How to Figure Out a Song’s Mode to Play the Guitar

How do you know which mode to play the guitar in? Here’s where things get tricky. Although the major scale has multiple modes, musicians generally think of and notate music as being in only the relative major and relative minor, even when another mode is being used.

So songs in the major modes (Ionian, Lydian, and Mixolydian) are all treated as if they were plain major, or in Ionian mode, while songs in the minor modes (Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian) are all treated as if they were natural minor, or in Aeolian mode.

Music publishers generally disregard the mode and write everything as if it were in a plain major or natural minor key, going off of the tonic chord. For example, if a piece of music centers on a G chord, it’s notated with a key signature reflecting the G major scale even if it’s really G Lydian or G Mixolydian.

Likewise, if a piece of music centers on an Em chord, it’s notated with a key signature reflecting E natural minor even if it’s really E Dorian or E Phrygian. Then any necessary accidentals (sharps, flats, or natural signs) are used for notes that fall outside of the key signature.

As a result, you receive no initial instruction that the music you’re reading is based in a scale other than the scale reflected in the key signature. This isn’t a problem for sight-readers; they’re used to playing everything off the page anyway, accidentals and all.

But if you want to know how a piece of music was composed or if you plan to improvise a guitar solo, you need to understand the real parent major scale being used.

Take the song “Seven Bridges Road” by the Eagles, for example. The primary chord progression is in D Mixolydian mode. The notes and chords are from the G major scale (G-A-B-C-D-E-F♯), and the 5th scale degree, D, functions as the tonic. Because the tonic chord is D, music publishers notate the song as if it were in a plain D major key signature, which includes two sharps, F♯ and C♯.

Then every time a C-natural note occurs in the music, both in the melody and in the chords, they specially mark it with a natural sign (♮) to cue you not to use the C♯ note reflected in the key signature.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna

If this were written with a key signature for G major, you wouldn’t need any accidentals. But, alas, things are never that easy.

Publishers often use this technique when a piece of music is in Lydian; they write it as if it were plain major and rely on accidentals to make any necessary changes. For example, C Lydian, which is drawn from the G major scale, is written with a key signature of C, implying the plain C major scale. Then a sharp sign appears each time an F♯ occurs throughout the music.

The same thing happens in minor keys, too. Take, for example, “Oye Como Va” by Santana. This song centers on an Am chord and is said to be in the key of A minor. However, saying A minor implies A natural minor, the relative minor of C major. That’s incorrect.

A natural minor features an F-natural and produces a Dm chord. But this song features F♯s and D major chords. The parent major scale is really G major. Nevertheless, you usually see this song marked with a key signature of A minor with sharp signs next to all the F notes used in the score.

If this were written with a key signature for G major, you wouldn’t need any accidentals. You can expect to see the same technique used with Phrygian; it’s notated as natural minor and then corrected with accidentals.

[Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna]
Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
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