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How to Hear the Difference Between Modes and their Parent Scale

Question by Jake

So far all I am noticing with modes is that they are just basically playing the parent scale (e.g. C major)in different positions of the neck.

Basically it just seems to me that the modes are simply the playing of a scale using a different root. I could be completely wrong and confused I am not sure. But for example, A Aeolian is the exact same scale (uses the same notes) as C major however just in a different order, in such a fashion that the root of the scale is A instead of C. It is basically the Cmaj scale, starting from the 6th scale degree.

I know that this makes the intervals of the scale different and the intervals are different but it is still the C major scale.

I can hear the differences between each mode when they are played ascending and descending but that all goes away when you are soloing (playing more of a random selection of notes).

I guess the question I am really asking is "is the only difference between a mode of the C major scale and the C major scale the note that you start on?"

Meaning if I start the C major Scale on A, or E, or F, Or B and play up another 7 notes of the C major scale, is that a mode?

I know my question is confusing but that is because modes are very confusing

Thank you.

Modes in Relation to Their Parent Scale

Jake, you are correct that each mode uses the same notes as its parent scale (and therefore its related modes).

So take the parent scale of C major...


It's first mode (Ionian) is the same sequence as C major, because we start from the first note.

It's second mode (Dorian) starts on D...


It's third mode (Phrygian) starts on E...


And so on.

In that respect, yes, a mode is simply the parent scale "starting" on a different note/degree of that scale.

So if you know the mode, you should be able to work out its parent scale. It may take time at first, but write it out and memorize like as follows, taking Mixolydian as an example...

G Mixolydian = C major

A Mixolydian = D major

D Mixolydian = G major

...etc. Then test yourself with another mode...

D Dorian = C major

F Dorian = Eb major

G Dorian = F major

This will help you to determine which parent scale can be used for a given mode.

In turn, that means you only need to learn the major scale across the entire fretboard and not seven separate scales!

But while this shows us what modes are structurally, "what makes a mode" is more than simply starting on a different note of its parent scale.

What Makes a Mode?

The mode you play is ultimately determined by the backing music.

Try playing a mode without any accompaniment and you'll soon lose a sense of which mode you're playing. In other words, it loses its tonal center without any backing music or reference note.

Without any musical reference, the sequence of notes you're playing could theoretically be any of the seven modes of that parent scale (since we established that they all use the same notes).

So we need some backing music to give that ambiguous sequence of notes a musical "center of gravity", otherwise known as a tonal center.

That backing music could simply be a single bass "drone" note.

So if the bass was on D and you played C major, you'd get the distinctive sound of Dorian. D Dorian to be specific.

If the bass was on F and you played C major, you'd get the Lydian mode.

A good way to play around with this without having to record any backing tracks is to play the open E string and let it ring while you play through some modes.

That E bass note will put what you play into context, and that's what really determines which mode your major scale becomes.

For example, with our E reference note, we could start with playing E major on the other five strings.

We could then play E Dorian (D major).

Then E Phyrgian (C major), E Lydian (B major), E Mixolydian (A major) and E Aeolian (G major).

This will help you to internalize the unique flavours of each mode on a parallel root (E).

You could also tune the E string down to D or lower to try a different root.

So although you're still playing the notes of the major scale whenever you play one of its modes, it's the scale's relationship to the backing music that puts it into a modal context.

There are, of course, also chord progressions that position the major scale on one its modes. I'll be expanding on that in detail in coming lessons.

For now, use the "reference note" approach to train your ear to the unique sound of each mode and to help you correctly relate a mode root with its parent scale root.

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