Musical Theory 101: the Seven Modes of the Major Scale

Knowledge of scales are very important to any musician wishing to improvise over chord changes. Such knowledge will allow him to understand what scales to associate to different chords. This article focuses on the modes of the major scale, and how to use them. You can learn more in Mark Levine's excellent manual entitled The Jazz Theory Book.

Important notice

This Factoidz article is destined for readers who prefer reading about music in terms of traditional notation. For guitar players who prefer using the musical notation known as ‘tablature,’ or TAB, I have written another article, entitled 'Guitar Theory 201: TABs of the Seven Modes of the Major Scale.' However, I strongly recommend readers who are strictly limited to using TAB to learn how to decipher traditional notation, as this can help one understand how music works.

A knowledge of scales is important to any musician who wishes to understand how a melody relates to chord changes. Such knowledge will allow one to understand what scales to associate and 'work' with different chords. This article focuses on the modes of the major scale, and how to use them. You can learn more in Mark Levine's excellent manual entitled The Jazz Theory Book.

The modes of the major scale can be understood as the particular starting note of a given scale. Major scales have seven notes, therefore there are seven modes. For example, by playing the seven notes of the C (do) major scale, starting on the third note, E (mi), one would in fact be playing the C (do) major scale in its third mode, known as E (mi) Phrygian. The alterations are those of the C (do) major scale, but the starting note is in fact the third note of the scale. To learn more about the origin and history of modes, I recommend this excellent Wikipedia article.

Hence, there are seven different major scales for each note. Here is a diagram with the seven modes of the C (do) major scale and their corresponding chords (click here for an audio example):

Chart 1

  The Seven Modes of the C (do) Major Scale Corresponding Chord
I

C Ionian - Cmaj7

Cmaj7

II

D Dorian - D-7

 

D-7

III

E Phrygian - E-7

 

E-7

IV

F Lydian - Fmaj7#4

Fmaj7

V

G Mixolydian - G7

G7

VI

A Aeolian - A-7

A-7

VII

B Locrian - B half-diminished

B half-diminished

The chords are created by assembling the tonic, third, fifth and seventh of each scale. Hence, when reading a B (si) half-diminished chord on a chart, for example, one may play the scale of B (si) Locrian (which corresponds to the scale of C [do]). More commonly, when reading a G7 (sol7) chord, one may play the scale of G (sol) Mixolydian (which also corresponds to the scale of C [do]).

In this way, there are seven modes for every note in the western chromatic scale. By learning how and when to play each of the seven modes for all twelve major scales, one will in fact have acquired a vocabulary of 84 major scales.  Other modes, such as that of the melodic minor scale, also exist, but that will be the topic of another article.

A good exercise for one who wishes to learn all seven modes is to play all of them while starting on the same note. The following example features all seven modes starting on C (do), as well as the related major scale:

Chart 2

  The Seven Modes in C (do) Chord Major Scale
I

C Ionian - Cmaj7

 

Cmaj7

C
II

C Dorian - C-7

 

C-7

Bb
III

C Phrygian - C-7

 

C-7

Ab
IV

C Lydian - Cmaj7#4

Cmaj7

G
V

C Mixolydian - C7

C7

F
VI

C Aeolian - C-7

C-7

Eb
VII

C Locrian - C half-diminished

C half-diminished

Db

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Lorena Williams
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Posted on Oct 2, 2009