Seven Modes, Three Primary Colors

Seven Modes, Three Primary Colors

Many of us learned modes by using the white keys on the piano.   This is not a very satisfactory way to learn, since it makes it much harder to identify modes in other keys.   Instead of relating modes to white keys, let’s think of modes as having one of three primary “colors”:  Major, Minor, or Diminished.

My students like to divide the modes into groups they call “major-ish” and “minor-ish”.  They invented and especially like the tongue twister “diminished-ish”, but you can take that one with a grain of salt.

“Major-ish” modes:

  • Ionian – exactly the same as major.
  • Lydian – exactly the same as major, except the fourth is raised.
  • Mixolydian – exactly the same as major, except the seventh is lowered.

“Minor-ish” modes: 

  • Aeolian – exactly the same as natural minor.
  • Dorian – exactly the same as natural minor, except the sixth is raised.
  • Phrygian – exactly the same as natural minor, except the second is lowered.

“Diminished-ish” mode:

  • Locrian – begins with a half step like phrygian, but has a lowered fifth, which creates a diminished fifth with the tonic.

In real life, composers don’t just write in one mode.   A great piece will go back and forth between modes, using the elements of “major-ish” modes to create a piece which is primarily in major, or do the same with “minor-ish” modes.

You can practice listening to the modes by playing any major key then altering it to lydian and then mixolydian.   Then play natural minor in any key and alter it to dorian and phrygian.   When you’ve become a mode expert, try locrian!!

Are you ready to try out your new mode-identification skills?   Here are some steps to help students and composers identify the seven modern musical modes –  Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian.  Becoming familiar with these steps will also help when you are writing in a particular mode.

For each piece in the listening quiz:

1. Listen for the tonal center.  Clues will be opening or closing chords, cadences, leading tones or the lack of a leading tone.   The lowered seventh degree of a scale is called the “subtonic”.  The subtonic is a whole step below the tonic and the leading tone is a half step below the tonic. When you listen to any piece for the first time, see if you can sing the tonic.

2. Determine if the piece is “major-ish” or “minor-ish”.  There will often be chords or arpeggios at the beginning or end that will help you determine this characteristic.  If there don’t seem to be any good clues, perhaps it’s  “diminished-ish”!   That would narrow down the choices of modes, wouldn’t it?

3. For “major-ish” or “minor-ish” pieces, ask first if it is simple major (Ionian) or natural minor (Aeolian).  Try to sing the scale that is being used in the piece and notice if/how it differs from Ionian or Aeolian.  If it does indeed differ, listen for the ONE NOTE that makes the underlying scale one of the other modes.   Consult your memory or your mode chart to see which mode fits the scale you’ve identified.

Using the three steps above, identify the mode of each example below.  The correct answers are listed at the bottom of this article.  Don’t peek ahead of time!

This time we’re listening to short pieces rather than examples from the classical repertoire.  Classical composers often move from one tonality to another and from one mode to another, so we’ll first learn modes with some folk music

Example 1: A haunting and lovely traditional Irish folk song, “She Moved Through the Fair”:

Example 2: A traditional song from Yorkshire, Great Britain, made famous by Simon & Garfunkle – “Scarborough Fair”:

Example 3: A haunting, unusual song originally recorded by Celtic musician, John Kirkpatrick. This excellent version is by Jon Boden. The song is “Dust to Dust”.

Here are the correct answers:

  1.  “She Moved Through the Fair” – Don’t be misled by the mournful, sad feel of the piece.  Many students have guessed Aeolian for this piece, because it sounds “sad”.  The correct mode of this piece is Mixolydian.  Listen for the lowered seventh and the major chords, and notice that the beginning melody outlines a major pentachord.
  2. “Scarborough Fair” –  It’s definitely “minor-ish”, isn’t it?  Listen carefully for that raised sixth degree on the word “Rosemary” and you will correctly identify this mode as Dorian.
  3. “Dust to Dust” – If you heard anything “major-ish” or “minor-ish” in this example, you weren’t listening closely enough.  This somewhat macabre song is in the rarely-used Locrian mode.

When you feel comfortable with the seven modes, you may want to advance to a higher level of recognizing modes:   Modal Listening Practice

Scroll to Top