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Relative And Parallel Modes - Music Theory Lesson For Guitar

In this theory lesson with diagrams and charts you will learn what's the difference between relative and parallel modes and how to play them on guitar.

What Are Diatonic Modes?

Diatonic modes, also referred to as church modes or ecclesiastic modes are actually scales within the major scale. In other words, diatonic modes are built starting from each note of the major scale.

Example with C major :

C major is built with C D E F G A B. When starting from D we get a mode named D Dorian made of D E F G A B C. When starting from E we get another mode called E Phrygian mode (E F G A B C D) and so on.

Here is a recapitulative chart of the seven diatonic modes of C major :

C major (Ionian Mode) C D E F G A B C            
D Dorian   D E F G A B C D          
E Phrygian     E F G A B C D E        
F Lydian       F G A B C D E F      
G Mixolydian         G A B C D E F G    
A Aeolian (natural minor)           A B C D E F G A  
B Locrian             B C D E F G A B

What Is A Parent Scale?

A Parent Scale is the scale from which the seven modes are built. The following recapitulative chart show all the modes and their parent major scale. For example, the major parent scale of G Phrygian is Eb. The parent scale of D Aeolian is F.

Diatonic modes

Relative Modes

We talk about relative modes when they share the same notes (as presented in the first chart). In other words, relative modes are built with the same notes as in the parent major scale, except they start in different places. 

Example with C major :

C major is built with C D E F G A B. When starting from D we get a mode named D Dorian made of D E F G A B C. When starting from E we get another mode called E Phrygian mode (E F G A B C D).

Learning relative modes is not the best way to hear them, it is better to practice them in parallel as explained below. However, it allows to understand the connection between them within a unique parent scale.

Relative modes music theory
Relative modes for guitar

Parallel Modes

Many guitar players when learning modes for the first time play them within a unique scale, in other words they play the modes that have the same parent scale (relative modes).

This can be useful but you can't hear correcly the differences between them. Because each mode has a different color, a different sound, it is important to practice them starting from the same tonic note, in parallel.

Here are the seven parallel modes that share the same tonic note (C) :

  • The parent scale of C Ionian is C major.
  • The parent scale of C Dorian is Bb major.
  • The parent scale of C Phrygian is Ab major. 
  • The parent scale of C Lydian is G major.
  • The parent scale of C Mixolydian is F major.
  • The parent scale of C Aeolian is Eb major.
  • The parent scale of C Locrian is Db major.
Parallel modes music theory
Parallel modes for guitar
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