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26. How to use any mode

When you take the notes C D E F G A and B, you have the C major scale.

If you take the same notes but start on the D to have D E F G A B C, you have the second mode of the C major scale.

In the same way you could start from the 3rd, the 4th or the 5th note of the major scale to have its 3rd, 4th or 5th mode.

These are the modes we call ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian and locrian.


So the question is, if all these scales use the same notes, how can they sound different? How can we compose a song in one of these modes without making it sound just like it's in major or minor.
This is the question we'll tackle today

An easy way to remember the name of those modes is to remember the sentence "I don't punch like Mohamed Ali". Each word would give you the first letter of each mode. That's how I remember them.

So the ionian mode is the major scale, and the aeolian mode is the natural minor scale. We won't focus on these ones as they are already explored extensively in other videos, but we'll use them as references, to see what is unique about every other modes.

To make that comparison easier, I'll write all the degrees relatively to the major scale.
To show you what I mean, I'll do it with you. 

I'll write the degrees of the major scale, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII. They represent the chords made with the notes of this scale.


And for the minor scale for example, the first degree is I, the second degree is II, because there is the same distance between the 2 first notes than in a major scale: 1 tone.

But for the IIrd degree, it is 2 tones above the root note in the major scale, but it's only 1,5 tone above the root note in the minor scale. So I'll note it bIII to indicate it's 1 semitone below it's equivalent of the major scale.
In the same way I'll note the degrees VI and VII bVI and bVII because they are also 1 semitone below their major equivalent.


That's how I'll note the degree for each mode


Now, the first step would be to figure out what type of chord we can find on each degree of each of these modes so we can compare them to the more common major and minor modes.

So for example we'll start with the dorian mode. In D dorian, the first chord will be a chord of D and it will be made of the notes D, F and A, which makes a chord of D minor.
So the first degree of a dorian scale will be a minor chord

The second chord will be a chord of E and will be made of the notes E, G and B, which makes a E minor chord.
So the second degree of a dorian scale will be a minor chord.

So we'll do that for every chord based on every note in the scale to find the type of chord of every degree.


Then we'll do the same thing for every mode.
Once it's done, we have this and we can begin to analyse the data.


One thing to keep in mind is that a major scale and its relative minor scale use exactly the same notes. The difference comes from the fact that they take a different note as their tonal center, as their Ist degree. It is then a matter of using the other chords of the scale to create tension and make this Ist degree feel like home.

That's where the authentic cadence and the plagal cadence come handy, because they resolve well on a degree I. 

This is important because if we want to make the Ist degree feel like home, the Ist degree needs to be a rather stable chord. And that makes the locrian mode very difficult to use, because its Ist degree is a diminished chord, and that not a stable chord by essence. It is dissonant, so it bring a tension that lead elsewhere. Which means it will be very difficult to make that feel like a home chord. So we won't really focus on the locrian mode in this video.

So when we are using a mode, the goal of the game is to make the Ist degree of that mode feel like home, so that's often the chord we'll use the most.
Then we'll gravitate toward the more unique chord of the mode we're using to get the particular flavour of that particular mode.

To find these unique chords, we'll compare each degree to their equivalent in the major and minor tonalities. If the chord is different from the one found in major or in minor, then it is unique and we keep it. Otherwise we'll gray it out.

So on a IInd degree, we have a minor chord in a major tonality, and we have a diminished chord in a minor tonality, so I'll gray out these options from the other modes and keep the others.


The IIIrd degree is minor in major and bIII major in minor, so I'll gray those out.


The IVth degree is major, or it is minor, so I'll grey those out as well.
And we'll do the same thing for all the degree, until we're left with this.


Here we can notice that we don't have many options for the dorian and the mixolydian modes. But we can still notice some interesting combinations. 

In the dorian mode, we have a Ist degree that is minor like in a minor scale, but the IVth degree is major like in a major scale. And that combination is interesting because a progression from IV to I is a plagal cadence. But we are more used to hearing it fall on a major Ist degree. So having a minor Ist degree here is unique to the dorian mode.


In the mixolydian mode we have a major Ist degree like in a major scale, but the VIIth degree is flat and major like in a minor scale. And we are also used to hearing this major VIIth degree go up a whole tone to a minor chord. So having a major chord here highlights the unique colour of the mixolydian mode.


So now that we have all this data highlighted, here is how to compose in each mode.

In a dorian mode, use mainly the minor Ist degree and the major IVth degree. That created a plagal cadence that makes the first degree feel like home. But this home is a minor chord, which is particular to that mode

In a phrygian mode, you can use mainly the minor Ist degree and major bII. This is a bit like a tritone substitution, which is also a cadence that resolves on the first degree. It should help make it fell like home. You can then throw a minor bVIIth degree in the mix.

In a lydian mode, you can use mainly the major Ist degree and the major IInd degree. You can also use the minor VIIth degree, but the risk is that if you go from the VIIth degree to the first degree it would sound like the Ist and IInd degree of the phrygian mode.

And in a mixolydian mode, you can use mainly the major bVIIth degree with the major Ist degree. That's a chord change we're used to hear in a minor tonality, but here, the Ist degree is major, which makes it sound different.
Also, the V is minor but the I is major, which is also unique to this mode.

You can use some of the diminished chords in each of these mode as well, but they can sound a bit too dissonant for the song you want to make, and it is totally okay to use a very few chords as these are the chords that will bring the colour of the mode you want to use.

Quick note before wrapping up this video: I have updated my big music theory cheat sheet.


Now it includes the chords for all these modes, and they are highlighted in the same way than in this video.

You have 12 pages, one for each root note, so you don't have to transpose any of that yourself.
It should make it easier to make borrowings. 
For example, say you're composing in E minor and you don't want to use a diminished chord on the IInd degree.
Well, you could replace it with a F major chord, and resolve it with a E minor chord. That would be a borrowing from the Phrygian mode.
Or you could replace is with a F# minor chord, and resolve it with a E minor chord as well, and that would be a borrowing from the Dorian mode.

I have also added all the 9th chords for the major and minor scales, I have added some substitutions for the Vth degree, and I've corrected a couple of mistakes that were in there.
So I hope it's all clean now and you will find a link to download this document in the Freebies section of this website.




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