If you’re signed up for our GuitarOS: Practical Theory course, you’re getting this on the second to last day of Nashville Numbers.
But since modes are a hot topic for guitarists––and frequently misunderstood––I thought I’d share this with you on its own.
Studying Modes Is A Terrible Way To Learn Modes
It’s a counterintuitive idea, but it’s true.
Studying modes directly, isolated from any context, just plain doesn’t work.
For proof of that, we needn’t look any further than the hundred-plus explanations available online & in books that, for all their trying, still leave well-intentioned students scratching their heads.
If talking directly about modes worked, a simple google search would turn up the best method and we could all go home.
But it doesn’t. And there’s more:
Treating all theoretical possibilities equally––with no attention paid to idiomatic usage––is also a bad idea.
It’s not an efficient use of your time to sit around thinking about (for example) what the appropriate mode to use over a static Cmaj9#11 is.
You’ll never encounter that static Cmaj9#11.
It’s smarter to look at actual songs.
So if studying modes directly isn’t the best way to learn them, how do we learn them?
You’ve probably heard me say it before, but it bears repeating:
If modes are confusing to you, it’s because you have gaps in your understanding further upstream.
Once we fill those gaps, modes will be obvious to you.
That’s also true of this post. If you’ve been following along in the GuitarOS series, all of what I’m about to say will seem obvious to you.
But if you don’t have a solid foundation of knowing the names of every note on your fretboard, knowing what notes go together in which keys, knowing how to assemble them into chords, and knowing how chords are assembled into progressions, then you’re not ready to learn modes.
If in the course of reading this article you find yourself confused, it’s not because the subject matter is inherently confusing––it’s because you skipped over the setup.
Traditional explanations of modes fail because it’s outside their purview to go back to the very beginning.
But that’s exactly what’s needed.
Before you throw your hands in the air and declare that it’s just not worth it, hear me out.
I’m not talking about reading antiquated folk melodies out of Mel Bay 1 in a futile attempt to understand music theory.
That doesn’t work either (I tried).
But if you can show up consistently for 15 minutes each day, then a couple months from now you can be an entirely new player.
You and I can use GuitarOS to reprogram your brain so that all this music theory is perfectly obvious and legible to you.
It’s a tortoise-and-the-hare sort of thing.
Let Me Be Perfectly Clear
Studying modes before you’ve internalized note names, the circle of fifths, chord construction, and chord progressions is a giant waste of your time.
Studying modes after you’ve studied them is trivially easy––it’s seven new vocab words and twenty minutes of reading this article.
Studying modes on their own––to the point they’re internalized enough to be useful––takes months and months, and is just about useless without the context provided by notes, the circle, chords, & progressions.
Studying notes, the circle, chords, & progressions are all incredibly useful on their own, even if you never need to learn modes.
Quit trying to learn modes directly.
After that, modes will be obvious to you.
Let’s Review: How To Figure Out The Key Of A Song
Figuring out the key of a song is a vitally important skill that you should be practicing.
The logical extension of getting good at seeing songs as being in a key is learning to see subsections of songs as being in their own key.
And if you can see a subsection of a song as being in its own key, you can respond by choosing a different set of notes to play over it.
The logical extension of that is being able to spot subsections of song that are harmonically vague enough that you can choose to play over it with more than one set of notes, which in turn allows you to superimpose new “outside” sounds.
This is the essence of modes.
Last week I shared a series of questions for helping you determine a song’s key. If you’d like an explanation for each of these questions (or you just want a quick review), check out the original article.
- Is there a chart with a key signature?
- Did someone call a key?
- What’s the last chord in the song?
- Is there a clear dominant chord?
- Is there another clear chordal movement that’s a key giveaway?
- Are all the chords diatonic to a certain key?
- Are most of the chords diatonic to a key, with some non-diatonic (but not entirely unexpected) chords sprinkled in?
- Can this be written in more than one key?
- Is one easier than the other?
- Does it even make sense to think of this as being in one key?
Again, if any of that seems like gibberish to you, it’s not because it’s inherently confusing, but because you skipped all the setup in the GuitarOS courses.
Also, if this all seems needlessly formal, keep in mind that with a tiny bit of practice, those ten questions will occur automatically in the briefest instant––much like strumming a barre chord is no longer a dozen tiny motions for you, but one big immediately executable action.
Ambiguous Key Centers
Twice now we’ve looked at Sweet Home Alabama and wondered whether it was I-bVII-IV in the key of D…
…or V-IV-I in the key of G:
The answer is it doesn’t really matter.
Both of those ways of thinking about it are perfectly acceptable. The terminology is different, but the end result is the same.
The first way (I-bVII-IV in D) illustrates modal thinking.
The second way (V-IV-I in G) is more “zoomed out,” and thus more simplified.
And as we’ll see in a moment, knowing how to use modes well depends heavily on understanding the zoomed-out/simplified way.
I’m Unimpressed With Modes
I make a new set of noisy internet enemies every time I write about modes.
