Musical mode

This article is about modes as used in music. For other meanings of the word mode, see mode.

In music, a mode is an ordered series of musical intervals, which, along with the key or tonic define the pitches. However, mode is usually used in the sense of scale applied only to the specific diatonic scales found below.



The early music of Greek antiquity referred to scales in the context of scalar modes. The modes are named after cities that preferred a given mode in times past. The Greek philosopher Plato felt that playing music in a particular mode would incline one towards specific behavior associated with that mode, and suggested that soldiers should listen to music in dorian or phrygian modes to help make them stronger, but avoid music in lydian or ionian modes, for fear of being softened.

The Greek modes were:

There is a common misconception that the Church modes of medieval European music were directly descended from this notion of modality. In fact, the church modes originated in the 9th century. Authors from that period misinterpreted a text by Boethius, a scholar from the 6th century who had translated the Greek musical theory into Latin. In the 16th century, the Swiss theorist Henricus Glareanus published Dodekachordon, in which he solidified the concept of the church modes, and added four additional modes: the Aeolian, Hypoaeolian, Ionian, and Hypoionian. Thus, the names of the modes used today do not actually reflect those used by the Greeks. However, the use and conception of modes or modality today is also different from their use and conception in Early music. Jim Samson (1977, p.148) describes: "Clearly any comparison of medieval and modern modality would recognize that the latter takes place against a background of some three centuries of harmonic tonality, permitting, and in the nineteenth century requiring, a dialogue between modal and diatonic prodedure."

Early music made heavy use of the Church modes. A mode indicated a primary pitch or final and the organization of pitches in relation to the final, and suggested range, melodic formulas associated with different modes, location and importance of cadences, and affect (ie, emotional affect). As Liane Curtis (1998) explains, "Modes should not be equated with scales: principles of melodic organization, placement of cadences, and emotional affect are essential parts of modal content," in Medieval and Renaissance music.

Carl Dahlhaus (1990, p.192) lists "three factors that form the respective starting points for the modal theories of Aurelian of Réôme, Hermannus Contractus, and Guido of Arezzo:

  1. the relation of modal formulas to the comprehensive system of tonal relationships embodied in the diatonic scale;
  2. the partitioning of the octave into a modal framework; and
  3. the function of the modal final as a relational center."

The oldest medieval treatise regarding modes is Musica disciplina by Aurelian of Réôme while Hermannus Contractus was the first to define modes as partitionings of the octave (ibid, p.192-191).

However, the modes were later organized due to their relationship to the interval pattern of the major scale. The modern conception of modal scales describes a system where each mode is the usual diatonic scale, but with a different starting note. Modes came back into favour some time later in the development of jazz (modal jazz) and more contemporary 20th century music. Much folk music is also composed or best analysed in terms of modes. For example, in Irish traditional music the ionian, dorian, aeolian and mixolydian modes occur (in roughly decreasing order of frequency); the phrygian mode is an important part of the flamenco sound.

Some works by Beethoven contain modal inflections, and Chopin, Berlioz, and Liszt made extensive use of modes. They influenced nineteenth century Russian music, Mussorgsky and Borodin influenced Claude Debussy, Leos Janacek, and other twentieth century nationalists. Zoltán Kodály, Holst, Manuel de Falla use modal elements as modifications of a diatonic background, while Debussy and Bela Bartok modality replaces diatonic tonality. (Samson 1977)

While all tonal music may be described as modal, music that is labeled modal most often has less diatonic functionality and changes key less often.

Church modes

The eight Church modes, or Gregorian modes, can be divided into four pairs, where each pair shares the "final note" or tonic. Most chants in a particular mode will begin on the mode's final note, and all are expected to end on that note. The pair also shares the central five notes of the scale. If the "scale" is completed by adding the three upper notes, the mode is termed "authentic", while if the scale is completed by adding the three lower notes, the mode is called "plagal" (serious).

The pairs are organized so that the modes sharing a final note are numbered together, with the odd numbers used for the authentic modes and the even numbers for the plagal modes.

In addition, each mode has a "dominant" or "reciting tone" which is the tenor of the psalm tone. The reciting tones of all authentic modes began a fifth above the final, with those of the plagal modes a third above. However, the reciting tones of modes 3, 4, and 8 rose one step during the tenth and eleventh centuries with 3 and 8 moving from b to c' (half step) and that of 4 moving from g to a (whole step). (Hoppin 1978, p.67)

Only one accidental is permitted in classical Gregorian chant -- si (B) may be lowered by a half-step. This usually (but not always) occurs in modes V and VI, and is optional in other modes.

