You might have heard about the Ancient Greek modes before, but what are they?

How are the music modes different from major and minor keys, and in what kind of music can you find them?

There’s a lot that could be said about each of the modes and their history, but this post will be an overview of what (and where) they are.

So without further ado, meet the modes:

1. Ionian (Major) Mode

What is It?

Ionian mode is the same as major mode, based on a major scale. So, imagine all of the white keys on a piano fro C to C, or C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C.

That’s one example of a major or Ionian scale. An upbeat, happy sound.

Where Is it?

Everywhere! The majority of music written since the middle of the sixteenth century is in a major key (a.k.a. Ionian mode). It is the most common of the music modes by far.

There are so many examples it’s hard to know where to start, but one of my favorite examples is Joy to the World. It begins with a major scale:

2. Dorian Mode

What is It?

Dorian mode is based on all the white keys on a piano from D to D, or D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D. Now you have a Dorian scale.

It’s similar to a minor scale, but with a raised sixth scale degree. It sounds smooth and sophisticated. Like minor mode, but jazzier.

Where is It?

This mode is found a lot in jazz and blues music. It’s also used in some folk music, like this English melody:

3. Phrygian Mode

What is It?

Phrygian mode is similar to a minor scale, but with a lowered second scale degree. Picture all the white keys on a piano from E to E, or E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E. That’s a Phrygian scale.

It has a vague and unsettled sound. Like minor mode, but weirder and more mysterious.

Where is It?

There are quite a few classical pieces that use Phrygian mode. It’s also common in jazz and film music.

Check out Howard Shore’s Phrygian “Lament for Gandalf” from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack:

4. Lydian Mode

What is It?

A Lydian scale is like a major scale but with a lowered fourth scale degree. Think of all the white keys on a piano from one F to another, or F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F. That’s one example of a Lydian scale.

Its sound is curiously bright and dreamlike. Like major mode, but with a whimsical twist.

Where is It?

Lydian mode is popular among jazz musicians. Some classical composers (most notably, Beethoven) have used it. A lot of traditional Polish music uses it as well.

It’s also found in film and television scores, like this famous theme song anyone who watched a lot of cartoons growing up will probably recognize:

5. Mixolydian Mode

What is It?

Mixolydian mode is close to a major scale, but with a lowered seventh scale degree. Think of all the white piano keys from G to G, or G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G. That’s an example of Mixolydian mode.

It has a bright, bluesy, eccentric quality to it. Similar major mode, but with more of an edge.

Where is It?

This is a very popular mode in jazz music. It can also be found in the music of composers like J.S. Bach, Claude Debussy and Ralph Vaughn Williams.

Debussy makes use of this mode in his Sunken Cathedral prelude:

6. Aeolian (Minor) Mode

What is It?

Aeolian mode is the same as minor mode, based on a natural minor scale. Imagine all of the white keys on a piano from A to A, or A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A. That is a minor or Aeolian scale.

It is the second-most popular of the music modes (after Ionian). A very melancholic sound.

Where is It?

Again, there are a ton of examples of songs in Aeolian (or minor) mode. This one is a famous Civil War melody:

7. Locrian Mode

What is It?

Locrian mode is the rarest of all the modes. Imagine all the white keys on a piano from one B to another, B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B. That’s Locrian mode.

You could also think of it as a natural minor scale with the second and fifth scale degrees lower.

From B to F is something called a tritone, which is one half-step smaller than a perfect fifth. This interval is pretty unpleasant…so unpleasant, in fact, that it was nicknamed “The Devil’s Interval” and banned by the church for centuries.

That made Locrian mode off-limits for many composers for a long time, which is it is much less commonly found.

Anything in Locrian mode sounds dissonant, off-kilter, and disconcerting. Like minor mode, but make it creepier.

Where is It?

Again, it’s harder to find Locrian pieces. There is one really good example from Dmitri Shostakovich’s Three Fantastic Dances.

The first movement is the March sometimes, called Allegretto, is written in Locrian mode:

And that’s the summary of music modes. Which one is your favorite?

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