Please help. I'm in a bad mode

I’ve seen in various videos and teachings that, in a 2-5-1 (for example), I can improvise using notes from the dorian mode over the 2 (eg. Dm7 if in C), the mixolydian mode over the 5 (G7), and Ionian mode over the 1 (Cmaj7). But aren’t these all just picking notes from the major scale?

Am I being naive when I think I don’t need to know the modes at all for this, but just the scale tones (ie. in this example, the notes of C major scale), and improvise using them over all 3 chords?

Why does knowing the modes matter?

Anyone know what I’m talking about (I’m not sure i do!)?


In my opinion, knowing all the modes is handy, but not necessary. As long as you have a basic understanding of what they are and how they relate to the scales, you can use them occasionally for a little spice.

To me, it’s more important knowing the intervals and the chord tones etc.

The thing to keep in mind in the major scale, the 2nd degree is minor, the 5th is perfect, and the root is Major.

In your 2-5-1 progression in C, for example, you would play the Dm triad or Dm7 (whichever you prefer) first, then the G major triad (or G7,) and then the C major triad (or Cmaj7).

Hope this helps


This is an excellent and massive question!

You are exactly right that the notes are the same for the scales of all three modes through that progression. I completely understand the “why does it matter which one I’m using” question.

Here is why.

For each chord there is a different frame of reference to show the structure of the specific chord you’re playing on.
The mode defines this.
For improvising bass lines, it is absolutely imperative that you build from the correct root note, and establish the tonality by emphasizing the chord tones of the chord you’re in.
If you’re playing in Dmin7, you should be building from D, and emphasizing the D,F,A,C. The notes of the mode (all the even scale degrees of the mode) will help you connect these more important chord tones in a smooth and melodic way, but not all notes in the mode should be treated equally.
Chord tones have the gravity! They are the places to build from and land on in a melodic solo, and they are the structure that needs to be identified and emphasized in a bass line.
If you’re using the wrong mode (building from the wrong root), or noodling in C ionian the entire time, the clarity and specifics of the chord change will be lost.

In a solo, you can get away with this, but it will sound general, noodly, and possibly unconnected to the music behind it. It can get you through in a pinch, but is not ideal.

In a bass line it is unforgivable, because the move from mode to mode as the chord moves is essential to defining the structure of the song and the place in the form of the song.

Holler with any questions! This can of worms is alllll sorts of fun to mess with.


So @Gio are you saying my answer is incorrect? If so, I stand corrected…


I feel like we are articulating the same thing differently?
I think any technical bass knowledge / jargon / etc is handy but not necessary!

Necessary: good ears, non-stop hunger to learn bass lines and play what hits your ear/brain.
Handy: knowing the terms other musicians might use to describe the above.

I think the bottom part of your response is the same as what I was getting at - making sure you know the specific sounds/changes that are happening during the progression.

So, I’d say very correct?

I was answering from the position of really trying to explain what the modes can help with / how they can be applied in a clear way to an improvised line, and just tried to get more specific.


@Gio I think if we venture deeper down this rabbit hole, we could say that the 2nd is a D Dorian mode, the 5th is a G Mixolydian mode, and the 1st (root) is simply C major (Ionian mode). Am I correct in this assertion?


Absolutely correct.

The actual specifics of each of the modes can be helpful when trying to develop a bassline that based around any of those chords.

Some songs use the traditional 2-5-1 chord progression.

Some songs just want to jam on the 2 chord for 20 minutes.

It’s nice to have the Dorian/Mixolydian/Ionian modes understood and a few scale & arpeggio fingerings all practiced and ready to go for these occasions.


OK, so if I understand you right, and to put it crudely, I can (in this example) just play around with the C major scale, so long as I’m focused mainly on the Dm7 chord tones, and ensure the D root is holding it together (when playing over the Dm7 chord - and then the equivalent on the G7 chord, etc)?? If so, thanks for a fabulous explanation. If not, then, umm, aarrgghh!


Yes, yes, and yes.
You got it.

The root and chord tones will define where everyone is in musical space.
The notes of the C major scale are shared between both of the chords listed, so they will work to connect and embellish.
The root is your island home, the chord tones are the nearby islands, and the notes of the scale are the passages of safe water. You’ll still drown if you don’t spend enough time on the islands… but you won’t get devoured by sharks.

… not sure how that last analogy worked, but I like it anyway.


Woohoo! A life raft, thank you very much. Basically, play around the Dm7 chord tones, and if using passing notes, make sure they’re from the C maj scale rather than anywhere else. Then do the same as you hit G7, and again Cmaj7. Jeez, I hope I’m paddling in the right direction here.


Brilliant extension of the metaphor.
Yes - everything you wrote is spot on.

As in all things, as you get more experience and confidence, all rules will be broken. BUT! This is the way towards breaking the rules with authority.


I keep hearing “modes, modes, modes” “know your modes” in music theory. As I was learning how modes were structured, there wasn’t a lot of what and why. This thread is excellent! It has answered a lot of my questions.

Sooo… to circle back… it’s not just the mode that’s important, but to emphasize the notes in the mode that make up the chord… and If I’m understanding correctly a mode is sort of a subsection of a scale and the nodes of the chord are a further subsection to focus on.

cool stuff! as a new B2B grad and someone looking to further my knowledge with scales, I thought modes would be a good place to get started. However, I’m a little bit of a mind melt with all of this… This was fantastic to holistically understand, but where is a good place to start with this?


