Ionic, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, and locrian: otherwise known as the church modes. These influential scales originated in the church music of the middle ages and are still used today in classical music, pop, jazz, rock, and even metal. So, if you want to try something new or take in a little musical history, it’s worth learning a few church modes. In this blog, you’ll get an idea of how these modal scales work, an impression of the kind of sound they can produce and learn to play them in any key.

Kerktoonladders voor beginners

Introduction

  • If you’ve never dived into any scales before, then it’s worth taking a look at these blogs about the major and minor scales first so that things don’t get too confusing.
  • Is it essential for any beginner to learn all of the church modes? No, not really, but it is a good way to learn scales and gain a deeper understanding of how they work.
  • While we could take a more in-depth look at the theory of the modes, this is likely to be more confusing than enlightening.

The Seven Modes

The seven modes or scales originated in church music as far back as the middle ages, or more precisely, around the sixth century when Gregorian vocal and choral arrangements were used and named in honour of Pope Gregorius I. We know seven of the scales: ionic, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, locrian, and the aeolian, one of which is now known as the major scale (the ionic mode) and one of which is know as the minor scale (the aeolian).

Understand them Easily with a Piano or Keyboard

It’s far easier to understand the church modes with a piano, keyboard, or similar keyboard-instrument in front of you. Why? Because of the layout of the keys. Looking only at the white keys, you get a clear picture of the modes, including the major and minor scale.

White Keys: Whole or Half

The notes of the white keys of a piano have different ‘pitch distances’, or ‘intervals’ between them. For example, while there is a distance of a whole note between the C and D, there is only the distance of half a note (a semitone) between the E and F. At this point, you don’t need to understand why this is, but it’s a detail worth knowing about, and once you’ve been playing for a while, you’ll begin to hear the difference between a whole and half note. The distance of a semitone between two notes sounds a touch ‘sharper’ and more ‘tense’, but every musician will have their own way of describing it.

In short, you could say that the note difference between two white keys is always a whole note, except for the intervals between an E and F, and a B and C. You can clearly see the note differences in the white circles on the keyboard below (you can click on the image to make it larger):

The Church Modes for Beginners

The Black & White Keys

If we look at both the white and black keys of a piano, then things actually get even more simple. Strike a random key, then strike the next key, which can be white or black depending on where you started, and the note will always be a semitone higher or lower than the first. So, if you start with C, as you can see above, the next key is going to be black (C#/Db), so the distance between a C and C#/Db is a semitone. Going further on from C#/Db, and we come to the D which is another semitone up, and so on.

Ionic – The Major Scale

We’ll start from C, since this is the easiest way to hear the ionic scale on a piano. Play all of the white keys following C, until you hit the next C along. So, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. Like you can see in the image below, you’ve just played the C-major scale, which in the church modes is known as the ionic scale. The notes in this scale run through the following set of intervals (note differences): 1 – 1 – ½ – 1 – 1 – 1 – ½.

The Church Modes for Beginners

Aeolian – The Minor Scale

Now, play the white keys in order, as you did to play the ionic scale, but this time, start on an A. So, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A. This is the aeolian scale, which is also known as the standard minor scale. While this scale includes the same notes, it starts at a different note, which means that the intervals between notes are now in a different order, giving the scale a different feel. Generally, people find that the minor scale sounds more ‘sad’ than the major scale. The intervals (differences between the notes) of the aeolian scale are as follows: 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1.

The Church Modes for Beginners

Dorian

Now, play the white keys from one D to the next, and you’re playing the dorian scale. This scale uses all of the same notes as the C-major scale but here they are played from the D. So, D, E, F, G A, B, C, D. The intervals of the dorian scale are 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1. Compare it to the aeolian scale (the standard minor scale) and it looks like this:

  • Aeolian: 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1
  • Dorian: 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1

The difference isn’t all that big, right? Just one of the intervals is different. The result is a normal minor scale, but with a different 6th note (where a perfect sixth replaces the diminished sixth). This gives the dorian scale a character of its own which is a little less sad and a little lighter. For a complete beginner, this may not be immediately clear, but once you’ve been playing and listening for a while, this will come naturally. One of the most famous songs that uses the dorian scale is Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles. The signature sixth note that marks out the dorian scale from the standard minor scale can be heard in the following lyric on the words ‘in’ and ‘church’: “Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church…” – a detail that immediately makes the melody of this song entirely different from most straight-forward pop songs.

Phrygian

Just like the scales we’ve already covered, the phrygian scale is easily played by starting from the E and playing all of the white keys until you hit another E. So, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. What sets this scale apart is that the first interval is a semitone, which makes the second note really stand out (a diminished second). It’s very unlikely that you’ll hear the phrygian scale used in any pop music. While it was used in early flamenco music, for example, there are only a few exceptions like Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth, where you can hear it in the recurring two-note guitar riff which starts on the second note of the scale (so the diminished second) and then returns to the first note – taking full advantage of that semitone half-step. Besides that detail, the phrygian scale looks much like the standard minor scale, but when you hear it, it has what might be described as a mysterious sound.

