Music Theory

What's The Difference Between Music Modes and Music Scales? [Video]

By Hoffman Academy Team
What's the Difference Between Modes and Scales in Music?

What’s the difference between modes and scales in music?

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 in music! The music modes we’re talking about today originated long ago in ancient Greece. Today’s major and minor scales in Western music are derived from modes, just like the English language borrows prefixes and suffixes from Greek and Latin. In a way, modes 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.

What are scales?

Musical scales are set patterns of tones or pitches. Basically, when a composer creates some music, instead of using all the infinite number of possible notes that can be made, they choose a set of notes that sound good together and relate to each other in ways that people have been experimenting with and experiencing for centuries. Common types of scales include major and minor scales, which have eight tones with a specific pattern of half steps and whole steps. There are many other kinds of scales, such as pentatonic scales, which have only five tones, or chromatic scales, which have twelve tones all separated by half steps. Classical music from India has many, many scales, with a variety of patterns and numbers of notes. You can learn more about different kinds of scales from around the world here.

Should I learn scales or modes first?

Modes are actually a type of scale, so if you’re learning a mode, you’re learning a scale. It’s typical for piano students to focus on learning to play major and minor scales first. The major scale is the same as the Ionian mode, and the natural minor scale is the same as Aolian mode. So, if you’ve been learning to play major and minor scales, you’re learning some modes already!

Once you’ve learned a scale, you can play all seven modes using the notes of that scale simply by starting and ending on a different note. The key signature will remain the same for all seven modes played on that scale. What changes is the tonic note, which is the note the mode begins and ends on. In a piece of music, the tonic acts as a home base for both chords and melody line, and is the note the melody will probably end on. 

Different kinds of scales in music

The words “mode” and “scale” can be confusing because they are sometimes used interchangeably. A scale is a collection of notes used to improvise or to write a musical composition. Scales are often represented with their notes written one by one in ascending order. For example, the C major scale is C-D-E-F-G-A-B, 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 (play just the black keys on the piano). In Western pop and classical music, scales are organized by their intervals, a specific order of half and whole steps. Changing this order changes the type of scale and the mood it creates. There are many different combinations, and thus many different types of scales.

Subscribe for updates, content & free resources!

Music modes: Greek to me!

When musicians talk about modes, they’re usually referring to seven scales used in ancient Greek musical practice. Each one had seven different pitches, and consisted of five whole steps and two half steps. Because each mode had a different ordering of whole and half steps, they each had a unique sound. While today musicians use major and minor scales built on different notes to evoke emotions, the ancient Greeks took the notes that today form the white keys of the piano and shifted the starting note to form each new mode. By changing the starting note, we change the note that is the central focus of the melody, which changes the sound. 

What we call major and natural minor scales are actually leftover modes, named Ionian and Aeolian, respectively. The other modes simply have differences in their patterns of half and whole steps. This means that music written using these modes will sound different from music written in a major or minor key. Let’s check these out on the piano, using the C Major and Minor music scale notes as our base. We’ll include where to find each music mode using only white keys as well. We’ve even included listening pieces for each musical mode from different styles, so you can begin to identify musical scales and modes by ear.

Are modes only for major scales?

Yes. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about modes of a minor scale because a minor scale is actually a mode of its relative major scale. The seven Greek modes are a very specific set of scales, and to build them, what you need is a major scale. Take the C major scale for example. 

  • To play the Ionian mode, play a normal C scale (C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C) 
  • To play the Dorian mode, use the same notes but start on D (D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D)
  • To play the Phrygian mode, start on E (E – F – G – A – B – C – D – E)
  • To play the Lydian mode, start on F (F – G – A – B – C – D – E – F)
  • To play the Mixolydian mode, start on G (G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G)
  • To play the Aeolian mode, start on A (A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A)
  • To play the Locrian mode, start on B (B – C – D – E – F – G – A – B)

No matter what major scale you’re in, you can play all the modes using the notes of that scale. The Ionian starts on the first tone, Dorian on the second, Phrygian on the third, Lydian on the fourth, Mixolydian on the fifth, Aeolian on the sixth, and Locrian on the seventh.

What is the most popular scale mode?

The most popular mode of all time is the Ionian mode! This is the same mode you hear whenever you hear music played in a major key. The second most popular mode is the Aeolian mode. It’s the same mode you hear whenever you hear music played in a natural minor key. Other modes aren’t used as often, but you still hear them. For example, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson uses the Dorian mode, and the theme music from the TV show The Simpsons uses Lydian mode.

Using the music modes

While there are countless possible types of scales with varying numbers of pitches and interval patterns, the Greek Modes are just seven of the more widely used music scales. Try using the white key versions of these music modes to make interesting melodies of your own! Want to learn more about improvising notes in a scale? Check out these videos from Hoffman Academy:

Read Next