Modes Crash Course: Basic Guide for Songwriters


As a musician, you have probably come across many music theory concepts that have made you scratch your head. We will be going over one of those topics today: Modes. Modes are a set of notes that create a unique sound or flavor to a melody or chord progression. They are derived from the major scale, but each starts on a different note within that scale.

First of all, let’s start off with two modes you already know: Ionian and Aeolian. These are simply a fancier way of saying the Major and its Relative Minor Scale. So if you didn’t know you have already been writing in modes, you do now!

The most common modes outside those two would include Dorian and Mixolydian, which are used in a variety of genres, including rock, pop, and jazz. Dorian is a minor mode with a major sixth, which gives it a mysterious and slightly exotic quality. It could also be thought of a major scale that is started on the second note of the scale instead of the first. It’s often used in blues and rock music and can be heard in songs like “Scar Tissue” by Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Smooth” by Santana. Mixolydian is a major mode with a lowered seventh, which creates a bluesy and soulful sound. It’s commonly used in blues, rock, and funk and can be heard in songs like “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses and “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder.

While the Dorian and Mixolydian modes are the most common, there are other modes to explore as well. The Phrygian mode is a minor mode with a lowered second, which is often used in desert soundtracks. The Lydian mode is a major mode with a raised fourth, which creates a dreamy and ethereal sound. The Locrian mode is a minor mode with a lowered second and fifth, which creates a tense and unstable sound.

Here is a list of songs that are written in modes other than you major and minor keys:

  1. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses – Mixolydian
  2. “Scarborough Fair” by Simon & Garfunkel – Dorian
  3. “Maneater” by Hall & Oates – Phrygian
  4. “Blackbird” by The Beatles – Lydian
  5. “Army of Me” by Björk – Locrian

Overall, modes can add depth and complexity to your music, allowing you to explore new sounds and flavors. Don’t be afraid to experiment and play around with different modes to find the ones that work best for your music. With a little practice and experimentation, you can start incorporating modes into your songs and take your music to the next level.

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