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A Complete Guide to Scale Modes in Music


The reality is, a vast majority of the music that is played on the radio is based on the Major Scale. It’s one of the most ubiquitous and well used pieces of music theory in the world, and is the foundation of a massive number of songs in the western world. There’s a lot of good reasons for that; the major scale is simple, easy to understand, and pleasing to listen to. It’s incredibly useful in a massive number of ways, and allows musicians to be able to boil down a lot of songs to a single common denominator. 


While most people identify this incredibly versatile scale as “The Major Scale,” there is actually another way to identify it: the Ionian Mode. The reality is, the major scale is just one of seven “Modes” that most western music is made up of. There’s a reason for Ionian being the most popular, but it’s important to recognize that it isn’t the only mode. Learning how to understand and make use of the six other Modes can expand your music in incredible ways, and start to truly bring new life to your songs. 


This is what Modes are in music, and how they can entirely change the way that you play and produce music. 


What are Modes in Music?


Generally speaking, modes are the foundation of a lot of western music. While the most common Modes are Ionian and Aeolian, the other five still find their way into many songs, and can give very specific and defined flavors in the music that they make. 


Something that’s interesting about modes is that if you’ve played a major scale, you’ve technically played all of the notes in all of the modes in correct order. The notes and their order technically stay the same; the only difference is where the scale starts. This means that the root note shifts to another note in the scale, but all the other notes stay the same. For example, if you were to play E Phrygian, you would use all the notes in the major scale, except you would start on the E, and follow those notes up to the E an octave above. 


Fundamentally, the notes remain the same, but the overall focusing point of the scale is different. This adds a very interesting flavor to the sound, and can bring out new emotions and feelings from the music. Often, these modes will sound a little foreign and off the beaten path compared to just regular major and minor scales. 


What are the Seven Different Modes?


The seven modes in western music are all just a little bit different, and often share a lot of notes and intervals with other modes. But even those small note changes can make massive differences in the chordal structures and melodies of songs composed around those modes. Here are the seven modes, and what they do in the context of modern music. 


This is the most common mode by far, and is often known as the major scale. It’s typically the most consonant and easy to listen to, and is often used as the home point with which to compare the other scales to. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7 – 1


The Dorian mode is a very interesting sounding mode. It generally feels very dark and minor, but the major 6 in the scale brings a bit more light and movement to the overall feeling of the mode. It sounds melancholic, but with perhaps a little bit more hope than a regular minor scale. The third and seventh scale degrees are flattened in Dorian. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2 – 3b – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7b – 1


The Phrygian mode is very similar to a traditional minor scale, except for the second scale tone being minor instead of major. This lends to a slightly more unstable and ethereal sound, which can be very exciting in places where regular Aeolian would be the default choice. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2b – 3b – 4 – 5 – 6b – 7b – 1


The Lydian mode is very similar to a regular Ionian (or Major) scale, except the fourth scale degree is sharpened. That extra distance from the tonic gives Lydian a slightly unsettled and unstable sound, which can be very exciting in many musical contexts. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – D – E – F# – G – A – B – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4# – 5 – 6 – 7 – 1


Mixolydian is also very similar to a major scale, except for the seventh scale degree being flattened one semitone. This gives it a more exotic, but also subjectively warmer sound in comparison to a regular major scale. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – D – E – F – G – A – Bb – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7b – 1


Aeolian is what most people commonly refer to as the “Natural Minor Scale.” It’s a very dark and moody sounding mode, and tends to sound either melancholic or angry, depending on the context of the music. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – D – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2 – 3b – 4 – 5 – 6b – 7b – 1


Locrian is a fairly uncommon mode, even amongst all the other modes. It can be very confusing to listen to and play due to all of the flats in the scale, but can still be used to great effect in many contexts. 

-Notes with C as the Tonic: C – Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C

-Scale Degrees compared to Ionian: 1 – 2b – 3b – 4 – 5b – 6b – 7b – 1


How Can One Use Different Modes in Their Playing?


Understanding how music modes work in regular contexts can be a fairly confusing thing. However, when musicians can truly master and make use of all the different colors that modes provide, they can make music that is truly incredible. Most music is made in the Major scale, and when musicians break out of that box, they tend to stand out to an incredible degree. Learning how to use modes puts a large amount of proverbial colors in musicians’ palates, and can lead to songs that truly break boundaries and sound unique


How Unison can Help


While modes certainly add a new level of color to a musician’s tool belt, another way to expand the sounds available is to change other features of a song, the like sounds themselves. Unison is here to provide a full range of new sounds to all kinds of songs with its incredible Unison Serum collection. These are all professionally curated presets that you can take and use in your own projects and songs, and might even become the hallmark of your next hit. 


If you’re looking for new ways to add a human element to your songs, look no further than Unison’s Vocal Series of packs for musicians. These expertly recorded sample packs can add new life and excitement to your tracks, and take them from good to great. 


Unison wants to see musicians succeed in their dreams of creating excellent music. If you want to truly take your music to the next level, look to Unison. Your greatest music is ahead of you, and Unison is here to get you there. 






Modes: What are they and how do I use them? | ClassicFM


What are musical modes in music theory? | Skoove


The Many Moods of Musical Modes | Musical U




Producer Flow – Pink Noise



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