Without subjecting you to a complete rehash of my angry pontifications, here are the bullet points of my argument:
- modes get way too much attention from guitarists
- they’re only confusing because most guitarists have giant gaps in their understanding further upstream
- once those gaps are filled, modes are both completely obvious, and unnecessary in the vast majority of situations
- modes are only this popular with guitarists because they can be explained (incorrectly) using shapes, and
- modes are not shapes: no matter how much you dig in to the scale shape for a particular mode, it’s not modal unless the underlying harmony––the chords the rest of the band is playing––makes it modal.
If you’ve been working your way through the GuitarOS courses, you’re in a position to know how to use modes well.
You’re also in a position to know that in the vast majority of situations, using modes represents an extra, unnecessary step.
Using modes well depends on knowing the exact things that you now know.
I leave it up to you to decide to what degree you should use them.
But I want you to understand the mindset behind preferring one over the other.
My Preference: Occam’s Razor
By now it should come as no surprise that I have strong preference for explaining things as simply and plainly as possible.
The traditional music-school way of teaching theory is designed by and for the sort of folks who either understand the concepts already, or who were going to eventually figure it out on their own anyway.
It’s a bit like teaching grammar to children by making them diagram sentences: the ones who do great with it were going to get it regardless, and the ones who struggle with it are given a new reason to dislike reading.
Technically correct? Absolutely.
Easily understood? Not so much.
Not exactly a winning method.
Other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones.” -Occam’s Razor
Occam refers to William of Occam––an English friar, philosopher, & theologian who inspired this little ditty.
The term razor refers to distinguishing between two hypotheses either by “shaving away” unnecessary assumptions or cutting apart two similar conclusions. (wikipedia)
Invoking Occam’s Razor in an argument is a way to shift the burden of proof:
If the simpler answer suffices, then it’s the advocates of the more-complicated answer who are on the hook for justifying their method (and not vice-versa).
In other words:
I found a simpler way to think about modes.
There are many who will disagree with me.
But the onus is on them, because their way is more complicated.
If their way reliably led to people having a deep understanding of the matter, I’d happily concede the point.
But it doesn’t.
So I won’t.
Let’s look at a common guitar-centric jam: Am-D7.
When I see this group of chords, my brain quickly runs through the checklist of key-determining questions.
Among other things, I see:
- a dominant chord (D7 is the V7 of G),
- a common chordal movement (Am-D7 is ii-V in G), and
- that all the chords are diatonic to one key (G).
So when I see Am-D7, I think “ii-V in G,” even though the song doesn’t go to G.
The chords are diatonic to G.
The notes of the G major scale sound fantastic over those chords.
Maybe this is getting a little ahead of ourselves, but:
If I was going to write a chart, I’d probably write it in G (so I wouldn’t have to write an accidental for the D7’s F# every time it came up).
To me, this is in G.
It doesn’t bother me that the song has no G chord.
The part of my intellectual mind that wants to play (potentially bad-sounding) resolutions to G is completely vetoed by my ear.
But that’s just me.
Other people vehemently disagree, and their thinking is equally valid.
Pedantic Preference: Modes
Some folks are bothered by saying this is “in the key of G.”
Their reasoning is that a key is a “tonal center”––the place where your ear is drawn to.
And since this song doesn’t have G as its tonal center, they find it absurd to say that it’s in G.
Even using my own list of questions for determining a key, you can see their point:
Is there a chart with a key signature?
Probably not, but if there was, it’s equally likely that it would be written in Am as it is that it’d be written in G.
Did someone call a key?
They’d probably call it “A minor.”
What’s the last chord in the song?
It’s probably going to be Am.
And our ears are certainly drawn towards the tonal center of Am.
So saying this is in A minor is perfectly valid.
But Not Just Any A Minor
When mode-centric players take a solo over this Am-D7 vamp, they’re not thinking “G major” or even “A minor,” but instead “A dorian.”
So what the hell is A dorian?
It’s G major, rearranged to have Am as its center:
Again, this is 100% technically correct.
You could go through each chord in the key and “tonicize” it––treat it as the I (or in this case, the i).
Some people do exactly this.
But it gets horribly unwieldy:
And this is just for the modes derived from the key of G!
Multiply this chart by 13 and you’ll get an inkling of how much information this method entails.
To Be Fair
In fairness to the folks in the modes camp, this isn’t how they would describe their method.
They’re not really in the business of giving chords roman numerals.
To they extent that they think about chords at all, they would say that (for example):
Mixolydian is a major scale with a lowered 7.
If they wanted to figure out which chords are built from the mixolydian mode, they would use our old friend every-other-note to construct chords.
For example, let’s use their method to figure out what chords are in D mixolydian.
Here’s D major:
D E F# G A B C#
Here’s D major with a lowered 7 (“D mixolydian”):
D E F# G A B C
And here are the diatonic chords built from every other note:
The chords in D mixolydian are D, Em, F#°, G, Am, Bm, & C.
