Are You Hearing Modes Properly?

The study of modes can be one of the best exercises for building a strong awareness of scales and chord harmony, but only if you avoid the common mistakes people make when studying them...

If done properly, you can use the study of modes as a way to more effectively target specific scale tones in your guitar solos.

Modal study also helps with incorporating unique harmonic ideas within your backing chord progressions.

If done incorrectly, the study of modes will leave you feeling like you just can't seem to make their sound come together properly. You'll be left feeling like the modes are more of a mystery to you, rather than your doorway to fantastic musical sound.


Do you know how to hear modes properly? If you want to build a better awareness for their sound and their application, you’ll need to understand how a mode is musically established.

Modes are one of the most often misunderstood topics for guitar players and the problem that I always encounter is that there are certain things that you gotta do in order to be able to hear modes.

Once you get these areas properly understood, you’ll be able to put any mode to work in music, because I think that’s our end goal - we want to be able to hear and apply modes in songs that we listen to, and in the songs that we’re composing as well.

The first area that we need to comprehend is how a mode dominates the sound of a musical situation where it gets applied.

When we initially learn about modes one of the first things that we’re often told is that a mode is just a major scale played from off of a different step.

So, how does that different major scale step dominate musically over the basic major scale, so that the mode takes over? That’s the key question in this scenario and once you understand that element, modes will begin making a lot more sense.

Let’s look at some basic scale theory next, so that you can start to more fully comprehend how a mode actually becomes the principle sound and takes over the musical situation that it’s applied within as the music’s key-note musical direction.

We’re going to use the notes and chords found from within the “G Major” scale as our core key signature to work from.

With the notes of that key, we’ll establish the mode of Mixolydian.

In this diagram below, you can see that the harmonized key signature of “G” major, has all 7 chords listed which relate to all the roots of each scale step.

If we wanted to build Mixolydian, we need to focus on the 5th scale degree of our major scale, (which in this case is the “D” Major chord).

Then, we lay out “G Major” scale from the “D Chord,” and establish a new series of chord relationships to form the harmony of Mixolydian.

Try doing the process shown above with another mode. For example, you could try it with the fourth major scale mode of "Lydian." The tones of Lydian are built from the 4th step of the major scale.

This would mean that the, "A Lydian" Mode would come from "E Major." The structure of tones from "A Lydian" comes from starting the "E Major" scale from the new modal root of "A." That's all there is to this method.

At this point of the process, I’m sure you’re wondering, hey, ya know, there’s nothing going on here. All we did was take the chords from “G Major” and line them all up from off of the “G” scales 5th note, ( of “D” ), and nothings really changed – has it?

But, here’s the part you need to understand… chord harmonies operate in generally the same ways regardless of what root notes we designate. Have a play through to the chords of this jam…

1). D – Mixolydian Jam: "I - V - IV"

This chord progression above, moves through chords of the key of “G Major.” But, the way we hear it musically, and the way we would play a melody (or compose a guitar solo over these chord movements), would not end up being focused on that “G” chord or the “G” root.

Instead, the musical sound-scape - the musical direction of this jam focuses on, and is dominated by the, “D” major chord.

And, that means even if you didn’t play “D Mixolydian” (as your lead guitar sound), the other option would be “D Major Pentatonic.”

This holds true even if we change up the chords in our example by swapping out that “A Minor” chord in the third measure with its relative harmony chord, the “C Major.”
Have a play through of that idea…

2). D – Mixolydian Jam: "I - VII - IV"

What’s really cool is that you can do this process (that I just ran through here), with any mode across any key. Because all we did here with Mixolydian is simply establish it as our primary tonal direction.

After that, we constructed a basic progression from off of the modes “I-IV-V” chords. Then, to expand on the sound we swapped out that “V-chord” with a relative harmony idea to (in this case, bring in the modes “VII-chord”), and that offered us another sound option.

You can do this exact same process with any mode. Try it with; Dorian, or Lydian, or Phrygian - and you’ll see for yourself.

By simply focusing on the original harmony, related to the new modal layout, and then, by going ahead and building a jam-progression from the modes new “I-IV-V” chords, you’ll do more than simply understand the modal sound, you’ll actually start hearing the modes chord and melody ideas come out of the scale – and you’ll be hearing it - properly. 

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