An Introduction to Modes – Part Two

By M. L. Wolf

In the previous article “An Introduction to the Modes Part I” we saw that modes are really just another name for scales. We learned that there are seven modes, each named with a Greek name representing a region of ancient Greece. Each mode has a different order of whole and half tones. You use them the way you would use a major or minor scale to create a great tune. Because the order of whole and half steps (sometimes referred to as whole and half tones) changes with each mode they all have their own unique sound.

The modes in music are an interesting concept for musicians. They have so much potential to enrich your musical creations. Below you will find where each mode is most commonly used. This is only a rough guide; you may choose to use them in new and exciting ways.

How does each Mode actually sound?

Let’s look at some examples of what each mode will sound like when used in pop music.


We’ve seen that the Ionian mode is actually our friend the Major scale. Most pop tunes are written in this mode as it is the most familiar sound to our western world ears. For example listen to Post Malone’s “Goodbyes” which is in the key of F Major or F Ionian. (Ionian because of the order of whole and half tones, and “F” because in this case the mode would begin on the note F.

This mode sounds complete and gives us a feeling of familiarity which is why so many pop tunes are written in the Ionian mode.


This mode sounds rather melancholy. It’s a great mode to use when you want a sadder quality to your song.

Daft Punk gives us an example of a pop song in the Dorian Mode. Listen to “Get Lucky” to see how the Dorian Mode sounds when it’s used in a pop song.


The Phrygian mode is loved by classic metal guitar players. It gives us a sense of mystery and darkness. One famous guitarist, Randy Rhoades was known for using this mode to create dazzling solos. Unfortunately his life ended far too soon in a plane crash, but we do have several examples of his work to learn from. Anthony Xander is a talented Canadian composer and guitar player who uses Phrygian scales in his solos. Listen to this great example.


The Lydian mode has some unexpected sounds in it which can be interpreted as being very upbeat. Perhaps that is why this mode is favored by jazz musicians, and music meant for a younger audience.


The Mixolydian mode is very similar in sound to the Ionian mode. It is often used along with the Ionian mode as they fit so nicely together. Pop, blues and light rock are sometimes played in this mode.

This is “Waiting for the Bus” by Violent Femmes, a pop tune using the Mixolydian Mode.


The Aeolian Mode has a very sad sound to it. Because it is built on the 6th note of the Major scale (see chart above) it is also known as the relative minor to that major key. If you use a Circle of 5th chart you can find where the Aeolian Mode starts in any key. The outer circle shows the Major key while the inner circle shows the relative minor, or the Aeolian Mode. There are many other uses for a Circle of 5ths Chart, but for now we are just using it to find our Aeolian Modes.

The Aeolian Mode can be used to successfully write pop tunes with a more sorrowful sound. If you want to hear a good example of this listen to the guitar solo at the end of “Stairway to Heaven”. The final solo starts at 9:48….but it’s such a great classic, go ahead and listen to the whole song!


The sounds in this mode tend to be depressing, gloomy and dark. Perhaps that is why it is favored by heavy metal groups and classic rock songs. Here is a compilation of pop tunes that are using the Locrian Mode.

Now we’ll take a look at how you can use a mode to change the whole sound of a melody, to spice things up a bit, or to tone down your sound.

Let’s review the names of each mode and their whole and half step order.


Ionian W W H W W W H
Dorian W H W W W H W
Phrygian H W W W H W W
Lydian W W W H W W H
Mixolydian W W H W W H W
Aeolian W H W W H W W
Locrian H W W H W W W

Take note of how the half steps move diagonally across the chart.

Now using the key of C Major ( no sharps or flats) let’s see what the notes would be for each mode built on one of the notes of the C Major scale. Note that each mode is named after one of the notes of the C Major scale.

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

Now that we have looked at and listened to examples of all the modes you can see that each mode has a different sort of character. Just to see that for yourself, try writing a few bars in the key of C Major (no sharps or flats). Now by altering the notes so they match with one of the modes’ order of whole and half steps you can see how your tune completely changes. For example: Play the notes C, D, E, F, G. (W W H W W) You have just played in the Ionian mode. Now play C, Db, E, F, G. (W H W W W) You have played the same tune in the Dorian mode. Your tune has a whole new sound yet you have not had to come up with a whole new idea. Try this with several phrases and you will see how by using one of the modes you can add a whole new energy into your song.

Use our Captain Melody 3.0 to try writing your own song in one of the modes.

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