What’s the difference between a mode and a scale?

Modes vs Scales

Modes are one of the most misunderstood topics in music theory. That’s especially true among guitar players.

I know how confusing modes can be. Despite studying music theory in high school and college, it took nearly a decade of personal study to understand the difference between a mode and a scale.

But I’ve learned a lot since then. Here’s what I can tell you about modes and scales

A scale is an organized series of pitches. A mode shifts the start and end point of a scale. For instance, a C major scale that starts and ends on D becomes D Dorian. The order changes, but the pitches stay the same.

Modes only exist relative to their parent scales. That’s what makes them modes.

There are seven modes, one for each pitch in the diatonic scale. They have Greek names, which requires some memorization. Mode names represent the starting pitch. As long as we don’t change keys, the note names stay the same.

All that changes is where the pattern starts and ends.

The following are the seven modes of C major:

G MixolydianGABCDEFG

It sounds pretty simple until you start to wonder, “How do I use this information?”

Playing modes without harmonic context (i.e. chords) makes it difficult to hear or understand the differences. Played against a C major chord, all seven of the modes listed above will sound almost indistinguishable from a C major scale.

For reference, here is a recording of all seven modes played over C major chord.

All seven modes of C major played over a C major chord.

While the melody is technically playing “modes,” your ear can’t really tell the difference. Modes only make sense in relation to chords.

The next section will discuss how modes work in the context of harmony.

  1. How Modes Work
  2. Modal Harmony 101
  3. Traits of Each Mode
    1. Ionian (major)
    2. Dorian (minor)
    3. Phrygian (minor)
    4. Lydian (major)
    5. Mixolydian (major)
    6. Aeolian (minor)
    7. Locrian (diminished)
  4. Conclusion

How Modes Work

Chords are built by stacking thirds. In case you don’t know, a third is every other note in a scale. A stack of three notes is called a triad.

Triads are building blocks of Western harmony. We can build a triad from each note in the diatonic scale.

Regardless of which key you’re using, the triads will have the same quality (major, minor, etc.) at each degree of the scale.

Building a chord on each note of a C major scale looks like this:

Scale DegreeNoteChord Quality

The notes of the major scale sound different when they are played against each of the seven chords in the key.

Here is a recording of a looped C major scale played over each of the seven chords:

Maybe playing the scale in ascending order sounds too much like an exercise. So here is a loop of the major scale in ascending thirds played over each of the seven chords:

Unlike the example at the top of this article, the melody does not change in either of these recordings. The scale starts and ends with C every time. Yet it sounds like a different scale over each chord.

Why is that?

The most obvious change is the difference in chord quality. Diatonic keys have three major chords, three minor chords, and one diminished chord.

Major chords sound “brighter” and minor chords sound “darker.” The diminish chord sounds a little unpleasant on its own.

But that doesn’t explain why the scale sounds different when played over different major or minor chords.

The key difference that gives each mode a unique sound is consonance and dissonance.

Simply put, consonant tones sound pleasant against a given chord. Dissonant tones sound harsh or tense against the chord.

To get a better idea of how modes change these relationships, here are the seven modes based around a single starting pitch. I’ve bolded the notes that differ from the major scale (Ionian).

Scale DegreeIonianDorianPhrygianLydianMixolydianAeolianLocrian

Because modes depend on chords, we have to understand how to build a chord using every note in the scale.

We already know chords are build in thirds. For example, a C major triad is built in the following way: C-(D)-E-(F)-G. The triad consists of the first, third, and fifth scale degrees (1-3-5). The notes in parentheses are not part of the chord.

But what happens if we keep stacking thirds? It would look something like this


This is extended harmony. Beyond the 1-3-5 that makes up a triad, there are four other notes. There is 7, 9, 11, and 13.

Here is the extended harmony built upon each note in the C major scale:

Building chords in thirds results in the pattern 1-3-5-7-9-11-13. These numbers are used to describe extended harmonies built on simple triads.

