How much do you use modes?

So, modes are a relatively new concept for me, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit it, but I’m not sure if I should be.

I was never taught anything about modes while I was learning piano. I was never taught anything about modes playing in concert bands through high school and college. I never heard my my mother, a barbershop harmony arranger, mention them. They never came up in discussion in any band I’ve ever played with. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve heard a lot about them, mostly on guitar-based Youtube channels.

So, my question for all of you is, were you taught about modes when you were learning music/composition? When and where did you learn them? And how much do you actually use them when you are composing music?


Modes aren’t anything to be scared of. In fact you e been using modes without even realising it I expect. They’re just grouped notes that work well together and give a specific feel.

Dorian and Aeolian are minor modes that are used the most without people even realising it. The major modes people use and don’t know they’re using them are Mixolydian and Lydian modes. Lydian gives a jazzy feel and Mixolydian is known as the blues scale (but in the pop blues scale they omit a few notes.

The same rules of harmonisation applies to these modes and it does take a little time for your ears to pick out things you like about them, they can be altered to make them more complex and they can also be interchanged to introduce new harmony to your piece. Often this is done without composers knowing what they’re doing but when you do and you start to notice patterns then this changes your whole outlook on how you use notes and what you use notes for

To answer your question I was taught about modes, but only because I did my grades in guitar and classical theory. I didn’t realise beforehand that I already had discovered a lot on my own, so it was just a case of filling in the blanks for me after that :slight_smile:

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Actually, when I started to learn theory for guitar years ago, modes were some of the first things I learned, as they are quite important for modern rock/metal guitar. I understood the concept, but didn’t know how to apply them properly until I started with learning orchestral composition.

In essence, the basic “Greek” or “Church” modes can be thought of as scales within scales. Basically I learned them by taking any regular major scale and then playing the notes of that scale but starting on a different interval of that scale. The modes in order are: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian.

So, using C major as an example, if you play the notes of C major, but from D, you have a D Dorian scale. If you start on E, you have an E Phrygian. Then F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian. Note that the Ionian mode and the Aeolian mode correspond to the regular major scale and the natural minor scale respectively (C Ionian = C major, A Aeolian = A minor.)

Each mode, even though you’re playing the exact same notes, derives it’s unique sound from the different whole-step, half-step patterns associated with that mode. In this sense, each mode has a specific set of intervals that give it its character. For example, the Mixolydian pattern is almost identical to the major scale, but it has a flat 7. The Phrygian has a b2, b3, b6 and b7. The key to getting a modal sound is to focus your melody/harmony on more of the intervals particular to that mode.

I’ve only real recently started to use more modal harmony; my Star Trek tribute uses Mixolyidan and my “fantasy music” piece uses a whole mix of different modes, but focuses mainly on the Dorian mode. I’m currently writing a hybrid Scfi-Fi action piece that uses Mixolydian as well.

Hope this helps a bit!


Great examples Matt!

Yeah the common ones are Mix and Dorian in most scenarios. The least common is Locrian which is essentially the Diminished scale. I use it sparsely and move on quickly before my piece summons the devil himself! :sweat_smile:

Lydian mode is my favourite, it’s the Major 7 scale so it sounds quite triumphant in a soft and subtle way!

I hope you are following my hints… modes follow intervallic tendencies which Matt has illuded to, learning what those tendencies are will help you in the basics of learning your modes. :smiley:

I wouldn’t get hooked on these modes though as they are just the start of scale work on music, then you have eastern scales, while tone, half tone, half diminished scales, inverted scales, retrograde scales. Enough scales to keep you busy for a life time, and non of them are scary… they are all there to support your musical creativity :smiley:

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Yeah, I understand modes, I just found it strange that I’d never heard about them as a compositional tool until recently. I’m wondering if it’s a more common teaching point in the guitar world. I play guitar too, but I taught myself that instrument, so I never had a guitar teaching teaching me guitar curriculum.

