Is there something about Modes for the guitar/bass that I'm missing?
October 27, 2020 5:20 AM   Subscribe

Musicians often say 'understanding modes really changed the way I view music'. I think I understand them but don't see what's so paradigm shifting about it. Please enlighten me.

I was watching a video about the ii-V-I progression in C Major, and they first explain how to play over it using the C major scale. Then he says: "but if you use modes, magic happens", and he shows how you can use D Dorian over the d chord, G Mixolydian over the G and C Ionian over the C.

The thing is, this means you play a C Major scale and just change the root note you're targeting. I get how this works, but I don't really see why it's supposed to be so revelatory, or why they go on about how important it is to practice each mode, etc. It's just a C scale using the 2nd, 5th and 1st as the root. What am I missing?
posted by signal to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I Think that what you are missing is knowledge of what the tonic chord is for each of those modes as well as the important notes in each of those scales. For Dorian, the tonic chord is a minor and the important notes are the b3 and b7. For the Mixolydian the tonic is a dominant 7 chord and the important note is the b7. When soloing or composing, by giving emphasis to the chord tones and important (or characteristic) notes of each mode of your changes you draw out a very defined melody that is vey lyrical and true to the changes. You can literally hear the changes in the melody rather than endless noodling up and down scales.

This is it in a nutshell.
posted by Lucky Bobo at 6:03 AM on October 27, 2020 [10 favorites]

I should add that the characteristic notes of each mode or those which make it differ from the major scale.
posted by Lucky Bobo at 6:11 AM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: Perhaps more basic: what's (somewhat) revelatory is that changing how you think of the notes changes how they will sound.

Surely a song in C major sounds different than a song in A minor right? Well, this happens for all the modes, for the reasons Lucky Bobo explains above.

But for me, it was kind of a breakthrough to understand and experience how moving the nominal root changes the character so much, even when you're still playing the same white keys. If you don't see how it works for following the changes, maybe spend some time just playing in each different mode for a while to help train your ear for it. I'm ultimately a novice too but this helped me; good luck!
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:16 AM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: Lucky Bobo speaks the truth, and it's an important truth.

The other side of that coin is that notes mean different things and feel different ways in different modes. Over a G7 chord, a B is a chord tone that feels stable and steady. Over a C chord, it's a leading tone that pulls strongly upwards. (That's why you usually emphasize it less when you're on a C chord — in most music, that yearning, pulling effect is a special one that you don't want to use in every measure, just occasionally for dramatic effect.)

Jazz blurs these meanings a bit. In jazz, you often do just sit on the 7 of a major chord. But even in jazz, "here I am sitting on the 7 of I" and "here I am sitting on the 3 of V" are two different effects.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:18 AM on October 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I learned more from examples about how the modes fit into chord harmony.

Two contrasting / complementary approaches:

How To Make A Classic Rock Hit Single 35 Years Late [RIFFING WITH MODES #5 - MIXOLYDIAN] Signal Music Studios on Mixolydian and how it's the "classic rock sound". In particular, in Mixo, the V is a minor.

Music Theory for Guitar shows how to analyze modes to hear what makes them idiomatic. Phrygian [yt link].
Example: Bb in Am Phrygian (rather than B) is what makes it sound "Phrygian" so, make sure to use it, and chords containing it. Do use Am-Bb. Don't use Dm and F.

For me, modes are about creating moods by emphasizing different scale patterns and chord patterns for them than the common ones of ii-V-I (jazz). 1-4-1-5-1 (folk, blues). and vi-IV-V-I (songs?)
posted by gregglind at 6:54 AM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: "It's just a C scale using the 2nd, 5th and 1st as the root. What am I missing?"

Something you are missing here: Modal theory is also a way of deciding and knowing which notes to avoid, and predicting how chromatic tones will "sound" and function.

Example: in C ii-V7-I (dm - G - C). How would Eb sound over all 3 chords? Why? How about F? B? Could you make a solo that is those 3 notes?
posted by gregglind at 6:59 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think you'll really find this video "Playing in every mode with one tiny scale shape" /really/ helpful.

I've been enjoying learning music theory recently-- there's a lot of info/tutorials out there that doesn't mesh well with my mind, but I've ended up following Signals Music Studio and Scott Paul Johnson on Patreon and found it quite helpful.
posted by Static Vagabond at 7:00 AM on October 27, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My first bass teacher had me write out and learn all the modes ( a different key each week). The short-term payoff was that I learned what there modes were (I played baritone horn through elementary and high school and we never learned anything about modes). The long-term payoff was that I became much more familiar with various shapes I could use (and was already using ) in constructing bass lines and solos.

