Music Theory

What are Modes in Music Theory?

By Jesse Preis

Learn all about music modes in this article

Most piano students learn about the major and minor scales, but did you know that there are many other kinds of scales? Today we are discussing musical modes which originated a very long time ago in ancient Greece. Today’s major and minor scales in Western music are derived from modes, just like the English language has borrowed prefixes and suffixes from Greek and Latin. In a way, modes in music are like the older cousins of today’s major and minor scales. Fun fact: the word “mode” comes from the Latin word for method, so modes in music are simply another type of method or musical formula for picking which notes to play in a melody.

Want a quick reference guide on music modes? Download our FREE Piano Modes Quick Guide now. This guide is a colorful one-page reference that shows each mode in the key of C.

You can also download our more comprehensive Modes Packet (10 pages) which includes an explanation of how modes are constructed plus charts for all modes in every key signature.

How many musical modes are there?

There are seven main modes in music that a musician should be familiar with. These are named ionian (also known as the major scale), dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian (also known as the natural minor scale), and locrian

You may be unfamiliar with these names and wondering where they come from. Each of these names came from people and places in Greek history, such as the Ionian, Dorian, and Aeolian groups of people. The name of the locrian mode comes from the Greek region of Locris.

The different sound of each mode comes from the different pattern of whole steps and half steps in relation to the starting note. Modes in music have five whole steps and two half steps, and for each mode those half steps will come in different places.

Are music modes major or minor?

The ionian mode is also called the major scale and the aeolian mode is also called the natural minor scale. Most of the other musical modes are not really major or minor scales, but they are definitely related. 

Each mode can be played using the white keys on a piano. For example:

Ionian: C D E F G A B C

Dorian: D E F G A B C D

Phrygian: E F G A B C D E

Lydian: F G A B C D E F

Mixolydian: G A B C D E F G

Aeolian: A B C D E F G A

Locrian: B C D E F G A B

Music Modes Similar to the Major Scale

Ionian: This musical mode should sound familiar because it’s also known as the major scale! The half steps in this mode are between pitches 3-4 and 7-1. To play this mode, use the white keys on the piano starting on C: C D E-F G A B-C. If you’d like to hear this mode, pick any song in a major key. Many Hoffman songs could be an excellent example–in fact, Five Woodpeckers uses the first 5 notes of the major scale!

Lydian is the brightest sounding musical mode. To play this mode, take any major scale and raise the 4th note a half step. The half steps are between pitches 4-5 and 7-1. If you’re starting on C, the notes are C D E F♯-G A B-C. Another example of the Lydian mode can be played entirely on the white keys if you begin and end the scale on F. To hear this mode, I suggest listening to Alkan’s Étude Op. 35, No. 5, Allegro barbaro.

Mixolydian: Take any major scale and lower the 7th note a half step. So now the half steps are between 3-4 and 6-7. If you’re beginning with C, the notes will be C D E-F G A-B♭ C. You can also play a Mixolydian mode with only white keys by starting and ending on G. A popular musical example that was written in a mixolydian mode is Paperback Writer” by The Beatles.

Music Modes Similar to the Natural Minor Scale

Aeolian: This is the same as the natural minor scale. The half steps are between 2-3 and 5-6. To play this on the piano, play the following notes: C D-E♭ F G-A♭ B♭ C. By starting and ending on A, you can use only white keys to play the aeolian mode. The Hoffman Academy song Wild Horses uses the aeolian mode!

Dorian is a really interesting sounding mode. To play this mode, take the natural minor and raise the 6th note a half step, such as C D-E♭ F G A-B♭ C. The half steps are between 2-3 and 6-7. Also, play the dorian mode by playing all the white keys from D to D. Examples of the dorian scale that you can listen to include “Scarborough Fair” by Simon And Garfunkel.

The Phrygian mode is the most somber sounding mode. Take the natural minor scale and lower the 2nd note a half step. You will notice that the half steps are between 1-2 and 5-6. To play this, play the following notes: C-D♭ E♭ F G-A♭ B♭ C. Or, you can play all the white keys from E to E! A musical example of the phyrgian mode is Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques: No. 2. Là-bas, Vers L’église by Maurice Ravel.

Locrian: This is probably the strangest sounding music mode. To find the locrian mode you only need to change two notes from the natural minor: lower the 2nd and 5th notes a half step. The half steps will be between 1-2 and 4-5. To play locrian by beginning and ending on C, play the following notes: C-D♭ E♭ F-G♭ A♭ B♭ C. You can also play all the white keys from B to B. A great musical example of the locrian mode is Benjamin Britten’s carol “In Freezing Winter Night”.

Examples of modes in music


Five Woodpeckers

Prelude in C Major – J.S. Bach

Scarborough Fair” – Simon And Garfunkel

“Thriller” – Michael Jackson


Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques: No. 2. Là-bas, Vers L’église – Maurice Ravel

Phrygian Gates – John Adams


Étude Op. 35, No. 5, Allegro barbaro – Charles-Valentin Alkan


Paperback Writer” – The Beatles

The Wexford Carol


Wild Horses

“God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” 


“In Freezing Winter Night” – Benjamin Britten

We hope you’ve had fun exploring musical modes! Get this free guide to quickly review modes in music on the piano! To learn more about different scales and how to play them, check out Hoffman Academy’s Minor Scales Fingering Guide and Hoffman Academy’s Major Scales Fingering Guide. For more piano resources, sign up for our Premium membership!

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