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An Easy-to-Use Guide to Using the Musical Modes

In this post, we’re going to be taking a look at what the musical modes are and how to use them. The musical modes are one of the most misunderstood, challenging and most difficult concepts to explain – regardless of your instrument.

But for bass players, where this is one of the most sought after questions that usually is faced with an unsatisfying answer (on Talkbass, use their search to look for “musical modes” and just look at all the threads that come up!)

Whats more, when there is an explanation, it is usually very wordy, very jargony and still very difficult to get anything meaningful out of it.

So for this post I figure try something different: putting an accent on pictures and descriptions of pictures, tablature notations and brining attention to the underlying patterns that exist in the musical modes on the standard four-string bass guitar.

So here we go!

What are the Musical Modes?

The musical modes are scales. What makes each one of these scales different is that when they are played, they create moods that are “less obvious” than the happy sound that comes from a major scale or the sad mood that comes from a minor scale.

Each of these modes has their own unique mood that can only be described as unique and slightly more complex to the ear to hear.

From now on, think of a mode as a scale. When you see the word mode, imagine it says scale instead.

The Seven Most Important Modes

There are many different scale out there that give you many different musical options, moods and sounds. But for all intents and purposes, we’re keeping this post limited to the seven musical modes that we all know or have heard of at one time or another:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phyrigian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

For each one of these scales, I’m going to address the:

  • Scale name
  • What note it is based off of
  • What notes are changed
  • Whether or not the scale could be “grouped” as a major or minor scale

I’m also going to show what it would look like as:

  • Standard notation and
  • Fretboard diagram

Sound good? Cool – so let’s jump right into it!

1. Ionian mode:

  • No changed notes
  • Standard major scale
  • Based off of starting the first note of a scale
  • Major scale

ionian mode

on the fretboard it looks like this:

ionian mode fretboard shape

2. Dorian Mode:

  • Based off the second note of the major scale (ex. on a C Major scale, the starting note would be D)
  • The third and the seventh notes of the scale are flattened
  • Grouped as a minor scale

dorian scale

on the fretboard, the scale looks like this:

dorian mode fretboard shape

3. Phyrgian Mode

  • Based off the third note of a major scale
  • The second, third, sixth and seventh notes are flattened
  • The cale is grouped as a minor scale

Phrygian scale

on the fretboard, the shape of the scale looks like this:

Phrygian scale fret board shape

4. Lydian Mode:

  • The scale is based off of the fourth note of a major scale
  • The fourth note is sharped
  • Grouped as a major scale

lydian scale

on the fretboard, the scale looks like this:

lydian scale fretboard shape

5. Mixolydian Scale:

  • Based off the fifth note of a major scale
  • The seventh note is flattened
  • Grouped as a major scale

mixolydian scale

on the fretboard, the scale looks like this:

mixolydian scale fretboard pattern

6. Aeolian Scale:

  • Based off the sixth note of a major scale
  • The third, sixth and seventh notes are flattened
  • Grouped as a minor scale

aeolian scale

on the fretboard, the scale would look like this:

aeolian scale fretboard shape

7. Locrian Scale:

  • Based off of the seventh step in a major scale
  • The second, third, fifth, sixth and seventh notes are flattened
  • Could be grouped as a minor scale

locrian scale

on the fretboard, the shape of the scale looks like this:

locrian scale fretboard shape

 

So that is all of the most important* musical modes laid out in standard and pseudo-tablature notation.

*important is a relative statement – of course!

But of course, there are some other important areas of consideration including:

  • How do I play with them, connect them together and use them in general?
  • What if I’m playing in a key that is NOT C major?
  • What’s all this business with grouping them as “major” or “minor”

The first bullet point will be covered below. If you felt like you got something out of this post and would like to see more with this topic, I’ll definitely be covering the 2nd and 3rd bullets in a Part 2 and a Part 3 to musical modes

Now: How Do I Actually Use the Modes?

Consider for example you’re playing with a chord progression that looks like this:

chord progression example

Pretty simple looking chord progression: C7, D7, F minor and G major all in the key of C major which we know has no sharps or flats associated with it. The scale associated with the key would look like this:

C D E F G A B C

Now, in a situation like this, you might be thinking that your only options that correspond to these chords are their associated scales in the key of C major (CDEFGABC – no sharps or flats):

  • C7 = C major scale with a flat 7 (C D E F G A Bb C)
  • D7 = D major scale with a flat 7 (D E F#G A B C D
  • Fm = F minor scale (F G Ab B C Db Eb F)
  • G = G major scale (G A B C# D E F G)

BUT – and this is why we grouped the modal scales above into major and minor groups.

You can use modal scales that have major qualities in places where you might typically draw from a major scale, just as you can take minor modes and use them in places that you might need a minor scale.

Taking the example chord progression above again:

chord progression example

Rather than just using a C major scale with a flat 7, a D major scale with a flat 7, an F minor scale and a G major scale, you might consider using these scales in their place when confronted with these chord progressions:

using the musical modes

In other words:

  • C7 and D7 chord in the key of C major (no sharps no flats), you can make a bassline using notes from the:

C Ionian Scale: C D E F G A B C

C Lydian Scale: C D E F# G A B C

C Mixolydian: C D E F G A Bb C

D Ionian: D E F G A B C D

D Lydian: D E F G A B C D

D Mixolydian: D E F G A B C D

Because these particular chords are seven-chords and

G Ionian: G A B C D E F

G Lydian: G A B C D E F

Applying the same logic to the other chords in the progression:

  • Fm chord:

F Dorian: F G A B C D E F

F Phygian: F G A B C D E F

F Aeolian: F G A B C D E F

F Locrian: F G A B C D E F

Starting to see a pattern? Starting to get what the modes are all about? They’re not so scary – they’re just additional ways of giving your bass lines some additional musical spice.

To summarize:

  • The musical modes should be thought of as scales.
  • The scale shapes have their own distinct fretboard pattern on the standard 4 string bass.
  • Each mode has their own sound quality to them. It’s best to play them for yourself to notice the subtle “in-between” feelings that each scale gives off.
  • To actually use the modes, observe the chords that you’re expected to play over first. By identifying if the chord is major, minor or a seventh chord, you can then build a bass line using notes from scales that are also major, minor or dominant 7th.

While looking for additional insights on musical modes for bass, once again, No Treble turned up with a piece of gold courtesy of Damian Erskine.

Lastly:

What did you think of this?

Love it?

Hate it?

Did I miss something? Let me know!

I want to make sure I’m giving you the best stuff around. So don’t hesitate to email me and voice your opinion! I reply to all of my emails so there’s no fear of never hearing a response!

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