“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you teach us modes, do we not grow confused and play shitty music?” – Bill Shakespeare
I know I’m going to be a lightning rod on this one, because guitar teachers and theory wonks fucking love to talk about modes as if understanding them gives you some sort of super powers.
So let me tell you something about modes that no one else will:
Modes are just one way of thinking about music.
There are many other ways to think about music.
And they’re all right in their own way.
But 99.5% of the time, modes are the worst, most labor-intensive, and confusing way to think about music.
In other words, modes are bullshit.
Everything You Need To Know In Order to NOT Use Them
If you’re unfamiliar with the idea, modes are a way to take something beautiful and intuitive (the major scale) and turn it into a confusing and mostly useless intellectual swamp.
For example, here are the notes of the C Major scale:
C D E F G A B C
You can make melodies from those notes. Those notes sound good together. In almost every conceivable combination.
You can make chords from those notes. The obvious ones are C, Dm, Em, F, G, & Am.
Those chords sound good together. In almost every conceivable combination.
The notes of the scale sound good over the chords built from those same notes. In almost every conceivable combination.
It’s simple, beautiful, powerful stuff. Spend a tiny bit of time applying it to your instrument and it makes intuitive sense.
To me (and most people) the whole thing is considered “C major.”
Modes: The Wonky Waywonk – a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field
To a wonk, if you play C Major in a different order, then you’re playing a brand new scale and it needs its very own name. (In Greek no less!)
Despite the fact that we very rarely play scales in order.
To a wonk, if you play chords from C Major without ever going to the C chord, you’re playing modally.
Despite the fact that there’s a world of good and zero harm in just thinking of it as “being in C.”
To a wonk, as the chords change, you should think in a different mode for each one, even if the various modes are just different names for the same set of notes.
Despite the fact that in order to do that successfully, you have to pass through several other better, more useful ways of thinking about music.
Why Learning Modes Is Detrimental To Your Playing
Thinking in modes is a terribly limiting mindset.
It’s the musical equivalent of the unwashed college dropout that sees every daily interaction as an affirmation of the Marxist class struggle, or the uber-religious parents who won’t take their sick child to the hospital because that would interfere with God’s will.
How can it be bad for you to study hard and learn something?
If it distracts you from focusing on other, more important things.
If it leaves you with cruft that impedes your understanding.
If it makes you play dorky-sounding garbage instead of music.
If the experience discourages you from digging in deep on some other thorny issue in the future.
If it blinds you to other, more useful ways of thinking about music.
Should Anyone Learn Modes?
For all of my animosity towards modes and people that insist upon imposing them on others, there is a subset of the population that should be learning modes.
Here’s the simple test to ascertain whether or not you should be studying modes:
Do you need to know this in order to get college credit towards your music degree?
If yes, then by all means learn modes.
If no, you’re better off skipping them.
No one ever got paid or laid for knowing modes.
12 Things You Should Learn Instead of Modes
Here are some things you should focus on waaaaaaay before you spend even one minute thinking about modes.
- Knowing Your Instrument (note names)
- Chord Construction
- Nashville Numbers
- Chart Reading
- Soloing with chord tones
- Ear Training
- Building a Vocabulary
Remember: there’s a reason we still read Shakespeare 400 years after his death.
And it isn’t his deep understanding of the rules of grammar.