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Modes Harmonica Lesson | What Are Modes & How to Play Them on Harmonica

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Hello! In today's harmonica lesson we're looking at modes: what they are and how to play them on harmonica.

What are Modes?

Put simply, modes are a type of scale (you can learn more about scales here). They may seem scary but everyone can learn what they are and how to use them, and they are actually relatively easy to use on the harmonica, for reasons that will become apparent as we progress through this lesson.

Modes are older than our modern major and minor scales and interact with them in interesting ways. Some sound relatively familiar and some will sound quite unusual to modern ears. The easiest way to understand them is to start with the C major scale:

This scale contains no sharps or flats so it can be played without using bends on the harmonica. Here's the tab:

4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

There are seven basic modes. Each mode can be built from the same set of notes that make up the major scale above, so it too can be played without bends. The twist is that we’ll start and end the scale on a specific degree, giving it a new and unique character. Every mode has a Greek name which you'll get used to as you become more familiar with them. Here is each mode along with the scale degree from which it is built:

Ionian – 1st scale degree

Dorian – 2nd scale degree

Phrygian – 3rd scale degree

Lydian – 4th scale degree

Mixolydian – 5th scale degree

Aeolian – 6th scale degree

Locrian – 7th scale degree

For example, we can build the Dorian mode by starting on the second degree of the major scale, so we end up with D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D. Play the notes in that order and you’ll notice that they sound very different from a major scale, even though it’s built from the same set of notes. Dorian has a darker, more ‘minor’ feel to it. Here's the tab:

Dorian Mode: -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8

Building All the Modes

Remember that a scale is just a set of notes built from a specific pattern of half step (H) and whole step (W) jumps or "intervals". The pattern for the major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H. By starting on a different degree, we are changing this pattern. As such, each mode has its own pattern or formula. Here are the formulas for each mode:

Ionian – W W H W W W H

Dorian – W H W W W H W

Phrygian – H W W W H W W

Lydian – W W W H W W H

Mixolydian – W W H W W H W

Aeolian – W H W W H W W

Locrian – H W W H W W W

Modes vs. Major/Minor Scales

If you’re eagle-eyed, you may have noticed that the Ionian mode has the same pattern as the major scale. This is because we're starting on the first degree of the scale so the pattern of notes will be the same as the major scale. If you know your scales, you may also have noticed that the Aeolian is the same formula as the minor scale. We can think of the rest of the modes as a corruption of either the major or minor scale, as follows:

Ionian – Major Scale Lydian – Major Scale with a raised 4th scale degree Mixolydian – Major Scale with a lowered 7th scale degree

Aeolian – Minor Scale Phrygian – Minor Scale with a lowered 2nd scale degree Dorian – Minor Scale with a raised 6th scale degree

Locrian – Minor Scale with lowered 2nd and 5th scale degrees.

Relating the modes to our modern major and minor scales can help up to understand how we might use them in our own music-making. Although modes have been all but usurped by our modern scales, they are still used sometimes and have made a resurgance in modern jazz, cinema and even some pop music. For example, ‘Norwegian Wood’ by the Beatles uses the Mixolydian mode really distinctively. Once you hear it, you can't unhear it!

Playing Modes on Harmonica

You can play a mode in any key or position if you have the required technical ability. But to start with, it’s easy to play each mode on your C harmonica as long as you know your major scale. Simply pick a different starting degree and you’re on your way:

Ionian: 4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7

Dorian: -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8

Phrygian: 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8 8

Lydian: -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8 8 -9

Mixolydian: 6 -6 -7 7 -8 8 -9 9

Aeolian: -6 -7 7 -8 8 -9 9 -10

Locrian: -7 7 -8 8 -9 9 -10 10/ (or avoiding the blow-bend: -3 4 -4 5 -5 6 -6 -7)

Which Popular Songs Use Modes?

To give you a starting point for the sound of each mode, have a listen to these songs:

Ionian - Happy Birthday

Dorian - Scarborough Fair

Phrygian - Knights in White Satin (Moody Blues)

Lydian - Wake Up (Rage Against the Machine)

Mixolydian - Norwegian Wood (The Beatles)

Aeolian - Losing Ny Religion (REM)

Locrian - Army of Me (Björk)

Modes and Positions

Modes and positions are not the same thing (though they are often confused). Check out my Positions Guide to learn more. Playing in a certain position doesn't decide the scale (or mode) that you play, it just tells you where your home base (tonic note) sits on the instrument. That said, the layout of notes on the diatonic harmonica mean that each mode is easiest to play in a specific position (i.e. you can play the mode without bending) so it's common to hear them spoken about together.

Here are the easiest positions to use for each mode:

Ionian - 1st position Dorian - 3rd position Phrygian - 5th position Lydian - 12th position Mixolydian - 2nd position Aeolian - 4th position Locrian - 6th position

What Do Modes Sound Like?

You’ll find that each mode has its own unique character. The flavour of each mode is in the ear of the listener, but the modes are commonly associated with the following characteristics:

Ionian - Triumphant/happy Dorian - Serious/melancholic Phrygian - Mystical/moody Lydian - Airy/energetic Mixolydian - Strong/resolute Aeolian - Dark/romantic Locrian - Uncomfortable/searching

You may also feel transported to a certain part of the world with each mode. Some would say Dorian has a traditional English folk feel, Phrygian sounds Spanish or Moorish, Mixolydian feels kind of Scottish, and Aeolian suggests Klezmer or Yiddish music.

But what feeling does each mode arouse in you? What mood does it create? Have fun exploring them and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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