Modes and Scales

For interest only, you don’t need to know any of the following.

The diatonic scale, also called the major scale, is derived from one of the seven modern western modes, in this case, the Ionian mode. This mode, like all the other six modes, uses the same set of notes as the major scale, in the same order but each mode has it’s tonic note starting from a different position. For instance, if we use the scale of C major, and start from a C on a keyboard, by moving up the scale we produce a series of intervals based on the tonic C note. Those intervals will be Tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone, tone, semitone. A set of intervals we are all very familiar with.i.e 1,2,.3,4,5,6,7. (Incidentally, diatonic comes from the Greek meaning ‘progressing through tones’).

That particular series of intervals is known as the Ionian Mode

However, in modern western music there are six other modes, and each one has it’s own unique set of intervals that are similar but not identical to this major scale intervals.

If we for instance played the scale of C on a keyboard i’e all the white notes, the intervals will be Ionian, as explained above. But if we now play exactly the same set of notes but now start instead on the next white note D, we will have played a Dorian mode. Starting on E will produce a Phrygian mode, F a Lydian mode, G a Mixolydian mode, A an Aeolian mode and finally B a Locrian mode,

Whilst many instrumentalists like jazz players for instance, will be familiar with all these modes and will incorporate them in their improvisations, fortunately, we are not required to use them all as you will see.┬áNow since every major scale has it’s own ‘relative minor’ scale, the relative minor for the C major scale is A minor and A as the 6th interval in the scale of C. So starting on A the intervals will be Tone, semitone, tone, tone, semitone, tone, tone. The interval sequence of all our minor scales. So we are therefore only really concerned with the Ionian and Aeolian modes. I.e major and minor scales. But it is nice to understand a bit of background to our musicianship don’t you think? No? Well, please yourself ;0)

As a p.s note. All these modes can be played starting on whatever note you fancy provided you stick to the unique set of intervals each mode requires. Also when we speak of the relative minor we mean the minor scale that will have exactly the same number of sharps or flats as the major scale it is related to. For instance, C major has no sharps or flats and it’s relative minor A minor also has no sharps or flats. Bb major has two flats and its relative minor G minor will have two flats and so on.

One final point, if you have a pitch pipe and why wouldn’t you, and you want to work out the relative minor to a particular major key, find the key note on your pitch pipe then count back three intervals (semitones) and you will have it. Just beware of the double F or double C pipes. and only count one F or one C.


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