Guitar scales vs modes: Which should you use and when?
In my earlier stages of learning the guitar I used to think that modes were scales for experienced players, and hence harder to learn and master.
While it is true that advanced guitar players tend to use modes more often than beginners, the difference between scales and modes has nothing to do with difficulty of learning.
Before I go into greater detail about what makes a scale and a mode different, let’s define three important terms: scale, key, and mode.
A scale is an organized series of notes played in an ascending or descending order. Technically, any such series is a scale, including the chromatic scale, which contains all 12 notes in music.
However, the purpose of scales is to provide you with a pool of notes from which to create a melody, and a scale with all of the notes isn’t very useful.
The most common usable scales have five notes (pentatonic) or seven notes (heptatonic), but other combinations exist, such as the whole tone scale and the blues scale (both of which have six notes, hexatonic).
The following is an example of a scale, G major played in one octave.
Since scales of the same type (for example, major and minor) have the same intervallic formula, they can be easily transposed on the guitar.
For example, to get the A major scale, simply play the G major pattern but begin on the note A two frets higher.
The Western tonal music system, which comprises the absolute majority of music we listen to, from Bach to the Beatles (though both, particularly the Beatles, use modes on occasion, as you’ll see below), makes use of keys.
A key is the tonic note (for example, the note G in G major), the scale associated with it (the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#), and a set of chords that harmonize these notes (the chords G, Am, Bm, C, D, Em, and F#dim).
The tonic note is the most important note in the key, and it is usually where the music begins and ends.
The following short melody, for example, is clearly in the key of G major.
This is indicated by the fact that it begins and ends on the tonic note and chord, as well as by the chord D7 before the final chord G. A V7-I chord progression, also known as a perfect cadence, is formed by the chord movement D7 – G. Although this cadence can be used in the middle of a song, it sounds very conclusive and is used to finish the majority of music that uses the Western tonal system.
The distinction between a scale and a key is that a key includes everything that surrounds the tonic note, whereas a scale only refers to the note pattern.
In addition, not all scales have a key. The chromatic scale and the whole-tone scale for instance, do not have a key because the equal distance between the notes makes it impossible to establish any note as the tonic.
What is a mode?
Like a scale, a mode is an organized series of notes in ascending or descending order composers and songwriters use to derive melodies from.
Thus, a mode is a type of scale.
A mode is a rearrangement of another scale’s intervallic formula by starting on a different note.
The most commonly used modes are the modes of the major scale, which are the ones we’ll be exploring below. Keep in mind that other scales, such as the melodic and the harmonic minor scale can also be used to derive modes from.
Now, you’re probably asking, if we have the same notes in a different order, what’s the whole point of using a mode? Can’t you just use the parent scale the mode is derived from?
What happens when you change the starting note is that the note you begin with becomes the tonic note. This is the most important, emphasized note, and it is where the phrase ends.
Changing the tonic note alters the entire character of the scale because the sound of each note is now perceived by the listener in relation to the new tonic.
In each of the 7 modes of the major scale listed below, the same notes are being played but when you listen to each mode, you’ll notice that each has a different sound character.
The 7 modes of the major scale
Ionian mode (more commonly referred to as the major scale)
The major scale interval formula is T,T,S,T,T,T,S (T = tone, the distance of two frets on the guitar, S = semitone, the distance of one fret).
This is how we build the G major scale:
G is the first note, the tonic.
The following note is a tone higher: A.
The following note is a tone higher: B
The following note is a semitone higher: C
The following note is a tone higher: D
The following note is a tone higher: E
The following note is a tone higher: F#
The final note is the G we started with repeated an octave higher. It is a semitone higher than the previous tone.
Thus, the notes of the G major scale are G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, and (G).
If we consider the G major scale as a mode, we would call it the Ionian mode. However, because the major scale, like the minor scale, has established its own tonality, it is no longer considered a mode but a scale and a key in its own right.
Dorian is the second mode of the major scale, so we begin by playing the second note of the scale.
This is the mode of A Dorian in G major, which goes as follows: A, B, C, D, E, F#, G (A)
The notes remain the same as in G major, but the intervallic formula has been changed to T,S,T,T,T,S,T.
The following is one octave of the A Dorian mode.
Take note of how this change in the interval formula gives the mode its own character, which can be described as mellow and smooth.
Only a small percentage of the music we listen to employs modes, since most of it is composed in the major or minor key.
However, composers and songwriters occasionally use modes to exploit their flavor, and music that uses the Dorian mode includes Sibelius’ 6th Symphony, Another Brick in the Wall by Pink Floyd, Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, and much of Carlos Santana’s music.
To get the next mode, simply start the major scale from the third degree, which gives us B Phrygian: B, C, D, E, F#, G, A (B) if we’re using the G major scale.
The interval formula becomes S,T,T,T,S,T,T
The Phrygian mode has a distinct sound that can be described as dark, exotic, and even evil.
