Modes in Sequence

Most students learn the modes as a sequence of colors of a major scale. Building a mode on each scale degree leads to the following sequence. Upper case Roman numerals indicate major modes while lower case Roman numerals indicate minor modes. (Though Locrian is more of a diminished mode than a minor mode because it contains a flat 5.)

  1. Ionian (major)
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian (natural minor)
  7. Locrian

Modes by Brightness

I think it’s better to order and learn modes by their sound quality. The following orders modes from brightest to darkest.

  • Lydian
  • Ionian
  • Mixolydian
  • Dorian
  • Aeolian
  • Phrygian
  • Locrian

Parallel Modes

Rather than studying the modes in series (in their default sequence within one key like the key of C: C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, B Locrian), I suggest studying them in order of their brightness using the same root note. (eg: C Ionian, C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Lydian, C Mixolydian, C Aeolian, C Locrian)

Sharing a common root note means these modes/scales are parallel. You can trace each back back to their parent major key to learn the key signatures for each and you’ll see that when studying the modes in parallel, you cover seven different keys (as opposed to a single key when studying modes in series).

Studying them in parallel enhances the difference in sound/color because although they all share a common root note, they are truly different keys. (Modes in series all share the same same parent key, so they can sound pretty similar.)

The following solos are all variations of the same ‘starter solo’ – played across parallel modes. I suggest starting with the second mode – Ionian – to create a baseline of sorts. As Ionian is simply a major scale, it’s a good control against which to compare the other modes. Learn the Ionian solo (which is transcribed in the third scale shape of the CAGED system) and get it in your head. Then go back to Lydian and you’ll hear it sounds brighter than Ionian. As you progress through the solos, take note that the major modes are all brighter than the minor modes. Also note that the modes overall range in brightness/darkness.


As a bonus, note that all major modes share the major pentatonic scale and all minor modes share the minor pentatonic scale. In other words, C Ionian/Lydian/Mixolydian all share the major pentatonic notes. It’s the two additional notes added to each mode that gives them their specific major mode color. C Dorian/Phrygian/Aeolian all share the minor pentatonic notes. It’s the two additional notes added to each mode that gives them their specific minor mode color. C Locrian is its own beast. Because Locrian has a flat 5, it doesn’t share the same minor pentatonic notes as the other minor modes. Locrian is more of a diminished mode.