Intro to Modes

Background, or Where Modes Come From


Once upon a time there were only seven notes in Western music — just C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, with no sharps or flats. These notes, in this order, spell out the C major scale. But it would be boring if all music was in C major. By changing the key note from C to one of the other six, you can get a scale with a different flavor. These scales are called modes. There are seven modes, one for each possible key note; however, only the four in bold type are common in the kinds of music dulcimer folks usually play.

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

Dorian: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D

Phrygian: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E

Lydian: F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F

Mixolydian: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G

Aeolian: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A

Locrian: B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Exercise 1: Try playing each modal scale; listen for the differences.

Since all seven modes use exactly the same notes, why do they sound different? Well, the notes may be the same, but the distances between notes are not all equal. Some notes are separated by half steps, and others by whole steps (two half steps).

On the piano, a half step is the distance between adjacent keys. For example, the distance from C to C# or from E to Eb is a half step. The distance from C to D or from E to D is a whole step. Ever wonder why there’s no black key between E and F or between B and C? It’s because the distance between those notes is already a half step. On the dulcimer, all adjacent notes are a whole step apart with one exception: the distance between a marked course and the course below is always a half step.

Diagram: half steps on the piano. Diagram: half steps on the dulcimer.

Exercise 2: Play back and forth between C# and D. Then play back and forth between C and D. Listen for the difference between the half step and the whole step. Try this exercise with other half and whole step pairs.

IONIAN — The Major Mode You Already Know

Exercise 3: Find a marked C on your dulcimer — either on the bass bridge or the right treble. From there, play the familiar box-shaped major scale: four notes up one side, four up the other.

Diagram: the C Ionian scale.
The Ionian mode is identical to the major scale. Both have the following pattern of half and whole steps: WWH W WWH

If you look at the dulcimer, this pattern makes sense. Remember that the only half steps on the dulcimer are between a marked course and the one below. So from C to D to E is two whole steps, then a half step to F. A whole step takes us over to the other side, where we repeat the WWH pattern. Since people use sharps and flats nowadays, we can easily apply this pattern to any other key note:

F Ionian: F G A Bb C D E F — The B is flat to ensure a half step from A and a whole step to C.

G Ionian: G A B C D E F# G — The F is sharp in order to ensure a whole step from E and a half step to G.

D Ionian: D E F# G A B C# D — F is still sharp for the same reason. C is sharp for a whole step from B and half to D.

A Ionian: A B C# D E F# G# A — F and C are still sharp. Now we add G sharp for a whole from F# and half to A.

To summarize:

Shape: Box
Starts on: Marked course
Steps: WWH W WWH
Examples: Liberty, Soldier’s Joy, Southwind, Simple Gifts

MIXOLYDIAN — Bright but Wild

Exercise 4: Find a marked G on your dulcimer, either on the bass bridge or the right treble. First, play an Ionian scale. Then, starting with the same marked G, play eight notes straight up. That’s the G Mixolydian scale, which, to me, has a bright, major-like flavor with a hint of wildness.

Diagram: the G Mixolydian scale.
G Mixolydian and G Ionian share the same key note, G, but G Ionian has one sharp, and G Mixolydian has none. Mixolydian’s pattern of whole and half steps is WWH WWH W. Compared to Ionian, then, the Mixolydian mode has a flatted seventh note.

C Mix: C D E F G A Bb C — In C Ionian B is natural.
D Mix: D E F# G A B C D — In D Ionian, C is sharp.
A Mix: A B C# D E F# G A — In A Ionian, G is sharp.
E Mix: E F# G# A B C# D E — In E Ionian, D is sharp.

G Mixolydian and C Ionian share the same key signature, no sharps or flats. When two modes share a key signature, we say they are related. (You may have heard of relative minors; well, relative modes is the same idea.) For any key signature, the Mixolydian scale begins on the fifth note, e.g. G, of the relative major scale, e.g. C.

Shape: Vertical
Starts on: Marked course
Steps: WWH WWH W
Key Note: Fifth note of the related major scale
Examples: Over the Waterfall (A part), June Apple, Red-Haired Boy, Old Joe Clark, March of the King of Laois

DORIAN — Wild but Bright

Exercise 5: Find the marked D on the right treble bridge. Play a D Ionian scale, then a D Mixolydian scale. Then, find the D on the bass bridge that is one above a mark. If you play a box-shape there, you get the D Dorian scale. To me, Dorian sounds somewhat minor; wild with a hint of brightness.

