When learning any new musical concept I like to “explore” the possible sounds seemingly ad infinitum until they become part of my musical vocabulary. Until I can’t help but play them on my instrument because it is what I hear. One of the first times I intentionally did something like this was when learning and becoming familiar with the modes of the major scale. I remember countless hours playing along to bass note drones recorded on loop pedal (or in the earlier days along to my electronic tuner’s chromatic pitches… that was rough). I think of this “exploration” as a simultaneous method of ear-training and muscle memory. Your ears will slowly teach you how each individual note sits and resolves in the context of each mode. Sometimes it may be necessary to force new concepts into your playing but the end goal should be training your ears and muscles to work together.
I recently compiled some YouTube backing tracks for a bass student who was just learning about modes. Searching for such a thing can be extremely hit or miss so I thought to put what I prepared for my student out there for others to utilize.
Use this post as a resource for practicing or teaching the modes of C major. Try playing notes from C major over each backing track to hear how different they can sound in relation to different bass notes. If you don’t already know the notes from C major then check out my free eBook Guitar Geography to get up to speed.
I suspect that most of the audience reading this blog already knows the theory behind modes so I won’t bore you with that. However, if you would be interested in another post on the theory behind modes, please get in touch. You can email me at Lane@GarnerGuitar.com or find me on social media.
Commonly used modes
These are some of the more commonly used modes and are therefore a good starting point. Take your time with this process, it is not a race to the finish. Slowly train your ears how each note sounds against each bass note.
C D E F G A B
1 2 3 4 5 6 7
First mode of C major
This is the same as the C major scale. Avoid landing on the fourth note of the mode (F). This note sounds dissonant because it is a half-step above the third of the chord (E).
D E F G A B C
1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Second mode of C major
This is one of the go-to minor scales in jazz and is 3/4ths of the song that people most associate with modal jazz: “So What” by Miles Davis. The 6th note (A) is the defining note of this mode.
G A B C D E F
1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Fifth mode of C major
This mode is one of the best choices for an unaltered dominant chord- like in a blues. It is also used as a type of key center in modal funk music. Avoid landing on the fourth note (C) because it clashes with the third of the chord (B). Think of it as a G major scale with a flatted seventh.
F G A B C D E
1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Fourth mode of C major
The lydian scale and maj7#11 chord sound “spacey” in a way. They are used a lot in modern jazz and can be a great substiution for a plain and boring maj7 chord. You can think of lydian as an F major scale with a raised fourth. Remember how we had to avoid the fourth note in the ionian mode because clashed with the third of the chord? That is not the case with lydian because the fourth is raised. In fact, the raised fourth is the defining note of the mode.
A B C D E F G
1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Sixth mode of C major
Aeolian is the modal name for the natural minor scale. A minor is the relative minor of C major. This is a bit of an over-generalization, but you can use dorian for minor songs in more “jazzy” contexts and aeolian for minor chords in more rock/pop contexts. The aeolian mode certainly has its place in jazz but this disctincition can get you started.
Less common modes
If you feel like jumping into the deep end then go right ahead but I would suggest becoming very familiar with the previous four modes before spending too much time with these. While being slightly less common these modes have very unique and useful sounds when the situation is right.
B C D E F G A B
1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
Seventh mode of C major
This mode has a strange sounding name and a bit of a strange sound. It is a good mode to use for min7(b5) chords. Reminder: another name for minor7(b5) is half-diminished. Locrian flats every note of the major scale but the fourth and, obviously, the root.
E F G A B C D
1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Phrygian is one of my favorite modes of the major scale. It sounds dark and exotic. It seems to float and never resolve. This mode has one less flatted note than locrian- retaining the natural fifth.
Patience and persistence
It SHOULD take a long time to fully grasp these sounds. A firm grasp on the modes of the major scale will not only make you a better improviser but will also inform you down the line when you are ready to learn about modes from other scales like melodic minor and harmonic minor. Practice with these tracks often and be patient. If you work on these seven modes consistently they will eventually become a part of your musical vocabulary. You will be able to hear them and play them without thinking. Once you feel comfortable with these seven modes it is time to apply it to the other eleven keys. Seven modes for all twelve keys equals eighty-four modes. You’d better get practicing.