A first look at minor modes

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What you need to know to start making a mode sound “right”

Us guitarists are fascinated with scales, and chords.  But how well do we know to use a scale (mode) to best effect?

My previous blog dived into that, discussing a concept known as tonality, which is critical to helping bring out the sound flavour of any scale (mode).  This blog builds on that one.  If you’ve been playing awhile, you almost certainly know how to do this with major and minor, though probably led by ear (which is great) and from listening to how others improvise with these scales.  However  the sooner that you appreciate how to use this very simple concept, the more musical you will sound using the notes (your sound palette) in any mode.  Tonality is discussed briefly in this following video as well.


Deriving modal scales from the parent major scale

(The same way that we can write music in the keys of C major and E major etc, or keys in C minor and E minor etc, with C and E as the respective tonal centres, so we can with the modes)

The video above shows how the minor modes are derived from the major scale (namely aeolian (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7), dorian (1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7) and phrygian (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7).  It also includes an example of moving through all the modes of the major scale, apart from Locrian, but using E as the tonal centre  of each of these modes, so you can hear the difference.    The musical device used for this is playing the two major triads that are found two semitones apart in each of these modes.  For example, in major, these are rooted at the 4 and 5 of the scale (in E major, A and B major triads), whereas in mixolydian, these are rooted at the b7 and 1 of that scale (in the key of E mixolydian, these are D and E).

The tab is given below, including a download link for the pdf.

Relative Modes

When the modes have been derived from their parent major scale, they must all have the same notes, and we call these the “relative modes” (of the major scale).


Parallel modes

The video, and the example “March of the modes” played in it, and tabbed below, demonstrated the different modes all starting of the same tonal centre, E in this case.  The same way we can have different keys using the major scale, such as G major, or C major, so we can have different keys using the modes, such as G Dorian or C Dorian.  We just build the appropriate intervals for that scale (the mode) from whatever tonal centre we choose.

For example, we may want to work with the tonal centre of C.  By definition, C major and C Dorian (say) have some different notes, as the intervals are different between major and dorian.  C Dorian has a b3 (3 semitones above C), so it has an Eb in it.  It also has a b7 (10 semitones above C), so it has a Bb.  Where C major has a 3 (major 3rd, 4 semitones), E, and a 7 (major 7th, 11 semitones), B.


All the modes derived from the major scale all have identical notes to the parent major scale, and hence identical chordsSo what makes these modes have different sound flavours?  That’s where tonality comes in … which of the seven notes is given the most priority in each of the derived modes.  This is why A aeolian and C major sound completely different, even though the notes are identical.  In A aeolian A gets the most priority , while C gets the most priority in C.   Since the prioritised note is the centre of the musical activity, we hear the other scale notes as making intervals with the prioritised note.

For example, the first few pitches of C major are C D E F.   When creating music in the key of C major, C is the most important pitch (the tonal centre).  So we hear F as making an interval of 5 semitones with C.  One of the modes of major makes the second scale note (D, in the key of C major) the most important.  In this case, we here F as making an interval of 3 semitones with D.  Try repeating C Fmaj7 several times.  Then try repeating Dm Fmaj7 several times.  It’s a very different effect.


Tab for the chords demonstrating the different modes in the video

PDF for tab.



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