. 

Mixolydian

By lowering the 7th degree of the scale, you turn D major into D Mixolydian.

By lowering the 7th degree of the scale, you turn D major into D Mixolydian.

Mixolydian is a bit more commonplace in modern rock music. Take a major scale, flat the 7th note, and you’ve got mixolydian. This will allow you to have a scale to improvise or write melodies over dominant seventh chords. A song where you previously may have used the blues scale can sound a little more sophisticated with mixolydian. There is a little more ‘risk’ involved as you’ve got some of those weaker notes like the 2nd and 4th in there, but there is also a lot more ‘reward’ potential. You can craft a melody that uses those notes as passing tones and truly make your solo/melody ‘match’ the chord structure a bit more. Experiment with mixolydian over any dominant 7th chord and try to create some melodies with ‘hooks’!

Bonus Feature

By lowering the 7th degree AND raising the 4th degree you get Lydian Dominant! Woot!

By lowering the 7th degree AND raising the 4th degree you get Lydian Dominant! Woot!

You’ve made it to the end of a music theory article, you deserve a reward! You can combine lydian and mixolydian into a bit of a ‘franken-scale’ called Lydian Dominant. This is a great scale to use over a dominant 7th chord when you don’t want to be all ‘mainstream’ and just use mixolydian. You can also use it over a simple major chord as long as the major 7th isn't involved. It’s the most dissonant of the 4 scales I’ve mentioned here, but that also means it has the potential to be the most fun! 

Next Time On…

I hope you’re having fun experimenting with these modes and creating some truly fun melodies and solos. Next month, I’ll talk about the minor modes and when to use them. See you then!

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

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