Finalre (D)re (D)mi (E)mi (E)fa (F)fa (F)sol (G)sol (G)
Dominantla (A)fa (F)si-do (B-C)la (A)do (C)la (A)re (D)do (C)

Given the confusion between ancient, Early, and modern terminology, "today it is more consistent and practical to use the traditional designation of the modes with numbers one to eight," (Curtis 1998) using Roman numeral (I-VIII), rather than using the pseudo-Greek naming system.

Missing image
The eight musical modes. f indicates "final" (Curtis, 1998).

Use of the modes

It is important to realize that the "theory" of the Gregorian modes postdates the composition of the early Gregorian chant repetoire. Primitive chants do not appear to have been composed with the desire to fit them into a particular mode. As a result, for these chants, the application of a mode number can be only approximate. Later chants, however, were written with a conscious eye on the eight modes.

Interpretation of the modes

Various interpretations of the "character" imparted by the different modes have been suggested. Three such interpretations, from Guido D'Arezzo (995-1050), Adam of Fulda (1445-1505), and Juan de Espinoza Medrano (1632-1688), follow:

ModeD'Arezzo FuldaEspinozaExample chant
Iseriousany feelinghappy, taming the passionsVeni sancte spiritus (listen)
IIsadsadserious and tearfulIesu dulcis amor meus (listen)
IIImysticvehementinciting angerKyrie, fons bonitatis (listen)
IVharmonioustenderinciting delights, tempering fiercenessConditor alme siderum (listen)
VhappyhappyhappySalve Regina (listen)
VIdevoutpioustearful and piousUbi caritas (listen)
VIIangelicalof youthuniting pleasure and sadnessIntroibo (listen)
VIIIperfectof knowledgevery happyAd cenam agni providi (listen)

Modern modes

The major and minor modes

Three of the modes are major, while four of them are minor. One of the minor modes is considered theoretical rather than practical. A mode is said to be minor if the 3rd scale degree is flattened.

Major modes

Minor modes

Mode characteristics

Each mode has a characteristic scale degree and certain harmonic structures that give each its distinctive sound.

  • The Lydian mode has a raised fourth, which creates a iv diminished, vii minor, and a II major chord. The theme song from the TV show The Simpsons is written in the Lydian mode.
  • The Ionian mode has a V7 chord, and is the only mode where the V7 occurs naturally. Most common songs, including such simple classics as "Happy Birthday" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," are in the Ionian mode.
  • The Mixolydian mode has a flat 7th degree; this creates a I7, a v minor, and a VII major chord. There is also a iii dim chord, but it is not used extensively in modal compositions. The Beatles song "Norwegian Wood" and the ABBA Song "The Visitors" are in mixolydian mode.
  • The Dorian mode has a characteristic raised sixth, which produces a major IV chord and a minor II chord. "What shall we do with the drunken sailor" is in the Dorian mode.
  • The Aeolian mode has a flat six and seven; its characteristic chords are the minor iv and v chords. There is a subtle distinction between an Aeolian modal composition and a composition in a minor key, because the sixth and seventh degrees in a minor key can be altered to create major IV and V chords. (example...)
  • The Phrygian mode has a characteristic lowered second, which creates its characteristic bII major and v diminished chords. This mode is quite common in flamenco music and is often referred to as the "Spanish" mode. The Jimmy Somerville song "So Cold The Night" and the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit" are in phrygian mode. The second movement of Brahms's Fourth Symphony famously opens in the phrygian mode.
  • The Locrian mode has a flat second and fifth scale degree and has a diminished i chord. It is highly unstable, and its diminished i chord makes establishing tonality in the mode nearly impossible. The few pieces written in this mode usually used an altered i minor chord to establish the tonal center, and then used the minor iii and major V chord to establish the modality. The locrian mode is so unstable that the bII chord cannot be used as it will quickly and inevitably establish itself as the I chord of a major key. The iv minor chord in second inversion with the tonic doubled is a good I chord for Locrian because it is the exact reverse of a major chord.

Learning the modes

You may work with the modes in a couple of ways.

If you're an instrumentalist, you may find the following approach useful to understanding the modal scales.

  • The Ionian mode is identical to the major scale of tonal music.
  • The Aeolian mode is identical to the natural minor scale of tonal music. Compared to Ionian, its 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes have been lowered one half-step.
  • Lydian is identical to Ionian, except that the 4th note in the scale is raised one half-step.
  • Mixolydian is identical to Ionian, exception that the 7th note in the scale is lowered one half-step.
  • Dorian is identical to Aeolian, except its 6th scale degree is raised one half-step.
  • Phrygian is identical to Aeolian, except its 2nd scale degree is lowered one half-step.
  • Locrian, the theoretical mode, is identical to Aeolian, except its 2nd and 5th scale degrees are flattened. Because its 5th scale degree is flattened, this mode sounds very unstable, and thus, is seldom used.

