Scales - Playing Modes On A Guitar

This month we are going to play some modes and try to begin to hear the flavor of each one.

In this example we are going to play modes for the key of C major using closed scale fragments. It is a little easier to see the entire mode when you leave the open strings.

Just play the exact notes that are shown in pink (this should be a web safe color) and stop.

Listen to the sound of the mode. Try to play these examples a variety of ways. Play the phrase over and over again. Play it forward and backwards. And play each one once and then move to the next mode. The more ways you play these, the better you understand them.

When you play the Ionian mode notice how you end on the tonic note. This brings this phrase to rest. This means there is no tension in the Ionian mode when you are done.

The Dorian mode does have tension. Notice you are starting above tonic (B) and traveling through tonic and stopping slightly above tonic. This violates the tonal center because it disregards it. This inserts some tension and alludes to a need to travel. You have moved through tonic but you stopped soon after. This makes me feel like moving further away from tonic. So I get a sense of movement when playing the Dorian mode.

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Same with the Phrygian mode only more so. We are starting farther from tonic which lessens the feeling you get when you move. Starting farther away from tonic means the pull from tonic is not as strong so it is easier to break free. And when you play through tonic and go to E, you move farther away from tonic which lessens the gravitational pull. A key center is like gravity, it trys to pull into the center, which is tonic.

The Phrygian phrase stands on it's own. There is no strong pull off the E note. It is interesting to note the E note is in between the C and the G notes (the I and V notes). This phrase stops right in between these two strong notes and hangs in the balance. The C and G cancel each other out and the phrase is stable as it stops on this middle note.

The Lydian mode hangs between the major and minor tonal centers, the phrase stops at the F note which is the fourth degree. This phrases suggests you have arrived at the fourth when it ends. There is a fairy strong urge to leave the third and move to the fourth as this phrase ends. So as you get to the fourth, there is some stability. This mode is providing the sense we are building towards something. You would not end a piece with this mode but it would work well if you used it to build towards some climax and then end.

I have found that using the exact right finger assignments for these modes is very important. If you are using the right finger assignments as you play this scale, particularly as you switch from the G string to the B string, you should have no problem with these awkward phrases.

I find the Locrian mode inserts some tension because the phrase is not stable ending on the G note. The G is the fifth which is diametrically opposed from tonic and hardly a place to stop. G is a fifth above and a fourth below tonic. It is a strong move to leave tonic and land on the fifth, but the feeling to resolve or move on to another degree is intense. This phrase just hangs at the end.

The Aeolian mode is very interesting. Do you notice as you play this phrase you slipped into the minor key? Notice how the phrase starts with confidence on the A (tonic) note and ends on it too. Notice how as you play through the phrase you get a sense of movement and then a feeling of rest as you end on the minor tonal center keynote. The Aeolian mode is a weaker tonal center compared to the Ionian mode, but the level of sophistication skyrockets as you start to play the altered forms of this scale. This mode is an entrance to a whole new world of tonal possibilities, and the door is at the relative minor note. We could spend an entire year just dabbling inside this secret door!

The final mode is the Mixolydian mode. If you want a good example of a phrase with tension in it, play the mixolydian mode. It starts on a B note which is so close to tonic, you can hardly stay off it and then this phrase ends on the B note. The B note is one half step from tonic and there is an intense feelings to resolve. It is very unstable to stop here and this phrase hangs here waiting to be finished. When a piece ends with a phrase like this, I always want to end it in my head by humming the tonic note.


The final mode is the next occurrence of the Ionian mode. Remember you can just climb into the next register and do it all again.

Hopefully this will give you a sense of modal personalities and how they each have uses. If you play these modes for several weeks, I am certain their personality will emerge more every day.

Playing the modes is always a good exercise.