In the Scales section, we learned that a relative minor scale is just a Major scale that starts from the sixth degree and that by starting from a different note we alter the sequence of intervals and the resulting overall sound of the scale. Unfortunately, nobody can stop us from starting from each of the remaining five notes, finding five more relative scales, and complicating things in a big way.
These seven scales are collectively known as the Seven Modes and they get their fancy names from ancient Greece and their sound from medieval chant music (two millennia of music history in four words…) and they are the topic of a lot of discussion and misunderstanding on online theory forums: some see them as an unnecessary complication, some see them as the key to all playing and improvising and some think they will never understand them.
So, why even bother?
Every mode has its distinct sound and mood, it’s like expanding our sonic palette with new colors, we can use them over specific progressions or over a simple bass line or sparse chords that allow different harmonic interpretations and we can use them in any style, from Classical to Rock to Jazz and Blues. Pretty powerful stuff.
One simple way to hear them in action is to play any white key on the piano as a bass note and play a melody over it, trying to use every note in the C Major scale and then change the bass note to another white key and play over it. You will notice that even the same melody will sound different as you change the bass note and sometimes it will sound major and sometimes minor so let’s start by dividing the Modes into those two categories.
The first Major mode is Ionian, the same scale we knew as just ‘the Major Scale’. It is also the source of the other six modes, the collection of the seven notes we will use to build them and we will often say that (for example) GMixolydian is the fifth mode of C Major, G being the fifth note (or degree) in the C Major scale.
The characteristic notes that define the Ionian mode’s sound are the major third (it’s a Major scale) and the major 7th.
Looking at the interval's sequence, we see that there are only two more degrees that will generate major 3rd intervals from the root (a sequence of two whole tones) and therefore Major scales.
The first one starts from the 4th degree and we will call it Lydian.
The fourth degree is the only note that changes from the Ionian mode and you can see the sequence of three whole tones in a row that generates an Augmented 4th interval giving this mode its suspended and slightly sophisticated sound.
Try to visualize this sequence on the fretboard, Lydian shapes will all start with a ‘space’, a fret, between eavh of the first four notes.
The second scale degree that will produce a major scale is the fifth and we will call this mode Mixolydian.
Comparing the intervals with the Major scale, we see that, in this case, the only different note is the seventh which is minor, this lends the mode almost a ‘bluesy’ sound, a different kind of suspension that reminds us of the dominant seventh chord. This is not a surprise since the dominant chord is also built on the 5th degree and shares the same intervals: you could say that a Mode is the ‘linear’ counterpart of the chord built on the same scale degree.
In fact, the difference between the chord built on the first degree (Major 7th or Maj) and on the fifth (dominant 7th) is the major or minor 7th.
In the case of the Lydian mode, to see the difference we have to extend the chords to the 11th (or 4th, if you want).
Going back to the Mixolydian mode, take notice of the whole tone interval between the seventh and the octave that will help you to memorize shapes on the fretboard.
Now take a deep breath and get ready to tackle the four minor Modes.