November 25th, 2020

Telling Apart the Diatonic Modes by Ear

In this article, we are going to learn how to identify the diatonic modes by ear.

A 'mode' is a musical scale played start to finish beginning on a note other than the tonic. When we begin and end on a different scale degree, the sequence of whole and half steps changes, creating a different and unique sound. 

My bet is that you can already identify two of the modes; Ionian and Aeolian. These are the basic major and minor scales. They're present in every type of western music from pop, jazz and classical to film and TV jingles. Since you've been using ToneGym, you'll already have experience hearing the difference between basic major and minor tonalities. Here are two examples. See if you can identify which one is Ionian (major) and Aeolian (minor). Easy right? 

Let's try identifying more complex scales.

Create An Emotional Context For Each Mode.

Naming intervals doesn't mean anything unless you associate these sounds with something deeper. Music creates powerful images and stimulates our senses. Each sequence of intervals can evoke various emotions, and we can use this to hear the subtle differences between modes. As we discuss each mode below, use this exercise to personalize your connection to each sound. This will help 'lift the notes off the page'. 

1. Listen to each mode and the real-world example provided.

2. As you listen, write down the emotions, feelings, qualities or images you associate with each mode and its unique intervallic structure.3. Use your notes as a roadmap to put different modes into context.

To make things easy, we can divide the modes into two groups. 


Ionian (major scale)




Aeolian (minor scale)




The seventh mode, Locrian, is diminished, but it contains a minor 3rd and a b7, important qualities shared by the minor modes, so we'll group those together.

Let's examine each mode, it's defining characteristics, and tricks for telling them apart. 

The major modes:

The major modes are fairly easy to differentiate. Both Lydian and Mixolydian share all but one tone with the Ionian mode.

IONIAN (1 2 3 4 5 6 7)

The major scale:

Real-World Example: The list of songs, scores and jingles in the Ionian mode would stretch to infinity and beyond. Here is one you may recognize...


MIXOLYDIAN (1 2 3 4 5 6 b7)

Mixolydian is the Ionian mode with a b7 scale degree.

Real-World Example: Mixolydian is commonly used in American pop and rock music. Of all the diatonic modes aside from Ionian and Aeolian, it is probably the most common. It has roots in celtic folk music and appears in the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Madonna, Neil Young and countless others. 


*To tell Ionian and Mixolydian apart, sing the two chord riff in the verse of 'War Pigs' by Black Sabbath. This is a whole step going from the b7 to the tonic.  

Compare Ionian and Mixolydian:

LYDIAN (1 2 3 #4 5 6 7)

Lydian is the Ionian mode with a raised 4th degree or #4. This interval is a tritone, and it is dissonant. It sticks out like a sore thumb against the consonants; 3rd, 6th and 7th shared by the Ionian mode. 

*To tell the difference between Ionian/Mixolydian, and Lydian, sing the first two notes of the 'Simpsons' theme song to check for the #4. You can also find the major 7th by singing the first two notes in the chorus of 'Take on Me' by a-ha.

Compare Lydian and Ionian:

Real-World Example: You'll recognize the Lydian mode from countless Hollywood film scores and themes. 


*If you need additional song references to remember intervals, visit the ToneGym cafe.

The Minor Modes:

AEOLIAN (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7)

Standard minor. Again, you've already identified this one, but how does it compare to the others? Telling Aeolian apart from Phrygian and Locrian is easy (more later), but Dorian can be tricky.

Real-World Example: 'Adore You' by Harry Styles is a contemporary example of a song written in Aeolian. Many 'minor' key songs use the Pentatonic scale for their melody. But, 'Adore You' contains the b6 of Aeolian. 


*To check for the minor 6th, sing the first two notes of 'In My Life' by the Beatles.

DORIAN (1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7)

The difference between Aeolian and Dorian is the major 6th interval. It's a tonality that you'll likely be familiar with in jazz, latin and pop music.

The 'NBC' jingle can help you to remember the sound of the major 6th interval. The major 6th creates the impression of an upward climb or 'lift' near the end of the mode, which is the characteristic difference between Dorian and Aeolian, and a helpful trick for telling the two apart.  

Real-World Example: Listen to Santana on 'Oye Como Va' to hear a great example of the Dorian sound beginning at 0:57.


Compare Aeolian and Dorian:

PHRYGIAN (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7)

Phrygian is a minor scale with a b2. The b2 is dissonant, and when played in ascending order, should be easy to identify immediately. Use the 'Jaws' theme to help with this one. After those first two tones, the rest of the mode is exactly like Aeolian.

Real-World Example: The 'Dr. Who' theme is a notable example of the Phrygian mode.




Locrian has the dissonant intervals; b2 and b5. It tends to sound non-musical, making it easy to identify. It can be distinguished from Phrygian by the b5 (tritone) interval. The tritone stands out like a sore thumb, and again, you can use the first two notes of the 'Simpsons' theme to identify it.

If you're confusing Locrian and Phrygian, just focus in on the 5th and listen for the tritone. You can also refer back to your emotional reference to help visualize the intervals. 

Compare Phrygian and Locrian:

*When you hear the b2, you can rule out Aeolian, Dorian and all of the major modes RIGHT AWAY.

Here are a few exercises! (Answers below)

The first is a major mode, the second is minor. Can you tell which modes are being played? 

Three modes, can you tell them apart? 

You can continue practising modes using Scale Spy on ToneGym.

Answers:1. Lydian and Phrygian 2. Dorian, Aeolian, Mixolydian 

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