Do those chords look familiar to you?
Deciding whether to call this G major or D mixolydian is irrelevant––it leads to exactly the same answer.
My Point Is This
If you know the circle of fifths and nashville numbers…
You already know modes.
You just don’t know it yet.
(Well, and you haven’t gone through and given them greek names.)
If you did GuitarOS Note Names, you know the name of every note on your fretboard.
If you did GuitarOS Circle of Fifths, you know what note goes into every key.
If you did GuitarOS Nashville Numbers, you know what chords go in which keys.
If you’ve been using Anki to train your brain to quickly identify keys, you can “read” a group of chords at a glance.
So when you see a subsection of a song with chords that are more diatonic to some other key, you can solo with the notes of that other key.
Congratulations, you know more about modes than 99% of players (even the ones who are obsessed with modes, who are still missing most of the contextual information that makes them potentially useful).
If your journey would benefit from learning to refer to these by their greek names, go for it.
If not, feel free to skip it.
Don’t Believe Me? Try It For Yourself.
Here’s the Allman Brothers’ Melissa:
The song is in E, but take a gander at measures 11 & 12.
Is that IV-v-vi-bVII in E?
Or does it make more sense to think of those two bars as being I-ii-iii-IV in A?
If you’re a modal person, you might say that it’s E mixolydian––E major with a lowered 7 (the D instead of D# that gives us Bm and D).
But someone with even a halfway decent understanding of nashville numbers could glance at those two bars and see it as being in the key of A.
Do you know what E mixolydian and the key of A have in common?
They’re the exact same set of notes with different names.
It’s the ability to recognize that the chords have wandered outside of the song’s key (and quickly identify the new key) that makes this useful.
Just knowing how to play E mixolydian is useless without the knowledge of WHY you would choose to use it.
But the ability to spot a tiny change of key (and respond appropriately) is useful WITH OR WITHOUT thinking of it as a mode.
Here’s the verse of Dave Matthews Band’s #41:
If you’re a modal person, you would say that this progression is in A dorian––A major with a lowered 3 & lowered 7.
The lowered 3 (C instead of C#) gives us the Am (i), and the lowered 7 (G instead of G#) gives us the Em (v).
But when I glance at this progression, I immediately see ii-iii-vi-V in G major.
Do you know what A dorian and G major have in common?
They’re the exact same set of notes with different names.
Knowing that you should use A dorian depends on knowing all the things that lead you to conclude that these chords are in G––plus one extra step to name it based on its temporary tonal center.
If you want to use greek names to talk about music, that’s fine, but you still need the knowledge that’s upstream from there––note names, circle of fifths, chord construction, and nashville numbers/harmonic analysis.
Here’s the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses:
The song is in G, but check out the bridge (measure 30).
Is this bVII-IV in G?
Well yes, but if you solo over it using G major (GABCDEF#), you’ll find that the note F# clashes with the F chord.
Could we think of in another way? Does F-C occur in any other keys?
Of course it does.
You could think of it as I-V in F, and solo over it with F major (FGABbCDE).
Or you could think of as IV-I in C, and solo over it with C major (CDEFGAB).
Either of those options is completely legit, and both will sound better than soloing in G major.
The modes camp would call them C mixolydian (same notes as F major) and G mixolydian (same notes as C major) respectively.
And they’d be right in the technical sense.
Maybe even more technically correct than calling it F major and C major.
But we arrived at the same answer faster and with less effort than they did.
This is because being truly proficient with modes requires you to own the shit out of which chords go in which keys.
Which (assuming you’ve been working your way through the GuitarOS courses), you do.
Understanding notes, the circle, chord construction & progressions makes you way more of a modal badass than the folks who spend their time studying modes directly.
If you don’t have these things deeply internalized…
…and learning modes is your goal…
…you are wasting your time.
You’ll begin with learning the Note Names. From there you’ll tackle the Circle of Fifths. Next you’ll learn about Chord Building, and after that you’ll master Nashville Numbers.
When you’ve done those, modes will be trivially easy for you to understand.
15 minutes/day x 2 months = a brand new understanding of music
- Some progressions have a different tonal center than the key that the chords are diatonic to.
- Being able to “read” a group of chords as belonging to a key (even if the I isn’t the tonal center) is WAY more useful than understanding modes in the traditional sense.
- It’s common for little subsections of songs to be in a different key than the rest of the song.
- Some subsections are harmonically vague enough to be diatonic to more than one key.
- In those instances, you can solo in whichever key sounds better to you.
- If you’re a badass when it comes to knowing which notes & chords go in which keys, you’re better at modes than people who spend time studying modes directly.
- This is true whether or not you call them by their greek names (ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, aeolian, & locrian).
- And you can easily learn those names if you think it’ll help your particular musical journey.
Next week we’ll talk about minor keys and why I think they’re better described as being their own thing (and not as modal).
See you then,