Hoffman Academy Blog

Music Notes: Modes and Scales


Most piano students learn about the major and minor scales, but did you know there are other kinds of scales too? Mr. Alex is back this week to tell us about modes!

Different Kinds of Scales

The words “mode” and “scale” can be confusing because they are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same thing.

A scale is a collection or group of notes used to improvise or to write a musical composition. Scales are often represented by playing or displaying the notes one by one in ascending order. For example, the C major scale is CDEFGAB, then back to C. 

Scales can consist of as many as twelve pitches such as the chromatic scale (made entirely of half steps), or they can have as few as five pitches such as a Major Pentatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-So-La, or simply play the black keys). There are nearly countless different types of scales!

Modes: Greek to Me!

When musicians talk about modes, they’re usually referring to the seven Greek modes, which is what the ancient Greeks called scales. These specific modes or scales each had seven pitches and consist of five whole steps and two half steps. Each of the seven modes has its own unique sound. Let’s check these out on the piano, using the C Major and Minor scales as our base. We’ll include where to find each mode using only white keys as well! 

The “major” modes

  • Ionian: This one should sound familiar because it’s exactly the same as the Major scale!
    Half steps: between pitches 3-4 and 7-8
    C D E-F G A B-C
    On the white keys: C to C
  • Lydian is the brightest sounding mode. Take any major scale and raise the 4th note a half step to make the Lydian mode.
    Half steps: 4-5 and 7-8.
    C D E F#-G A B-C
    On the white keys: F to F
  • Mixolydian: Take any major scale and lower the 7th note a half step.
    Half steps: 3-4 and 6-7.
    C D E-F G A-Bb C
    On the white keys: G to G

The “minor” modes 

  • Aeolian: The same as the natural minor scale.
    Half steps: 2-3 and 5-6
    C D-Eb F G-Ab Bb C
    On the white keys: A to A
     
  • Dorian: Take the natural minor and raise the 6th a half step.
    Half steps: 2-3 and 6-7
    C D-Eb F G A-Bb C
    On the white keys: D to D
  • Phrygian: Take the natural minor and lower the 2nd a half step.
    Half steps: 1-2 and 5-6
    C-Db Eb F G-Ab Bb C
    On the white keys: E to E
  • Locrian: The “darkest” sounding mode changes two notes from the natural minor: Lower the 2nd and 5th notes a half step.
    Half steps: 1-2 and 4-5
    C-Db Eb F-Gb Ab Bb C
    On the white keys: B to B

Using the Modes

While there are countless possible types of scales with varying numbers of pitches and all different kinds of interval patterns, the Greek Modes are just seven of the more widely used scales. Try using the white key versions to make interesting melodies of your own!

Want to learn more about improvising? Check out these videos from Hoffman Academy!

  • Unit 2, Lesson 38 (Part 2): Improvisation in D Minor – this improvisation can be adapted for the D Dorian scale! Use Mr. Hoffman’s left hand pattern and include B and C in your right hand’s improv. 
  • Or, watch Unit 5, Lesson 87: Improvisation with Phrases, then try improvising Question and Answer phrases with the modes! 
  • We also have a YouTube playlist dedicated to Improvisation and Composition!

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