Modes: A Friendly Guide

Pianote  /  Scales and Keys  /  Dec 18, 2023

Modes. Just saying the word makes plenty of music students run for the hills. But modes don’t have to be confusing; they can be explained in several ways and they’re super useful, especially if you play jazz and/or want to improvise. In this lesson, we’ll explain what are modes in music in simple language. And we hope you walk away excited about modes—because they’re pretty neat!

🎹 Your Go-To Place for All Things Piano

Get exclusive interviews, fascinating articles, and inspiring lessons delivered straight to your inbox. Unsubscribe at any time

By signing up you’ll also receive our ongoing free lessons and special offers. Don’t worry, we value your privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time.

What Are Modes in Music? Modes vs. Scales

Okay, so what are modes in the first place? You may have heard of modes explained alongside scales, and the two concepts are closely related. In short:

  • A scale is a sequence of notes organized by a certain pattern.
  • A mode is a scale arranged into a different sequence.

This might make more sense with examples. So, let’s take C major.

The C major scale

  • Is a sequence of notes that start and end on C.
  • These notes are organized by the following pattern of whole and half steps: W-W-H-W-W-W-H.
  • Is C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.
Keyboard labelled with C major scale notes.

The Dorian mode

  • Is an arrangement of a scale in which you play the scale starting and ending on its second note.
  • The C major scale in Dorian mode, D Dorian, is therefore D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D.
What are modes in music? Keyboard with C major C to D labelled and notes D to D highlighted in red, bracketed as "Dorian Mode."

Here’s a table of the seven modes understood in the context of C major. Notice that each mode is named after the first note that appears in its sequence, followed by a Greek name.

C IonianC-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
D DorianD-E-F-G-A-B-C-D
E PhrygianE-F-G-A-B-C-D-E
F LydianF-G-A-B-C-D-E-F
G MixolydianG-A-B-C-D-E-F-G
A AeolianA-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
B LocrianB-C-D-E-F-G-A-B
Wait, isn’t Ionian and Aeolian just the major and minor scales? Yep! Ionian is just another, fancier way to name the standard major scale. And Aeolian is another way to refer to the natural minor of that scale.

This is what modes are in a nutshell. If you’re lost, consider reviewing scale and chord concepts with these lessons:

Ways to Understand Modes

It’s important to know that modes can be understood in a number of ways, depending on what you’re doing.

The Parent Scale Method

In the first section, we described modes as different ways (“modes”!) to play a scale. Because there are seven notes in the C major scale, there are seven ways (“modes”!) to play that scale because we can start and end on any of those notes.

Knowing this, say you are given this mode: D Mixolydian. How do we play this mode?

Since the name of this mode is “D” Mixolydian, we know that we’ll start and end the sequence on D. Easy! 

But what about “Mixolydian”? Scroll back to the table in the previous section and count: you’ll see that Mixolydian is the fifth mode. This means we should treat D as the fifth note of a parent scale.

In which scale is D the fifth note? If you answered G major, that’s correct! This means we’ll use G major’s key signature in our D-to-D sequence. If you did this all correctly, you’ll land on this:

D Mixolydian Mode


D Mixolydian mode (D to D with F#) higlighted in red on a keyboard with an arrow pointing to G indicating parent scale.

The Altered Scale Method

The parent scale method is easy to understand, but it’s less useful when playing music in real-time. If you’re faced with “E-flat Lydian” or “C Locrian,” it can be time-consuming to calculate what notes to play using the parent scale method.

Some musicians believe you should understand modes as alterations made to a major scale. For example, see “C Mixolydian” as “how do we alter the degrees of the C major scale” rather than “what is C Mixolydian’s parent scale’s key signature.” This method keeps you mentally situated on “C” as the tonal center or first note of the sequence, which is where you want to be when improvising.

ModeAlterations to ScaleNotes
C Ionian1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1
No alterations. Same thing as the major scale.
C Dorian1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7-1C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C
C Phrygian1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-1C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C
C Lydian1-2-3-#4-5-6-7-1C-D-E-F#-G-A-B-C
C Mixolydian1-2-3-4-5-6-b7-1C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C
C Aeolian1-2-b3-4-5-b6-b7-1
Same thing as the natural minor scale.
C Locrian1-b2-b3-4-b5-b6-b7-1C-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-Bb-C

Which method is better? That’s largely up to you. If you’re already super familiar with keys and key signatures (looking at you, classical pianists!), understanding modes using the parent scale method may be quicker.