  • There’s also the phrygian dominant scale. This is used less in western pop music and is more typical of Arabian music and Klezmer. But we’d be straying from our subject if we went into any more detail, since this is not one of the church modes.

Lydian

Now, start on an F and play all of the white keys through to the following F to play the lydian scale. So, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F. This looks a lot like the major scale (ionic):

  • Ionic: 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1/2
  • Lydian: 1 – 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1/2

But it’s that one note difference (the augmented fourth) that gives this scale a different, more ‘relaxed and dreamy’ character than the major scale (ionic). For the same reasons that the locrian scale isn’t commonly used in popular music (which will be explained later), you won’t get to hear the lydian scale that much – however, the first part of The Simpsons theme tune is actually in the lydian scale, and while the rest of the song is not in the lydian scale, that opening melody has lasting impact. You can see the melody notated below – it’s the bit just after you hear “The Simpsons…!

  • Note: in the example below, the lydian scale is played in C rather than in F. We’ll talk more about transposing the church modes into other keys later in this blog. That telltale lydian note is the F# – the third note of the first bar, and the first three notes of the final bar.

Kerktoonladders voor beginners

Mixolydian

To play the mixolydian scale, start on a G and play every white key until you hit the next G. So, G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. This is essentially the same as the ionic scale, but the seventh note is different, giving this scale a less lively and slightly darker feel. The mixolydian scale is used a lot in gospel music since that diminished seventh that replaces the perfect seventh gives it a distinct bluesy feel, but without going as far as the real blues scales, which also include a diminished third and diminished fifth. A popular example of the mixolydian scale is Clocks by Coldplay, where (for example) the signature mixolydian note sits on ‘can’t’ in the line “Lights go out and I can’t be saved…”

Locrian

Play a B to a B, playing just the white keys, and you have the locrian scale. So, B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B. This scale is seldom used in any genre. You could even say that this is more of a theoretical scale. The problem lies in the fifth note and its harmonic use. Scales aren’t just used to compose melodies, but the harmonies (or chords), and the fifth note of any scale always plays a big role in this. In the locrian scale, the fifth note is a semitone lower than the other church modes, which presents a considerable harmonic challenge. Precisely why is a subject too big for this article.

Major & Minor Scales

Of all the church modes, the ionian and aeolian scales are the most used and are more commonly known as the major and minor scales. Of course, these aren’t the only major and minor scales, since each church scale is in major or minor. A scale is considered minor when the third note is a diminished third. A scale is considered major when the third note is a natural third. How is this figured out? It’s simple: start on the first note and count the distance to the third note. Two whole notes = natural third. A whole note + a semitone = a diminished third. The minor scales also tend to have a more sad and dramatic sound to them while the major scales sound more lively. For example: the lydian scale has two whole steps between the first and third notes, so it’s a major scale. The first and third notes of the dorian church mode have a difference of just one and a half notes, so it’s a minor scale. See this blog for more in-depth information about the difference between major and minor scales.

The Church Modes for Beginners

Can You Only Start the Dorian with a D?

No, of course not. In the same way that you don’t have to start the aeolian scale on an A, or the ionic scale on a C, and so on, you can transpose all of the church modes. In this blog, we use the D as the starting point for the dorian scale simply because it’s easier to play on the piano – you only have to play the white keys in order. But, now that you have a clearer picture of the intervals of each of the church modes, you can use these to play each scale in different keys. So, say that we want to play the dorian scale in C instead of D: then we start on the C but use the dorian intervals: 1 – 1/2 – 1 – 1 – 1 – 1/2 – 1, so the scale would look like this…

  • 1: C to D
  • 1/2: D to Eb
  • 1: Eb to F
  • 1: F to G
  • 1: G to A
  • 1/2: A to Bb
  • 1: Bb to C

Or: C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C

By simply using the intervals between each note as your map, you can play every church mode in every key.

Why is the First Note So Important?

A scale is a row of notes arranged in order of ascending pitch. But in a song, the order of the notes is usually shifted around, so why is the first note of a scale so important? To put it simply, you could see the first note as the main character in a film. All the action revolves around this character – they are the starting point and ending point. Sometimes the story will take an entirely different direction, and sometimes other characters will pop up, but at some point, you’ll almost always come back to the main character. This also means that the first note of a scale doesn’t have to be the first note you hear in a melody that’s been written in that scale. Just like the central character in a film, they don’t have to be the first character you see.

See Also…

» Music Theory Books
» All Music Books
» Music Notation Paper
» Notation Software
» Keyboards
» Digital Pianos

» The Blues Scale – Nail it in Every Key!
» The Pentatonic Scale: Easy to Learn
» How to Play Great Solos Over Chord Progressions
» Better, Faster, Stronger: Learn to Read Music at Speed
» Major & Minor: Hearing & Understanding the Difference
» Music Notation: Sharps, Flats, and Naturals
» Dynamic Notation Explained!
» How to Play Basic Piano Chords
» Chords: Theory & Chord Symbols
» Reading Music: Rhythm, Tempo & Measure
» Reading Music: The Minor Scale & Keys
» Reading Music: The C-Major Scale
» Learn to Read Guitar Tabs

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