Ultra Simplified theory of Scales & Modes

Scales & Modes are 2 biggest hurdles faced by someone entering into music theory. These are also one of the most confused upon and misunderstood concepts.

My take on explaining these is to first get an intuitive feel about them and then go to the real “THEORY” part. To start with lets us first understand what a scale is, given that the reader has already understood the concepts of Note Circle & Intervals.

Getting the Intuitive Feel

We know that due to the intervals between different note if they are played in time one by one, they express a mood, hence if we select few notes at certain fixed intervals then irrespective of the starting note they will express one type of mood and will sound similar BUT IN A MELODIC MANNER. Take time to understand this and even experiment this. You can pick any note and say minor second and major third, these three notes play one by one. Now repeate same with different starting note or root note. Both will sound different in pitch of course BUT They’ll be very similar in the expression of mood or feel.

Cracking the Theory

…well there is intuition in theory as well…

Recall the NOTE CIRCLE concept, as every note repeats after 12 semitones they get arranged in a circular manner. It somehow tell that there must be symmetric relation to any rule we define to choose notes. This precisely is the genesis of scales & their modes.

Let us not look at what is considered as THE PIVOTAL SCALE in MUSIC – THE MAJOR SCALE!

The Famous Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti or Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa-Dha-Ni what most of us are familiar with is nothing but major scale.

How its made or how does it work?

We know that as notes are arranged in a circular manner, we need to choose one starting reference or root. For our understanding lets us choose C note.

Formula for Major Scale

2-2-1-2-2-2-1 read as “two two one triple two one”, simple pnemonic to remember.

Let us understand what it is.

Here 2 or denotes the number of semitones higher than the starting root. Obviously, we can then denote the same as, 2 being Tone hence T and 1 being semi-tone hence S, so the formula becomes, T T S T T T S.

For reference, see the image below and note that each note is one semitone or one half-step apart from the adajcent note:

Referring this diagram or from your memory, Try to find out notes using the formula 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 for C as reference.

This will yield following:

No. of Semitones C
2 D
2 E
1 F
2 G
2 A
2 B
1 C

This is one of the most useful deductions in entire music theory and We will shortly realize why!

Note: Looking at the notes you can note that all the white keys on keyboard will be in C major Scale.

Let us now choose another reference note and find out the scale, this time, lets choose G Major Scale.

You will get, G, 2 semitones higher is A, further 2 semitones higher is B, then 1 semitone higher is C, then 2 semitones higher is D, 2 semitones higher is E, 2 semitones higher is F#, 1 semitone higher is the octave G.

Let us go back to the C Major scale and its notes as they are simple letters with no sharps or flats. We can highlight these notes in the note circle as below.

C Major Scale Notes


Ironically, despite the symmetric nature of music and the note circle, some of seemingly simple concepts which are supposed to be simple and easy to learn can get and they do get complicated. One such concept is the “MODE”.

The dictionary meaning of MODE is “a way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done.”

in the musical context its all about scale, now if we take the above dictionary meaning only and impose that on the major scale we just learned above, it may be translated as, “Modes are ways or manners in which “a SCALE” is played” … pretty simple, isn’t it.

What do we mean by it?

Till now, we have seen that, in all of our learning, for chords, intervals, scales etc, we chose a starting note called as root note and then go ahead to find other notes using a formula. This is what we did to arrive at C Major scale, leading to the 7 notes which are C, D, E, F, G, A, B. If you go ahead and play these note on any instrument, you’ll typically start in the order of the notes as we derived and since these notes are a fixed interval they will have a typical overall sound, in terms of expressiveness and feel or mood. BUT, if you choose not to start from C but from anywhere else and follow the circle then you will end up sounding something else, becase the relative intervals will change.

Lets understand this by choosing to play from note A not C. So you’re going to play A then B then C then D then E then F then G. If you look at the intervals now, you see that, rather than having, 2212221, you have now 2122122. But you still played the same notes from C Major scale. BUT THE MANNER OR WAY you played got changed. recall the dictionary meaning of mode, actually, you changed the mode of playing.

Actually modes are as simple as that, the only hurdle is as there are 7 notes there can be 7 modes and you need to learn the names, thats it!

Let s now look into how to remember these.

Mode Tonic relative to major scale or distance from Major scale root Interval sequence Example
Ionian I T-T-s-T-T-T-s C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C
Dorian II T-s-T-T-T-s-T D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D
Phrygian III s-T-T-T-s-T-T E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E
Lydian IV T-T-T-s-T-T-s F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F
Mixolydian V T-T-s-T-T-s-T G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G
Aeolian VI T-s-T-T-s-T-T A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A
Locrian VII s-T-T-s-T-T-T B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B

Modes & Moods

Given the fact that all the modes are actually an ordered set of SAME notes as a major scale, hence they will have same characteristic tonality. To bring out the expressiveness or mood of a mode, one has to look at the use of modes in the music context. For example if a music is composed in C major, this means that the harmony & melody of the music will normally be centered around the root note C but if a lead instrumentalist or vocalist emphasizes the note D (for example), then the contrast will sound modal which is Dorian mode and this contrast due the difference in tonality build a tension which would want a resolution in some manner. This is precisely the reason why modes are associated with mood as well. Take a look at the table below:

Mode Mood
1. Ionian or Major Scale Happy, Neutral
2. Dorian Sophisticated, Jazzy, Blues, Rock
3. Phrygian Exotic, Middle Eastern
4. Lydian Dreamy
5. Mixolydian Rock, Ambient, Psychedelic
6. Aeolian or Minor Scale Sad
7. Locrian Evil, Metal
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