Diagram: The D Dorian scale.
The three scales in Exercise 5 share the same key note, D, but D Ionian has two sharps, D Mixolydian has one, and D Dorian has none. Dorian mode has the following pattern of half and whole steps: WHW W WHW. Compared to Ionian, Dorian has a flatted seventh, like Mixolydian, and also a flatted third.

G Dorian: G A Bb C D E F G
A Dorian: A B C D E F# G A
E Dorian: E F# G A B C# D E
B Dorian: B C# D E F# G# A B

D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C Ionian share the same key signature. The Dorian scale begins on the second note of the relative major.

Shape: Box
Starts on: One above a marked course
Steps: WHW W WHW
Key Note: Second note of the related major scale
Examples: Swallowtail Jig, Road to Lisdoonvarna, Fingal‘s Cave, Morrison’s Jig, Arran Boat, Star of Munster

AEOLIAN — The Minor Mode You Already Know

Exercise 6: If you have a 15/14 or larger, find the marked A on the right treble bridge. First, play an Ionian scale, then an A Mixolydian scale. If your dulcimer is smaller than a 15/14, skip those two scales. Now, find the A on the bass bridge that is one above a mark. First play the box-shaped A Dorian scale, then a vertical pattern beginning in the same place; that’s A Aeolian.

Diagram: the A Aeolian scale.
The four scales in Exercise 6 share the same key note, A, but A Ionian has three sharps, A Mixolydian has two sharps, A Dorian has one, and A Aeolian has none. Aeolian mode has the following pattern of half and whole steps: WHW WHW W. Compared to Ionian, Aeolian has a flatted seventh, like Mixolydian, a flatted third, like Dorian, and also a flatted sixth.

D Aeolian: D E F G A Bb C D
E Aeolian: E F# G A B C D E
B Aeolian: B C# D E F# G A B
F# Aeolian: F# G# A B C# D E

A Aeolian, D Dorian, G Mixolydian, and C Ionian share the same key signature. The Aeolian scale is the relative minor; it begins on the sixth note of the relative major.

Shape: Vertical
Starts on: One above a marked course
Steps: WHW WHW W
Key Note: Sixth note of the related major scale
Examples: Carolan’s Welcome, Rights of Man, St. Basil’s Hymn, Star of the County Down

Modes, Key Signatures, and Primary Chords

Diagram: the four related modes for each key signature Diagram: Typical chord patterns for each mode.

The first chart shows the five key signatures that are most playable on 15/14 and larger dulcimers. You can play all four modes with the key note A. For other key notes, not all scales will be playable in their typical patterns, and some may not be playable at all.

Technically, any mode can use any of the chords available to its relative major. However, the second chart shows the chord patterns that are most typical of each mode. The chart lists generic chords (Roman numerals) and their specific equivalents in the key signature that has one sharp.

How to tell what mode a tune is in:

  • From written music: look at the key signature*, the primary chords, and the key note (it often ends the tune, along with the I or i chord).

    *Be aware that sometimes the given key signature reflects the scale pattern (like the key signatures in the first chart above) and sometimes it reflects the key note (it will be the same as the key note’s major or minor signature). In the latter case the modal notes are marked flat or sharp within the music.

  • By ear: figure out the notes the tune uses, determine which one is the key note, and work out the scale pattern or key signature that fits.

Identification issues:


  • Some tunes may use both natural and sharp versions of a note. Often one will be more prominent, making the tune sound more like one mode than another.

    Examples: Banish Misfortune (C natural and C sharp), Ash Grove (one C sharp), Growling Old Man and Grumbling Old Woman (one G# in B part), Staten Island (one C natural in B part)

  • Some tunes have gapped scales; that is, they use five or six notes instead of seven. The chords may indicate which mode fits best, or the tune may fit either of two modes.

    Examples: Julia Delany (D Aeolian or Dorian), Frosty Morning (A Aeolian or Dorian), Angelina Baker (D), Spootiskerry (G)

  • Some tunes switch modes between the A and B parts.

    Examples: Puncheon Floor, G to D; Flop-Eared Mule, D to A; Drowsy Maggie, Edor to D; Bonaparte Crossing the Rockies Dor/Aeol to Mix; Over the Waterfall, Mix to Ion; Growling Old Man and Grumbling Old Woman, Aeolian to Mix

Sample tunes with the same key note, A:

Sample tunes with the same key signature, one sharp:

I’d like to thank all the folks who gave me feedback as I was preparing this article, particularly Rick Davis, Ken Kolodner, and Kathy Selby.

Published on July 17, 2009 at 7:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

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