The term modes in music describes the scales which dominated European music for over 1,000 years up until 1500 and continued to be heavily influential for another 100 years after that.

History of Music Modes

Music Modes were around long before the major and minor “keys” were developed.
They originated in ancient Greece where modes were named after different regions – this is why all the modes still have Greek names to this day.

Essentially a music mode is a scale and each mode has its own distinctive sound.

Understanding Music Modes

Modes can be understood with reference to the white notes on a piano, which broadly correspond to the scale calculated scientifically in the 4th century BC by Pythagoras and the Greek thinkers of his time.

If we play a “scale” using all the white notes starting and ending on the note D then we are actually playing the Dorian mode.

Dorian Mode sheet music updated

Dorian mode

As we know with scales there is a set pattern of tone/semitone interval spacing between the notes.
The pattern of intervals between notes for the Dorian Mode is Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone.
The Dorian mode has its own distinctive sound – it is very “Celtic” and “folky” in its feel.

Now, if we play a scale using the white notes, but this time starting on C and ending on the C above it then we are playing the Ionian Mode.
(this pattern of notes is what we would now describe in contemporary music as a C major scale, but it was originally a mode).

Ionian Mode sheet music

Ionian Mode

Notice how the spacing of the semitones/tones is different to the Dorian.
The pattern of intervals between notes for the Ionian Mode is Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone.
Can you also hear how the sound of the Ionian Mode is very different to the Dorian mode?
The “feel” of the Ionian Mode is quite “happy” and “positive”.

The Development of a System of Music Modes

The early Christian Church were heavily influenced by the Greeks and adopted modes as a basis for its music.
Have a listen to this piece of plainchant called Ubi Caritas, which is based upon a mode:

Authentic Modes

The use of modes developed and by the 5th century four modes were adopted, called the Authentic Modes.

The Original Four Authentic Modes
I. Dorian (white notes from D-D)
Dorian Mode sheet music updated

Dorian mode

III. Phrygian (white notes from E-E)
Phrygian Mode sheet music
Phrygian mode

V. Lydian (white notes from F-F)
Lydian Mode sheet music
Lydian mode

VII. Mixolydian (white notes from G-G)
Mixolydian Mode sheet music
Mixolydian mode

Note how the authentic modes are all based on the odd numbers of the system (I, III, V, VII).

Three Additional Authentic Modes
Henricus Glareanus Dodecachordan modes author image
Henricus Glareanus, a Swiss monk produced a book called Dodecachordan in 1547 in which he highlighted the subsequent addition of two more authentic modes (Aeolian and Ionian).
Subsequently, another authentic mode (Locrian mode) was added towards the end of the 18th century, bringing the total to seven authentic modes:

IX. Aeolian (white notes from A-A)
Aeolian Mode sheet music

Aeolian mode

XI. Locrian (white notes from B-B)
Locrian Mode sheet music
Locrian mode

XIII. Ionian (white notes from C-C)
Ionian Mode sheet music
Ionian Mode

When studying the music theory of modes and their use in music we tend to focus on the seven authentic modes outlined above – the six authentic modes highlighted by Glareanus with the addition of a seventh mode, the Locrian mode.

However, it is worth knowing about some other modes as well.

Plagal Modes

During the papacy of Pope Gregory four more modes were added called Plagal modes.
Each plagal mode is developed from a related authentic mode.

Plagal modes derive their individual names from the authentic mode to which they are related – just add the word “hypo” (meaning “under”) to the start of the authentic mode and you get the name of the plagal mode.
For example, the Hypodorian mode is linked to the Dorian mode.

As with authentic modes, there were originally 4 plagal modes in the 5th century, but 2 more were added by Glareanus and a 7th by the end of the 18th century.

Music Modes Summary Diagram

The above diagram shows the full list of fourteen music modes (seven authentic modes and seven plagal modes).
Final – this is the note (shaded in red on the diagram) on which the melody usually ends and is the note upon which the mode is based.
Cofinal – this note (shaded in green) is an alternative resting point of the melody.

Transposing Music Modes

Whilst it is helpful to learn about modes by using the white notes on a keyboard it is really important to understand that the difference in modes is not based on what white note it starts on, but is based on the intervals of the scale.
This means that we can transpose the modes and play them starting on any note as long as we keep the intervals between the notes the same.

For example, the easiest way to learn the Phyrgian mode is by playing the white notes starting on E as shown below:
Phrygian Mode sheet music

Phrygian mode

However, you can actually play the Phrygian Mode starting on any note of the keyboard as long as you use the appropriate intervals from the mode.
For example, here is the Phrygian Mode played starting on G:
Phrygian Mode on G sheet music
Phrygian mode on G

The starting note is different, but the intervals between the notes of the mode remain the same.

Examples of Modal Music

The dominance of music modes faded away as harmonised music using the major and minor scales developed.
The Ionian mode has remained as the major scale, whilst the Aeolian mode has remained as the minor scale.
However, composers throughout the years have still turned to the modes when composing.

Folk songs often use modes.
Have a look/listen to this live performance of one of the most famous examples of the dorian mode – the traditional folk song “Scarborough Fair”

Classical composers such as Vaughan Williams have also used modes.
Here is Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which uses the Phrygian Mode.

Modes are still used in by composers in contemporary music styles such as jazz.
Often composers use modes when they want to create a certain “feel” to their piece of music.
The theme tune to the well known cartoon The Simpsons uses the Lydian Mode to create a characteristically “quirky” feel.

Composing Using Music Modes

Composing using music modes can be a very effective way of creating a specific “feel” or “mood” to a piece of music.

Try following these steps to compose a piece of modal music:

  1. Choose an appropriate mode – the choice of mode is going to have a big impact on the feel/mood of the piece you are writing so play each mode until you have found the one which fits. In this worked example, I am going to use the Dorian mode to give a folky feel to my piece.
  2. Improvise a melody – improvising a melody using a mode is actually quite straightforward. As long as you start and end on the Final (the red shaded notes in the diagram above) then your melody will be rooted in your chosen mode. Here is the melody I have improvised: Mode Music Composition Example Tune Sheet Music
    Mode Music Composition Tune

    When improvising your melody try to use balanced phrases of 4 or 8 bars.
  3. Add some chords – in most compositions we talk about using the primary chords. However, in modes it is a bit different. Open 5th chords (where you just play the root note and the 5th note of the chord) work really well. Chords I and IV work well but chord VII also works really well in the Dorian mode.
    I have used these 3 chords in my piece below:Mist on The Hills Music Modes Composition
    Mode Music Composition Chords
  4. Add other instruments – Once you have written your tune and chords you can add other instruments based on the chords and some drums. This will give the piece a contemporary celtic/folky feel.
    Mode Music Composition

Music Modes Worksheet

I hope you have found this music theory lesson on modes helpful.
Here is a useful music theory worksheet for you to download giving a summary of the music modes:

Music Modes Summary Music Theory Worksheet