So a way to understand modes in a less technical way is to understand that the intervals are what change. So C major and A minor. Same exact notes. The difference is the intervals. In C Major your 3rd is a major 3rd, in A minor it is a minor 3rd (flat). A major and minor 3rd have a different feel and sound. Then there are other modes. Phrygian has a flat 2. The flat 2 sounds different when played following the 1 than a natural 2.

Modes are about the intervals more than the notes. Find out where the intervals are different (typically by where the half-steps are) and you will start to understand the different “flavor” they bring.


It is 10 to 100 times easier (scientifically measured!) to learn the music theory around modes by using a piano keyboard instead of a stringed instrument. It’s all so visually obvious.


The Ah-ha moment for me and modes was.
And I knew them all and was practicing them up and down my neck, but I still didn’t have the major connection to fully understand them.

Yes, thei mode is the major scale with a Flat this, and that scale is a major scale with a sharp that. yeah, find and dandy, I get it and I know them, but it still doesn’t exactly click how and why.

until I heard the magic explained plain and simple.

"The C major scale is THE scale from which everything is derived, and this is because of middle C on a piano."

But the modes are just the same notes of the C Major Scale, played in the same order, but starting on a different root note.
So, D dorian - is c major starting on the D -

C major Ionian

D dorian

E Phrygian

F Lydian

G Mixalydian

A Aolean (minor)

B Locrian

Of course that is only in the key of C, so when you move it around to other keys, you need to express them in reference to their intervals to the major scale.

thats why you say
Dorian is a mojor scale with a minor (flat) 3
Lydian is major scale with a flat (diminished) 5
Mixalydian is the major scale with a flat 7

But the realAh-ha moment like I said was to understand that the C-major when started on D, playing the whole notes in order is a D-dorian, and started on E- playing the whole notes in order is a E-phrygina.

From that I learn them in shapes, 1-2 and 4th finger shapes, and if I need to play a D# Lydian, I can play the lydian shape, starting on a D#

It is best to know the intervals, as that is how you will express cords and talk to other musicians when telling them how to play something, but to know the shapes is a good wao to start out.
Then if you are questioned about which note is sharp or flat in a scale, you can run the scale thru your mind or on the fretboard, and know which note, and have the answer. Then eventually it sinks in and you just start to remember.
I was doing really well with it, then I got sick and took a little over 3 months off, and have just started getting back into playing the same amount that I was before, but I am finding alot of the things I learned are sticking. and I am able to recall more then I thought I would. slowly, but you always want to start slow and work up to speed.

Try this
Play the C major scale, starting on the 3rd fret of the A string
then try D dorian scale starting on the 5th fret of the A string
So basically, you know the C major shape, that works on the C on the A string, but if you move to the D (5th fret) and play that shape, it is D Ionian, or D major scale. So in order to play it in the same whole notes in alphabetical order as listed below, you will find the intervals are different, creating a different shape. In D dorian, the F becomes a Minor 3rd interval

In C major, C is 1, D is major2, E is Major3, F is perfect 4, G is perfect 5 A is major 6 and B is Major 7, C is Octave

In D Dorian, D is 1, E is Major 2nd, F is Minor 3 G is perfect 4 A is perfect 5th
B is major 6 and C is Major 7, D is Octave

So the shape changed in one interval in order to play the whole notes in alphabetical order playing from the D - the Major 3 turned into a Minor 3

And if you go on with that,

E Phrygian - E 1 - F - Minor 2. I don’t even need to continue on that one, it was that note right there

F Lydian. F - 1, G - major 2, A - Major 3, B - Augmented 4th. – that is the difference, the 4 moves up a 1/2 step

And you can play thru the rest

you can play down the A string

3rd Fret - C
5th fret - D
7th Fret - E
8th fret - F
10th fret- G
12th Fret - A
14th Fret - B
and if you want to play the C major on the 15th for good measure, go for it.


That’s what clicked for me too! C-major is just the white keys on a piano. It is every natural note. Starting it somewhere else gives you a different mode. There is also a relative minor.

After getting that, THEN I started to understand intervals. Flat 2 sounds so mean and has so much attitude. So does a flat 5. Flat 6 is kinda funky. Etc etc…

@T_dub @howard @kerushlow thanks guys… this is really helpful… I think I had some of my own “ah-ha” moments in there… Interesting how this topic has so many ways to understand, and I’m sure I’ll find more.

Now to get started with them :slight_smile:


This thread has been a good reference to helping me understand the theory of what is going on with the modes. This video really helped me understand why it matters in a musical context. The video is about guitar not bass, but the theory is exactly the same and his demonstrations and descriptions were great to give me an idea of the flavor or emotion that each mode provides. I don’t know if I 100% have it all yet, but I’ve understand it way better right now than I did this morning and that is something at least.


Reading all this…my head just imploded… :boom:


It is a strange concept to wrap your mind around, because you need to look at it from a few different angles and hear/read a bunch of different ways of looking at it before it clicks… but if you know the major and minor scales, you are closer than you think to knowing the modes. I feel like my ability to express emotion through my bass has increased 1000% today based off learning what type of sound each mode can help me achieve (see the video I posted above) and learning how to play each mode by changing just one note from either the major or minor I already knew how to play(see the cheat sheet I will post below). Armed with those two pieces of information, I’ve been noodling in each mode for a bit tonight and have found Phrygian to be metal and mean as hell in a way the minor(Aeolion) isn’t. While Lydian is the blissful dreamy happy sound that the major scale(Ionian) got me close to but never could sound right. This is absolutely worth taking the time to wrap your head around.