When I compose, I think about chords and melodies. I think about scales and harmonies. And I understand that I’ve been using modes intuitively for a long long time, I just didn’t know their names.

I know them now, but I still don’t “think in modes” when I compose. So, as someone who was taught to use modes early on, do you “think in modes” when you compose?


Oh I see, I think it’s more of a classical thing to be honest. I’m s guitarist and I only learnt about 2 modes, Mixolydian and Lydian. Those were the cool ones to know I guess. It wasn’t until I was in A levels when I learnt them in my music classes.


Matt, when you were writing your Star Trek piece and you were using those modes to come up with harmonies, were you thinking specifically, “I’m going to use Dorian here,” or were you writing your parts and then said, “oh, look, that’s Dorian?”

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Yes, when I was deciding to write that piece, I specifically wanted to use the Mixolydian scale, as it being really close to a major scale, but with the b7, has a brighter sound, like a major scale, but not completely 'happy" and thus works well to give a piece a very grad, majestic sound. When doing my fantasy piece, “The Misty Realm” I also specifically targeted using the Dorian scale, as that scale was used extensively during the Middle Ages and in traditional Celtic/Irish music, so it works well to get that ‘fantasy’ sound.

On the other hand, with the new hybrid piece I mentioned, I wasn’t thinking anything specific, I just started plunking out chords and when I hit on something I liked, I analyzed the progression and saw that everything was pulling to D major, but I started on A minor.

Technically, I view this as a V-I but that would normally be Amaj to Dmaj, so Amin makes it lean overall to the key of G major. But since I avoided playing any G major chords, the pull to D major gives it a Mixolydian sound ( D being the V of G) and this became more apparent since my final cadence before going into D minor for the synth stuff, was Cmaj7 (no 5) – C – D. So here I’m playing the bVII to Root which is one of the defining characteristics of Mixolydian.

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I should add, to answer your question more specifically, that learning to recognize the actual sounds of the modes is very useful. Again, I’m referring to the basic Greek modes. Reason being, if you have an idea for some music and you know you want a specific sound to it, you will know which mode/modes to go directly to to get that sound. My Krampusnacht jingle, I knew I wanted it to sound dark and creepy, so I specifically tried to re-harmonize and reorder the melody of “Jingle Bells” using the Phrygian Dominant. if you wanted something to sound Spanish Flamenco or Arabian, go to that mode as well!


I have the exact experience as you. Been playing piano and guitar for a long time and only recently learned about the modes. The way I see it is; I write out what´s in my head and wants to get out. It´s up to others what they call it. Good, bad, Dorian, Lydian, it is what it is. That´s just me.


I use modes all the time, they are extremely common in film music. Over the years, the audience started associating them with specific feelings, and the feeling you get from the mode will depend on the tempo, instrumentation, and orchestration.

Ionian is neutral, but it can also sound happy or even:

Dorian can be:

Phrygian can be:

Lydian can be:

Mixolydian can be:

Aeolian can be:

Of course, you have other scales that are commonly used in film scoring such as the octatonic scale commonly used for chase scenes or villain themes

Pentatonic scale to evoque:

And many, many more. Of course, these are only a few examples, and not a ‘template to follow’. The key is ear training to recognize them and notice how they’re used and what feeling they give you / to the scene which will end up making you a better dramatist when scoring films. :smiley:

Hope this is useful


Great examples! I should have added that as well, that modal writing is important in modern film/game scoring. I think my compositions have gotten better due to using more modal writing. Before I was too “square” as my tutor used to say :smile:

I went through all of middle school and high school playing in the bands never having heard of modes in any capacity. It wasn’t until I was between high school and college when I bought a “music theory for dummies” book that I finally learned about modes and what they were. It seems silly to say, but it kinda blew my mind and felt like it opened up an entirely new world for me. Now, I pretty much have my own idea of what each mode conveys and I find myself preferring them over the regular major and minor mode, even unintentionally.


The short answer is… all the time.

