— 2016 — Aug 1

Remembering the Modes

by Anton Schwartz

When you learned the modes of the major scale, I bet you were taught them in this order, like I was:

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian
  7. Locrian

That is the sequence of scales you get when you play a major scale starting on its 1st note, 2nd note, 3rd note, …, 7th note.

This tells us, for instance, that C Major scale is made up of the same notes as D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, etc. But what if we’re interested in comparing the sounds of the different scales relative to one fixed root? For instance, C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Lydian, etc.? We could think of think of those scales this way:

  1. C Ionian (1st mode of C major)
  2. C Dorian (2nd mode of B major)
  3. C Phrygian (3rd mode of A major)
  4. C Lydian (4th mode of G major)
  5. C Mixolydian (5th mode of F major)
  6. C Aeolian (6th mode of E major)
  7. C Locrian (7th mode of D major)

But, really, what sense does it make to order them like that?

In my post on Harmonic Brightness & Darkness, I argued that it’s often more useful to think of them this way—from brightest (or “more major”) to darkest (or “more minor”):

  1. Lydian
      ⇩   Flatten the 4th to get…
  2. Ionian
      ⇩   Flatten the 7th to get…
  3. Mixolydian
      ⇩   Flatten the 3rd to get…
  4. Dorian
      ⇩   Flatten the 6th to get…
  5. Aeolian
      ⇩   Flatten the 2nd to get…
  6. Phrygian
      ⇩   Flatten the 5th to get…
  7. Locrian

Starting with Lydian, the brightest mode, we come to each successive scale by flattening the brightest note by a half step.

I won’t repeat the advantages of thinking this way here—feel free to read the original post. Rather, this post is about the more mundane matter of how you can remember the modes in this order. While I was on a flight recently I gave some thought to a good mnemonic. Here’s what I came up with:

Live in my dorm and practice loudly.

Get it?

← brighter   . . .   darker →

Here are some others I thought of:

Life in mid-December: a frozen lake.
“Less is more.” Dig, a free lesson!
Laugh if Mingus delivers a punch line.
Lint in my dryer: a furry lump.

(For Phrygian I sometimes went with “P” words for spelling and sometimes with “F” words for sound—take your pick.)

If you are familiar with the San Francisco Bay Area, you may enjoy this one:

Lunch in Marin; dinner at French Laundry.

What do you think? Got a favorite?

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7 Responses

  1. Adam Spiers says:

    I heard that LIMDAPL is the acronym which tends to get taught at places like Berklee :-)

    An interesting follow-on exercise is to order the modes of the melodic minor, harmonic minor, and harmonic major in the same way. I actually coded this as part of the harmony library for my http://scalematcher.adamspiers.org/ website, so anyone who wants to cheat and immediately see the answers of this exercise can simply read the test suite for that bit of the library :-) Here it is:


    Memorising all 28 of these modes is quite a challenge, but there is a nice system I learnt from Pete Churchill (great jazz musician and educator here in London) which revolves around grouping the modes by the “flavour” of seventh chord which they contain, e.g. for major 7 there is lydian, lydian #9, lydian #5, lydian #5#9; similarly for dominant there is mixolydian and 3 variations on it, and so on. Not all 28 fit neatly into this pattern but it does help.

  2. I’m glad to hear that others are thinking about the modes this way too. LIMDAPL is rather charmless but, hey, if it gets the job done, that’s what counts! :)

    I considered doing a similar treatment of the melodic minor, but the water is a bit murkier there. In a sense Lydian #5 is the brightest mode and Altered is the darkest… but the argument is more complex since, for instance, the Altered scale has a major third but the (brighter) Melodic Minor scale does not. There is just one note difference between successively bright modes of the major scale, but there are three notes different between increasingly bright modes of the Melodic Minor.

    Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major I didn’t consider because they’re less frequently used, and because it’s less clear what the brightest/darkest modes are, since the notes are even more spread around the circle of fifths than Melodic Minor. They start to approach the symmetry of diminished or whole tone scales, whose notes are perfectly spread around the circle of fifths and whose “modes” are all equally bright/dark.

    Still, I like how you’re thinking about things, and the output of your code is cool. I don’t read Ruby so I’ll take a pass on figuring out how it works. :)

    Thanks, Adam!

  3. Hey! Thank you for sharing this important information on modes which many of us are not aware of.

  4. Miles says:

    Here’s one I just came up with:
    Larry Is My Dude And Professional Landscaper

  5. Hi Anton, Do you happen to have a similar mnemonic for the Melodic Minor and Harmonic Minro modes (light to dark)?

    • It’s a very sensible question, Jeff! Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer, because there’s no simple light→dark ordering for the modes of those scales. That’s because the notes of the melodic minor and harmonic minor are more dispersed around the circle of fifths than those of the major scale. Because the major scale is completely contiguous on the circle of fifths, when you change modes you are either brightening notes or darkening notes – never both. Not so for the other scales. As an example, when you move from C melodic minor to C lydian dominant (which is a G melodic minor scale starting on C, and hence should be “one notch brighter” – it has an E♮ and an F#, after all) the B♮ actually darkens, changing to a Bb. We could come up with an ordering and a mnemonic for it, but the brightness-darkness progression of the scales would be much “sloppier” and harder to hear. So, alas, it wouldn’t buy us much.

      • Jeff Taylor says:

        Hi Anton,

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

        My other reason for wanting some kind of order is for memorization of the various sounds of the modes of both melodic and harmonic minor scales.

        What would you suggest for keeping a root note the same (say, “C”) and use a chord built on that root in which to practice the respective modes on our instrument?

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