But if you’re coming at scales fresh, or don’t mind memorizing, the altered scale method may be right for you. Jazz musicians may find this method more helpful in the context of improvisation.

How to USE Modes (The Chord-Scale Relationship)

So, what are modes used for, anyway? Why go through the trouble of memorizing all these funny words and formulas?!

Well, modes can be useful when improvising over chords.

Let’s take a look at the chord-scale relationship.

Psst…Scales are actually chords!

Scales and chords are actually kind of the same thing! Take the C major triad, for example: C-E-G. Now, stack another third to get the Cmaj7 chord: C-E-G-B. 

Then, stack another third, and another third… And soon, you’ve stacked all the notes of C major into one chord:

Cmaj13 = C-E-G-B-D-F-A ← All the notes of the C major scale!

In other words, you can safely play any combination of notes from the C major scale over the Cmaj13 chord. And if you see a Cmaj13 on a lead sheet, you can think to yourself, “Oh, I can play C major over this.”

Play THIS Mode Over THAT Chord

The same concept can be applied to modes. You can play certain modes over certain chords that are similar to them. And this is a handy way to always sound good.

A good example is C7 (C-E-G-Bb). What mode has these notes? If you answered C Mixolydian, you’re correct! C Mixolydian has a flat 7th (Bb) which makes it fit nicely with a C7 chord.

Keyboard with C Mixolydian highlighted in red and labelled, with C7 chord notes listed underneath: C E G B flat.

Here are some modes that go well with certain chords. See if you can find what they have in common.

ModeNotes (Play these…)Chords (…over these!)
C IonianC-D-E-F-G-A-BC, C6, Cmaj7, Cmaj9, Cmaj11, Cmaj13
C DorianC-D-Eb-F-G-A-BbCm, Cm6, Cm7, Cm9, Cm11, Cm13
C PhrygianC-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab-BbCm, Cmb6, Cm7, Db/C
C LydianC-D-E-F#-G-A-BC, Cmaj6, Cmaj7, Cmaj9, Cmaj#11, Cmaj13#11, D7/C
C MixolydianC-D-E-F-G-A-BbC, C6, C7, C9, C11, C13
C AeolianC-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-BbCm, Cm7, Cm9, Cm11
C LocrianC-Db-Eb-F-Gb-Ab-BbCm7b5, Db/C, Cdim

If you know your modes well, you can use them to solo over chord progressions. Try playing these modes over this jazz progression:

Dm7D Dorian, D Phrygian, D Aeolian
G7G Mixolydian
Cmaj7C Ionian, C Lydian

The Sound of Modes

Modes serve another purpose: mood. Each mode has a distinct flavor and songwriters take advantage of this to convey unique atmospheres with their songs. For example, Lydian is associated with a “bright” and “pretty” sound. Meanwhile, Phrygian and Dorian are “darker.” Locrian is a bit of an odd mode; thanks to its association with diminished chords, it sounds rather sinister.

Modes can be found all over pop music. Here are some song examples of each mode. Listen to these songs to get a sense of the mode’s mood.

Ionian“Let It Be” by the Beatles and lots of other songs.
Dorian“Mad World” by Tears for Fears
Phrygian“HUMBLE.” by Kendrick Lamar
Lydian“Yoda’s Theme” by John Williams
Mixolydian“Clocks” by Coldplay
Aeolian“Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers and lots of other songs.
Locrian“Army of Me” by Björk

These song suggestions are thanks to our friend David Bennett, who makes awesome music theory videos on YouTube. He’s made a video about songs in each mode. Check them out!

We hope this clears up your understanding of modes. If you’d like more guidance with your music journey, consider becoming a Pianote Member. You’ll get coached by real teachers and world-class pianists. And you can take guitar, drum, and vocal lessons too!

🎹 Join the Musora Family

Your musical journey starts today: try Pianote and get access to drum, vocal, and guitar lessons too!

Pianote is the Ultimate Online Piano Lessons Experience™. Learn at your own pace, get expert lessons from real teachers and world-class pianists, and join a community of supportive piano players. Learn more about becoming a Member.

Headshot of woman with short platinum hair against a studio background.

The easiest way to learn beautiful piano chords.
Sign up for 5 FREE play-along lessons

By signing up you’ll also receive our ongoing free lessons and special offers. Don’t worry, we value your privacy and you can unsubscribe at any time.