Dorian or Phrygian

An introduction to the modes

The standard major and minor scales have been the source of millions of beautiful melodies, and will continue to do so for millions more. But after years of listening to music based on the same old standards, how can you break free of conventions and still stay on planet earth? A great way to explore interesting and new sounding melodies and harmonies is to use modes. Modes are scales that use the same pitches of the standard major scale, but in new and different ways. Due to a deviation or two from the typical major or minor scale, a mode can sound fresh and intriguing, and perceive your listener's attention as something new.

As we'll see throughout the examples, the seven basic modes can be used in myriad different styles for many wonderful effects. Where else can you find a tutorial that teaches you from Miles Davis, the Beatles, Ravel, Metallica, and Shostakovich in the same lesson?

How to derive the modes

Using the major scale as a starting point, each mode is derived by starting with a different pitch on the major scale. For example, Dorian mode begins and ends on the second pitch of the major scale (starting with D we get D E F G A B C D). In my first harmony tutorial, I discussed the concept of tonic. Basically, a mode makes a note other as 1 is the tonic of the scale. This will make more sense if we look more closely at some practical examples.

The 7 basic modes are:

  • Ionic
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian are the most important modes as they have a big third place. Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian are smaller modes as they have a small third place.

Each mode has a distinctive pitch that makes it unique and useful in different ways. Let's go through each mode individually to find out how to find it and discuss its distinctive notes. We'll then listen to a few examples for each mode used in real music.


Ionic is the modal name for the common major scale. No doubt you know them very well! The characteristic pitch of the Ionic mode is the natural 4th.

I will not bore you with an example from Ionian. Listen to 90% of pop radio and I'm sure you will hear a wide range.


The Dorian mode begins in the 2nd degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Doric mode is the natural 6, in contrast to the typical minor scale which has a b6. This pitch gives the Dorian mode a certain brightness that is unusual for a smaller scale.

A famous example of Dorian mode comes from Miles Davis' brilliant album Kind of blue, the opening track "So What". The shape of the piece is extremely simple, A A B A, with the A section being a D minor chord and the B section being an E flat minor chord. Above the A everyone takes a solo in D Dorian, above the B Every Solos in Eb Dorian. Listen to the recording (and if you don't already have it, you'll need to buy this album!), And notice how much "cooler" and "smoother" it feels than a typical minor key song. This fresh feeling is a result of the natural 6.

Dorian is also very typical of Irish music. Again, this natural 6th degree is responsible for the fact that the music sounds a little warmer and brighter than the usual "sad" minor scale. Check out this clip of Irish folk music and pay attention to the natural 6. If you're not sure if you can hear it, go to the piano and play a D minor scale first. If you play that scale over this piece, you'll notice that the Bb sounds completely wrong, but when you turn it up to a B-Natural it feels right.


The Phrygian mode begins in the 3rd degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Phrygian mode is the flat 2, which gives the mode a much darker flavor than the typical minor scale.

Phrygian is one of the less common modes, in part because the b2 can feel so unfamiliar and "wrong". One place it comes in particularly useful is on the music score when you are trying to create a sense of fear, dark secret, or evil. However, the following example uses Phrygian in a mysterious but warm way.

A fine piece that uses aspects of the Phrygian mode can be found in Ralph Vaughan-Williams' "Tallis Fantasia". When you listen to the piece, you can immediately feel how fresh and interesting it sounds. The uncertainty of the mode ("Does it matter? No, it doesn't feel like Major ... Minor? Not really ...") creates an ambiguity that is refreshing and exciting.

It is important to note that this example is not purely Phrygian. he uses the big third. However, its melody uses the characteristic aspects of Phrygian (b2 and b7). Here is an excerpt of the melody at 1:14. Notice how he uses a major chord moving in parallel, panning around the tonic with the b7 and b2 keys.

To make it clearer, here's what happens around the D tonic:


The Lydian mode begins in the 4th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Lydian mode is the sharp 4, which makes the scale feel brighter than the major scale. Since the sharp 4 has such a natural inclination to the 5, special care must be taken not to sound like you are actually in the associated major key when in Lydian mode. For example, if you are writing Lydian in F, make sure it doesn't just sound like C major.

Lydian can be very useful when you want to write in a major key but are looking for something different. The Triton created and raised by the root creates a very bright and forward-looking sound. Some of the best examples of Lydian come from film and television music. Let's look at some examples.

The Jetsons Theme Song is a classic example of Lydian being used as a "futuristic" and forward-looking major mode. On the first line, "Meet George Jetson", notice how the # 4 pitch on "Jet-" really pulls into "-son". Instead, play that melody with a natural 4 on the piano and it will feel dull and soft.

Another classic TV theme song that Lydian uses is The Simpsons. Similar to The Jetsons, the syllable "Simp-" really attracts "-sons" even in the introductory words (note any similarities here?). The Simpsons are quirky and crazy, and using a typical major scale for their subject wouldn't do them justice.

Elmer Bernstein used Lydian in the main theme of To Kill a Mockingbird. Listen to the flute melody at around 1:03 a.m. The brightness of Lydian helps convey the childlike quality of the characters and the perspective of the story (as well as the images of toys that can be seen on the screen when that music is playing). This is an example where it is difficult to tell whether we are in Lydian or Major. You should therefore take particular care to continuously establish your tonic as "home".


Mixolydian mode begins in the 5th degree of the major scale. The signature pitch of Mixolydian mode is the flat 7, which gives the mode a mellow and sometimes bluesy flavor.