The Phrygian mode has a beautiful sound but one too awkward to write whole songs in. In fact there aren’t many.
It does appear in sections of music in various genres including Symphony of Destruction (Megadeth), White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane), and Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.
Lydian is the fourth mode of the major scale.
Thus, C Lydian, the fourth mode of G major is: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, (C).
The interval formula for the Lydian mode is T,T,T,S,T,T,S.
Lydian has a distinct sound that can be heard in Polish folk music, Chopin, the Simpsons theme, and Steve Vai’s music.
The fifth mode of the major scale, the Mixolydian mode, has a bright upbeat sound.
D Mixolydian, the fifth mode of G major is: D, E, F#, G, A, B, C, (D)
The intervallic formula for the Mixolydian mode is T,T,S,T,T,S,T.
The Mixolydian mode is commonly heard in blues, jazz, Afro-Cuban music, and Beatles songs such as “Norwegian Woods” and “Get Back,” among others.
Remember how the Beatles are mostly considered as tonal music? How are they using modes?
The reason for this is that, while most music of our times uses two modes (the ones we call “scales,” that is the major scale (Ionian) and the minor scale (Aeolian), which is the mode coming up), good songwriters occasionally add modal flavor to their melodies by using one of the other modes.
Aeolian mode (minor scale)
The minor scale is actually the sixth mode of the major scale, known as Aeolian in modal terminology.
Thus, E Aeolian, the sixth mode of G major, E, F#, G, A, B, C, D, (E), is also the E natural minor scale.
The interval formula for the natural minor scale is T,S,T,T,S,T,T
The term Aeolian is rarely used in common practice music terminology.
Instead, the E natural minor scale is considered as the relative minor scale of G major.
What distinguishes the major and minor scale from the other modes?
The answer is related to tonality.
Remember how a key includes the tonic note, the scale, and the chords?
Chord progressions don’t lend themselves as easily to the other five modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and the upcoming Locrian) as they do to the major and minor scale.
The reason for this is beyond the scope of this lesson, but in a nutshell, establishing the tonic with chords using the major and minor scales is much easier than with any of the other modes.
Thus, the sense of key only applies to the modes distantly because, even if a tonic note is established, it is difficult to enforce this with the chords in the listener’s brain.
As a result, the modes fell out of favor, leaving major and minor as the dominant scales composers and songwriters use to write music.
Having said that, all of the modes mentioned above can be found in popular music.
Only one mode is frequently left out of the party, and that is seventh mode of the major sale, Locrian.
The Locrian mode can be considered a “theoretical mode” since it’s rarely used in practice.
The reason this mode is so unpopular is that while in all the other scales and modes the fifth degree of the scale forms an interval of a perfect fifth, a very consonant interval, with the tonic, in Locrian the fifth degree is an interval of a diminished fifth, one of the most dissonant intervals in music.
This makes it very hard to establish a tonality.
Try this exercise. It will help you understand better the concept of tonality as well what makes modes different than scales.
- Learn how to play the Locrian mode in one octave using the pattern given above.
- Improvise a short melody using these notes and finish on the tonic note F# (this can be the first note given in the example, as well as the last note of bar 1 where it is repeated at the octave. It doesn’t matter whether you finish in one octave or another as long as your last note is F#).
- Notice how inconclusive it sounds. As if the last note is expected to be resolved into another note.
- Repeat steps 1 and 2, using the G major pattern (the first example in this lesson) and finish on the tonic note G.
- Notice how conclusive it sounds this time. The phrase can end there.
You can repeat this process with all the 7 modes which will give you a clear understanding of the sound flavor of each mode or learn a guitar lick in each mode.
Tonal vs modal vs atonal Music
The difference between a scale and a mode (of the major scale) is that the first (Ionian) and sixth (Aeolian) modes are known as major and minor, respectively, whereas the other five modes are known as Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Locrian.
On a deeper level, the major and minor scales make it easier for the composer to establish a key.
Although establishing the tonic is more difficult when using modes (which is why advanced guitarists use them more – they’re harder to handle), when using a mode, the basic principles of tonality are still in play because a tonic, the first note of the mode, is established.
There is music that has no tonic established at all, and it is known as atonal music.
Every note in atonal music is considered to be of equal value, rather than relative to the tonic.
Atonal music, such as that found in Arnold Shoenberg’s works, is not very popular because the brain enjoys the idea of leaving home (tonic note/tonic chord) and wandering through different pathways (all other notes and chords) before returning back to the tonic in the final note/chord.
Because there is no tonic note in atonal music, many listeners, including the author, find it difficult to enjoy it.
Why learn guitar modes?
If you don’t know how to improvise using the major or the minor scale (or their associated pentatonics), I suggest you leave the study of modes for later.
Once you’re fluent in improvising using those two scales, learning the modes will increase your musical choices.
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