What are Major Scale Modes?

You might have heard of the terms; mode, dorian, mixolydian, lydian, locrian and phyrigian. What are these weird names, where do they come from, and most importantly – why should you know them inside-out?

Welcome to your major scale modes 101.

Use this lesson to:

  • Learn basic modal theory.
  • Hear the different modes.
  • Know how to improvise musically with modes
  • Have fun while you learn!

I will firstly give you a simple answer, secondly link to some in-depth lessons and lastly give you a general overview of modes. Let’s get started!

A Quick Answer (music theory fast food)

Modes = 7 different scales within the major scale.  Have you seen the movie Inception featuring Leonardo Di Caprio? Dreams within a dream?

A mode is a scale within a scale.

Here is why:

You can build a individual chord and mode (or scale) off each of the 7 notes of major scale. Each modes has its own unique ‘sound’ and associated chord. Think of the major scale as the parent scale, the other modes are children, each unique in their own way.

The Modes Of The Major Scale

Feel free to click on each mode below for an in-depth lesson. Otherwise, keep reading for a more general look at major scale modes.

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phryigian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian
  7. Locrian

Major Scale Modes; A Closer Look

To illustrate this lesson I will be using a piano because it is a great visual tool. If you play the white keys from C to C you play C major Scale.

Real Life Example

I am sure you already know this sound, it is everywhere; from lullabies your mom sang you to Justin Beiber to Miles Davis.

Now before I get to far here are a few terms you should know. Feel free to check back here if you stumble upon a term you don’t know.

Beginners Music Terminology Reference

  • flat = b
  • flat 3 = b3
  • sharp = #
  • sharp 4 = #4
  • 9th = 2nd
  • 11th = 4th
  • 13th = 6th
  • Tonic = home or resting chord
  • Root = first note or bass note
  • maj = major
  • min = minor
  • octave = same note but higher/lower

Creating a Chord

You can create a chord off any note by stacking up notes above it from the major scale. The most common jazz chord is a 4 note chord, the seventh chord. These are constructed by playing every other note on top of the root note (or home note). For example we can do this on C to create Cmaj7:


The notes we stack up are called the root, 3rd, 5th and 7th of our new chord.

maj7 chord formula = root 3 5 7

But what about all the other notes? To answer this, we keep stacking up every other note onto a chord to create extensions or colour notes.


As you can see we now also have:

  • 9th (or 2nd)
  • 11th (or 4th)
  • 13th (or 6h)

These extension notes don’t have to be played all the way up there in the stratosphere. You can bring them down an octave, mix them up and rearrange them in any order. Cool right?

C Ionian Mode

Congratulations you now have your first mode and associated chord – C Ionian (the normal major scale) and Cmaj7.

major scale

Let’s do the same thing with the second note of the major scale; D.

The Dorian Mode

Play C major scale but start on D and finish on D. This scale is D dorian mode, the second mode of the major scale.

dorian mode

Create a Chord

Now stack up a 4 part chord above D:


This chord has a flat 3rd (b3), perfect (normal) 5th and flat 7 (b7) so it is a D minor7 chord.

min7 chord formula = root  b3  5  b7

Dorian Extensions

Just like with the Ionian mode, you can stack up the remanding notes of your scale above your Dmin7 chord.


You now also have:

  • 9th (or 2nd)
  • 11th (or 4th)
  • 13th (or 6th)

It is literally impossible to play that gigantic chord on the guitar so we guitarists pick, choose and rearrange which notes they want to play – we only have 6 strings! This is what you have created:


Chords vs Scales

Can you see how any chord is intertwined with a scale? In many ways a chord IS a scale. There are two sides of the same coin.

Now you know how to create a major scale mode and construct a chord, try it out on the remanding notes of the major scale. Use the links below to explore each mode in depth.