Ionian,Dorian,Phrygian and more are all modes. But what makes each mode different? It is their intervallic nature. A confusing topic for a beginner is the concept of modes and how more than one ‘scale’ can come out of a scale.

For instance, you might find it hard to grasp how C major could be both C major and A minor. Well long story short (We need to get to the good stuff) it’s because the order of their intervals change and so too does the sound.

In order for us to emphasise what mode we are in, it is imperative that we emphasise the character tones of that mode.

A character tone is basically the one note that ‘defines’ that mode (Lydian has #4, Locrian has b5 etc…). I’ll summarise the modes below, placing a ‘*’ by the important interval of that mode: -


Dorian 1 2 b3 4 5 6* b7
Phrygian 1 b2* b3 4 5 b6 b7
Lydian 1 2 3 #4* 5 6 7
Mixolydian 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7*
Locrian 1 b2 b3 4 b5* b6 b7

Note the exclusion of the Ionian(Major scale) and Aeolian(Minor scale) modes. These are simply the major and natural minor scale and they need not be present for this example.

So then, from the above, we can easily discern the most ‘characteristic’ of each mode. Let us use the phrygian mode for the continuation of our example.

Phrygian or GTFO

If we were to begin writing melody OR harmony (or both) then we should consciously try and incorporate the b2(Phrygian’s character tone), if we do not incorporate this interval often, you will find the progression/melody gradually slipping back into the respective minor/major scale it is in.

So how do we impose modes onto the listener?

Let’s say we are writing a harmonic backdrop for a melody, we are on an entirely blank canvas and we need to emphasise that b2 (Since we’re trying to imply Phrygian).

A few options would be:

Playing the chord on the b2 is an easy one, in the case of E phrygian we would just play F major.

The second option, whilst more difficult to do straight away, provides us with much variation.

The name of a chord that features the character tone in the chord itself is known as a primary chord(The root chord is also a primary chord).

Therefore, in E Phrygian, the following are all primary chords:

E minor

This is the root chord.

F major

This chord is built off of the b2 and is immediately recognised as ‘phrygian’.

D minor

This chord is the vii of E phrygian and contains the b2 also.

So, to emphasise the Phrygian mode, we could perhaps have a harmonic progression such as;

ii vii i

Each of these chords contains the b2.

Any chord that does not contain the b2 is known as a ‘secondary’ chord.

Through process of elimination, we can see that the secondary chords of E phrygian are:

Whilst they do not possess the phrygian ‘flavour’ they can still be treated as passing chords and incorporated into a composition.

Melody wise, incorporating modal characteristics is not difficult at all. We just have to adhere to the mode we are in, we should be doing this anyway.


Hopefully this article has proved insightful for those who wish to experiment modes and I also hope that you’ll get a bit more mileage out of your modes from now on.

Thanks for reading!