Using this technique, one may apply a simple bit of mathematics towards converting from one mode to another. First, one should memorize the number of flats and sharps for all Ionian scales (e.g. F ionian has 1 flat). One should also memorize how to notate the flats and sharps on a musical bar. Then, one should memorize this chart:

  • Ionian: 0
  • Dorian: −2
  • Phrygian: −4
  • Lydian: +1
  • Mixolydian: −1
  • Aeolian: −3
  • Locrian: −5

If you think of flats as negative numbers and sharps as positive numbers, you may use simple mathematics to convert between modes. For example, having memorized that the C major/ionian scale has zero sharps or flats, and wanting to know what notes C phrygian should change, you would add 0 to phrygian's −4 to get −4.. meaning four flats. So C phrygian has four flats, (B, E, A, and D).

Or, for a slightly more complicated example, try figuring out F locrian:

F major/ionian has 1 flat, so it is −1. Locrian has a −5, so −1 +−5 is −6. Therefore, F locrian has six flats (B, E, A, D, G, and C).

If you work with keyboard instruments, you may find the following technique more useful in working with modes.

If you are familiar with major scales, each modal scale may be thought of as starting at a different scale degree from the major scale.

Thus, you may memorize which scale degree to start at for each mode.

  • Ionian: I
  • Dorian: II
  • Phrygian: III
  • Lydian: IV
  • Mixolydian: V
  • Aeolian: VI
  • Locrian: VII

The patterns of tones (T) and semitones (s) are as follows:

TTsTTTs Ionian (modern major)
TsTTTsT Dorian
sTTTsTT Phrygian
TTTsTTs Lydian
TTsTTsT Mixolydian
TsTTsTT Aeolian (modern minor)
sTTsTTT Locrian

Note the shifts of alternate semitones from row to row.

Each of these modes has a unique scale without any sharps or flats. They are as follows:

Ionian     C major
Dorian     D
Phrygian   E
Lydian     F
Mixolydian G
Aeolian    A minor
Locrian    B

Another Way to Look At the Modes

As introduced in the Tonic Solfa system, the Do scale can be manipulated to form modes. (Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do)

The relationship between Do and Re is a whole step Re - Me= whole step Me - Fa= half step Fa - So=whole step So - La=whole step La - Ti=whole step Ti - Do=half step

This Do scale is the major scale which is also known as the Ionian mode.

To get the minor or Aeolian mode you can start on La.

To manipulate the Do scale to form Major like modes you can raise Fa a half step to form Fi, and lower Ti a half step to form Ta.

For example if we were in the key of D Major or D Ionian it would follow the chart I have made above. In this case D is the Do. So the scale would go as follows

Ionian D E #F G A B #C D

To manipulate this to become Lydian, you would raise the Fa to Fi. In this case the Fa is G and when raised a half step it will become #G.

Lydian D E #F #G A B #C D

To form the Mixolydian we would lower the Ti to Ta. So #C will become C.

Mixolydian D E #F G A B C D

To form the Minor like modes instead of starting on Do we would start on La. The relative minor of D Major so we will use B minor. The minor or the Aolian (La Ti Do Re Mi Fa So La) mode goes as follows.

Aolian B #C D E #F G A B

To make this Dorian you would raise the Fa to Fi

Dorian B #C D E #F #G A B

To make the Phyrigian you would lower the Ti to Ta

Phyrigian B C D E #F G A B

The Do and La scales can be used for any scale.

Other possible uses

In modern music theory, scales other than the major scale sometimes have the term "modes" applied to the scales which begin with their degrees. This is seen, for example, in "Melodic Minor" scale harmony (see Minor scale for a brief description of the melodic minor), which is based on the seven modes of the melodic minor scale, yielding some interesting scales as shown below, where "Structure" refers to the structures of the various modes of the C melodic minor scale:

Nameminor-majorDorian b2Lydian augmentedLydian dominantMixolydian b6 or "Hindu"half-diminished (or) Locrian #2altered (or) diminished whole-tone
StructureC-maj (or) C-+7Dsusb9Ebmaj+5F7+11Gb6b7Ař (or) A-7b5B7alt

Though the term "mode" is still used in this case (and is useful in recognizing that these scales all have a common root, that is the melodic minor scale); it is more common for musicians to understand the term "mode" to refer to Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, or Locrian scales. In everyday speech, this is the most common understanding.

Modes in different musical streams


  • Dahlhaus, Carl. Gjerdingen, Robert O. trans. (1990). Studies in the Origin of Harmonic Tonality. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691091358.
  • Hoppin, Richard H. (1978). Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393090906.
  • Judd, Cristle Collins (ed.) (1998). Tonal Structures of Early Music. New York: Garland Publishing. ISBN 0815323883.
    • Liane Curtis. "Mode".

Further reading

eo:Modalo (muziko) it:Modo musicale nl:Modaliteit (muziek)


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