The Guaranteed Method For Failing To Learn Modes

Most guitar students do fine until they hit one particular topic that culls them like a dose of plague hitting a too-large population of water buffalo: modes. The word alone is enough to strike fear (or guilt) into the hearts of many players, even some who've been playing a long while.

The thing is, it's not their fault that this subject is such a stumbling block: the internet is full of "lessons" about modes and a huge number of them are misleading. I dealt with this briefly in a previous post but I want to emphasise one of those problems in more detail here because it just keeps on coming up.

What's wrong is saying that a mode is a scale played in a differeny key, or with a different root note, from the underlying harmony. So D Dorian, we always hear, is a C Major scale played over a D minor chord. This approach is everywhere; it's fair to say that it's the most popular way to explain how to learn modes. In just the first page of Google search results I found it here, here, here, here, here and (my favourite because almost every statement it contains is factually wrong) here.

Is this wrong? Technically, no. D Dorian does indeed contain the notes D E F G A B and C, and these are the same notes contained in the C Major scale. So why am I so against it? Because (a) it doesn't work in practice, and therefore (b) is massively confuses almost everyone who meets it. Although theoretically correct, it's a very bad thing to tell someone who wants to learn about modes.

Why It Doesn't Work In Practice

Say you're playing on a D minor 7 chord and want to play the Phrygian mode. You know the Phrygian mode of E contains the same notes as the C major scale, and C is a minor sixth above E. So what's a minor sixth above D? Erm, Bb, right? So D Phrygian contains the same notes as Bb major.

But how long did it take you to figure that out? More than a tenth of a second? That's too long. This is what's sometimes called "secondary thinking", because it involves thinking of a thing (here, a Phrygian scale) as something else "one step away" (here a major scale, and the step away is transposition by a minor sixth).

Another problem is that it's easy to get wrong. If you go down a minor sixth instead of up, or you accidentally go up a major sixth, all is lost. You may not think you'd make mistakes like that but on stage, in the heat of the moment, such things are terribly easy to do. So the method is fragile as well as slow.

There's another, more subtle problem. Playing something intelligent with D Phrygian means playing something that responds to the underlying harmony. You can't just play Bb major lines and hope for the best; they won't resolve the way you want them to, and all your tension and release will be haphazard.

Why It Confuses Everyone

For these three reasons I find it hard to believe that any competent improvisor with modes thinks of them in this "secondary" way, and that's reason enough not to try to teach it to your students. What's more, it isn't even really theoretically right -- in fact, it doesn't make much theoretical sense at all. Sure, you'll get the right pitches, but that's not really what modes are about. After all, although C Ionian and D Dorian contain the same pitches they most certainly aren't the same mode.

Unfortunately it seems to still be the standard way to introduce students to modes. The standard way. And guess what the #1 issue is that students raise on every message board and forum on the internet and in every teaching room in the world? "I'm confused about modes". I've never seen any single issue that comes close to it for popularity. Why keep on repeating the same old pedagogy when it so plainly is wrongheaded and doesn't work?