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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Hi @mem, I’m sorry that my use of those terms was confusing, and I’m very sorry that it took me so long to see this comment. For a time I purposely avoided commenting on the forum because I wanted students to have a place where they could express themselves freely and come to their own conclusions about the musical issues they care about. But now I think that it was a mistake for me not to support the great conversations that have been started here, and going forward I’ll be participating much more actively in these conversations.

There have already been some great responses to your question. But let me just go right to the very specific question your’e asking about what I mean by those words. The difference is just whether you’re visualizing the sounds relative to the root of the chord (modal view) or relative to the overall key of the music (tonal view) as @Jelske and @hender99 explained.

The simplest way to experience this difference is to just draw a picture of any particular chord in these two different ways. For example, here is a drawing of the 2- chord first in the modal view and then in the tonal view:

2- chord modal vs. tonal

When we begin studying chord notes in IFR Exercise 3: Pure Harmony, our very first exercise is called Seven Worlds Expanded. And we start this exercise by studying the chords in the modal view that you see on the left side of the drawing that I linked above. Since we’re studying the chords individually at this point, this is the most natural way for most people to picture the notes because you have the root of the chord at the top and bottom of your range.

But then once you’ve gotten comfortable with this, and you understand for example that the notes of the 2- chord are 2, 4, 6 and 1, then you can also practice visualizing these notes in the tonal octave as shown on the right side of the drawing that I linked above. Where this vision becomes very useful is when we begin combining these chords into progressions, because it allows us to see how all of the chord notes are connected through our Melody Paths exercise. More generally, it’s just an exercise in understanding where these chord notes actually “live” within the key of the music.

Does this answer your question? I think that if you start with these definitions in mind and then you go back and re-read the section on Seven Worlds Expanded from IFR Exercise 3: Pure Harmony, it will make a lot more sense this time. Please let me know if you have any more doubts about it and I promise it won’t take me 4 months to respond this time. :slight_smile:

But here’s one final word of advice. Mastering these words “tonal” and “modal” doesn’t have any importance at all. What matters is for you to be able to picture the notes of the 2- chord on your instrument, and for you to explore the second harmonic environment creatively in your improv practice. In fact, I’m not even using these words “tonal” and “modal” to describe anything important about the music at all. I’m just using them to describe an exercise. And all I’m proposing is that you practice visualizing the notes of your 2- chord in the two different ways I showed in the drawing linked above. If you can do that, then it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference whether you remember which one of those drawings was called “modal” and which one was called “tonal”. As you gain more experience with all of this, you’ll probably find that this vocabulary starts to make sense and you can remember it easily. But please don’t spend any time or energy on learning those words! They’re just my attempt to describe these two different ranges, and the words themselves have no importance whatsoever. I’m sorry that this was confusing and I appreciate your asking the question. I hope that helps!


Thanks David, yes I’m realizing that it’s more important to hear and experience these concepts, rather than understanding them intellectually. But it’s easy to get hung up on the terminology when your reading about it.

I’m currently going a bit deeper into Exercise 2: Melody, so am I right in thinking that tonal and modal only make sense when there are changing, underlying harmonies (ie chords) and if I’m jamming using the Seven Worlds jam tracks, so within a single harmonic environment, then I’m in a modal view.

Hi @mem, that’s a great way to think about it for now. This distinction of tonal vs. modal actually comes up in many different areas of our music practice, but here’s the simplest way I can describe what we mean by this difference:

tonal = relative to the overall key of the music
modal = relative to the tonal center of the moment

In your Seven Worlds practice with our jam tracks, you could actually focus on either one of these things. So it’s not exactly true what you said about this distinction only applying to chord changes. But this distinction is trivial at this point. You’re quite right to think of the modal view as the one you’re studying in Exercise 2, and that the tonal view will become primary when we get to Exercise 3 and we begin visualizing multiple chords on a single map.

And again, don’t let any of this distract you from the much more important work you’re doing in getting to know the sounds and learning to tell your own musical stories with them. Both “tonal” and “modal” are merely describing different points of view. So once you’ve gained sufficient experience with all of these sounds, you won’t even make a distinction between the two points of view because you’ll be seeing them both as part of a single reality.

Thanks for asking the question. I’m sure lots of other people were just as confused by my occasional use of these terms, so it’s great to talk about these things here.