Introduction to Scales and Modes

The Music Room
To Mariachi Music Styles

Scales and Modes

What Are Modes?

Major and Minor Scales

Other Scales

Ancient Modes


What Are Modes?
If a sound tickles your ear, you may be hearing a mode. 

Have you ever listened to a piece of music and thought it sounded strange to your ear?  You were probably hearing modes, which are scales that were used over a thousand years ago!  

Modes are scales.  Some modes sound familiar to our ear while others sound very strange. 

Here is a picture of the C Major scale.  It has eight tones, each tone moving higher than the last. 

Modes (scales) are patterns of notes that move by half-steps (2 notes next to one another on the piano) and whole-steps (2 notes separated by a note on the piano).

 Can you identify half-steps and whole-steps on this keyboard?

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Major and Minor Scales

Do you like ice cream?  If you answered yes, you will understand how scales work.

Just like there are many flavors of ice cream, so there are many different "flavors" of scales.  You can't taste scales, but you can hear them.  

I bet you know the most popular flavor of ice cream.  If you guessed vanilla you'd be right!  Do you know the second most popular flavor of ice cream?  Right again!  It's chocolate.  

Major scales are like vanilla ice cream because they are the most popular scales in music.  Minor scales are like chocolate ice cream because they are the second most popular scales used today.  

The difference between these two scales is simple: the minor scale has more half steps than the major scale.  Can you hear the difference between a major scale and minor scale?  (Hint: Listen closely to the third and sixth tones.)      

To play the C major scale, find the note C (to the left of the two black keys) and play only white notes up to the next C.   

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Other Scales

Can you think of some really weird flavors of ice cream?  Ever tried Rum Raisin?  How about Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia?  Just like these strange flavors, there are also some really strange sounding scales.  Let's look at some of them.  

A scale made up of just half steps is called a chromatic scale.  This scale has twelve tones rather than the usual eight.  

A scale made of whole tones is called a whole-tone scale.  This scale has just seven tones.

A scale with just five tones is called the pentatonic scale.  (Penta means five and tonic means tone.)  If you played just the black keys on the piano, this would be a pentatonic scale.   

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Ancient Modes

Now we come to modes.  Remember that were used over a thousand years ago!  They were not very popular during the last 200 years, but they made a comeback recently.  

Modes came to us from Greece.  They made their way to Rome, where the Catholic Church picked them up.  The Church kept their old Greek names. They are Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian, and Ionian modes.  

These modes are still used today.  To hear an early Church tune that uses the Dorian mode, click here.

Don't get the idea that modes are just for old music.  The Beatles used the Dorian mode in one of their most famous songs, Eleanor Rigby.     

Let's look at the rest of these strange and wonderful modes.

Dorian Mode

This is the most widely used mode  You can play it by starting on D (the white key between the two black keys) and play just the white keys to the next D.  This mode is easy to remember: Dorian begins with D and the scale stars on D.  You'll never forget this mode. It is like a major scale with a flat 3rd and a flat 7th note.

Phrygian Mode


This mode begins on E.  Play all the white key up to the next E.  It has a very sad sound and is heard in lots of Spanish, Hebrew, and Gypsy music.  It is the only mode that begins with a half-step.  Composers use this mode when they want their music to sound Oriental.  It is like a major scale with 2 - 3 - 6 - 7 played flat.    

Lydian Mode


This mode sounds almost the same as the major scale.  It has an odd-sounding 4th note.  Start on F and play all the white keys up to the next F. It is a major scale with a sharp 4.

Mixolydian Mode

This has a long name, but is simple to play.  Start on G and play all the white keys up to the next G.  This also sounds like the major scale, but it has a strange-sounding 7th tone.  It's used a lot in rock and roll and jazz music.   It is a major scale with a flat 7th note.   

Aeolian Mode


Just like its name, this mode begins on A.  Start on A and play all the white keys up to the next A.  This is also called the natural minor scale. It is a major scale with a flat 3 - 6 - 7.

Locrian Mode

This mode sounds so strange it is almost never used.  It begins and ends on B.  You can forget this one. It is a major scale with a flat 2 - 3 - 5 - 6 - 7.

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For more on scales and modes go to:

Music Theory Lesson 8 - Major Scales

Music Theory Lesson 12b - Minor Scales

Music Theory Lesson Lesson 12c - Scales and Modes


Modes have not been used a lot in the last 200 years.  That changed during the Impressionistic period  when composers like Claude Debussy started using modes in their music.  He liked them and knew the public would enjoy these "new" sounds.   

Fetes is the name of a piece Debussy wrote.  It means Festival.  He used lots of different modes in this piece to give it an exciting, fresh sound.  

We open with a driving rhythm played five notes apart.  You can't tell if it's major or minor. 

Underneath this rhythm appears a swirling dance tune, played in the Dorian mode.  

Next you'll hear the piece switch the Lydian mode

A few seconds later you'll hear the jazzy Mixolydian mode.  

Wow!  In the first 30 seconds, Debussy has already used three modes!  

In the middle section Debussy returns to the Dorian mode, then switches to the Mixolydian mode.  

Can you name the modes that have been used so far?  If you guessed Dorian, Lydian,. and Mixolydian, you'd be right!

And so it goes, one mode after another.  

Before we finish, listen to the dance and the procession tunes.  They're both in the Dorian mode.  Can you hear when they come crashing together?  This is the most thrilling part of the piece and comes near the end. 

Remember: If a sound tickles your ear, you may be hearing a mode. 

Now you are ready to listen to Fetes from beginning to end.  You won't be disappointed.


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