The difference between musical Modes and Scales


Scales tend to be more important than chords when playing the Bass guitar, because more often than not you are playing single notes at a time, rather than chords (2 or more notes played together at the same time). 


When people refer to ‘Scales’ they usually refer to it in relation to a key (e.g. the key of C). They might refer to the C Major Scale or the C Minor Scales. But the word ‘scales’ doesn’t actually refer to any keys in particular, it actually refers to a set of interval patterns. For example, the interval pattern for the major scale is Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone. Following this interval pattern and starting on the root note of ‘C’, it produces the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, B - all the notes of the C major scale. Change the root note and follow the same interval pattern to find the notes of any Major scale. But scales actually have nothing to do directly with any particular key. For example, the ‘chromatic scale’ is a 12 tone scale, ascending up the scale in intervals of a semitone. So if we started on the root note of C, the ‘C chromatic scale’ would have the notes C, C#/Db, D, D#/Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G, G#/Ab, A, A#/Bb, B. 12 tones.


A scale IS a mode, but a mode is the generic description for the set of interval patterns - the scale refers to those interval patterns applied to a particular starting note. 


So the mode is the formula. The scale is the result of that formula. 


For example, the most common mode is the ‘ionian mode’. This is often referred to as the ‘Major Scale’. The ‘ionian mode’ refers to an interval pattern of Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone. So when people say ‘the major scale’, they are actually referring to a mode, which is just a collection of interval patterns. When you apply this formula to a particular key (e.g. C), you will be left with a set of notes/tones, or a ‘scale’. Whatever starting scale we apply 


So what is a mode? It is something that causes a great deal of confusion. But a Mode is simply a different set of interval 


I’ve seen a lot of videos with confusing explanations of modes, referencing one key against another key. Saying things like “the dorian mode is the same as the C major scale, but starting on D”. What they mean by this is that if you took the scale of C Major (Ionian mode starting on C), the notes and intervals would be


C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone


If we kept the same interval relationship, but moved the first interval to the end, we would have this:



C, D, E, F, G, A, B

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone


To this


D, E, F, G, A, B, C

Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone


So technically, taking the ionian mode interval pattern, applying it to the scale of C, but actually starting on the second note in the scale (in this case D) and tacking the C on the end, DOES give you the interval pattern that makes up the Dorian scale.


But, what a long-winded, confusing way to think about it!!


Instead, you just need to think of each mode as a different ‘formula’ of interval patterns.


So the ionanin mode interval pattern is:

Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone

C Ionian Mode gives you the notes:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B


The Dorian Mode interval pattern is:

Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone

C Dorian Mode gives you the notes:

C, D, E, F, G, A, B