Major-Scale Modes: From Bright to Dark

The “modes of the major scale” are created by playing the major scale starting on a scale degree other than the root. For example, when the C-Major is played starting on its second note D, the resulting scale is referred to as D-Dorian. Dorian is the second mode of Major. The major-scale modes are also referred to as “diatonic modes”.

The following table shows all modes, their names, and whole-half-step composition.

Mode Name Formula
1st Ionian (Major) W-W-H-W-W-W-H
2nd Dorian W-H-W-W-W-H-W
3rd Phrygian H-W-W-W-H-W-W
4th Lydian W-W-W-H-W-W-H
5th Mixolydian W-W-H-W-W-H-W
6th Aeolian (Natural Minor) W-H-W-W-H-W-W
7th Locrian H-W-W-H-W-W-W

What the mode really describes though is the sound of the major scale against different roots. E.g. D-Dorian is the sound of the C-Major scale agains the root of D.  Anyone with a piano can try this out by playing different roots in the bass and the scale in the right. Random melodic lines based on the scale over different bass notes bring out the sound of the mode even better.

In order to hear the different tonal colors created by the modes even better, one can keep the root steady and change the scale. For example in order to compare the sound of Dorian versus Ionian, one could play C in the bass for the root. The Ionian mode is the same as Major, so to get the Ionian sound, one would play random melodic material in the key of C-Major. In order to compare that to the sound of Dorian, one would keep the C in the bass but switch to playing random melodic material in Bb-Major, as the second mode of Bb-Major is C-Dorian.

Here is a complete list of all modes in C and what Major scale/key they correspond to.

Mode Name Major Scale
1st C-Ionian (Major)C-Major
2nd C-DorianBb-Major
3rd C-PhrygianAb-Major
4th C-LydianG-Major
5th C-MixolydianF-Major
6thC-Aeolian (Natural Minor)Eb-Major
7th C-LocrianDb-Major

The modes can be systematically ordered by how “bright” or “dark” they sound. The most common distinction of “bright vs. dark” is made by determining if the the mode’s third is major or minor, in which case the whole mode is referred to as major or minor. The same principle can be applied to all the remaining intervals. The more of them are minor, the darker the sound.

The following diagrams show all seven modes in C mapped onto a cicrle of fifths. I talked about these diagrams in a previous post. The benefit of this representation is that one can immediately see how many flattened notes are in a given mode: Any red dots to the left of the C (top) are flattened, all the ones to the right are major.

The diagrams show the half-circle of red dots rotating counter-clockwise with each mode. For example going from Ionian to Mixolydian the B is flattened to Bb: That means the red dot under B moves from the lower right almost diagonally across the circle to the upper left under the Bb.

Generally speaking when presented in this order (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, Locrian) each successive mode has one additional flattened note.

Though perception of these modes is certainly an individual experience most listeners would probably agree that modes go from sounding bright and happy to dark and gloomy in this order.


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2 Responses to Major-Scale Modes: From Bright to Dark

  1. Sreevatsan Natarajan says:

    Thanks Frank!!!

  2. Rob says:

    Interesting how the Lydian “uses up” it’s half internal steps at the end of the mode; making it bright.

    While Locrian “uses up” its whole tones nearer the end of the mode; keeping it ‘dark’

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