One of the most misunderstood of all musical terms is “Modes”. The overly simplified and confusing explanation I have heard over and over is that Modes are the same as the notes in a major scale except they just start in different places. That is a very incomplete and ultimately confusing explanation but it does serve as a starting point. Today we’re going to look at relative and parallel modes.

To truly begin to understand the quality of each mode you must listen to them in parallel, from the same root.

This explanation looks at each mode relatively. With this relative explanation each mode shares the same notes but in practical musical application they do not. In other words it is something of a “theoretical” explanation. To truly begin to understand the quality of each mode you must listen to them in parallel, from the same root. Take a look at the following tables of Relative, Distance and Parallel for a clearer explanation.

Relative – Sharing the Same Notes

Ionian

Relative and Parallel Modes C Ionian

Dorian

Relative and Parallel Modes D Dorian

Phrygian

Relative and Parallel Modes E Phrygian

Lydian

Relative and Parallel Modes F Lydian

Mixolydian

Relative and Parallel Modes G Mixolydian

Aeolian

Relative and Parallel Modes A Aeolian

Locrian

Relative and Parallel Modes B Locrian

You will notice that when you observe the modes relatively it will provide the distances in tones and semitones between the notes of each mode. Let’s start with examining the distances between each of the notes within each of the modes by themselves without letter names.

Distances – Without Letter Names

IONIAN (MAJOR)

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Ionian

DORIAN

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Dorian

PHRYGIAN

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Phrygian

LYDIAN

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Lydian

MIXOLYDIAN

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Mixolydian

AEOLIAN (MINOR)

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Aeolian

LOCRIAN

Relative and Parallel Modes Distances Locrian

Now if we put those tones and semi-tones distances in place for each of the modes except beginning from the same tonic or tonal centre you now have the modes in parallel. When they are in parallel it is only then that you can truly hear and compare the differences between them.

Parallel – From the Same Tonic

C Ionian (Major) – No Sharps or Flats

Relative and Parallel Modes C Ionian

C Dorian – b3, b7

Relative and Parallel Modes C Dorian

C Phrygian – b2, b3, b6, b7

Relative and Parallel Modes C Phrygian

C Lydian – #4

Relative and Parallel Modes C Lydian

C Mixolydian – b7

Relative and Parallel Modes C Mixolydian

C Aeolian (Minor) – b3, b6, b7

Relative and Parallel Modes C Aeolian

C Locrian – b2, b3, b5, b6, b7

Relative and Parallel Modes C Locrian

Major and Minor Modes

Of the seven modes there are three that are Major and three that are Minor:

Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian are Major because they each start with the distance of a major 3rd between the 1st and 3rd degrees of the scale.

Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian are each Minor because they start with a minor 3rd between the 1st and 3rd degrees of the scale.

Locrian doesn’t have a stable I chord so is not considered a “tonal” mode. It’s I chord is diminished.

As with the major scale, each mode may also be harmonized or in other words has a chord built from each degree. We will cover the harmonization of modes in a later lesson but in the meantime here are the chords in Ionian or the Major scale. See if you can extrapolate to the rest of the modes.

Relative and Parallel Modes Chords in the key of C Major C Ionian

I – Major II – minor III – minor IV – Major V – Major VI – minor VII – diminished

Try playing each mode from its common relative root and listen to each one carefully and play each modes tonic chord , being major or minor. Try Locrian with the diminished as well.

Have fun and keep your ears open.