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The Seven Modes of the Ionian System

The Ionian system is a collection of modes (scales with characteristic musical features) all of which are based on the Ionian scale, more commonly known as the major scale. Depending on which note you start the scale on, you’ll get a different combination of intervals, with the first mode (Ionian) being C D E F G A B C, the second one (Dorian) starting and ending on the next note of the scale (D E F G A B C D), the third one being E F G A B C D E, etc.

With seven different notes as starting points, you’ll end up with seven different modes that – despite being made up of the same pool of notes – all have a unique and distinct sound.

Some of those seven modes are more commonly found than others, with the most ubiquitous ones being Ionian (the major scale), Aeolian (more commonly known as the natural minor scale) and – our go to scale for dominant seven chords – Mixolydian.

Here’s a quick overview of those seven modes, in our example we’ll look at the ones based on C Ionian. When practising them, it is important to know what Ionian scale the respective mode is based on, but to also see them as independent scales with individual interval structures, rather than merely segments of the major scale.

Mode I: Ionian

The Ionian scale (more widely known as the major scale) is the fundament on which all of the other six modes are based. Its corresponding seventh chord is the maj7 chord, which can be extended to a maj9 or maj13. The defining notes of the scale are the major third and the major seventh in combination with a perfect fourth which, when improvising, has to be used carefully, as it can clash with some of the chord notes.

Seven Modes of the Ionian System

Seven Modes of the Ionian System

A typical C Ionian chord vamp would be C – Am – F – G7

Mode II: Dorian

The Dorian mode is one of the minor modes of the Ionian system. The chord of choice is a Min7 chord, with the option of turning it into a Min9, Min11 or Min6. The scale is defined by having both a minor third and a major sixth which gives it a modern and bright sound.



A typical D Dorian vamp is Dm7 – Em7

Mode III: Phrygian

Just like Dorian, the Phrygian scale is a minor mode, but has a minor second and minor sixth. Especially the flattened second gives it a somewhat dark sound and a lot of people associate it with Spanish music in which the scale finds a fair bit of use. It is used on min7 or min11 chords, typically ones that have a b9 extension, but it can be used on Dom7sus4(b9) chords as well.



An E Phrygian chord progression would be: Em7 – Fmaj7

Mode IV: Lydian

The Lydian scale is a major scale again, but is differentiated from the Ionian scale by having a raised fourth. This makes the mode sound bright and dreamy and a lot of fun to jam on.



A common F Lydian vamp would be Fmaj7 – Cmaj7

Mode V: Mixolydian

The Mixolydian scale is one of the most widely used modes of the Ionian system. Its combination of a major third paired with a min7 makes it the go to scale for dominant 7 chords. Its corresponding chords are the dom7, dom7sus4, dom9 and dom13.



A typical G Mixolydian vamp would be G – F

Mode VI: Aeolian

The Aeolian scale is commonly known as the natural minor or often just as the minor scale. It sounds more “traditional” than the more modern feeling Dorian scale, due to its minor sixth which our ears are very much used to from Pop and Classical music written in minor keys. It is used on min7 chords (with possible extensions to min9, min11 and sometimes minb13), typically those that are either the tonic of a minor key or the relative minor chord of major keys.



A typical A Aeolian vamp is Am – G – F – Em

Mode VII: Locrian

The Locrian mode is the most odd sounding one of the Ionian system, with relatively limited use due to its flattened fifth. It is most commonly used on min7b5 (also calledhalf diminished) chords which are often extended to min7b5(11) chords.



Try jamming on Bm7b5 – Fmaj7 for a B Locrian vamp.

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Seven Modes of the Ionian System

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