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5 Jul 2020

Basic music theory part 2: Intro into modes

instruments Basic music theory part 2: Intro into modes

What is modality?

Modality is a way to point out with what kind of scales we are dealing with. This way we could understand when to apply these and gives us an upportunity to calculate changes with accompanied scales to screate melodies or solo's.

There is a music genre, called modal jazz, what is introduces by Miles Davis. With this genre we mean that a chord isn't just Major, Minor, Diminished or Dominant, but he composed sonds / standard using modes. For example, you could play a Dm7 chord and determine that only Dorian or Frygian should be used for melody or improvisation. It takes time and effort to learn a jazz standard, but to learn the different modes to be used is a whole other level of difficulty.

Parts of scales


Every note in a scale has a name that is related to it's function and a number to indicate it's position in the scale. These positions are called degrees. Degrees are expressed in Roman- or regular numbers:

  • 1st (I) – Tonic / Prime
  • 2nd (II) – Supertonic / Second
  • 3rd (III) – Mediant / Third
  • 4th (IV) – Subdominant / Fourth
  • 5th (V) – Dominant / Fifth
  • 6th (VI) – Submediant / Sixth
  • 7th (VII) – Subtonic or Leading Tone / Seventh
  • 8th (VIII) – Tonic / Octave


We've discussed intervals in the first part of the series. As with scales, the intervals (steps) are already determined. Meaning that between the 1 (tonic) and a degree that you would like to use, there's a known specific interval that needs to be used. If we look at the 3 (mediant), it can be played 4 ways:

  • Major third, 2 whole tones
  • Minor third, 1 whole and a semitone
  • Diminished third, 2 whole tones
  • Augmented, 1 whole and 1,5 tones (2,5 tones)

How do you count these tones or steps?

On the piano it's that 1 key, means a half step / semitone. Between the B and the C is no black keys, between these notes it's a half step (semitone) interval. This also goes for E and F.

On the guitar it's that 1 fret, means a half step / semitone. Between the E and the A string are 5 x 0,5 semitones. That's a total of 2 whole steps and a half step to get to the A on your E string.

Musical modes


These scales are an improvement coming from the Roman Liturgy in the Catholic church. The music was used so prayers were easier to learn. Thanks to the music people could easily learn the prayers so they can cite it by memory. Musical notation stems from the gregorian music from that era. If you look at the music present day, it's use is no different from then. Someone has a message, experience or story to tell and it's told using music.

This is one of the most powerful things that, someone who has a message to spread, gets engraved in our minds. The part where music is stored in our brain, is one of the last parts to die off with someone that's suffering from dementia or Alzheimer's disease. These persons usually need help with the most basic acts of everyday life and even the skill of language could fade away. But sometimes, if you play songs, hymns or lullabies that they know well before becoming ill, they will sing a long just like everyone else!


In it's foundation there are 7 degrees, so there are 7 modes:

  • 1st (I) – Ionian
  • 2nd (II) – Dorian
  • 3th (III) – Phrygian
  • 4th (IV) – Lydian
  • 5th (V) – Mixolydian
  • 6th (VI) – Aeolian
  • 7th (VII) – Locrian

At 8 we come back to Ionian. The list start over and continues with 9th Dorian, 10th Frygian and so on.


In music there is tension to be build and resolved. Every degree has it's own qualities in doing so. The function of degree-qualities can help you if you are looking for a set of notes or chords that build or relieve tension.

Every mode has it's own flavour of major or minor. You can recognize this by looking at the Mediant (III) and to see if it's 'big' or 'small'. The big third gives a Major (big, happy) sound and a small third give a Minor (melancholic, sad). A major third is 2 whole tones and a minor third is 1,5 tones away from the tonic.

To see what kind of third you are dealing with you'd have to count the tones / steps / interval. As you can see in the illustrations below, a C with a major third (E) is shown. This will produce a happier sound than a C with a minor third (Eb) that is shown below the major.

Beneath are the steps visualized and you will hear, first, the tonic and then the third followed by the whole scale in the sound samples. This way you can really see and hear the distinction between major and minor, happy and sad.




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