This Is Why MODES Are So Confusing

I’ve always found the concept of modes confusing. And distinction between modes and harmonic environments escaped me as well.

Then I watched the FIRST VIDEO below on Youtube, and then went back and re-watched David Reed explain modes and harmonic environments (SECOND VIDEO below). I think I’m now on the path of conceptualizing this correctly (long time comin’).




Thanks for the links. I’ve come across this guy’s videos (MusicTheoryforGuitar) before, I like his way of explaining things. I’m currently using his exercises to learn the notes on the fretboard!

I find some terminology really confusing, and number one on the list is tonal vs modal. David uses them in the IFR book, and they always confuse me. If someone could explain the difference between a modal view/context and a tonal view/context, I would be very grateful!

Here’s what I hear David Reed saying about modal vs tonal.

The tonal view is always the major scale map. The tonic sound doesn’t change in a song that’s written in one key. Always the same map.

The modal view happens in a song that’s written so the HOME tone is not the 1 of the major scale, but a different note of the major scale. So in 2nd harmonic environment (aka Dorian mode) the sound revolves around the sound of 2, not 1.

IFR doesn’t renumber the tones, unlike everybody else. In IFR, the sounds of 2nd environment are 23456712. Standard music theory renumbers those sound to be 12b3456b71. But it’s all the same sound.

The central question to answer is where is the HOME sound of the sound or progression. Is it 1 2, 6 etc. Where is the sound of final rest.

To me, each new chord in a progression is a new harmonic environment with different consonant and dissonant tones. But it’s too much so say you change modes for each chord change. Still on the same tonal map.

I’m happy to have anyone correct my thinking.


I always explain the tonal view as relating sounds to the tonality of a composition (using the major scale and tonal map). And the modal view as relating the sounds to a specific chord (speaking of f.i. the root, third, fifth or seventh of a chord).

As far as modes: the 7 harmonic environments of the major scale are the same sounds as church modes, we could even consider calling them that way. However, in jazz, many musicians are used to picture ‘a scales within a scale’. For instance: playing dorian over natural minor or aeolian. Or Lydian over major (or Ionian). This fact is confusing for many beginning improvisors. It is however often the way ‘improvising in jazz’ is explained. To me this is just one aspect of many ways to explain and play jazz.

What is interesting (and liberating) is that the tonal map pictures ALL these sounds, as scale tones, as chord tones or as outside notes. That makes things far less confusing for many.

Once in a while I have a very advanced student who tries to understand a certain style-related sound in a tune. In this case explaining modes from a modal point of view (as described above) and talking about a ‘scale within a scale’ can open the gate for this person towards expressing the sound he or she imagined.


I thought I was okay my understanding of the concepts, but I was happy to be further educated so thanks for posting this pair of interesting videos. I believe that watching both has usefully consolidated my understanding. Thanks again. :slight_smile:

This video from Levi Clay put modes into perspective for me as parallel scales.

So, for me anyway, a mode is best thought of as a modification of its parallel major scale while a tonal centre is the perceived home note of a major scale.

Levi’s example playing really shows it well.

That Levi Clay video is interesting, I like how he explains the fact that simple 3 note or 4 note chords don’t always characterise the mode /harmonic environment. Something else to consider when we’re exploring.

From this video I watched some others of his other videos, where he explains using triads and triad pairs. Like these simple constructs more than the complex big chords.

Thanks for the responses to my question on modal and tonal views. The fog is starting to clear!

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