How To Think About Modes

Intermediate Level. This post assumes you have a basic understanding of major and minor scales. If the following information doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t sweat it. Read it over just to hear the terms. That way you start to know a little bit more about what you don’t know–and in any learning endeavor–that’s half the battle.

I can really say this in a few sentences. So I’ll do that first. Then I’ll explain myself in more detail.
A Phrygian mode is not E-E in the key of C.
A Phrygian mode is a minor scale with a flatted second. i.e a scale consisting of the tones 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7.

Typically when someone first learns modes out of a book they’re taught that C to C in the Key of C is an Ionian mode. D to D in the Key of C is the Dorian mode, etc.
You’re often told exactly that- Ionian starts on the first degree of a major scale. Dorian on the 2, Phrygian on the 3rd, Lydian on the 4th, Mixolydian on the 5th, Aeolian on the 6th and Locrian on the 7th.
The problem with this approach is in how the ear hears the ‘modes’.
Because if you start with C and play a major scale/Ionian mode, and then progress to D Dorian etc, the ear is not hearing D Dorian at all. It’s hearing D to D in the key of C. The ear is still hearing the key of C Major.
And it’s the sound of a mode that makes it special.
So the first step towards hearing and understanding modes it to play them from the same root note.
Use your eyes to help you find the notes E to E in the key of C.
But play a low E to provide a strong root tone. Your ear now hears E Phrygian.
Now play a big fat C and then play E to E in the key of C again.
Hear the difference?
Pretty profound really.
I like to think of the modes as soundtracks for imaginary movie scenes. What does the mode sound like? What does it evoke?
When you play a Phrygian mode can you see the hordes of desert warriors coming over the dunes in Lawrence of Arabia?
When you play a Lydian mode, can you see the dancing girl at the victory celebration toying with that 7th veil?
Do you ‘hear’ Tool when you play Locrian?
Or ‘the funk’ when you play Mixolydian?

So here’s my recommendation:
Go ahead and learn the shapes of the modes by playing them as you see them in most books, in the key of C, one after another up the neck. Just know that you’re not really hearing the modes yet. Once you have some muscle memory of how the shapes feel in your hands, learn them again from E on your A string with a low E resonating underneath.
And then play them one at a time from E, thinking of them according to this formula which compares each mode to either a major scale, or the natural minor scale.
Ionian- 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, IS the major scale.
Dorian- 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7 is a minor scale with a Major 6.
Phrygian- 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7 is a minor scale with a b2.
Lydian- 1,2,3,#4,5,6,7 is a major scale with a #4.
Mixolydian- 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7 is a major scale with a b7.
Aeolian- 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7 IS the natural minor scale.
Locrian- 1,b2,b3,4,b5,b6,b7 is a minor scale with both a b2 and a b5.

Once you’ve got them, sing along as you play them. What sort of movie scene do each of them evoke?
NOW you’re hearing the modes.

To reinforce your understanding of modes, try this:
Play an E Dorian. Focus on what makes it special- the Major 6, especially with the b3. Now, play it again, counting the first note as 2 and counting up the scale until you get to 8. 8 will be the root of the key, or major scale that associates with the mode. If you did it right you should have ended up with D. With D in your ears, play the mode again, but now try to hear the notes as part of D major, not E Dorian.
See if you can teach your ear to switch between the two sounds.
Try that for all the modes.
Phrygian from 3.
Lydian from 4.
Mixolydian from 5.
Aeolian from 6.
Locrian from 7.

And finally… go to and try to hear the modes away from your instrument. Note: You can turn a scale off by clicking on the check mark. If all the modes seem overwhelming at first, try to only hear the difference between Ionian and Lydian. Add Mixolydian when you’ve got that etc.
Hope that helps.


Unfortunately the MP-GT1 has been discontinued. You can find the vocal version available in a few places and it’s basically the same unit. If you find something comparable to the MP-GT1 that you like, please drop me a line in the comments.

I’ve been waiting for something like this for a LONG time. Yes there is excellent software out there for your computer that will basically accomplish most of what the MP-GT1 will, but I wanted a stand alone contraption I could take on the road with me. I also use it teaching and would rather carry this around than my laptop. I can plug my guitar right into it and the built in effects make practising with it tolerable. But what I’ve mostly been using it for is to transcribe solos. Typically I can skip the VSA (variable speed adjust) and simply drop the pitch and octave and the speed by half, to work on a solo. The sound quality is excellent using this method. I can set an IN and an OUT point and loop that part of the phrase I’m working on. How cool is that?! After I’ve got the solo together I can gradually up the speed- now at the original pitch using VSA. Build up speed and bring it up to tempo! It’s so much more practically easy to do that I’m actually doing it instead of having those solos on a list I’ve been meaning to get around to.

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Play Guitar – What To Do Before You Go To A Pro Music School

Is it time to get serious about playing guitar? Could I make a living as a ‘pro’ guitarist? Music school is a lot more than I can afford right now, but perhaps something I ultimately want to do–how can I get ready for it? If you’re in your late teens or early twenties and playing music for fun, you might be asking yourself these sorts of questions.

Young guitar players seem to fall into one of two camps. There’s the ‘I want to play in a band on the Van’s tour and that’s all I really care about’ crowd. And then there’s the, ‘I’d like to be a studio musician making a good living recording records for people and doing the occasional tour if the money’s right’ group. If you fall into the second category, you’re going to need another level of skills than you can get reading tab and learning tunes off records– you’re going to have to get serious about studying music.

But before you take out loans or talk your parents into shelling out upwards of $18k a year for a pro music school, I advise acquiring a strong set of basic skills. Before you arrive at school you should be able read and write 1/4 and 1/8th note rhythms. You should be able to recognize by ear major scale intervals up and down. You should have at least a beginning understanding of music theory and have memorized the order of sharps and flats and key signatures. That may sound daunting, but actually, a few months practice with the right private instructor, community college class, or home/internet guitar course is all it will take to master those skills.

Most community colleges will offer a fundamentals of music course, sometimes combined with fundamentals of piano. Larger schools will also have guitar classes. If you have the time this is a great way to get started acquiring theory basics.
A private instructor is another way to go, but it can get expensive–with the average guitar lesson now costing around $40 an hour. If you can afford it AND you can find an instructor who’s a good match, this is a terrific way to advance your guitar playing. One problem you’ll run into though is that it’s hard to maintain the discipline it takes to plod through the music theory and reading part of the lesson when you’re having so much fun learning licks and tunes.
Of course these days you can find a lot of information online for free. Perhaps my favorite free music instruction site is Ricci Adam’s Ricci’s online lessons in music theory are excellent. But the ear trainers are my favorite. Like playing a game, the trainers keep score. You can turn intervals on and off in order to focus on the ones you’re having trouble with (i.e. turn everything except the 4ths and 5ths off). You can have the intervals played low to high, high to low or harmonically. There are also chord and scale ear trainers.

However you decide to master guitar and theory basics before heading off to music school, you’ll be glad you did– with that out of the way, you’ll be able to concentrate on the playing (fun) part.