Memorizing the Musical Modes

Updated on July 25, 2018
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Noah is a young composer for indie games. He's studying as a Computer Science major and Music minor at the University of Delaware.

What Are the Musical Modes?

The musical modes are seven different scales, with seven exclusive flavors about them. An easy way to hear all the modes is to take the C major scale and play a scale on all of the white keys for each note. Each will exhibit the structure and feel of the musical mode that it matches. I am often captivated by how versatile the 7 modes are, each providing a different feel to my music.

The modes are, in order:

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

How Are the Modes Different?

The modes all have a different scalar structure, meaning that they are all unique of one another. Here's a rundown on what's different from them in relation to the first mode, Ionian, or natural major. What's bolded represents what's unique to that mode compared to the mode with one less altered degree to it:

  • Ionian is the natural major scale.
  • Dorian is the natural minor scale with a raised sixth degree (b3, b7)
  • Phrygian is the natural minor scale with a flattened second degree (b2 , b3, b6, b7)
  • Lydian is the natural major scale with a raised fourth degree (#4)
  • Mixolydian is the natural major scale with a flattened seventh degree (b7)
  • Aeolian is the natural minor scale (b3, b6, b7)
  • Locrian is the natural minor scale with flattened second and fifth degrees (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7)

Ways to Remember the Modes

I remember the order of the modes through a funny mnemonic device. I like to say:

In-Door Pools Lose Money And Licences

to represent the order, Ionian-Dorian-Phrygian-Lydian-Mixolydian-Aeolian-Locrian.

Another good way to remember the modes is in terms of their darkness, or how many lowered scale degrees the modes have. The order of modes in terms of darkness is:

  1. Lydian (#4)
  2. Ionian
  3. Mixolydian (b7)
  4. Dorian (b3, b7)
  5. Aeolian (b3, b6, b7)
  6. Phrygian (b2, b3, b6, b7)
  7. Locrian (b2, b3, b5, b6 , b7)

I like to remember this order of darkness with a little mnemonic device as well. Let's try some funky sentences:

  • Losing In Minecraft Doesn't Affect People Lol
  • Luxury Is My Desire And Pink Lakes
  • Let In My Dog And Pet Llama

Practice Makes Perfect

Remember that the only way to ingrain this information in your musical toolbox is to practice each mode and memorize its sound and/or altered degrees. I'd recommend picking a random note and building a random modal scale off of it. This technique allows you to hone your mechanics building, identifying, and ultimately mastering the modes. Happy practicing!

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