Diatonic Modes: Differentiating Them by Ear

Modes are musical scales. Unlike scales, which consist of notes arranged within one octave in order of pitch, modes form cyclic permutations of the same scale. In this article, we’re going to delve deeper into diatonic modes. Soon you’ll be recognizing them by ear.

Keep reading if you want to learn more about these versatile scale patterns and how they can enhance your music when used properly.


What are diatonic modes?

In short, a diatonic mode is a scale-like note collection. We must first nail down a few terms to understand the diatonic modes.

  • Tones: Diatonic scales have 5 whole tones, known as whole steps and two-half steps. They’re the shortest musical intervals, separated by 2 or 3 tones.
  • Letter names: Diatonic scales utilize all 7 letter names or notes in a sequence.
  • Scales: Both the major and minor scales, which use the same number of notes but in a different pitch, are included in diatonic scales.
  • Modes: A scale having specific melodic features is what is known as a musical mode. Dorian, Ionian,  Lydian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Mixolydian, and Locrian are the seven modes. All of these modes have roots.

Establish an emotional context for each mode

While all major and minor scales are tonal, each has a different emotional context due to its unique pattern. Modes capture many of the ways in which compositions can be expanded and made more diverse. The seven diatonic modes are defined by their starting note.

Listening to music creates images, excites our senses, and can even make us see colors. All musical sequences, or intervals, can evoke emotions. It’s all part of the diatonic modes of music theory.


The diatonic scale has 7 modes, and each can create a different emotional response. For ease, we can split the diatonic modes into major and minor.


The major diatonic modes consist of Ionian (major scale), Lydian, and Mixolydian. A diatonic modes chart can help you see their differences more clearly. Let’s break it down further.

Ionian: Ionian is the simple do re mi major key. This major scale is the 7 distinct notes in a scale and an eighth note that repeats the first but in a higher octave. The 1st, 3rd, and 5th form the major triad chord. 

Lydian: This mode begins with F. Similar to the Ionian mode, it has the major triad chores. But the order of the whole and half steps differ, raising by a semitone. Often used for pop tunes and Jazz.

Mixolydian: Mixolydian is similar to Ionian but is lowered by a semitone on its 7th note. Loved by Jazz artists. The Beatles used this mode in Norwegian Wood.


The minor diatonic modes consist of Aeolian (minor scale), Dorian, Phrygian, and Locrian. Let’s break it down further.

Aeolian: The natural minor scale, this mode opens with A. It follows the same scale as major apart from its minor 3rd. It has a sad sound, perfect for bluesy tunes.

Dorian: Opening with D, its whole and half steps order are the same as the minor scale. This order changes as it goes along, and the flattened 7th note has a similar sad sound to Aeolian.

Phrygian: Beginning on E, Phrygian is considered minor as it has so many minor notes. Commonly used in Flamenco music, it creates a sense of mystery.

Locrian: Locrian is the 7th and final mode. It’s not often used as it feels somewhat dark and has a minor sound around the B note. This mode has a minor 3rd, 2nd, and 5th, making it feel unfinished.

How to differentiate diatonic modes by ear?

The best way to differentiate between diatonic modes is to pay attention to the relative octave difference between the notes in each mode. It is not necessary to understand the exact intervals between each note. It’s important to note that a diatonic mode is a pattern used to create various types of music. Therefore, it’s important to differentiate between them and the major scale.

It can be helpful to differentiate diatonic modes of guitar music. Particularly acoustic guitar, as you’ll hear the note changes. But the best way is to take an ear training course. These courses will train you to hear modes and use that to create better music.

In Conclusion

Learning about scales can be daunting, but with a little practice, you can recognize them by ear. Diatonic modes are versatile because they can be used in many genres, from classical to pop. You can also use them to create unique melodies and experimental sounds. Or add a new and experimental timbre to your instrument.

Can you differentiate diatonic modes by ear? Show off your skills in the comments and tell others about famous songs that use these modes!