The major scale has seven degrees, and technically any one of them can function as the tonal center, or primary pitch, of the scale. The sound and feel of the scale changes depending on which scale degree is heard as the starting point.
When you play the major scale over music that centers on the first scale degree and chord, you create the sound of Ionian mode, which is better known as the plain major scale. Think any song based on a standard I-IV-V type chord progression, like “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton, which uses the notes and chords of the G major scale, centering on the first scale degree and chord, G.
When you play the very same notes and patterns over music that centers on the 2nd degree and chord in the major scale, you produce Dorian mode, a type of jazzy minor scale. Think “Oye Como Va” by Santana, which uses notes and chords drawn from the G major scale, but centering on the second degree, A, and chord, Am.
Seven Major Scale Modes
And so it is that each scale degree produces a different sound when it’s used as the tonal center of a piece of music. Each mode has its own Greek name. In all the seven modes in the major scale are called Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
Modal Scale Patterns
Playing modal scales doesn’t require you to learn new patterns, only that you know how to properly apply major scale patterns. And guitar players usually prefer to apply modes right inside of familiar pentatonic boxes.
Free Guitar Lesson
Listen to this podcast episode to hear examples of using major scales on guitar. Click on the link below to start the audio or go to the Guitar Theory podcast at iTunes.