The three major modes

There are only three basic modes with a major flavor. Each one has its own name, and they are: Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian. (Ionian is just a fancy name for major.) With these three basic modes we can write an incredible amount of interesting music. We experience each of these modes as its own sound-world. There are whole compositions written solely with any of these modes.

If we look at a major scale as 1 2 3 4 5 6 maj7 8, I think we have the master plan to understand major scales in all 12 keys. If we play a major scale with no changes, we can also call it Ionian. That is simply the same thing as major. This is the first and most important mode with a major feel.

The rest of the story:

More music has been written with Ionian than with any other scale or mode. If we start with a major scale and raise 4, it becomes Lydian: 1 2 3 #4 5 6 maj7 8. When we use the symbol “#4”, that simply means to adjust our fourth note 1/2 step above regular 4. Lydian has an exotic or fantasy feeling, and it is used a lot in movies with those feelings.

Think of Harry Potter, ET, Yoda, the Jetsons, and The Simpsons.

If we start with a major scale and we lower maj7 to seven (regular 7), it becomes Mixolydian: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. Note that Mixolydian is perfect for synchronizing with X7 (the dominant seven chord). Mixolydian is a very common scale in major blues. It is also very common in folk songs from a few centuries ago, It instantly gives us an older feeling that is perfect for certain moods linked to the past. We need to give a film or computer game the right atmosphere when it is set way back in previous centuries, and Mixolydian is the perfect mode for that atmosphere.

That sums up the three traditional modes with a major feel. I think this is the best way to start because this is the one scale everybody seems to know, and at this time I believe it is best to concentrate first on these three major type modes.

Always remember that the major scale is also known as the Ionian mode. Some people say that these two terms mean something slightly different, but I think that is splitting hairs.

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