Ionian/Dorian/Lydian? WTF are modes?

Josh - Have you ever done a video that explains Modes?

Are these just Major scales that start at different spots? So if my Major scale is in the Key of G, that’s just plan Ionian, right? Like a “root scale” for a lack of a better term.

The same scale shame that starts on A is the Dorian scale, B is Phrygian, etc?

How are scale modes useful?


Modes are “scales” built from the seven degrees of a root note scale.

Here is a video where Mark Smith of Talking Bass describes them quickly.


tl;dr, don’t worry about them for now.

The internet has a love affair with them, they are useful in some genres, and occasionally useful in all genres, but are not something you need to worry about until you find yourself needing or wanting to use them to describe the tone intervals of a song you are looking at (or working on).


Learning to play modes in every key has loads of benefits. It’s an outstanding technical exercise workout for the fretting hand. It’s also a practical method for learning how to play over the entire fretboard in a structured and harmonic manner. Lastly, playing modes over individual chords in a song’s chart greatly facilitates improvising fluid, interesting bass lines.

That said, if someone’s primarily or solely interested in learning/playing covers, learning modes might not be the best use of time.


I use them all the time in analyzing songs but they are pretty far from necessary beginner knowledge.

Same is true for composition.


Modes might not be necessary for beginners to learn right off the bat, but the forum is made up of players of all levels, many of whom could benefit from what learning/practicing them offers.

That said, to each his own.


Yep yep agreed - useful especially in learning from others composition, for me anyway.


Modes are like grammars you don’t need to know what they are in order to use it properly. It is not a prerequisite to play a song, any songs. In fact, l find it rewarding to discover what they are called after years of admiring some of the tasteful notes I play in my favorite songs.

Like language the best way to learn is to speak. Best thing for beginner bassists is to play songs.

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The Modes are not necessary at all for a lot of rock and pop bass playing.

The internet and bass-theory proponents like to talk about modes, sometimes in the same way that people in a cult want you to join a cult.

I can say this as a teacher who used to think it imperative that all students play the modes as soon as possible.

I no longer think it is helpful or important for beginners, and often times not for intermediate players depending on what they’re interested in musically.

I love this. Yes - like so many unnecessary things in so many disciplines, jargon becomes the most tantalizing thing!!

In my lessons now I quadruple my focus on the ears, on learning things by hearing and singing, and minimize my mentions of modes until the ears are hearing it, or the student is interested in music where the use of a mode would be helpful.

Also agree here - because if you’re practicing something that you’re interested in and challenges you, it’s awesome. It’s the best! That’s what they did for me.
But if you’re confused and they don’t seem helpful, that’s fine. They aren’t some golden key that unlocks bass. There are 1 million keys that unlock the bass, and they are different for different players.

Yes to this.

If you’re an english teacher or someone who loves to know how language works from a theoretical standpoint, it’s good to know grammar and be able to describe it in technical terms.
But if you’re speaking, you can learn to speak eloquently by listening, repeating, reading and practice.
Same with bass.

I was just talking about theory and modes over the weekend.
This exact thing - the curse of the internet and modes.
It’s a long and delicate explanation and conversation and path of study in order for them to be learned correctly and applied in real-world scenarios.
The internet is not good at that.


The hows and whys that someone learns to communicate via a language are unique to the circumstances, needs and interests of each individual.

Presuming that music is a language, and an instrument is the means by which a player communicates through it, the hows and whys of mastering that communication are also unique to the individual.

No one needs to know modes. Equally, no one needs to know how to play a bass. Or how to play baseball. Or how to play dead (unless you’re a ‘possum).

Needs are unique and diverse. Choose to learn the ones that keep you alive and make you happy, and have at ‘em. Any other way need not apply.


My hero, the Mode Master, Pino Palladino, probably played most of my favorite passes in the songs. I doubt that he knew what they were before he played it, but he just listened to all kinds of music and lots of it that he can put them in the songs.

It’s funny now it seems like everyone on the interwebz are trying to break them down academically, to Pino it’s just playing. I think that’s what everyone should do. Not gonna lie, I do get excited when I listen to a song and can identify some of the mode I know. :sweat_smile:

One of the scale you should know is the Pentatonic. If that’s the only thing you know, it’s all good in my book.


I love Pino’s lines. But as well as learning funk and jazz, he studied classical guitar where modes are a fundamental part of the repertoire.

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The subject of modes is confusing (and thus quickly becomes irritating) mostly because of the way it is often presented and taught.

As most here have already pointed out - you don’t need them; don’t worry too much about them; you can play music without knowing about them.

But… if you are interested to learn more, it can be a worthwhile endeavor to dive deeper into this and related topics within harmony and music theory in general. If (and only if) you want!

The language metafor is a good one, but imagine admiring a Ferrari with your friend and saying: “I like this one, makes a lot of vroom-vroom!” And your friend agrees: “Yeah, more vroom than mine!” - that is an OK(-ish) conversation, but ultimately not a very satisfying one and probably you might want to dig deeper and understand better what lies behind all that vroom :wink: (Or not… :grin:)

One problem with modes is that they are most often taught as starting the major scale from its different degrees, i.e., C ionian, D dorian, E phrygian and so on. This can be helpful for composing, navigating most contemporary music (bass lines or solos) and more. However, this is still somewhat abstract and static.

It is often more “enlightening” to look at the modes all based on the same root and compare these, i.e., C ionian, C dorian, C phrygian, … to see and learn how they sound differently (you can do this by using a drone and then playing the different modes on top of that drone).

Modes should really be called moods.

I had done this short video a while ago. Perhaps it is a little bit “illuminating”!?!


Well done, Joerg. The quirkiness of the Lydian mode in that iconic theme song is a perfect match for the Simpsons. :+1:


Side diversion but Pino is freakishly diverse. The man can play anything. He even did a stint with Nine Inch Nails.


Yep, a conscious (i.e., informed) decision by composer Danny Elfman.


To me this is where modes come into their own, when you want to have a song sound like something. Want an Arabian sound? Minor harmonic scale is the ticket. Jpop sound? Hirojoshi scale. Metal? A lot of metal is in Phrygian. Don’t need to understand it to listen or play it, but can help if you compose it if you want a specific sound.


By the way, it’s kinda funny how the “algorithm” picked that one split-second where I was squinting for the thumbnail of that video… probably thought I wanted to slap a nice click-baity title like “bass player can’t believe the notes he’s playing” on there :joy:


See, AI is already going skynet. Stage 1: passive-aggression


I played classical, stage and jazz music for about 10 years pre-internet without ever hearing about modes… and then around 2017 when i started playing guitar again i discovered Rick Beato and the internet obsession with modes :joy: whenever I start thinking about learning more theory i go to the music theory subreddit and that cures me fast! :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

It think one of the most important things is the sound/feel that each mode has. I like to think of each mode as either an alteration of the major or minor scale as that gives a better idea of how they sound… and then there’s Locrian :laughing:

Like you noted, a lot of the confusion comes from most people always teaching modes using C major because it’s easy and also because people use modes (and think of them) in different ways. Some people use them as a “scale” for composing a piece with a certain sound, some people use them for improvisation. I’ve seen so many people thinking that the dorian mode is always “D”.

If anyone needs a mnemonic for remembering the modes of the major scale I use: I Don’t Particularly Like Modes A Lot :laughing:

Here’s a good piece on modes: What Are Modes in Music and How Do You Use Them? - Blog | Splice.