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Modes on Mandolin: Improving Your Improvisation

Modes Made Easy

Let's examine the common modes, using the D major scale as our starting point. The MAJOR scale is also called the IONIAN mode; it is built on the first scale degree.

The D Major scale (Ionian) - 1st degree:
    D   E   F#   G   A   B  C#  D
   (D = 1, E = 2, F# = 3, G = 4, etc.)


   The other modes are formed by starting on
   a different note of this major scale:


Dorian - 2nd degree:
   (d)  E   F#   G   A   B  C#  D   E  (E Dorian)

Phrygian - 3rd degree:
   (d) (e)  F#   G   A   B  C#  D   E   F#  (F# Phrygian)

Lydian - 4th degree:
   (d) (e) (f#)  G   A   B  C#  D   E   F#  G  (G Lydian)

Mixolydian - 5th degree
   (d) (e) (f#) (g)  A   B  C#  D   E   F#  G  A  (A Mixolydian)

Aeolian (Natural Minor scale) - 6th degree:
   (d) (e) (f#) (g) (a)  B  C#  D   E   F#  G  A  B  (B minor/B Aeolian)
   
Locrian - 7th degree:
   (d) (e) (f#) (g) (a) (b) C#  D   E   F#  G  A  B  C#  (C# Locrian)    

This demonstrates the derivation of the common modes, but this is an unwieldy way of thinking about them in an improvisational setting. It is much easier to think of the modes as being alterations of either a Major or Minor Scale.

Major Sounding Modes:

Lydian - Major scale with raised 4th degree.

      D Lydian =  D   E   F#   G#   A    B   C#   D.

Lydian has a moody recognizable sound due to the raised 4th. Often you'll hear it as film background music - someone is remembering their childhood, etc. There's the new Maytag commercial with the flying saucer and aliens - the intro music is typical of lydian mode.

Mixolydian - Major scale with the flatted 7th. This can be thought of as the dominant scale.

      D Mixolydian =  D   E   F#   G   A    B   C-natural  D.

You are using this mode every time you lower the leading tone (7th) to play it as blues note. Common mixolydian tunes include "Red Haired Boy", "Old Joe Clark", "June Apple" etc. When you have a tune that has the I chord and a flat-VII chord (also known as the "subtonic"), you're in the mixolydian mode.

(Example in key of A: || A    | A    D | A      | G (subtonic) | )

Minor Sounding Modes:

The Aeolian mode is the NATURAL MINOR SCALE.

      D Natural Minor scale =  D  E  F  G  A  Bb  C  D
      The primary chords are  Im - IVm  - Vm  
      (or bVII chord - subtonic).

Dorian Mode - Natural Minor altered with a raised 6th.

      D Dorian =  D  E  F  G  A  B-natural C   D.

Dorian mode is often used interchangeably with the minor scale at the musician's discretion. A characteristic of a tune in dorian is a IV(major) chord. Im - IV- Vm.

Phrygian Mode - Natural minor altered with a flatted 2nd.

      D Phrygian =  D  Eb  F  G  A  Bb  C  D

This mode has a "Spanish" sound to it.

Locrian Mode - Natural minor altered with a flatted 2nd and flatted 5th.

      D Locrian =  D  Eb  F  G  Ab Bb  C  D

This is a fairly uncommon mode in the west. The only song I can think of based upon it is accordionist John Kirkpatrick's "Dust To Dust" (on his first album JUMP AT THE SUN). In my mind, I think of Locrian as 'altered Phrygian' (flat the 5th).

However, it is fairly common in middle-eastern and Jewish music. In klezmer music, locrian mode is known as "Jewish Minor".

Harmonic Minor Scale

This is a classical alteration of the natural minor scale, raising the 7th in order to make the V chord major.

      D Harmonic Minor =  D  E  F  G  A  Bb C# D.

Melodic Minor Scale

A further alteration of harmonic minor. In order to eliminate the augmented 2nd jump (3 half-steps) between the 6th and raised 7th, the 6th was also raised a half step when ascending.

      D Melodic Minor (ascending) D  E  F  G  A  B-natural  C#  D
                     (descending) D  C-natural  Bb  A  G  F  E  D
                     
      Or, in other words--almost a major scale (but with a minor 3rd) 
      going up, natural minor coming back down. 

Modes can be derived from any type of scale or altered scale. There are some common scales in the middle-east which derive from the harmonic minor scale.

      D Harmonic minor =  D  E  F  G  A  Bb C# D
Mode of the 5th degree = (d  e  f  g) A  Bb C# D  E  F  G  A
      (Freygish or Ahavo Rabo scale, sometimes called "gypsy minor") 
                        
Mode of the 4th degree = (d  e  f) G  A  Bb C# D  E  F  G (Ukranian Minor)
Mode of the 3rd degree = (d  e) F  G  A  Bb C# D  E  F (Hizam)

                        ------------
                        
Let's put these modes into D for are comparative purposes:

      D "freygish" (5th mode of G harmonic minor) = 
                          D  Eb F# G  A  Bb C  D
                        
Natural minor with a flatted 2nd and major 3rd, though I think of this 
as Phrygian with a major 3rd. (Called "Hijaz" in eastern Arabic music.)

                        ------------
                        
      D "Ukranian Minor" (4th mode of A harmonic minor) =  
                          D  E  F  G# A  B  C  D
                        
Natural minor with raised 4th and raised 6th (or Dorian with a
sharped-4th). (Called "Nakriz" in eastern Arabic music)

                        ------------

      "Hizam" in D (3rd mode of  B harmonic minor) =   
                          D   E  F# G A# B  C# D

Think of this as a Major scale with a raised 5th.

The soloist has the option of emphasizing certain color tones by playing off the various modes for various chords within a chord progression. D major and D mixolydian are practically interchangeable in bluegrass music. D dorian can also be used against a D major chord - the dorian mode is superimposing minor against major (the m7 and m3 are two of the 'blues' notes). Lydian or Freygish could also be played against a D chord, especially one that was held for an extended number of measures.

In a minor key, natural minor (aeolian) and/or harmonic minor are usually played, although dorian is often used. Phrygian (flatted 2nd) is also an option, as is "Ukrainian minor", but care must be exercised when the chords in the progression change so that there are no major clashes between the mode/scale and the particular accompaniment chord. (However, an astute backup player can alter the particular backup chord to better fit if an eastern scale/mode is being used.)

How to practice modes? Take a song, or fiddle tune, and play it in the various modes, altering the appropriate notes. Use a tune like "Whiskey Before Breakfast" or "Arkansas Traveler" which are normally played in D major, and play them in each of the various modes, using D/Dm as the root tonality. Of course, when you do this, the normal chord progressions don't always work, and if you want decent backup, certain chords will need to be changed to fit the new melody notes.

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