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Music Theory Quiz and Tutorial: Modes

Chasmac is a semi-retired guitar teacher who has taught in various schools in London and elsewhere for over 30 years.

Modestar

Modestar

The 7 Modes

Test your knowledge of the modes with this quiz. Just to be clear, these are the seven modes:

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

It's necessary to mention it as other types of modes also exist in music, such as the modes of the harmonic and melodic minor scales, as well as the two modes of key-based music, called the major mode and minor mode, often used in classical music analysis. The quiz doesn't include questions on any of those modes.

Modes Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Which mode exactly resembles our present day major scale?
    • Lydian
    • Phrygian
    • Ionian
    • Aeolian
  2. Which mode resembles the major scale apart from having a raised 4th scale degree?
    • Lydian
    • Mixolydian
    • Phrygian
    • Dorian
  3. If soloing over the modal vamp chord sequence: G-F-C-G, where G is the tonal centre,which mode would fit best?
    • G Mixolydian
    • G Ionian
    • G Aeolian
    • G Phrygian
  4. Which term describes the interval arrangement of all seven modes?
    • Pentatonic
    • Diatonic
    • Supertonic
    • Hexatonic
  5. Which of the following modes is very common in British and Irish folk music
    • Lydian
    • Locrian
    • Phrygian
    • Dorian
  6. Which mode is this very Spanish' sounding scale: EFGABCDE?
    • E Aeolian
    • E Phrygian
    • E Locrian
    • E Dorian
  7. Which mode did Miles Davis use to compose his classic modal jazz song: So What?
    • The Mixolydian mode
    • The Phrygian mode
    • The Ionian mode
    • The Dorian mode
  8. In terms of shared tonal centres, which of the following keys most closely resembles the mode F Lydian?
    • F major
    • C major
    • F minor
    • C minor
  9. When were most of these seven modes first devised?
    • In ancient Greek times
    • In the middle ages
    • During the Renaissance period
    • In the 19th century
  10. Which note of F Dorian differs from the scale of F natural minor?
    • 4th note
    • 5th note
    • 7th note
    • 6th note

Answer Key

  1. Ionian
  2. Lydian
  3. G Mixolydian
  4. Diatonic
  5. Dorian
  6. E Phrygian
  7. The Dorian mode
  8. F major
  9. In the middle ages
  10. 6th note

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 3 correct answers: Nice try

If you got between 4 and 6 correct answers: Could be better

If you got between 7 and 8 correct answers: Not bad - above average

If you got 9 correct answers: Very good score

If you got 10 correct answers: Excellent score. Well done!

How did you do?

Have a look at the explanations below for more detailed info on the modes, in case you got any wrong.

Which mode exactly resembles our present day major scale?

Ionian Mode

As music became more tonal and less modal in the latter half of the 17th century, the Ionian mode, due to its particular interval arrangement, was found to be especially suited to establishing strong tonal centres via functional chord progressions — a defining feature of tonal music. That and the minor scale (derived from the Aeolian mode) became the two primary scales of the new major-minor key system arising around that time. Key-based tonal composition techniques gradually replaced modal techniques.

Which mode resembles the major scale apart from having a 4th scale degree one semitone higher?

Lydian Mode

  • F major: F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F
  • F Lydian: F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F

In its earliest usage in Gregorian chants (before sharps and flats were introduced into music), the Lydian mode was based on the note F, but for aesthetic reasons the 4th note (B) was often sung a little lower, making it (almost) identical to our present day B flat and making the scale equivalent to our present day F major scale. This practice eventually led to the use of the lowercase letter b to indicate a lowering of the note B. This b, became our present day flat sign and was the first accidental in our current music notation system. It eventually came to mean the lowering of any note by a semitone, not just lowering the B.

If soloing over the modal chord sequence, G-F-C-G, where G is the tonal centre, which mode would fit best?

G Mixylodian

Being the best fit isn't the same thing as the best choice. It just means the notes of the chords agree with the notes of the scale or mode, making it the safest, but not necessarily the best, choice. There are no chromatic clashes between those chords and G Mixolydian's notes, such as F natural in the chords being heard clashing with F sharp in the solo, which could happen if the scale choice was G major instead of G Mixolydian. Such clashes could still be consciously avoided, but on the other hand, they could also be exploited to great effect. So don't confuse best fit with best choice, which is an artistic decision. Best fit is always the safest choice and makes a good home base from which to venture outside whenever you want to go exploring new note relationships and other scales and modes.

To work out the best fit scale/mode, for a given chord progression that can provide a safe note source for soloing, write out the chord tones of the chords in the sequence:

  • G major: GBD
  • F major: FAC
  • C major: CEG

Putting them all together, starting from G, (which we already know from the question is the tonal centre), gives us:

  • GABCDEFG, which is G Mixolydian (like G major but with the 7th note lowered one semitone).

Which term describes the interval arrangement of all seven modes?

Diatonic

Diatonic scales are scales of 8 notes (including the octave end note) with certain arrangements of three tones and two semitones between the notes (the two semitones being separated by either 2 or 3 whole tones). The term diatonic is derived from the ancient Greek four-string tuning arrangements called diatonic tetrachords. Dia meaning through, tonic meaning tones, tetra meaning four, and chord meaning string.

Which of the modes is very common in British and Irish folk music?

Dorian

This mode is commonly used in folk music from Britain and Ireland. Examples include, "Scarborough Fair," "The Lonesome Boatman," and "Greensleeves," although the latter is commonly heard with alterations and harmonisations that now make it sound more minor key than Dorian mode.

As a result of folk influence, a fair amount of '60s and '70s English rock music shows Dorian flavours. Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon, for example, starts off with a Dorian vamp (Em - A7) that continues and recurs throughout the album.
The Mixolydian mode is another mode commonly found in British and Irish (and also American) folk and rock music (The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," e.g.).

Which mode is this Spanish-sounding scale: EFGABCDE?

Phrygian

Mostly due to its semitone interval between the first and second notes, people associate this mode with the sound of Spanish flamenco music. A more commonly used scale in flamenco, however, has the note G# instead of G, and is called by various names including the Phrygian dominant scale. The dark, haunting feel of the "semitone-above-the-tonic" interval in Phrygian mode is a popular feature of heavy metal.

Which mode did Miles Davis use to compose his classic modal jazz song, "So What'?

Dorian

Modal jazz was a reaction to the fast and furious style of bebop. By contrast, the harmonies are simple vamps consisting of a couple of chords over which melodic lines in a chosen mode are improvised. "So What" is based on the chords D minor 7th and Eb minor 7th, and the mode changes pitch to match the chords.

In terms of shared tonal centres, which key most closely resembles the mode F Lydian?

F Major

The important phrase in the question is shared tonal centres. Both the key, F major, and the mode, F Lydian, share F as their tonal centre and differ by only one note (F Lydian has B; F major has Bb). C major has the exact same notes as F Lydian, so it's the closest key in terms of shared notes, but has a completely different tonal centre.

When were these modes first devised?

Medieval times

The first four of these modes — Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian — were note systems devised by medieval monks in order to organise and classify the existing body of Church plainchant, etc., around the 7th century. They also served to provide a compositional framework for new music being composed for the church. The use of the Latin-derived word 'modes' (meaning: manner' method) reflects this approach to composing music in defined (and Church-approved) ways. They were wrongly named Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian after what the monks mistakenly believed to be the original ancient Greek note system. It wasn't the same, but the wrong Greek names are still used.

In addition, each authentic mode had an accompanying, so-called plagal mode, which had the same notes (and final note) but starting four notes lower, allowing for an extended range of lower notes. These were named:

  • Hypodorian
  • Hypophrygian
  • Hypolydian, and
  • Hypomixolydian.

Of the remaining modes, the Ionian and Aeolian (plus their plagal counterparts, Hypoionian and Hypoaeolian) weren't introduced until the mid-16th century, although, secular, and even some sacred, music already existed that could be seen in terms of what later became the Ionian and Aeolian modes. The Locrian mode (with its plagal partner, the Hypolocrian) came later still, which expanded the modal system to its full complement of fourteen modes, but was never considered to have any musical value due to the unstable tritone interval between its first and fifth notes. The hypo (plagal) modes eventually became irrelevant and obsolete leaving the seven authentic modes that survive today.

© 2012 Chas Mac