Then, when I got into jazz, having that knowledge became really important when I wanted to play "outside" or just give something a different flavor. So, for example, if you're playing over an A minor chord, and you wanted to accentuate the flatted fifth, you could play around F Mixolydian.

It seems like a roundabout way to do things. "Why don't you just play in A minor and flatten the fifth?" But playing within the modes really can change the tonality of what you're playing.
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:20 AM on October 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for taking my dumb question seriously, great answers! Will have to work through them.
posted by signal at 7:31 AM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: It's just a C scale using the 2nd, 5th and 1st as the root. What am I missing?

Seconding jonathanhughes from my long-ago days as a jazz player, I think the part you're sort of skipping over is the "practice" part, where like all things musical the more you do them and work on them the more "automatic" they get. So you don't have to sort of pause and think, "Right, I'm gonna play a C major scale with the second as root", you just think "I'm gonna do this solo in D Dorian" and away you go.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:35 AM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: Also, your question seems to be mostly about let's call it soloing, but -- and I probably know less about modes than you do -- I believe understanding modes can also be useful in writing. People write in different ways, but if I had say a verse and I'd decided to sing in Lydian over it, the way I write, I might well think about how I want to sing the chorus and then write the progression for the chorus based in part on that. I could see how understanding modes could help me do that, if I studied them a little bit more.

Another highly uninformed theory: I do all my writing by ear, as I never studied theory. I'm the monkey playing guitar 10,000 times until I write Shakespeare (or Zeppelin). As I've started learning modes a little, the way they've helped me has been less about magic and more about saving me time, to oversimplify it. When I started applying Lydian to soloing, it definitely expanded the palette, but in a way it was mostly a quicker way to get to the vicinity where I would have gone anyway, but now I didn't have to take one careful step at a time with a blindfold on. So maybe your magic may vary if you're accustomed to poking around by ear, at least at the early stage of modes learning you seem to be at.
posted by troywestfield at 8:27 AM on October 27, 2020

Another perspective: I think that you can write interesting music, and play solos, with a 'non - explicit' knowledge of modes. Getting a feel for modes by listening and playing to a lot of music, without studying too much theory.

I'm saying this from the perspective of growing up as classical musician, then exploring jazz, folk, rock and through into experimental electro-acoustic music.

My experience was that modes was a guitarist thing. My perspective, but the first time I even came across the concept was when I decided to learn mandolin (I was a violist) and started working through fret board theory.

Many excellent musicians are familiar with modes, many excellent musicians aren't, but I would suspect that they have an intuitive feel.
posted by BrStekker at 10:39 AM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: It's not a dumb question at all. I'm not sure how guitarists(mostly) have succeeded in creating so much mystification around the concept; if you browse r/guitar, you will see plenty of posts from kids who have become convinced that the only barrier they must overcome to reach musical greatness is "learning the modes".

I'm a little concerned that throwing out different ways to think about this won't be helpful to a person who is saying, hey, this is confusing, but, here goes:

This mnemonic may or may not be helpful. You could think of modes as simply either major or minor scales, but with some alterations.

There are three major modes, and four minor modes. The major modes are, first, the major scale (Ionian), then, two alterations of it: a major scale with a flatted seventh (Mixolydian), then, a major scale with a raised fourth (Lydian).

The minor ones are, first, the natural minor scale (the Aeolian mode). And the rest of them can be thought of as alterations of this base scale. A minor scale with a natural sixth is Dorian. A minor scale with a flatted second is the Phrygian mode. And finally, a minor scale with a flatted second and a flatted fifth is the Locrian mode.

The only mode that differs from its parent form in more than one note is the Locrian! And that is probably the least likely to be used (the Super Locrian is more often encountered, but that is another story). So learn your major and minor scale, and then consider some ways that changing one note creates a different and also useful scale.


I thought Adam Levy's discussion of the relation of modes to the scales they theoretically come from (ie. D Dorian is C, D Lydian is A) interesting:
Dorian is Dorian and Part 2. What he is saying is that it's not really very helpful to think "D Dorian - that's really C" in many contexts.

In general it is bad to take this kind of diatonic theory as hard prescriptive rules - "G7 - that means I must play G Mixolydian, which is really C" . A Mixolydian scale is only one of many choices for what to play over a 7th chord.
posted by thelonius at 12:26 PM on October 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

In real world examples, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme albums are core works of modal jazz.
posted by soundguy99 at 12:57 PM on October 27, 2020

Best answer: Another piece of the puzzle is which notes fall on down beats. Yes, D dorian and C ionian are the same scale in the sense that they're made up of the same notes, but a phrase where the down beats are D, F, A is going to sound very different from one where they're C, E, G. A lot of 2-5-1 phrases in jazz are just about finding ways to not land on the 1/3/5 until the tonic chord arrives.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 1:59 PM on October 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

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