Music Theory

What's The Difference Between Music Modes and Music Scales? [Video]

By Hoffman Academy Team
Learn about music scale notes and music modes - music theory info

Curious about musical modes and scales in music? In this article you will learn about music scale notes and modes in music

Most piano students learn about the major and minor scales, but did you know there are other kinds of scales too? Mr. Alex is back this week to tell us about modes in music! The modes we are talking about today originated long ago in Ancient Greece. Today’s major and minor scales in Western music are derived from modes, just like the English language borrows prefixes and suffixes from Greek and Latin. In a way, musical modes are like the older cousins of today’s major and minor scales. Fun fact: the word “mode” comes from the Latin word for method, so modes in music are simply another type of method or musical formula for picking which notes to play in a melody! 

Different Kinds of Scales in Music

The words “mode” and “scale” can be confusing because they are sometimes used interchangeably to describe the same thing. A scale is a collection or group of notes used to improvise or to write a musical composition. Music scales are often represented by playing or displaying the notes one by one in ascending order. For example, the C major scale is CDEFGAB, then back to C.  Music scales can consist of as many as twelve pitches such as the chromatic scale (made entirely of half steps), or they can have as few as five pitches such as a Major Pentatonic scale (Do-Re-Mi-So-La, or simply play the black keys). In Western pop and classical music, scales are organized by the intervals, or the order of half and whole steps in the scale. Changing the order of half and whole steps changes the sound, or color of the scale! There are nearly countless different types of music scales!

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Music Modes: Greek to Me!

When musicians talk about modes, they’re usually referring to the seven Greek modes, which is what the ancient Greeks called scales. These specific modes in music had seven pitches each and consisted of five whole steps and two half steps. Each of the seven music modes has its own unique sound. While today many music students focus on major and minor scales built on different notes to evoke emotions, the Ancient Greeks took the notes that today form the white keys of the piano and shifted the starting note to form each new mode. By changing the starting note, we change the note that is the central focus of the melody, which changes the sound. 

Today, the major and minor musical scales correspond to the musical modes of Ionian and Aeolian. The other musical modes share some similarities to major and minor scales, but show differences in the patterns of half and whole steps. This means that music written in some modes sounds different than music written in a scale. Let’s check these out on the piano, using the C Major and Minor music scale notes as our base. We’ll include where to find each music mode using only white keys as well. We’ve even included listening pieces for each musical mode from different styles, so you can begin to identify musical scales and modes by ear! 

The “major” modes of a scale

  • Ionian: This one should sound familiar because it has exactly the same music scale notes as the Major scale! Half steps: between pitches 3-4 and 7-8 C D E-F G A B-C On the white keys: C to C.  Example of this music mode: any song in a major scale that Mr. Hoffman teaches could be an example–in fact, Five Woodpeckers uses the first 5 notes of the major scale!
  • Lydian is the brightest sounding mode. Take any major scale and raise the 4th note a half step to make the Lydian mode. Half steps: 4-5 and 7-8. C D E F#-G A B-C On the white keys: F to F. Song Example of this musical mode: Mazurka No. 15” by Chopin
  • Mixolydian: Take any major scale and lower the 7th note a half step. Half steps: 3-4 and 6-7. C D E-F G A-Bb C On the white keys: G to G. Musical Example:  Debussy‘s ‘The Sunken Cathedral’.

The “minor” modes of a scale

  • Aeolian: The same as the natural minor scale. Half steps: 2-3 and 5-6 C D-Eb F G-Ab Bb C On the white keys: A to A . Musical Example: any minor song Mr. Hoffman teaches, like Wild Horses!
  • Dorian: Take the natural minor and raise the 6th a half step. Half steps: 2-3 and 6-7 C D-Eb F G A-Bb C On the white keys: D to D. Song Example: “Scarborough Fair” by Simon And Garfunkel 
  • Phrygian: Take the natural minor and lower the 2nd a half step. Half steps: 1-2 and 5-6 C-Db Eb F G-Ab Bb C On the white keys: E to E Musical Example: “Cinq Mélodies Populaires Grecques: No. 2. Là-bas, Vers L’église” by Ravel
  • Locrian: The “darkest” sounding mode changes two notes from the natural minor: Lower the 2nd and 5th notes a half step. Half steps: 1-2 and 4-5 C-Db Eb F-Gb Ab Bb C On the white keys: B to B.

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Using the Musical Modes

While there are countless possible types of music scales with varying numbers of pitches and all different kinds of interval patterns, the Greek Modes are just seven of the more widely used music scales. Try using the white key versions of these music modes to make interesting melodies of your own! Want to learn more about improvising notes in a scale? Check out these videos from Hoffman Academy!

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