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The Secret to Modes by Anthony R Jackson

Have you heard the secret to modes? Let me tell you a story.

I was walking up the stairs on my first day to school in a brand new school, a music school, with all the feelings of excitement and fear. I heard two guys talking...reading from the new school rosters "Is that Anthony Jackson from Yes?" Now the idea of a professional player coming to this school to learn scared me and I really questioned my skills and whether or not I should be at this school. Fortunately, the real bass player Mr. Jackson never played for Yes, as far as I know and was never a student at that school. Anyway, it was at that point I realized that I was in company of serious players or more to the point students who were serious about becoming serious players. And everywhere I turned I kept hearing about this mode and that mode. So I found myself asking: What are modes?

Well first you need a rudimentary understanding of the major scale used in contemporary American music. Most of us remember from early choir classes: Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti, and Do. Now what makes that a major scale is the relationship between the first tone and the corresponding tones. In this case the relationship is whole (W), whole, half (H), whole, whole, whole, half. Basically that is the American major scale. Now if I assign letters to those sounds that becomes a named scale. For instance if I assign C, to the sound Do, that would be a C major scale. And for each scale you have degrees 1st degree, 2nd degree, and 3rd degree and so on. And with each degree you have modes. So staying with the C major example the scale would read C.D.E.F.G.A.B. and C again starting and ending with the same note. This scale starting with the first degree is our first mode: Ionian - This owns our examples tonal relationship of WWHWWWH. Continuing down the scale we have:Dorian-WHWWWHW, Phrygian-HWWWHWW, Lydian-WWWHWWH, Mixolydian-WWHWWHW, Aeolian-WHWWHWW, and Locrian-HWWHWWW.

Really, modes are simply parallel scales of the major scale you are already playing. Take the C-major scale, if you play the notes C to C that is: C.D.E.F.G.A.B.C, you are in Ionian, truly. But really if you play those notes in any order you are still playing C-major, nothing can change that. Here is where it starts to make sense. Say you are playing a 1-4-5 in C-major being C-major, F-major and G-major. You could play the corresponding major scale over its major cord and you will sound fine. Or you could play C-major over the whole thing and sound equally fine. And there are times when that is the best thing to do. However there are times when you need something more and that is when you need to think parallel. You could play F-major over the whole thing and in that case you would be playing C-Mixolydian over C-major, F-Ionian over F-major and G-Dorian over G-major.

Now you have turned the apple cart on its ear. You really have to play around to get the feel of some of these modes and it is best if you have a friend to play cords or a tape recorder you can lay down different cord progressions so you can play over the top of them to really hear the interplay between one parallel mode over different qualities of cord (meaning Major, Minor, Augmented, or Diminished). This is an exciting time and can really be an "aha" moment. So play around and find what you can find. Hopefully this will lead you to the next level. To your strumming success.

Anthony R Jackson

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