Having an understanding of the modes of the major scale is an important skill for any aspiring musician. While there have been volumes of books written on the seven different modes and their usage in both modern and historical music, many people still struggle to grasp the practical application of these common scales. Breaking down and comparing the interval and chord structure of each mode can help to alleviate much of the mystery and confusion that is often associated with learning and applying the modes of the major scale.
The following article provides an intervallic and chordal break-down of each mode, and provides an explanation of how to apply each mode to a performance situation. For a similar break-down of the melodic minor scale modes please visit this article.
W = Whole-Step
H = Half-Step
R = Root of the Mode
Interval Structure = The make-up of each mode from the key of C, with each interval, either Whole-Step or Half-Step, listed below the notes in the mode.
Chord Structure = The mode as it is found when stacked in thirds, providing a seven note chord. The chord symbol next to each chord structure is the chord in its most detail, including all appropriate upper extensions.
The Ionian mode is from first note of the major scale and is often simply referred to as the major scale. This mode is most often used over a maj7 chord, especially when found in a iim7-V7-Imaj7 progression. When the notes of the mode are stacked in thirds it spells out a Maj7 chord with a natural 11th. This note, the natural 11, helps to distinguish it from the Lydian mode, which has a #11, with all the other notes being the same between the two modes.
C D E F G A B C
W W H W W W H
Chord Structure - Cmaj13(11)
C E G B D F A
R 3 5 7 9 11 13
The Dorian mode is built from the second note of the major scale, and when stacked in thirds it spells a minor 7th chord with a natural 13th. The natural 13th helps to distinguish this mode from the Aeolian mode, which has a flat 13th, because otherwise both modes share the same notes. This scale is often used by jazz musicians when soloing over minor seventh chords, especially in a iim7-V7-Imaj7 progression, and was used by Miles Davis as the basis for his famous composition "So What."
D E F G A B C D
W H W W W H W
Chord Structure - Dm11(13)
D F A C E G B
R b3 5 b7 9 11 13
The Phrygian mode is built from the third note of the major scale and when stacked in thirds spells a minor 7th chord with a flattened 9th and 13th. This mode is most often used when soloing over a m7 chord, which adds a "Middle Eastern" characteristic because of the b9, but it can also be used to solo over a dominant 7th chord. Because the Phrygian mode contains several "altered" intervals over a 7th chord, b9, b3(#9) and b13, jazz musicians have used this scale in place of the Altered scale. This usage can be heard in John Coltrane's famous solo break on the Miles Davis recording of "On Green Dolphin Street" where he plays G Phrygian over G7alt.
E F G A B C D E
H W W W H W W
Chord Structure - Em11(b9, b13)
E G B D F A C
R b3 5 b7 b9 11 b13
The Lydian mode is built from the fourth note of the major scale and contains only one different note from the major scale, the #11. This note, the raised 11th, gives it a "brighter" sound than the Ionian mode, which shares every other note with Lydian, and is most often used to solo over a maj7, or more specifically, a maj7#11 chord. Even though the mode is built off of the fourth note of the major scale, jazz musicians often use this scale over a tonic maj7 chord, for example, over the Imaj7 chord in a iim7-V7-Imaj7 chord progression.
F G A B C D E F
W W W H W W H
Chord Structure - Fmaj13(#11)
F A C E G B D
R 3 5 7 9 #11 13
The Mixolydian mode is built from the fifth note of the major scale and when stacked in thirds builds a 7th chord, most often referred to as a "dominant" 7th chord. Aside from the Ionian mode, the Mixolydian mode is one of the most commonly used modes as it works very well over all of the chords in the twelve-bar-blues progression. Because of this, it is often the first mode many players learn when they are ready to progress from the basic blues scales that are often the first scale many players learn.
G A B C D E F G
W W H W W H W
Chord Structure - G13
G B D F A C E
R 3 5 b7 9 11 13
The Aeolian mode, often referred to as the Natural Minor or Relative Minor scale, is built from the sixth note of the major scale and when stacked in thirds builds a m7(b13) chord. The b6 (b13) interval is the only note that differentiates it from the Dorian mode, as these two modes are otherwise built the same. Along with the Dorian mode, the Aeolian mode is one of the most common mode choices for players when soloing over m7 chords. As well as being used to solo over iim7 chords, in a similar fashion to Dorian, many players also use the Aeolian mode over im7 chords in a iim7b5-V7alt-im7 chord progression.
A B C D E F G A
W H W W H W W
Chord Structure - Am11(b13)
A C E G B D F
R b3 5 b7 9 11 b13
The Locrian mode is built from the seventh note of the major scale and when stacked in thirds builds a m7b5 chord, with a natural 11th and b13th. This mode is most often used to solo over the iim7b5 chord in a iim7b5-V7alt-im7 chord progression and since it is the only mode that has the b5 interval, it has a distinctive "dark" sound that is not found in any of the other modes of the major scale.
B C D E F G A B
H W W H W W W
Chord Structure - Bm11b5(b13)
B D F A C E G
R b3 b5 b7 b9 11 b13
Major Mode Chart 1 - Comparison to Ionian
The following chart lists all of the modes of the major scale in the key of C, which allows us to easily compare them to all of the other modes from the same root. The intervals found within the parentheses are the notes in that particular mode that are different than the Ionian mode. For example, next to the Dorian scale are the intervals b3 and b7, by adding these alterations to any Ionian mode we can make it a Dorian mode. If we add them to an A major scale, A B C# D E F# G# we get A Dorian, A B C D E F# G, the same can be done for any mode in the chart.
Ionian - C D E F G A B C
Dorian - C D Eb F G A Bb C (b3, b7)
Phrygian - C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C (b2, b3, b6, b7)
Lydian - C D E F# G A B C (#11)
Mixolydian - C D E F G A Bb C (b7)
Aeolian - C D Eb F G Ab Bb C (b3,b6, b7)
Locrian - C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7)
Major Mode Chart 2 - Arranged From Brightest to Darkest Sounding
The following chart shows each mode of the major scale arranged in order of the "brightest" to "darkest" sounding modes. The term bright in this sense means that it has the least amount of flattened intervals within the mode, and the term dark means that it has the most flattened intervals within the mode. The interval written within the parentheses, next to each mode, is the one interval that is different than the previous mode. For example, the (nat 11) is the only different between the Ionian and Lydian modes. Therefore, each subsequent mode in the chart has one more flat than the mode before it, and one less flat than the mode after it. Notice how the first three modes, brightest, are all "major" based modes as they contain the Maj 3rd interval, while the other four modes, the "dark" modes, are all minor based modes as they all contain both the b3 and b7 intervals.
Lydian - C D E F# G A B C
Ionian - C D E F G A B C (nat 11)
Mixolydian - C D E F G A Bb C (b7)
Dorian - C D Eb F G A Bb C (b3)
Aeolian - C D Eb F G Ab Bb C (b6)
Phrygian - C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C (b2)
Locrian - C Db Eb F Gb Ab Bb C (b5)
Major Mode Chart 3 - Commonly Used Chord Symbols
Ionian - Maj7,6, 6/9,Maj6, Maj9
Dorian - m7, m11
Phrygian - m7, m7b9, m11b9
Lydian - maj7(#11), Maj7(#11), Maj9(#11)
Mixolydian - 7, 9, 13
Aeolian - m7, m11, m7(b13), m7(b6)
Locrian - m7b5, m11b5