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Modes are the key to making songs that evoke complex emotions.

When you make a song only in a Major or Minor key, the emotions might be a bit limited to sounding happy or sad. But modes give you access to a much wider emotional and layered palette. 

For example, feeling sadness and happiness at the same time, such as when you think back to a cherished memory that makes you feel good, but at the same time makes you feel sad because you miss it. This emotion is called Nostalgia. 

Modes can help you express this complex emotion.  

What are the 7 Main Modes in Music?

The 7 main modes are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian. Each one of these has a very distinct sound and emotion to it. Some sound Bright and Happy, while others sound Sad or Dark. 

Each also has its own interval formula (or formula for how far apart each note is). This is what makes them unique from each other and gives them those different sounds and emotions. 

It helps to think about the mode formulas in relation to the major scale (or Ionian) formula, as if they all started on the same root note. This would be thinking about them as parallel and helps you understand that different parallel modes have different notes. 

Modal Interchange – Borrowing Chords from Parallel Modes

This is one of the main ways songwriters use modes to write songs.

What is Modal Interchange in Music?

Modal interchange is the technical term for borrowing chords from modes that share the same root note. Since they share the same root note they are said to be parallel modes, but there are subtle differences in the rest of the notes. Due to these differences, each mode also has its own set of chords we can borrow for creating chord progressions.  

Many songwriters will use chords from a major or minor key for most of the song and borrow one or two chords from a parallel mode to give a different mood or color to a section of a song. 

This helps add surprise because you’re not using a chord within the same major or minor key, but it is close enough to mix well with the other chords and gives a cool new spice to the overall progression. 

If you play a melody over the borrowed chord using the mode you borrowed the chord from it may also help to highlight it. 

There are other ways songwriters use modes in songs though. 

More Ways to Use Modes for Songwriting

As Colors or Moods 

When you are writing songs with modes it is often helpful to think of them as “moods” or “colors”. 

For example, if you are playing a C Minor chord and you want to make the chord sound more mysterious, try adding a high A note (the ♭7 of C Dorian).

It will sound more mysterious because you have the defining notes of C Dorian, which are ♭3 of the minor chord (which Dorian has too) plus also the ♭7 from the C Dorian mode. This changes the mood of the chord from an Aeolian (or Minor) sound to a Dorian sound, so from a Sad to a Mysterious mood. 

Writing a Full Song in One Mode 

You can also write an entire song based on only one mode by for example only using chords from C Phrygian. This can give the whole song a very specific mood. If your melodies highlight the notes that are unique to that mode it will more clearly define it as well. 

You can switch things up by adding other elements of the song like riffs, polyrhythms, or ambient effects, so that way, even though the song stays in one mood, there are other things keeping your attention. 

Layering Modal Melodies Over Chords

As I mentioned above, melodies using modes can help to bring out the sound or color of a mode over an entire modal chord progression. This happens if all the chords are from a single mode and your melody uses the notes unique to it. 

However, another approach is to play different modes depending on which chord you are playing over. 

Essentially playing a different mode over each chord. This helps to bring out different emotions in each chord as opposed to one emotion over the entire chord progression. 

Chart of Mode Formulas of Parallel Modes and their Chords

Since each mode has a different formula in relation to the major scale, each also has chords associated with every note in the formula. Use the chart below to play around with borrowing chords from different modes or making modal melodies.

Mode Scale Formulas of Parallel Modes and their Chords

Turn your phone sideways if on you’re on mobile.

Parallel ModesMajor or MinorFormulaParallel Mode in Chords
Ionian Major1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7I – ii – iii – IV – V – vi – viio
Dorian Minor1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7i – ii – ♭III – IV – v – vio – ♭VII 
Phrygian Minor1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7i – ♭II – ♭III – iv – vo – ♭VI – ♭vii  
Lydian Major1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7I – II – iii – #ivo – V – vi – vii
Mixolydian Major1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7I – ii – iiio – IV – v – vi – ♭VII
Aeolian Minor1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7i – iio – ♭III – iv – v – ♭VI – ♭VII
Locrian Minor1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7io – ♭II – ♭iii – iv – ♭V – ♭VI – ♭vii

What are the Emotions of Each Mode in Music?

Words can sometimes fall short when describing them but I’ll do my best to give you an idea below.

Some modes are Major and some are Minor. What is useful about them is that they go beyond just sounding happy or sad and give a more layered emotional range. 

Modes can sound like more than one emotion at once. For example emotions like Nostalgia, which is a combination of feeling sad but in a positive reminiscent way. 

Here are some words to describe them:

  • Ionian (Major): Bright, Happy.
  • Dorian (Minor): Mysterious, Sad in a hopeful way.
  • Phrygian (Minor): Dark, Cold, Spanish-sounding, Aggressive.
  • Lydian (Major): Dreamy, Heavenly and Ethereal.
  • Mixolydian (Major): Positive but not as happy as Ionian. Used a lot in blues and rock. 
  • Aeolian (Minor): Sad, Melancholic, Dark. 
  • Locrian (Minor): Dark but in a dissonant and tense, almost disturbing way. 

By keeping these in mind you can write songs focusing on what emotions you are trying to convey rather than just thinking in terms of chords and scales. Very useful stuff. 

Parallel vs Relative Modes

I just quickly wanted to mention this because it may be something that crossed your mind at some point. 

There is a difference between Parallel and Relative modes and it is this:

Relative modes start on different degrees of the same scale, so you are playing the same scale but starting on different notes of it. 

Example: If you play a C Major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) but start and end playing it on the second note of the C Major scale (D), then you are playing the Relative Dorian Mode of C Major. 

A Parallel mode is when the mode is played starting from the root note but using the intervals of the mode. It actually plays different notes. 

Example: If you are starting your scale on C but using the formula for C Dorian, then you are playing C Dorian, not the Dorian of C Major. The notes are different. Make sense?

Just something to point out because this was something no one explained to me for a long time and it made everything very confusing. Hope this saves you that trouble.  

Wrapping it up

Writing songs with modes is the next step in your songwriting journey after learning the basic major and minor stuff. Getting this down will level you up dramatically by allowing you to make emotionally complex songs. 

All music genres make use of this tool so it is very important to learn it no matter what your background is. Hopefully this painted a clear picture of different ways of understanding modes and how to use them for your own songs.

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