The sound of each mode is determined by these extended harmonies. Their differences are highlighted by certain notes that clash with the triad (1-3-5), or the seven chord (1-3-5-7).

I’ve underlined these clashing notes in the chart. These notes are what make one mode sound different from another.

The next section will go into more detail about these special traits.

Traits of Each Mode

As we’ve seen above, when played against the proper chord, modes are not the same as the the scales they are based upon. The consonant and dissonant notes change.

The modes’ signature sounds are defined by the two half-step intervals that are found in the diatonic scale. That is why the clashing notes in the previous table are all B, C, E, or F. Those are the half-steps in the key of C major.

The relationship between those half-steps and the modal chord are what make each mode unique.

Let’s look at the traits of each mode when it is played against the proper chord

Ionian (major)

Although the Ionian mode is more commonly known as the major scale, it is one of three major modes. Its characteristics are the basis for describing the other six modes.

Because it is based on a major triad, it sounds bright and cheerful.

The half-steps are located between the 3rd and 4th scale degrees, as well as the 7th and the root note.

It is the only major modes that contains a perfect fourth and a major 7.


Dorian (minor)

The Dorian mode is one of the minor modes. It has half-steps between the 2nd and 3rd, as well as the 6th and 7th scale degrees.

It is the only minor mode that includes a major 6. Although it is based on a minor triad, the major 6 gives it a sound that is often described as “bluesy.”

Defining features: b3, b7


Phrygian (minor)

The Phrygian mode is a minor mode with half-steps between the 1st and 2nd scale degrees, as well as the 5th and 6th degrees.

The most noticeable trait is the half-step between the first and second notes. This is typically referred to as a “flat 9” in jazz harmony. This is essentially the most tense note you can play against a chord.

Defining features: b3, b7, b9, b13


Lydian (major)

The Lydian mode is the only mode with a raised scale degree. It is a major mode with half-steps between the 4th and 5th scale degrees, as well as the 7th and the root note.

It is the only major mode with a raised 4th degree (AKA “sharp 11”). That is the only difference between the Ionian and Lydian modes. That single note gives the Lydian mode its trademark dreamy or otherworldly sound.

Defining features: #11


Mixolydian (major)

The Mixolydian mode is a major mode with half-steps between the 3rd and 4th scale degrees, as well as the 6th and 7th degrees.

The flat 7 is what sets Mixolydian apart from the other two major modes. It is the only mode that contains a dominant 7 chord.

Defining features: b7


Aeolian (minor)

The Aeolian mode is perhaps the best known of the minor modes. It is better known as the “natural minor” or the “minor scale.” It has half-steps between the 2nd and 3rd scale degrees, as well as the 5th and 6th degrees.

Defining features: b3, b13, b7


Locrian (diminished)

The Locrian mode is the darkest and most dissonant of the seven modes. It is the only mode built upon a diminished chord. That is why it is also used the least.

Its half-steps are located between the 1st and 2nd scale degrees, as well as the 4th and 5th degrees.

It has both a flat 9 and a flat 5, which makes it very harsh against a diminished chord.

Defining features: b3, b5, b7, b9, b13



As we’ve seen, harmony is the defining factor that sets modes apart from their scales.

It is not enough to learn fingerings for the modes. When played over a root chord, a mode is nearly indistinguishable from a major scale. Modes come to life when they pared with the correct harmony.

Eb Dorian won’t sound like anything unless you play it over an Eb minor chord progression. G Lydian won’t sound like Lydian unless it’s played over a G major progression.

The key to understanding modes is to learn the major scale in all 12 keys all over the fretboard and let the chords do the rest. Otherwise you risk locking yourself into a particular finger pattern every time the chord changes.

Memorize the fretboard. Learn your scales. And listen for the subtle differences that jump out when the chords change over a scale pattern. Develop an opinion about each mode instead of practicing them like your guitar pride depends on it.

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