What are Modes?

Updated: Nov 4, 2018

Are you learning a new tune? Want to know how to figure out what key/mode it's in?


Here's a handy guide to help out.


How to figure out the key of an Irish tune.

Step 1: Match up the number of sharps to determine the name of the key signature of your tune.


Most common key signatures for Irish tunes

Step 2: Find the name of your home note (where the tune comes to rest).

  • Hint: It's usually the last note of the tune.


Step 3: Does the home note match the name of the key signature?

  • If you have a match, you're in that major key and no further steps need to be taken.

  • For example, if your tune comes to rest on a G and has the key signature for G major, your tune is in G major.

But what happens if your home note and key signature name don't match?


Then your tune is modal!


A major scale sounds like "Do Re Me Fa Sol La Ti Do"


C major scale

A modal scale is the same as a major scale, but it will start & end on a different note.

Instead of going from Do to Do, a modal scale might go from Re to Re or Ti to Ti.*


Each mode has its own name, based on its home/starting note.

  • #1. Major (aka Ionian mode): home note is Do

  • #2. Dorian: home note is Re

  • #3. Phrygian: home note is Mi

  • #4. Lydian: home note is Fa

  • #5. Mixolydian: home note is Sol

  • #6. Minor (aka Aeolian): home note is La

  • #7. Locrian: home note is Ti


Based on this pattern, if I have the key signature for C major and my home note is C, I'm playing in C major (aka C Ionian).


But if my key signature is for C major and my home note is D (Re in C major) my tune is in D dorian.

  • D -> name of home note

  • Dorian -> key signature is for C major; D is note #2 (Re) in that scale


If I have the key signature for C major but my home note is F (Fa in C major) my tune is in F Lydian.

  • F -> name of home note

  • Lydian -> key signature is for C major; F is note #4 (Fa) in that scale


If I have the key signature for C major but my home note is G (Sol in C major) my tune is in G Mixolydian.

  • G-> name of home note

  • Mixolydian -> key signature is for C major and G is note #5 (Sol) in that scale



Let's try a couple of real-life examples.



The Broken Pledge


You can hear a nice version of this tune on Fergal Scahill's YouTube channel here.



The Broken Pledge is a great fiddle tune - a bit harder on flute if you don't have keys!


Step 1: Figure out the name of the key signature.


The Broken Pledge has no sharps in the key signature, which matches C major.




Step 2: Figure out what your home note is.


Your home note is where the tune feels like it comes to rest.

D! It's a D!



Step 3: Count up from the name of the key signature (C) to the name of the home note (D).


C...D! D is the second note (Re) of C major.




Step 4: Match the number to our handy Modes Chart.


  • 1. Major (aka Ionian mode) (home note: Do)

  • 2. Dorian (Re)

  • 3. Phrygian (Mi)

  • 4. Lydian (Fa)

  • 5. Mixolydian (Sol)

  • 6. Minor (aka Aeolian) (La)

  • 7. Locrian (Ti)


SOLUTION: The Broken Pledge is in D Dorian.




Let's try another.



The Famous Ballymote Reel


Hear Nathan Gourley and Laura Feddersen play it here.


With an F#, this is a much more flute and whistle-friendly tune!


Step 1: What major key signature do we have?


One sharp = G major.




Step 2: What is our home note?


Our home note is a D here, too!



Step 3: Count up from the name of the key signature (G) to the name of the home note (D).


G...A...B...C...D. D is the fifth note (Sol) of G.



Step 4: Match that number to our handy Modes Chart.


  • 1. Major (aka Ionian mode) (home note: Do)

  • 2. Dorian (Re)

  • 3. Phrygian (Mi)

  • 4. Lydian (Fa)

  • 5. Mixolydian (Sol)

  • 6. Minor (aka Aeolian) (La)

  • 7. Locrian (Ti)


Solution: The Famous Ballymote Reel is in D mixolydian.



Here is a picture showing the home notes and the associated names of the modes in the more common Irish traditional keys.

This chart shows the names of the modes for the associated home notes in the more popular keys in traditional Irish music.

Hope that helps! If you have a great trick for remembering your modes, send a message to novascotiaflute@gmail.com!



*Note that we're using movable Do in this article, where Do is the first note of the major scale, regardless of its actual pitch. Not to be confused with fixed Do, where Do is always C.


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