Music Theory

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

By Hoffman Academy Team
Learn about music scale notes and music modes - music theory info.

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 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.

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.

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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.

Modes similar to the Major Scale

Ionian: This one should sound familiar because it’s the same thing as a major scale. The half steps are between pitches 3-4 and 7-1. Play the white keys on the piano starting on C: C D E-F G A B-C.  Example of this mode: any song in a major key that Mr. Hoffman teaches could be an example–in fact, Five Woodpeckers uses the first 5 notes of the major scale!

Ionian mode in music.

Lydian is the brightest sounding mode. Take any major scale and raise the 4th note a half step to make the Lydian mode. The half steps are between pitches 4-5 and 7-1. Starting on C: C D E F#-G A B-C. You can also play a Lydian mode on all the white keys from F to F. Song Example of this musical mode: Mazurka No. 15” by Chopin

Lydian mode in music.

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. Play C D E-F G A-Bb C. All the white keys from G to G will also give you a Mixolydian mode. Musical Example:  Debussy‘s ‘The Sunken Cathedral’.

Mixolydian mode in 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. Play C D-Eb F G-Ab Bb C. Also, all the white keys from A to A give you the Aeolian mode. Musical Example: any minor song Mr. Hoffman teaches, like Wild Horses.

Aeolian mode in music.

Dorian: Take the natural minor and raise the 6th note a half step. Half steps: 2-3 and 6-7. Play C D-Eb F G A-Bb C. Also try all the white keys from D to D. Song Example: “Scarborough Fair” by Simon And Garfunkel.

Dorian Mode | Music Theory.

Phrygian: The most somber sounding of the all the modes. Take the natural minor scale and lower the 2nd note a half step. Half steps: 1-2 and 5-6. Play C-Db Eb F G-Ab Bb C. Or, play all the white keys from E to E. Musical Example: “Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques: No. 2. Là-bas, Vers L’église” by Ravel

Phrygian Mode | Music Theory.

Locrian: The strangest sounding mode, this one changes two notes from the natural minor: lower the 2nd and 5th notes a half step. Half steps: 1-2 and 4-5. Play C-Db Eb F-Gb Ab Bb C, or play all the white keys from B to B.

Locrian Mode | Music Theory.

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Using the Musical 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:

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