Modes on Saxophone Exlained by Music Teacher Step-by-Step with practice examples

Modes on Saxophone

Written by Greger Hillman, Saxophone teacher and music educator

Modes are scales derived from the major scale by starting on different scale degrees.

For example, the C major scale is C D E F G A B C. If we start this scale on D rather than C, we get the Dorian mode: D E F G A B C D.

So, you are still playing the same notes as in the C Major Scale on your Saxophone but the difference is that you start and stop on the second note of the C Major Scale which is the D note

7 Modes from the Major Scale

Looking at the Major Scale on Saxophone you can see that there are 7 individual notes within the scale. That means you have 7 modes derived from the major scale and they are:

  • Ionian Mode (major scale)
  • Dorian Mode
  • Phrygian Mode
  • Lydian Mode
  • Mixolydian Mode
  • Aeolian Mode (natural minor scale)
  • Locrian mode

Each mode has a unique sound quality based on the interval structure between the notes. Ionian and Aeolian modes sound the most familiar as the major and minor scales. The other modes have more exotic flavors.

Modes allow musicians to play in major or minor keys using the same set of notes, but with a different tonal center. So a musician could play in C Ionian (C major), D Dorian, E Phrygian and so on to get different moods while using the same key signature.

Modes in C Major

The easiest way to learn the 7 modes in music is by using the C Major Scale as a starting point. Once you've learned the concept of Modes in music theory you can apply the same thinking to all 12 Major Keys.

Looking at the Piano Keys below you can see that there are 7 modes in the Major Scale.

The 7 Modes in Music Theory based of the Major Scale. Displayed on the piano keys with Mode intervalls and explanation of each mode.
  • Playing the regular C Major Scale from C – C is also referred to as the Ionian Scale.
  • Starting from D – D you are playing the Dorian Scale which is the 2nd Mode.
  • Starting from E – E you are playing the Phrygian Scale which is the 3rd Mode.
  • Starting from F – F you are playing the Lydian Scale which is the 4th Mode.
  • Starting from G – G you are playing the Mixolydian Scale which is the 5th Mode.
  • Starting from A – A you are playing the Aeolian Scale which is the 6th Mode.
  • Starting from B – B you are playing the Locrian Scale which is the 7th Mode.

These 7 modes are all based of the notes in the C Major Scale.

All modes in Music Theory are notated with Roman numerals. Here's an example of what it looks like for the C Major Scale with each Mode written above the notes of the scale.

7 Music Modes shown notated using the C major Scale as an example. Displaying one Mode Value above each note.

How to practice modes on Saxophone

The most basic way to practice modes in Saxophone is by going through each mode degree of the Major Scale one at the time.

I recommend that you always start with the Ionian (Major) Scale (“1st mode”) as it helps you establish the key signature and notes you will be using when practicing all 7 modes of that Major key.

Mode Chart for Saxophone

Use this mode chart for C Major to learn the intervals and Mode names for each of the 7 modes.

Notes in C Major Scale

Intervalls

Music Mode

C - C

I - I

Ionian Mode

D - D

II - II

Dorian Mode

E - E

III - III

Phrygian Mode

F - F

IV - IV

Lydian Mode

G - G

V - V

Mixolydian Mode

A - A

VI - VI

Aeolian Mode

B - B

VII - VII

Locrian Mode

Once you've practiced this and learned the modes by heart you can change from C Major to G Major and do the same thing all over again. This will help you develop a deeper understanding of music theory as you also improve your ear training and the way your saxophone sounds.

Notes in G Major Scale

Intervalls

Music Mode

G - G

I - I

Ionian Mode

A - A

II - II

Dorian Mode

B - B

III - III

Phrygian Mode

C - C

IV - IV

Lydian Mode

D - D

V - V

Mixolydian Mode

E - E

VI - VI

Aeolian Mode

F sharp - F sharp

VII - VII

Locrian Mode

Practicing the Modes on your saxophone helps to build a solid foundation which ultimately makes you a better sax player.

Modes in music

Modes were extensively used in medieval church music and gained popularity in jazz and rock music more recently. Understanding modes unlocks new creative possibilities for composers and improvisers. The ability to shift tonal centers allows for more varied and colorful melodies and harmonies.

Modes continue to be used in diverse ways in modern genres like pop, rock, funk, and jazz:

Modes often used in Pop and Rock Music:

  • Mixolydian mode is common in rock for its dominant 7th sound. Songs like “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley and “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen use Mixolydian.
  • The Aeolian mode (natural minor scale) is prevalent in moody or melancholy rock ballads. Songs like “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica and “Welcome to the Black Parade” by My Chemical Romance employ the Aeolian mode.
  • Some progressive and heavy metal bands use other exotic modes like Phrygian and Locrian for an unsettled, tense sound.

Modes often used in Funk Music:

  • Funk music makes great use of the Mixolydian mode to create its laidback, funky vibe. Classic funk tunes like “Cissy Strut” by The Meters and “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry are based on Mixolydian.
  • Dorian mode is also popular in funk. Songs like “Who Knows” by Mos Def and “The Chicken” by Jaco Pastorius utilize a Dorian modal flavor.

Modes often used in Jazz music:

  • Modal jazz pioneered by Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and others is built on improvising over modes rather than chords. Classic works like “So What” and “Impressions” by Davis extensively used modes.
  • Jazz musicians continue to improvise over modal vamps and use modes to bridge between chord changes. Modes offer fluidity in jazz soloing and harmony.

So in summary, modes lend modern music colorful variety and remain an essential tool for composers and improvisers across genres. Their flexibility and exotic sounds continue to be harnessed in creative ways.

In Conclusion

Learning the modes on Saxophone is really useful. As you practice the modes over each Major Scale you will develop a better and more solid technique on your saxophone which will propel your playing to the next level.

I recommend that you incorporate both all the Mode Scales in your practice routine on Saxophone. Over time you will develop a muscle memory for each Mode throughout all 12 keys and that will be a total game changer.

Working through all the Major Scales and alternate Scales is a great method for becoming a better sax player.

However, based on my experience as a saxophone teacher it's not always easy to be motivated practicing scales. That's why I also recommend that you mix things up once and a while.

Every practice session should contain both “the boring stuff”, which builds your foundation as a sax player, but also “the fun stuff”. That could be jammin to your favorite Saxophone Songs or backing tracks.

I've personally always made sure to end every practice session playing things I like and enjoy. That way I'm in a good mood when I finish my practice session and it helps me get excited for the next session.

So, do your scales and modes on saxophone but don't forget to have fun. After all, that's what this is all about right?!

Saxophone teacher online Greger Hillman

Written by Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher with +36 years of experience playing saxophone. 

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Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher and musician from Sweden.

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