Writing in modes

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  • @gmcgath  Feb 1

    Do some of you like to use modes other than major and minor in your songwriting? After hearing a discussion of the Phrygian mode in The Nightmare Before Christmas, I'd like to try it out in a song. (Phrygian is like natural minor, but with a flattened second. Or to put it another way, play a scale on the white keys starting with E.)

  • @helenseviltwin  Feb 1

    Apparently, I do, but it's not intentional...

  • @dasbinky  Feb 1

    @helenseviltwin Came here to say that. 😀

    I will try now and then with keyboard parts, but I usually have to use some MIDI tools to force it.

  • @quork  Feb 1

    I love the idea of modes, and have experimented a little. Phrygian (i.e. gypsy or flamenco) is a lot of fun.

  • @standup  Feb 1

    I’m often hanging around in Dorian, but not really on purpose.

  • @jwhanberry  Feb 1

    I work in modes a lot. Lydian gives some lightness to a major sound.
    Also interesting are the modes of the Harmonic and Melodic minor. Scary stuff out there!

  • @chaotrick Feb 1

    I usually write in natural/harmonic minor, but I sometimes make stuff in phrygian/phrygian dominant as well. Have some ambigouous stuff hanging around locrian. Tried other modes as well, but they just sound too happy/hopeful for what I'm usually going for.

  • @musicsongwriter  Feb 1

    I've done in the past and would love to try again.

  • @quork  Feb 1

    I found the following book a great reference: "Modes for Guitar", by Tom Kolb. Gives a snapshot and overview of each mode, i.e. formula, scales, common progressions, and riffs. It's available as an ebook (i.e. through the Kindle store.

  • @sph  Feb 2

    Got Noel Johnston's book on Modal etudes a year ago - I have to admid that I only worked on some chapters up to now. But it is good stuff.

    He also has a web app where you can select some intervalls and then see the fitting mode(s).

  • @katpiercemusic  Feb 2

    Yes, but I don’t think I’ve ever written in Locrian. Maybe I’ll try that at some point.

  • @bootlegger Feb 2

    Yeah I use different modes a lot. At this point it's not really a conscious thing. But I have a background in jazz guitar and you do a lot of modal theory work in jazz. Technically everything is modal though if you really break it down but I know what you mean in like picking a modal scale and using it for your melody.

  • @phenola Feb 3

    Sometimes, yeah. IMO the Mixolydian is the most readily accessible one for writing pop music. I've done a couple of things in the Lydian mode, although I don't find it easy.

    One way I've found to add a bit of variety to a track is to repeat a melody or motif you used earlier, but do it in a different mode on the repeat.

  • @nightwing521  Feb 3

    If you're interested in modes, here are a couple of YouTube videos you might want to look at. Created by Adam Neely and friends.

    Making the LOCRIAN scale sound GOOD? (ft. Paul Davids, Ben Levin, Nahre Sol and Samurai Guitarist)

    Making the LYDIAN scale sound UGLY? (ft. Shubh Saran, Justice Cow, Music is Win and Aimee Nolte)

    In the second, it really IS hard to make Lydian sound bad. They are odd, and sometimes unsettling, but still not "ugly".

  • @radioovermoscow Feb 3

    I've never figured out how this works. Occasionally I'll find a note in a melody which doesn't strictly fit the chord it's over, but usually if a note isn't in the underlying chord, it doesn't work for me. Any tips on how to get out of this dilemma?

  • @phenola Feb 3


    I'm not an expert on this at all but it may be best to study examples. I know there are various Beatles songs with modal melodies. I think Eleanor Rigby might be one of them -- I can't remember details offhand but YouTube probably has them. One I always remember is a song called Inbetweener by a 90s UK indie band called Sleeper, whose main melody is all Mixolydian (flat seventh -- it's a slightly bluesy sound without going full blues-scale). I know Danny Elfman's theme from the Simpsons is heavily Lydian. There are likely to be lots of other well known examples out there.

  • @dasbinky  Feb 3

    Not to turn this into a "here's a popular song built around a mode!" thread, but Rick Beato has a fun breakdown of The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does" where he talks about its use of Lydian modality. The song itself is pretty anchored in D major, but G Lydian asserts itself. Fun watch if you like the song. I hadn't considered it before and now I can't unhear it.


  • @nadine Feb 6

    I unintentionally end up using modes, but I don't know how I got there. Most of my songs are harmonic minor or aeolian, but I sometimes end up in dorian. I think my first song is phygrian by accident. Does somebody know for sure?

    Is there are way to write a song in a certain mode on purpose without understanding music theory in detail?!

  • @bootlegger Feb 6

    @nadine yes absolutely! You really only need to know one scale to start shaping your knowledge of modes. If you know the major scale you're like 90% of the way there.

    Let's look at C major. This can get extremely technical but you can kinda break it down into easier to digest bits. So C major (which in itself is a mode so you already got one) has the notes C D E F G A B.
    If we start the scale on the second note and play it up the line we have another mode, Dorian. So that would be D E F G A B C. Same notes playing a scale starting on E is phrygian. Same scale notes starting on F is Lydian. Starting on G is Mixolydian. Starting on A is known to most as minor but is also called Aolian. And starting from B is Locrian.

    Just like the c major chord has the notes C E G, you can do the every other note in the scale thing to build chords from the other bases of each mode. D F A for a D minor chord for Dorian. E G B for E minor chord for Phrygian and so on.

  • @tomslatter  Feb 6

    While the 'start on a different note of C and you're playing in a mode' description is accurate, I don't think it's the best way to learn.

    If you play around like that you can still retain the idea of C as the tonic/home note. But the whole point of being in a key/mode/scale is the tonic and how the notes relate to it.

    So better I think to stick C as your tonic, then change notes within the scale. Make all your Fs into F#s and you've got C Lydian for example. Or change B to Bb for mixolydian.

  • @tunecat  Feb 6

    The app Thumbjam is brilliantly designed, and allows the user to select whatever mode is being used. After doing a Berklee College online course on coursera (I think its still available and still free) I got into modes.. briefly. I did impros over each one (variants of the maj scale) to get my head round it.. Its a while back and I'd marked the playlist "private" but here's the link https://soundcloud.com/honeymoonhill/sets/daily-improv . Modes start at track 7.

  • @davidbreslin101  Feb 7

    Huge mode nerd here, and I indulge the obsession a lot during FAWM. Church modes plus the occasional more exotic one- there are a whole ton of interesting scales used in Indian music, and a few more in modal jazz.

    @nadine - just been listening to that song. To me it seems like a mixture of Phrygian and natural minor. That's another thing about modality- you don't have to stick doggedly to one mode, the tune can flip into another mode if it feels right.

  • @nadine Feb 7

    As a hint: I am not into music theory. I dunno the slightest bits about it 😀

    Than you! I knew this trick about shifting the scales, but I am still not able to find some chords and progression in... lets say G-mixolydian.
    I only know the main chord which is G13sus4, so that G major, G13 and Gsus4 is naturally inside. Having a look intothe notes it looks like C major. Maybe Am, F and G would fit in, since they're natural in C major. And then? I'm having real troule to find nice chords and to arrange them.
    The second thing I tried is to start in with a simple G major chord and letting it flow. Somehow, I ended up in the scale of G major. Then I restricted myself to use that F#. I tried to shift F# to G or F, but that sounded somehow strange.

    Thank you! Maybe you can share your SoundCloud link to my username. You can find it in my profile.

    Thank you for checking! Been jumping around the scales without having the full knowledge. You're completely right that there are plenty of modes around. Some weeks ago I came across a kind of augmented or shifted blues scale. That sounded really awesome, but I was not able to write a song.

  • @rainchaser  Feb 7

    I sometimes feel like writing in mixolydian mode, fun stuff! I have written a few songs with that mode actually but outside of FAWM. I think it was during 50/90 but I don't remember.

  • @smileymn Feb 8

    I enjoy using the chromatic mode

  • @jcameron Feb 8

    I like modes. I've written songs in Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, double harmonic major and with sections in Hungarian minor. You get some interesting chords with the last two. I tend to go in more for modal interchange though unless I'm specifically setting out to write in a given mode, so I'll usually throw in a chromatic mediant or two to keep things interesting.

  • @musicsongwriter  Feb 10

    Thank you for the challenge. Here is my phrygian mode piece:

  • @headfirstonly  Feb 10

    @sapient and @dragondreams and I came up with the Stygian mode during last year's 50/90 but I don't think we got round to writing anything in it; must have a go at some point...

  • @sapient  Feb 10

    @headfirstonly - oh yes, I forgot about that!
    What was it again? All the notes of the scale fitted any minor key imaginable? And it only works if you play it very slowly and with the lights off...

  • @dragondreams  Feb 10

    @headfirstonly @sapient I also seem to remember it involved the quarter tones too. And a banana...

  • @davidbreslin101  Feb 13

    Three for three on modes so far: Lydian, Myxolydian, and what I think of as the Rag Bhairav scale, C Db E F G Ab B C. (I don't think I should claim it to actually /be/ in Rag Bhairav. Ragas are more complicated than that....) Sadly, I've a whole bunch of boring majors and minors to record at the weekend.

  • @tomslatter  Feb 13

    @nadine G mixolydian would indeed include all the chords you mention. It's characteristics are: it's major and it has a flat 7, so kinda bluesy.

    Cadences that might work :

    G7 Am F G7.
    G Em Dm G.

    If you end up with an F# note you're not in G mixolydian anymore. 😀

  • @nadine Feb 13

    Thanks. Is there any site where you can look up the characteristics?

  • @dasbinky  Feb 13

  • @circle Feb 13

    i tried to a song in the style of Depeche Mode, does that count?

  • @babs77  Feb 17

    I second @tomslatter , this site has a good explanation and examples of the modes and ideas for using them in songwriting: https://blog.landr.com/music-modes/

  • @babs77  Feb 17

    Those are just the western church modes, mind you. Persian music has 52 different modes! Some are played only at certain times of day and occasions. Many change on the way up vs the way back down; in non-western music they can have microtones, which expands the possibilities even more. Lots of fun to explore, and helps break out of the same old same old.

  • @nadine Feb 18

    Oops, I did it again! Without even noticing it seems like I've stranded in mixolydian this time. After writing the chords down for another song, there was some big parts of mixolydian once again.
    Maybe it's better to forget about all this theory and just make music.

  • @burrsettles  Feb 18

    learning more music theory has been one of my projects during COVID lockdown, including scales other than major/minor, or wandering outside of the scale in dissonant but musical ways.

    i stress the THEORY part of it, because i'm grasping the concepts, but haven't really developed intuition for it, so i've been using tools like this MIDI plugin called "scaler" to better understand what i'm doing.

    my first 2 songs this year have both been modal, only quasi-intentionally. i'm not actually sure what key/scale my first one "psalm 1" is in (and i think it may actually change), but it turns out the second one (not yet posted) is in G♭ lydian, I think.

  • @tomslatter  Feb 19

    "Maybe it's better to forget about all this theory and just make music." <- Yeah, that's valid. As much as I love the theory - and know it well enough that it isn't separate from making music - it is only one way to do things.

    The approach to theory we're talking about in this thread ccomes out of the Western classical tradition. That's only one way of thinking about music, definitely not the only way to do it.

  • @burrsettles  Feb 20

    this one is in G♭ lydian (alluded to above, finally demo'd last night): https://fawm.org/songs/120037/

    i started by noodling out the first 3 chords on guitar, not knowing exactly what they were called, and not knowing where to go next. so i plugged the guitar into the DAW and used plugins (1) MIDIGuitar to convert guitar playing to MIDI notes, and (2) Scaler to detect those notes and suggest what keys/scales they might be in. i picked G♭ lydian (same notes as D♭ major) because the first chord was apparently G♭maj7, and then scaler suggested other chords in that scale, which i used to come up with a chord progression i thought worked!

  • @davidbreslin101  Feb 20

    @tomslatter - Aye, 100%! There are several different Asian and Arabic traditions with elaborate music theory systems of their own. And many, many more cultures have their own names for the different scales / modes they use in folk music. That's why I struggle to know what to call them sometimes- when the same scale is used in modal jazz, klezmer and Indian classical music, which name you you pick?

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