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Mnemonics for Church modes

Dear Listers,

Several have asked for a compilation of the most informative responses
offered about how to help theory students remember the church modes. Since
there were so many responses, please allow me to just thank everyone at once
for their helpful insights. You're a wonderful resource!

One response from a theory teacher included a handout from a theory teacher.
If you would like a referral, email me privately and I will send it to you
(with his permission, of course).

All the best,
P. Kevin Suiter
Music Program Coordinator
Appalachian Bible College
P. O. Box ABC
Bradley, WV 25818
ph: 304-877-6428, ext. 3255
email: ksuiter(a)


Can any of you share tips on how to get students to remember the differences
between each of the church modes? I have some students that are struggling
with this in a music theory class. Any tips to aid in memory would be



At least helps them remember the modes in ascending order, starting with
Ionian. I think a mental picture of a keyboard is an excellent tool - it's
why pianists tend to have less trouble with this than others.

* * * * *

I finally found that making a table was the real key. The columns are:
name, final, range, and comparison. I only use the white keys (D for
Dorian, etc.). The last column compares the mode to a major or minor scale.
After we make a table together in class I'm specific that they need to
memorize this system. Once they know the system they can go back to it in
their minds and figure out any mode. They can determine the pattern of
whole and half steps for any mode using the final and going up an octave. I
use Amazing Grace to teach the idea of the range of plagal modes. If it's
in G, the range is d to d but the tonic is still G.

Dorian/d/d to d/like natural minor but with raised 6
Hypodorian/d/a to a/ same but different range.

* * * * *

Dorian = natural minor with the 6th raised 1/2 step
Phrygian = natural minor with the 2nd lowered 1/2 step
Lydian = major with the 4th raised 1/2 step
Myxolydian = major with the 7th lowered 1/2 step

* * * * *

This worked for me, remembering that each started on that particular scale
degree and it gave you the tones and semitones as long as you followed all
of the white notes up.

C = I Don't Particularly Like Modes Anyway

I=Ionian starts on C
D=Dorian starts on D
P=Phyrgian starts on E
L=Lydian starts on F
M=Mixolydian starts on G
A®olian starts on A

* * * * *

When I was in undergrad, I remember the nmenonic: "I Don't Practice Lousy
Modes A Lot."

Which of course translates into Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian,
Mixolydian, Aeolian and Locrian."

Then they can add that they begin on the major scale tones in that order:

* * * * *

The order of modes is the same as in the word DiPLoMA (Dorian, Phy, Lydian,
Mixo, Aeo....). Dorian is simply second scale degree of a major scale to
second scale degree an octave higher, Phyrgian third to third, etc.......
So a Dorian mode starting on G would use key sign for F (l flat). A key
sign of 2 sharps, for example, would have a Dorian mode as E to E.

After having had a theory instructor 30 years ago who made us memorize the
half step/whole step combinations of the modes, I find myself still
resentful of the fact that he didn't tell us just to think of the modes as
starting on a certain scale degree of a major scale to the next octave.

Light bulb! I find freshman theory students have little trouble with
modes........they struggle with three forms of minor more for some reason.

* * * * *

I read your message on Choralisthave had good responses from students
trying the following.

1) I 'd recommend having them start by simply memorizing the four names:
dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian and the fact that the
first is represented by D to D on the piano keyboard. (Connecting the letter
D to the name Dorian helps.) The next four move in succession.

You might also introduce Ionian as the "musicians name" for what they
already know as MAJOR. (Save Aeolian and Locrian for a week or so later).

2) Analyze where the half-steps fall in a major scale (Ionian mode) and note
that two identical "tetrachords" are linked. Have fun by
ascending from the tonic tone to the fourth step, then leap down to play or
sing the other tetrachord. (e. g. Do Re Mi Fa (then from
below Do) Sol, La, Ti, Do)

Let me also emphasize that they'll learn them BEST if they play them at the
keyboard and SPEAK ALOUD the name of the pitch they're playing [OR which
step of the scale they're playing in whichever mode]. Saying (or singing)
it aloud is miles more effective than their just thinking it as they play.
The brain retains the information differently.

ALSO, of courseSINGING the tones in the mode is excellent: 1-2-1; 1-7-1;
1-2-3-2-1; 1-7-6-7-1; etc. adding a pitch in each direction.
Descending as well as ascending helps to develop understanding and

3) Have them make note of which modes are "major like" or "minor like"

MAJOR-LIKE (that is, a MAJOR THIRD is formed between the tonic and third
step of the scale) Ionian (a pure major scale) C to C on the keyboard Lydian
(Ionian on F with a raised 4th)F to F on the keyboard Mixolydian (Ionian
on G with a lowered 7th) G to G on the keyboard

MINOR-LIKE [that is, a MINOR THIRD is formed between the tonic and third
step of the scale)

Dorian (aeolian ("natural minor") on D with a lowered 6th)
Phrygian (E to E on the keyboard; half-step between 1-2; 5-6)
Locrian (B to B on the keyboard; half-steps between 1-2; 4-5) of course this
is more theoretical than practical

(I suggest letting the hypo forms of each of the modes wait until they
understand these.)


4) Ask them to do a little detective work. (e. g. WHICH MODES HAVE A MUTUAL

5) WRITE-OUT A D-D Dorian scale with lots of space between the pitches. On
each of the successive staves below, write an E, F, G, A, B, C. Then, write
a Dorian scale beginning on each of those pitches (keeping the same
relationship of half and whole-steps modeled on the initial line above).