A somewhat contemporary example of Mixolydian mode is used in the Coldplay song "Clocks". The song starts with an E flat major chord, but the second chord is B flat minor. The key of Eb has a natural D (and therefore a B flat major chord), so where does this Db come from? The Mixolydian mode, of course.

Another popular song that Mixolydian uses is "The Norwegian Wood" by The Beatles. This is another example where we can tell the mode by the harmony used. The song is in the key of E, and on the line "she once had me" we're in A minor. Again, this is a V minor chord that comes from Mixolydian mode (the sound of E major has a D #, not the D nature of a B minor chord). Note that this line, "She once had me," sounds a little unusual. What you hear as different is the B7.

Another Mixolydian example is Sweet Home Alabama, which takes advantage of that main upbeat sentiment but uses the b7 for a touch of blues.


The Aeolian mode begins in the 5th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Aeolian mode is the flat 6. You can find that the Aeolian mode is just a fancy name for the common natural minor scale. What sets the Aeolian mode apart from a minor scale is that the 6th and 7th degrees are never raised for harmonic progression (i.e. often in A minor you can still find an E major chord with G #. Not in Aeolian E chord is an Em that naturally holds the G).

Ravel uses the Aeolian mode in the first sentence of his "Mother Goose" cutie. The movement, which is based on Sleeping Beauty and is called "Pavane for the sleeping princess in the forest", is said to evoke a sweet but somewhat sad fantasy land era. By using Aeolian, with the lack of raised 6 and 7 in minor that has been common in tonal music since the Baroque period, we get a feel that is more similar to Renaissance music. Listen to how very sad and gloomy it is while also being very open and spacious. Much of this space comes from all of the steps between b6, b7, and 1.

Aeolian is widely used in rock music because it is a natural extension of the common pentatonic minor scale that most rock guitarists learn early on. A variety of minor key music from bands such as AC-DC and Led Zeppelin is in Aeolian mode. It differs again in that the 6th and 7th notes of the scale are kept flat instead of raising them, as in the guitar solo Led Zeppelin song:


The Locrian mode begins in the 7th degree of the major scale. The characteristic pitch of the Locrian mode is the flat 5, which makes Locrian the darkest of the minor scales.

Locrian is probably the least common of all modes, mainly because the b5 is so flashy and unusual. So much western music depends on the V and I relationship. When the V is decreased, the whole structure collapses, making Locrian mode difficult to use.

Examples are hard to come by, but there are a few.

Here we have a march by Shostakovich from his "Three Fantastic Dances". The main marching aspect of the piece (which is best heard: 34) feels dark and somehow strange.

Perhaps a more accessible example comes from Metallica's "Ride the Lightning". Listen around: 14 and you will hear the driving progress alternate between E and Bb (the B5). Locrian is a suitable choice for Metal because of the dark B5 pitch that makes everything even more creepy.

Borrow items from the modes

As we have seen in the example of Ralph Vaughan-Williams, a composer is often not based on a single mode, but rather "borrows" the characteristic aspects of that mode. John Williams particularly likes to use these "temporary" modes for color and interest, as we'll see in the next two examples.

The vast and grand theme of Jurassic Park is almost entirely in a grand key, but there is a certain moment emanating from a mode. At 1:34, in the key of B flat major, Williams makes a seventh jump from Bb. But he doesn't land on an A nature, which is the diatonic 7 in B flat major. Instead, it jumps to an Ab, the key's b7.

As we saw earlier, the main mode with a b7 is Mixolydian. For that one brief moment, Williams goes beyond the boundaries of the major scale and the effect is brilliant. The b7 is striking and powerful at the same time and at the same time one of the most memorable moments of the entire topic. And it came from a mode.

Another example from John Williams is the love of Superman. For the first movement of the melody (: 13), G-A7 / G-Am7-G are a basic outline of the chords of each measure.

So where did this A7 come from? If you think about the notes that make up an A7 chord, you will find that C # is the pitch that is not in the key of G. And now that you're an expert on modes, you'll notice that C # belongs to G Lydian's mode, which means that this chord is borrowed from that mode. Why do we say it is on loan and not that the piece is in G Lydian? Because the next chord goes straight back to a diatonic G major setting, Am7. The raised 4 on the A7 is temporary, but it helps us "lift" us (remember, this topic is about flying!),

This I-II main idea actually comes up often when John Williams tries to get the flight across. Check out the flying theme from E.T. as just an example.

How about the next sentence under: 26? G-A7 / G-Cm7-D7.

So we figured out the A7, but what about the Cm7? Borrowed from a mode again. If we look at the foreign notes in a Cm7, we find Eb and Bb. The modes corresponding to this (b3 and b6) are Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian. Since we are not hearing the unusual b2 or b5 from Phrygian or Locrian, it is safest to assume that we are borrowing from Aeolian. This Cm7 chord, so alien and unusual to the key of G, is actually temporarily borrowed from Aeolian. Quite a simple substitute, but a nice harmonious effect.


Certain modes may work for certain styles (e.g. Locrian for heavy metal or Aeolian for dark fairy tale music), but there are no rules or restrictions.

Did you write a fun, upbeat song but wish you could add a touch of bluesy smoothness to it? Switch from major to mixolydian and see what the B7 does for you. Or when you're writing a movie queue and just can't create the vicious horror necessary to the antagonist's subject. What if you hit the 2 flat and try it out in Phrygian?

Think of the modes as a new way to expand your melodic and harmonic vocabulary. And if all you're looking for is a little spice, you can do something worse than learning from John Williams' example and only "borrowing" items from modes when you need to.