What You Will Learn
  1. What a mode is
  2. How to spell the seven modes of the major scale

The Seven Modes of the Major Scale

What is a Mode?

A mode is a scale that is derived from another scale by starting and ending on a specific note within that scale. This note is the tonal center of the music and is usually a note other than the tonic of the original scale. Modes can be derived from any scale, including the major scale, the three minor scales, and pentatonic scales. This lesson focuses on the modes of the major scale.

Modes can be derived from the major scale in two different ways: by starting and ending on a specific scale degree, and using formulas to alter the major scale. It is important to understand both approaches.

Using Scale Degrees to Derive the Modes

Every major scale contains seven modes. Each mode starts and ends on a specific scale degree. If you start and end on that scale degree, the result is a mode. The modes are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. The modes always occur in this order. Ionian starts on the first scale degree, Dorian on the second scale degree, and so on.

The chart below lists the scale degrees and the mode that occurs on that scale degree:

Mode Scale Degree
Ionian 1
Dorian 2
Phrygian 3
Lydian 4
Mixolydian 5
Aeolian 6
Locrian 7

The Steps for Deriving a Mode

Finding a given mode with this approach is easy. You need to do two things to use this method:

This method is broken down step by step below. A Lydian is used for the examples, but this approach can be applied to find any mode.

Step 1: Determine the scale degree where the mode occurs.

Lydian starts on the fourth degree of the major scale.

Step 2: Find the scale where the root of the mode occurs on the scale degree found in Step 1.

The root of A Lydian is A, so you need to find the major scale where A is the fourth degree. The easy way to do this is to go through the musical alphabet. Since A needs to be the fourth degree, you have to count backward through the alphabet four letters starting with A. Always begin counting with one on the starting letter, which is A in this case. If you start on A, counting back four letters gives you the letters A, G, F, E. This means that the fourth letter back is E.

Using the musical alphabet to find A Lydian

Step 3: Check the major scale starting on the pitch from Step 2 to verify it contains the root note of the mode.

Try playing a major scale starting on E to determine if the note A occurs in the scale. A does occur on the fourth degree of the E major scale as shown below:

Tube E major scale with the fourth degree highlighted

You may need to add sharps or flats to the letters of the musical alphabet when using the approach described above. It should be obvious when you need to do this, since you will find that the note you are trying to locate doesn't occur naturally in that key. When this happens, you need to add a sharp or flat to find the correct key.

Step 4. Start on the scale degree determined in Step 1 using the major scale found in Step 3 to find the notes in the mode.

Starting on the fourth degree of the E major scale will give you the notes in A Lydian (A B C# D# E F# G# A). This is shown below:

The A Lydian mode

Note that each mode takes its name from the starting note of the mode. For example, a Dorian mode that starts on D would be called D Dorian.

The Seven Modes in C Major

All seven modes of the C major scale are shown below. Notice that each mode contains the same notes, but begins and ends on a different note.


The Ionian mode starts on the first degree of the major scale, so it is contains the same notes as the major scale.

Deriving C Ionian from C major


The Dorian mode starts on the second degree of the major scale. In C major, the mode will be D Dorian.

Deriving D Dorian from the C major scale


The Phrygian mode begins on the third degree of the major scale. This is E Phrygian when derived from the C major scale.

Deriving the E Phrygian mode from C major


The Lydian mode is derived by starting on the fourth note of the major scale. This is F Lydian in C major.

Deriving F Lydian from C major


Mixolydian starts on the fifth degree of the major scale. The mode in C major will be G Mixolydian.

How to derive the G Mixolydian mode from the C major scale


Aeolian starts on the sixth degree of the major scale. This means that it contains the same notes as the natural minor scale. This is A Aeolian in C major.

Deriving the A Aeolian mode from C major


The Locrian mode begins on the seventh degree of the major scale. This is B Locrian when derived from a C major scale.

Deriving the B Locrian mode from the C major scale

When dealing with major and natural minor scales, it is more common to refer to them as major or natural minor rather than the Ionian or Aeolian modes.

Altering Notes of the Major Scale

Every mode has a formula that can be used to modify the notes of the major scale to get the mode. This is expressed as numbers from 1 to 7 with accidentals before any number that needs to be modified from the notes of the major scale. The formula for the major scale is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. All modes other than Ionian will be a modification of this formula.

Formulas for the Modes

The chart below shows the formulas for all seven modes. The examples all start on C to make it easier to see how each formula alters the major scale.

Mode Formula Example
Ionian 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 The formula for the C Ionian mode
Dorian 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 The formula for the C Dorian mode
Phrygian 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 The formula for the C Phrygian mode
Lydian 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 The formula for the C Lydian mode
Mixolydian 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 The formula for the C Mixolydian mode
Aeolian 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 The formula for the C Aeolian mode
Locrian 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 The formula for the C Locrian mode

The Locrian mode isn't used frequently as the tonal center for a piece of music. This is because the tonic chord is a diminished triad. It is very difficult to make music sound like it is in Locrian because of the challenge of creating a convincing resolution to a diminished chord. However, Locrian is used frequently in improvisation, particularly in jazz where many different scales or modes may be used throughout a solo.

Quality of the Modes

The modes can be categorized as major, minor or diminished: