You’ve probably heard of them, but maybe you don’t know what is referred to in what is sometimes called Greek or even Gregorian modes or, as we can call them today, simply harmonic modes.

We are going to see what they consist of, the important differences between those names and, what is more important, their uses when composing music and their role in academic music theory and harmony, in general.

What are modes in music?

The musical modes are specific ways of organizing the notes and, therefore, give rise to specific harmonic contexts, to a peculiar sound each of them, to sound colors, if you want to see it that way.

A modal scale, typically, will use some notes, separated by certain musical intervals, and will give greater importance to any of them, with the aim of achieving the specific sound or character of that specific harmonic mode.

And the preferential use of the chords that contain these characteristic notes will allow modally harmonizing or composing harmonic environments, musical passages, in short, that sound clearly in that particular way.

But, first, let’s see where this modal practice came from, this way of making music.

The greek modes

The history of modes is very old and, from the first documents that we preserve from classical Greece, for example, these special configurations of notes appear, these scales and derived chords that each provided a specific sonority, ideal for illustrating according to What musical themes, stories, ideas or moods.

Well, the main reason is that the Greek notes, by their definition, tuning and even number, do not coincide with the equal temperament tuning that is the one that is mostly used today. Therefore, the music that we could compose following those precepts, if we were able to do it, to begin with, would not sound the same way that they were heard at that time.

Gregorian or ecclesiastical modes

A few centuries later, during the Middle Ages or so, Western music evolved in convents and those inherited Greek modes ended up transforming into what became known as Gregorian modes.

These modes, more similar to the current ones, do not coincide with what we usually do nowadays, generally, since, although the musical instruments and the tunings were improving over time, and, for example, the note if was added to the previous six that had been used until then.

Even so, Gregorian chant and its compositions, in practice, do not exactly agree with the modern use that we can make of modes. Dissonances, norms and customs regarding how to write melodies and other factors led to the creation of a type of music that we can hardly equate to contemporary modal songs or instrumental pieces.

Modern harmonic modes

Once the equal tuning system was standardized as a benchmark for Western music and with the construction of greatly improved instruments, capable of a precision and stability that in the past was impossible to achieve, what we know as modern modes was established.

With them we can compose and express, in some way, very characteristic musical and emotional contexts and, for example, unlike the old modes, lead to any tone, which we could call modal center, by simply transposing any of the modal contexts. of which we are speaking.

Thus, we can compose a song, instrumental piece or musical passage in C Major or Ionic, or Do Dorico, or Do Phrygio, or F# Lidio,… or any possible combination of tone and mode, according to our idea, taste or convenience.

What are the harmonic modes?

So, the modes that are best known and used today correspond to those that arise from the notes of the major scale.

This is exactly how you hear it.

The same notes of a major scale, ordered and executed in another way, give rise to the harmonic modes and the music that arises from their use produces the characteristic sound of each of them.

Let’s see those 7 modes, their corresponding musical scales, their names and main characteristics.

Ionian mode

The Ionian scale is basically what we know today as the Major scale.

Viewed another way: Tone – Tone – 1/2 Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – 1/2 Tone

This is the intervalic pattern of the Ionian or Major scale.

Doric mode

The Dorica scale is one that contains the same notes as the Ionic or Major but starting from the second.

Viewed another way: Tone – 1/2 Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – 1/2 Tone – Tone

This is the interval pattern of the Doric scale, a minor scale.

Phrygian mode

The Phrygian scale also arises, in the same way, from the third note of the Major scale.

Viewed another way: 1/2Tone – Tone – Tone – Tone – 1/2Tone – Tone – Tone

This is the interval pattern of the Phrygian scale, another minor scale.

Lydian mode

The Lydian scale arises from the Major scale, equally, but starting from its fourth note.

Viewed another way: Tone – Tone – Tone – 1/2 Tone – Tone – Tone1/2 Tone

This is the interval pattern of the Lydian scale, a major scale.

Mixolydian mode

The Mixolydian scale follows the same logic and arises from starting from the fifth note a Major scale.

Viewed another way: Tone – Tone – 1/2 Tone – Tone – Tone1/2 Tone – Tone

This is the interval pattern of the Mixolydian scale, another major scale.

Wind mode

The Aeolian scale is what we commonly know as the natural minor scale.

Viewed another way: Tone – 1/2 Tone – Tone – Tone1/2 Tone – ToneTone

This is the interval pattern of the Aeolian scale.

Locrian mode

The Locria scale is the remaining combination of these same notes or, rather, musical intervals.

Viewed another way: 1/2Tone – Tone – Tone1/2ToneToneToneTone

This is the intervalic pattern of the Locrian scale, which gives rise to the most unstable and least used mode.

Using the music modes

And, if we are using the same notes, how do we get those different modal sonorities?

The answer to this question is simple: using them in a different way in each case.

Each mode, in addition to the note that gives it its name, has another characteristic note that will be the most important and will be well present both in the melodies and in the modal harmonies. That note will be the one that will function as the characteristic signal of each mode.

The characteristic notes of the harmonic modes:

  • Jonico : (4) perfect fourth
  • Doric : (6) major sixth
  • Phrygian : (b2) minor second
  • Lydian : (#4) augmented fourth
  • Mixolydian : (b7) minor seventh
  • Aeolian : (b6) minor sixth
  • Locrian : (b5) diminished fifth

Using these notes and avoiding giving importance to those of the relative Major scale, with which they share those same notes, is what will make it possible to hear that sonority, those cadences, those typical colors of each mode.

The chords that we use to harmonize these melodies will follow the same idea and will give importance to the characteristic notes while avoiding or placing in weak places chords like the major of the relative tonality.

In short: if we want a song or instrumental theme to sound Doric, for example, Re Doric, both the melody and the harmony will use Re and Si as main notes, while avoiding or using Do as the passing note.


Modes are one of the possible ways to organize music.

Just like the tonal system or more or less artificial alternatives to relate some sounds to others, this type of harmony generates a type of musical sensations, of atmospheres, of emotion, if we want to see it that way, that other compositional possibilities do not offer.

Knowing the modes and being able to use them for our songs or instrumentals will give us more possibilities when it comes to creating and, in addition, it will connect us with very old musical forms that, in some way, are in the ears, heads and minds. hearts of millions of people without them even knowing it.

Using a harmonic mode is having centuries of power at our service.