Confused about what music modes are and how they sound? Don't worry. In this article, we will cover the seven essential modes to streamline your workflow and create the sound you want. With explanations of each mode and examples from music, you will both understand and hear how they sound, giving you context to their characteristics and feel.
What Are Music Modes?
A music mode is a collection of notes following a distinct order that all work in harmony. Sounds familiar? Well, if you haven’t guessed it – music scales and modes are pretty similar in how to use them.
Music modes go way back. When a medieval king wanted to hear a jolly tune from a lute in Middle Age times, the songs were fueled and guided by music modes. And to this day, they continue to influence the music that we listen to today.
How To Apply Music Modes
The foundation of music modes stems from interval sequences; meaning the difference in pitch between two sounds, or the number of steps up your piano roll between all the notes. In the seven different music modes, you will find different intervals you can follow to find the notes to play in each mode.
In this article, we will include the different interval sequences of each mode, which lets you create modes from any key you desire.
For simplicity, we use two letters to map out the sequence:
- W = a whole tone (whole-step)
- H = a semitone (half step)
But what do a whole and half step mean?
Whole Step (W)
A whole step between notes on a piano roll means going to the next key, which can either be one or two semitones up, depending on if the black (sharp) keys on your piano are accounted for.
- A whole step from the C note is D
- A whole step from the D note is E
Half Step (H)
A half step between notes on a piano roll means going to the next key, including the black ones on your piano roll.
- A half step from the C note is C#
- A half step from the E note is F (no black keys)
When following the music modes and their interval sequences below, you can start at any note you want and simply go up according to the steps.
For instance, when following this sequence:
An example (which we’ll cover right after this) can be the notes C–D–E–F–G–A–B–C, which forms the C major scale, or Ionian mode.
Starting with the first of our modes is Ionian. This mode is probably the most heard-of in all songs and music-related efforts.
Are you familiar with the C major chord? Well, Ionian is the foundation for it. The modern major scale. Not much else to say.
C Ionian example:
How Ionian Mode Sounds
In basic music theory, we learn that minor chords sound sad while chords in major sound happy. Modes and scales take this knowledge a step deeper, but as Ionian is the ground for modern major chords – Ionian sounds, you guessed it – happy. Very happy, even. It’s a mode to use when you want to convey a happy-go and worry-free emotion, perfect for pop and other genres.
The second mode is called Dorian, following a different interval sequence – and notes, as a result. Commonly used in many famous tracks, it’s also a music mode popular in film scores, creating soundtracks that both sound massive and intriguing.
D Dorian example:
How Dorian Mode Sounds
The Dorian mode is very similar to D minor, which sounds rather sad. But even though it sounds a bit sad, there’s still hope of something better to come. Like a gloomy, rainy day where things have gone pretty bad, but in the distance, you see far-off promises of the glimmering sun (while just ordering a pizza which you know is about to arrive)
The third mode has another Greek sounding name – Phrygian. However, worth mentioning is that these names are, in fact, Greek. Anyways, climb up one whole step from the D in Dorian and venture from E to E. That’s your E Phrygian, the metal counterpart of the previous modes more positive attitudes.
E Phrygian example:
How Phrygian Mode Sounds
The Phrygian mode is dark. On the brightness scale – it conveys a worrying presence of doom with a dash of gloom. Popular in metal music, it's the mode that many distorted black metal guitar riffs play in, giving you a nice sense of despair (if you’re into that sort of stuff.)
Say hello to the fourth music mode, Lydian, the favorite of renowned rock stars like Steve Vai and film composers worldwide. Known for its ability to bring mystery and an uplift to the heavens, it’s no wonder many movie soundtracks embrace this music mode.
F Lydian example:
How Lydian Mode Sounds
When you want a sound that’s dreamy, heaven-like, and mysterious, while still keeping the happy and quirky harmonics, the Lydian is the way to go.
Moving on through our list of seven music modes, we have number five – Mixolydian, used by everyone from Grateful Dead (Dark Star) and Lynyrd Skynyrd (Sweet Home Alabama) to Bob Dylan (Lay Lady Lay.) As if that wasn’t enough of a clue, this mode is prevalent in pop and rock music.
G Mixolydian example:
How Mixolydian Mode Sounds
The Mixolydian mode morphs happiness with a more serious tone. As you will hear in the song examples above, the music makes you feel good, but still keeps you on your toes. It makes you think, which is why many psychedelic artists love this type of sound, like the Grateful Dead.
Our sixth Aeolian mode is identical to the natural minor scale, making it naturally sad sounding. This is a widespread mode among musicians with more heartbreaking songs in natural minor.
A Aeolian example:
How Aeolian Mode Sounds
There’s not much to say here other than the fact that Aeolian sounds sad. Take a listen to R.E.M. (Losing My Religion) or the song below, and you’ll understand what we mean.
Our last and final music mode, Locrian mode, is sadly the least used of all, conveying pure evil and darkness. However, recorded uses are mostly in obscure metal genres, looking to take the listener deeper into heaviness. There are also some examples in classical music, and you can listen to one of them below.
B Locrian example:
How Locrian Mode Sounds
Plain and simple, Locrian sounds evil, it sounds dark. It makes your hair stand on your back and is why mainly metal bands swear by it. If you're into making evil-sounding and dark music, this can work in your favor to give your track an added sense of malevolence.
To Sum Up
Music modes don't seem too complicated now, right? We'll admit, music theory can be a bit of a pain to understand and learn. There’s a lot of information to make sense of.
Luckily, like math, music has a fairly logical system once you get down in the deep stuff. And once you understand music theory, including the seven different modes, you have roadmaps to the exact type of music you want.
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Thanks for reading, and see you in the next article.
About the author
Pelle Sundin is a Swedish music producer and writer, active with his chillout project PLMTRZ. He also produces psytrance. When he's not producing, he surfs, skates, and chugs coffee.