Confused about scales and modes


I know little about music theory, I’m trying to learn, reading here and there. I’m still confused about the scales and the modes. For example, in Sonic Pi, how can we play a scale in a particular mode (for example the Dorian mode)? From what I understand a command like scale(:D4,:major) will give a series of notes starting with D4 and with intervals between the notes that are not dependent of the starting note (1-1-1/2-1-1-1-1/2 each time for the major scale). So how can we generate notes from a particular mode?
Thanks for your help,


There is always a lot of confusion regarding scales and modes, and it seems that internet is adding much more to the general confusion. Everyone is talking about scales and modes as separated entities, and even worse, they are very often over-complicating everything regarding these topics.

As for your question, you have to first mentally think of the different diatonic modes you can build on the D major scale. There is no special secret, they just have very funky greek names only to say : play this particular scale, starting on a different root than the usual one. Think of it as a rotation by thinking : I will play the scale first with D as the root, then with E (dorian), then with F# (phrygian), then with G (lydian), then with A (mixolydian), then with B (aeolian), then with C# (locrian).

So, here is your D Major Scale :

D E F# G A B C#

Now start the same pattern from E :

E F# G A B C# D (dorian)

Now you have it. If you want to play the scale with Sonic Pi, one simple solution could be:

live_loop :my_scale do ; tick
  play (scale :e, :dorian).look
  sleep 0.25

PS : As a general hint, don’t thik about modes and scales as being two different musical entities. They are the same thing : a collection of notes defined by some distance between each one. I can’t speak for every country, but in France we very often speak of “major mode” or “minor mode” for the major and minor scale.


Thanks again for your help @Bubo. I think that I’ve finally understood! So to recap:

  • the scale (S) defines the intervals of the ring (ex: 2-2-1-2-2-2-1 for major midi intervals)

  • the mode (M) defines the shift to the left (D) of this ring (ex: Dorian is 1, Phrygian is 2, etc)

  • the tonic (T) implicitly defines the base (B) on which you build your 7 notes on the scale S with this formula: B = T-D

Am I correct?

Last question: do the scale and the mode dependant as you’re saying? For example, when I say Dorian, does it mean automatically “a specific mode based on the major scale” ? I’ve read here that:

Modes of the major scale…

Ionian (I) / Dorian (ii) / Phrygian (iii) / Lydian (IV) / Mixolydian (V) / Aeolian (vi) / Locrian (vii)

Modes of the natural minor scale…

Aeolian (i) / Locrian (ii) / Ionian (III) / Dorian (iv) / Phrygian (v) / Lydian (VI) / Mixolydian (VII)

It’s like if the mode and the scale are independant, aren’t they? (ex: Dorian exists in major and minor scale) So in theory there would be s x m possible combinations of scale-mode (s: number of scales, m: number of modes) but in practice (in Western music) only a subset of these combinations exist because others don’t sound “good”.

Am I wrong?
(by the way, how would you in Sonic Pi define the Dorian natural minor scale?)

Thanks again!


Just looking at this webpage, you could see how embarassed this guy is when dealing with modes. Nobody really thinks about these Locrian #6 or Dorian #4. If you see them tweaking the name of the mode because it doesn’t fit in the larger picture they try to build, then it’s a sign that you could think about these objects in a more simple way. I would suggest you not to go in this trap that consists of learning a ton of different modes, because it will bring you nothing interesting to build upon, except if you really want to go down the modal music world (modal jazz, folkloric music, extra-european music).

Just imagine that “scale” and “mode” are two different ways of wrapping the same object : a collection of notes and a distance between each of them. People talking about modes are very often trying to escape from the gravity of the major and minor modes. Sometimes it can ease your mind when you improvise, but 90% of the time, it’s only people trying to make every note they find fitting a scale (when it’s really never the case in real-world music).

I tried to make clear for you what the dorian mode of D major is by using this idea of a rotation, but it’s really just a mental trick. The dorian mode is not a shift on the scale, it’s a different scale, based on the root of D.

D major : D (1 tone) E (1 tone) F# (1/2 tone) G (1 tone) A (1 tone) B (1 tone) C# (1/2 tone)

D dorian : E (1tone) F# (1/2 tone) G (1 tone) A (1 tone) B (1 tone) C# (1/2 tone) D (1 tone)

So these two scales share the same notes, but just have a different name and interval relationship between them. Think of this as a ladder, with not quite the same space between each rung.

Last question: do the scale and the mode dependant as you’re saying? For example, when I say Dorian, does it mean automatically “a specific mode based on the major scale” ?

Again, it’s a mental trick but yes, kinda. People are just more accustomed to the major and minor modes, so taking them as a basis to think about different musical objects is a good start. It doesn’t mean that they are dependant, just that they are very much look-alike and that it’s more practical to go this way when thinking.

but in practice (in Western music) only a subset of these combinations exist because others don’t sound “good”.

Actually, using modes was always a valuable ressource for many composers of the common-practice era: Bach sometimes stick to the ecclesiastic modes, Mozart sometimes refer to them. When you go closer and closer from us in european musical history, new modes are more and more common : Bartok scale, whole-tone scale, superposition of pentatonics, octatonic scales, etc…

Teachers and writers very often try to simplify things by putting a big emphasis on the major and minor modes, because really, it’s the modes that are strongly implied by the logic of the tonal system, at least from the XVII century to the the mid XIXe century.

My answer may seem very incomplete to some of you out here, it’s hard to write a good resume of all this. Feel free to add something, or to correct me on a few points.


I understand your musical point of view @Bubo : you’re kinda saying that each scale/mode is a specific “ladder” in itself and as such it does not have to be seen as built on something else. My question/viewpoint was more mathematical though (easy to understand as - sadly - I don’t know how to play any instrument!). I wanted to understand if there is some unification theory behind the different scales/modes so their construction can be coded in a few lines (in Sonic Pi for example) only with simple operations like shift. You seem to answer no to that question and your coded solution to the generation of diatonic scales would be more something like:

generate all the rings of intervals that respect diatonic scale constraints 
(5 tones and 2 half-tones, with 2 or 3 tones between the half-tones)

Do you agree?


I don’t think that there is one unification theory or if there is one, I’m not familiar with it. I think you would be very interested in Set Theory applied to music. It’s a very popular subject among music theorists. Reading about Nicolas Slonimsky may be a good starting point. Some people have developped tools to think about scales, modes, harmony and everything you can think about using mathematical tools.

There must be many different ways to code scale rotation in Sonic Pi. It is tricky to do ring manipulation in Sonic Pi but it’s definitely possible as highlighted by @samaaron himself here : Rings.


Hey, thank you, I’ve read your two links and it’s veeeery interesting! I was not aware of that at all. Don’t hesitate to send other links or book titles that could be interesting and in the same vein. I found myself this page that you could maybe appreciate too: The magical mathematics of music. It’s fascinating.
Thanks again @Bubo