When I was young I studied books on jazz improvisation and music theory, and focused specifically on learning chords, scales, and modes/modal scales on the guitar. I wanted to be a great guitar soloist, so I was very determined to learn the fundamentals of music and not just songs. Having that knowledge and awareness of scales and modes helped improve my improvisational skills and composition, but it took time to learn to use those technical tools in the proper context.

Modes really aren’t that difficult to understand, and once you “officially” know them you’ll realize that you’ve been using modes and modal scales without specifically knowing what the names were. When I’m composing I don’t consciously think “maybe I should try the Lydian mode”, because it’s a more natural and automatic process for me. A carpenter wouldn’t say “maybe I should hit this nail with a hammer”, because using that tool has become a natural automatic act through repetition and experience.

Modes are only one tool of many that are simultaneously used to create music, and they’re not really something to dwell on individually as you compose music. If you only dwell on modes as you compose, your result will likely be something that sounds more like a music school exercise than a fluid natural composition. I’ve heard many soloists and composers use things like whole tone scales or other exotic scales completely out of context because they were trying to impress the audience rather than serve the music.

Learn the different modes and the moods they evoke, and then use them in context as a tool among many to create compositions that effectively serve the purpose for which they were created.


Modes are hugely important in jazz. Especially the Dorian, Lydian and the variations of the Mixolydian, I have a book on Miles Davis on he uses the Mix b2b6 which I love. Jazz improvisors also learn especially all of the modes contained in the melodic minor scale, which can give you some exciting possibilities. The pentatonic scales also have modes and those are extremely useful too. Unfortunately I have not been able to apply them much to my electronic compositions but I am glad you posted this because that is something that I definitely need to think about so I can apply my knowledge of jazz to electronic genres. I actually stumbled across the modes when I was a kid as I learned the C scale starting on different degrees of the C scale to learn the entire fretboard and have more choices when soloing. I later learned when I was about 12 that I was actually playing modes. Then when Light My Fire by the Doors came out my guitar teacher mentioned that the guitar solo was in the dorian mode and I loved that because I did not understand how to improvise around the ii m and the iii m and it gave me the necessary framework. I think a really good application of the modes is to give you more interesting choices of passing tones, for example using the phrygian mode to go from the 10 to the root of the root of the chord via the flatted 9 or hit the root from the dominant 7 instead of the major 7th. As a jazz improviser I learned to use any mode at any time, it all comes down to judgement. I initially thought it would be jarring not to be totally consistent but at the time I still had not learned modal interchange and now see it how can be applied to make some nice variations on a theme or motif. I would really encourage you to master modal thinking because it can be used to create some really nice tension and resolution and add a great deal of variety and sophistication to your compositions. Interestingly enough am learning bluegrass improv right now and one neat trick is to use Dmin dorian over G major. You get some really tasty licks that way. So maybe modes are more taught as an improvisors tool mainly.

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Thanks for that list. i know what I am doing tomorrow!

Generally, i use modes and scales to start creating inside some rules that help me feel more medieval, celtic, arabian, sad, misterious… But it is not something i keep in mind all the time.
Now that you are in this stage, interested about modes, maybe you should also research about atonal chord systems. Very interesting for fastastic soundtrack feeling. A few rules that can offer amazing cadences.

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I am a self taught musician We put names on everything, tree, birds, house, my names,your name but its not a bird until you see it and hear it and touch it. Its not a house until you leave in it. Learning as two side You are about learn name but are you able to be part of the sound what is the sound that you are searching for Are you aware of this harmony were did you heard it When you heard it WHAT DID IT DO TO YOU that is the most important knowledge not the name but the liveness of it

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I learned to play guitar over thirty years ago. I learned modes from a book by Ralph Denyer and it was basically just different positions on the neck to solo in one particular scale.

As you know, a guitar has the frets up the neck rather than having sharps/flats set back in a different colour like a keyboard, so patterns and shapes are easily transferred from one key/scale to another.