Earlier this year I wrote an article titled Why Learning Modes Is A Waste Of Time.
As I expected, people leapt to their keyboards to tell me
- that modes are only way to be proficient at guitar,
- that modes illustrate the way the fretboard is laid out,
- that everything is modes, but I’m too naive to even know it,
- that being anti-modes means that I’m anti-theory,
- that I must not be very good at guitar,
- that modes are the only way to know anything about music, everything else is just playing by ear or by patterns,
- that rejecting modes means ignoring minor keys (even though only one of the three types of minor scales can be built from a mode), and of course,
- that I’m a blowhard.
To Be Fair
There were some level-headed comments among all this, and I tried to engage with people and understand what’s appealing to them about modes, and how they used them.
What I learned surprised me:
Most of the furor that surrounds my insistence that modes are mostly useless stems from the fact that people routinely call several things “modes” that just plain aren’t.
What Modes ARE
Spend any amount of time reading about guitar online and you’re bound to encounter modes.
Probably the most over-hyped and under-understood concept in all of guitarlandia, modes are something I love to hate on, and people on the internet love to hate on me for hating on.
If you take a scale, and play it with a different “tonal center,” technically you’re using a mode.
For example, if you take the notes of G Major (G A B C D E F# G) and play them from A to A (A B C D E F# G A), people with a hard-on for modes prefer to give this set of notes a new name: A Dorian.
You could do this for each starting note, thus turning one scale into seven.
But since the notes in each of those “scales” are the exact same, it doesn’t actually bring you any new sounds to explore, and it septuples the amount of work you have to do.
Seven times the work for the same outcome? Count me out.
What Modes Are NOT
Thing #1 That’s Not A Mode
The five common major scale shapes are a wondrous & beautiful thing…
…but they’re not modes.
Using that second shape over a progression in G is not “playing in A Dorian.”
It’s the key of G, no matter how much you lean on the A notes.
If, on the other hand, you played those notes over a pedaled (unchanging) A bass note, then that would be A Dorian.
But that’s also true of every single shape of G major.
Don’t believe me? Here’s a short video that illustrates my point.
So the five major scale shapes ≠ modes.
They’re simply major scales. No more, no less. Starting on a different note does not magically imbue that set of notes with new, exotic properties.
Thing #2 That’s Not A Mode
Here’s another thing that I see getting called “modes” and “modal” that just plain isn’t.
There are people who see this progression:
And advocate for playing these modes over each chord:
Do you know what A Dorian, D Mixolydian, G Ionian, & E Aeolian have in common?
They’re the exact same set of notes: G A B C D E F#
So would you rather solo in G?
Or strain your mind to try to solo in four things with Greek names, all of which, at the end of the day, are G?
So Are Modes Good For Anything?
Sure. A cool thing that you can do with modes is to superimpose one sound over another.
For example, if you’re in the key of C and you’re hanging out on an Am chord for a few bars, you might use the notes from G major to introduce a new sound (the F# that’s in G but not C). You might call this “A Dorian.”
Or maybe you use the notes from F major (Bb instead of B). You might call this “A Phrygian.”
But it gets much easier once you’ve mastered note names, the circle of fifths, and which chords belong in each key.
Once you have a handle on that, modes are an absolute breeze––and completely unnecessary in 99% of situations.
The knowledge you need in order to know when to use each mode is the exact same knowledge that makes modes unnecessary most of the time.
Myths & Misconceptions
Here are a few more nuggets of “wisdom” about modes I’d like to call bullshit on:
The idea that being anti-modes is anti-theory.
Nope, sorry. There are a lot of things under the theory umbrella, and modes are but one tiny (over-emphasized) part. And learning the more useful theory bits first makes modes trivially easy should the need to know them arise.
The idea that without modes we’re confined to only playing diatonically.
Playing notes from outside the key isn’t something that can only be achieved with modes. In fact, modes aren’t even a good way to do this––they don’t begin to explain the chromaticism, outside sounds, & intervallic melodies that make up the best non-diatonic playing.
(This one is especially perplexing, given that frequently the “modes” people are speaking of are only rearrangements of the diatonic notes––no outside tones at all!)
That the notes for soloing over (let’s say) an Am – D7 vamp are best understood as “A Dorian.”
Sure, you can look at it that way… but how did you get to that understanding?
It seems to me that––in order to know to use A Dorian––you’d have to know that the chords Am & D7 are diatonic to the parent key of G major, that they’re ii-V in G, and thus to use the second mode of G.
If you can look at Am – D7 and see that they’re an extremely common mini-progression in the guitar-friendly key of G, why wouldn’t you just solo in G?
And if you can’t look at Am – D7 and see it as ii-V in G, WHY IN THE FUCK ARE YOU EVEN TRYING TO THINK ABOUT MODES?!?!?! You have way more important shit to worry about first.
The idea that “tonal center” means much at all.
The standard answer to my rant above is that you shouldn’t think about a progression as being in G when it never actually goes to a G chord. That the tonal center is the Am, so the notes from A Dorian will sound better than the (absolutely identical) notes from G Major.
Wow. We’re worried that someone will be confused by the name of the key, so we’re teaching them 7 different names for each key?
Who is this mythical individual who can navigate the seven-headed modal beast but can’t keep track of which chord is being played (or doesn’t haven’t the ear to resolve appropriately)?
All Of Which Is To Say
If you learn to see sets of notes (and later chords) as being in a key, you get to skip over the redundant and ridiculous 7x work of learning modes.
If for some reason, at some future time, you find yourself needing to learn modes (like say, at music school), you’ll be in great shape for putting new terminology to your deeply internalized sense of notes in keys.
But don’t go studying modes until you thoroughly own the ability to see sets notes & chord progressions in terms of keys.
If you can’t look at any note on your guitar and instantly know its name, you shouldn’t be learning modes.
If you haven’t internalized all the major scales and where they fit into the Circle of Fifths, you shouldn’t be learning modes.
If you don’t know how to build chords, you shouldn’t be learning modes.
If you don’t know how chords get assembled into progressions, you shouldn’t be learning modes.