Play excerpts of compositions that feature a particular mode. Dorian or
Mixolydian are often most common. You can find them all over the place in
folk song repertoire. You might even have a "mode of the day."

Those are some quick ideas; have fun supporting their learning.

* * * * *

I have them move up the keyboard on the white notes, in octaves; it is easy
to picture in the mind; actually, a . . . lot easier than
memorizing the different half and whole steps for each scale/mode.

* * * * *

Teach them that there are four modes (D, E, F, and G), yet each one has a
plagal partner. The Greek names are pretty distinct, so using the difference
of ambitus to distinguish between authentic and plagal modes would probably
be your easiest way.

* * * * *

A teacher once showed me how to put both hands in the shape of each modal
scale, so that fingers would be touching at the two mi-fa
relationships (in the 8ve scale) but nowhere else. Make sense?

Also visualizing the white notes on the piano helps.

* * * * *

Seems easy to learn. Keep lydian and mixolydian straight by remember that,
alphabetically, L comes before M; lydian starts on F; mixolydian follows
starting on G. Dorian starts on D. Phrygian - E; Lydian - F; Mixolydian -
G; Aeolian - A; Locrian - B; Ionian - C. That's how I do it.

* * * * *

Begin on the white keys of the piano, and only white keys
D[orian]ear (d minor, raising 6th degree)
P[hrygian]apa (e minor, lower the second degree)
L[ydian]ikes (F major, raise 4th degree)
M[ixolydian]e (G major, lower 7th degree)
A[eolian]lways (nat. minor)
L[ocrian]ike (b minor, lower second, lower fifth)
I[onian] (major)
Dear Papa Likes Me Always Like I Do
Important to teach "d minor, raising 6th" etc. if you're teaching
transpositions. And, of course, they really do need to do the major and the
minor scales cold first. Best to start from what the students already know.

* * * * *

I used to tell my students that they were "sort of" in alphabetical order.
If they can remember Dorian is "D" (which should be easy), then sounding
Phrygian (ph=f), Lydian and Mixolydian would follow in order. The plagal
modes follow the same order, with the central pitches following from the D.

Dorian D D - D
(F)Phrygian E E - E
Lydian F F - F
Mixolydian G G - G
HypoDorian A D - D
HypoPhrygian B E - E
HypoLydian C F - F
HypoMixolydian D G - G

* * * * *

I never understood them either until I began relating them to the sol-fa
syllables. Mi-fa and ti-do are the only half-steps, then the modes are
re-re (Dorian), mi-mi (Phrygian), fa-fa (Lydian), so-so (Mixolydian), la-la
(Aolian), ti-ti (Lycrian). This is how I taught
them when I was teaching theory and students thought it was pretty simple.

* * * * *

There's three ways that I have taught:

1) all white notes, memorize sound then transpose to different keynotes
Aeolian - A to A
Lochrian - B to B (white notes)

2) variation from major/minor scale, again, memorize sound then transpose
to different keynotes
Dorian - minor with a raised 6th
Phrygian - minor with lowered 2nd

3) placement of the tri-tone (3 consecutive whole steps)
Lydian - tritone between 1st degree and 4th degree (augmented 4th)
Mixolydian - tritone between 3rd and 7th degrees (diminished 5th)

* * * * *

As far as the order, we used the following "I Don't Play Loud Music At
Lunch." Each Beginning letter is the next mode.

Plus if you know that the Ionian is equivalent to today's Major scale with
the following relationship W W H W W W H, then you move the first scale size
to the end and you have the relationship for the next mode. Then repeat.

Ionian = today's Major scale W W H W W W H
Dorian W H W W W H W
Phrygian H W W W H W W
Lydian W W W H W W H
Mixolydian W W H W W H W
Aeolian W H W W H W W (also today's natural minor scale)
Locrian H W W H W W W

It seemed to help with my students. They even came up with the little saying
to remember the order of the modes. As far as dealing which "L" came first,
I told them how the Locrian mode was rarely used because composer in the
Middle Ages thought it was connected with the Devil. And so they said then
it is LOW (LOWcrian) on the list coming in last.

* * * * *

The easiest way is to picture the keyboard and beginning with the Dorian
from d to d, the Phrygian from e to e, all on the white keys, in order to
the Ionian from c to c, simply see the structure based on the step order
these sequences produce.

* * * * *
on October 23, 2005 10:00pm
My high school director taught:

"In Dark Places Love Making Always Lasts!"

For some reason my adolescent brain had no trouble remembering it!

We, too, used the scale degree approach rather than chromatic alterations of scales. We learned to indentify and construct modes from starting pitch and relative major scale (i.e., "D dorian or Dorian in C.") This approach worked well for my own theory students as well.
on September 20, 2007 10:00pm
Dear Mr. Suiter,

Would you please send me the handout from a theory teacher regarding the church modes?

Thank you!

M. Elmore, NCTM
on October 9, 2008 10:00pm
Hi There,
I am studying singing in Bristol Somerset and I adore choral music, I am doing research.My query is I would like to improve my music theory, for example music transposing so that if I was singing a piece of music and I found it was too high I wondered whether you would be able to advise me about transposing various notes in that particular piece that I am studying so that I could sing more easily, and also if I maybe had to change the key of that music piece.
Many Thanks.
Theodora Poole.