Modes are confusing. There, we said it. Unfortunately, there is no avoiding them when it comes to music theory, but once you get the hang of them, they can be pretty fun! We want to help you on your modal journey, so here are a few different ways you can memorize and master your modes.

What are Modes?

mode is a type of musical scale coupled with a set of characteristic melodic behaviors. There are 6 modes that are used regularly, and 1 more that’s still important to know

Two of the modes are natural diatonic scales:

  • Ionian (Natural Major Scale)
  • Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale)

The rest sound like diatonic scales with some added accidentals here and there. The remaining commonly used modes are:

  • Phrygian
  • Dorian
  • Mixolydian
  • Lydian

A less commonly used mode is:

  • Locrian

Three Memorization Methods

1. The White Keys

Each mode can be associated with a coordinating white key scale. Many people are taught modes this way because it’s a great way to visualize each mode. If this method makes the most sense to you and you can easily apply it to using modes in every key signature, then you’re good to go! But as we mentioned before, each mode has it’s own set of characteristics and melodic behaviors, and with this memorization method, it’s hard to pinpoint those characteristics. You might have better luck memorizing the rules.

2. The Rules

Each mode has it’s own set of rules, and if you memorize these rules, you’ll be able to easily use modes in other key signatures. Let’s start with the 6 most common modes:

Ionian – Major Scale
Lydian – Major Scale with a raised 4th scale degree
Mixolydian – Major Scale with a lowered 7th scale degree
Aeolian – Minor Scale
Phrygian – Minor Scale with a lowered 2nd scale degree
Dorian – Minor Scale with a raised 6th scale degree

So let’s say you are trying to write a Dorian scale starting on middle C. First, write out a C Minor scale.

Now, raise the 6th scale degree, and you have a C Dorian scale!

Now, we haven’t forgotten about Locrian mode, but we’ve saved it for last because it has a little extra pizzazz!

The Locrian mode is a minor scale with a lowered 2nd scale degree and a lowered 5th scale degree.

Let’s use C Minor as an example again. Here is the natural scale:

Now let’s lower the 2nd scale degree and the 5th scale degree to get a C Locrian Scale:

If you play this scale, you’ll notice it sounds pretty funky! Consequently, we see it used less than the other 6 modes.

3. padMIL

We’re giving you a handy acronym for the last memorization method!  “PadMIL” with the corresponding numbers is an easy shortcut for remembering the modes. Our brains love acronyms, and it’s especially great if you’re a music theory student and need to write out a key on your homework and tests!

Each letter indicates a different mode:

p = Phrygian
a = Aeolian
d = Dorian

M = Mixolydian
I = Ionian
L = Lydian

  • The lowercase letters indicate a minor scale
  • The uppercase letters indicate a major scale
  • The numbers indicate which scale degree moves
  • The arrow indicates the direction in which the scale degree moves

You may have noticed that the Locrian mode isn’t listed in this acronym. That’s because, as we mentioned earlier, it’s not as common as the other modes. And because of it’s extra alteration, there is no fancy shortcut—just your awesome brainpower!


Why is it important to know your modes?

  • Modes give you a better understanding of music theory.
  • Modes allow for fresh ideas and compositions from aspiring songwriters.
  • Modes show up in a lot of popular music.

You may not realize that many of your favorite songs actually use modes! For example, check out “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles. Notice that there is a C# in the midst of E Minor. That’s a raised 6th scale degree, which means this is actually Dorian mode!

There you have it! We hope these tips and tricks helped clarify why understanding modes in music is important. But practice does make perfect, so take some time this week in your practice session to check out Musicnotes for sheet music and experiment with modes. Happy discovering!

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