Ionian Mode Explained

Once one has a basic grasp of intervals, the options available seem limitless. Before I had any knowledge of music theory I was limited to imitating my favourite bands & players which, whilst they were and remain brilliant musicians, kept me in a narrow area of harmonic investigation – I simply didn’t know how to create bold sounds of my own outside of these niche artists (usually metal). Then I became aware of and learned about Modes. Now I could learn how to think not what to think.

The word Mode is used to describe the mood or feel of a scale/melody

The key piece of information in learning which mode is either being played, when investigating a sound you hear and want to establish which mode it is in, or is to be used in a composition, is the Root Note. Whilst a solo instrument can certainly convey a modal sound, an easier way, for the purposes of this post, is to create a chordal backing. Staying congruent with the Scales & Arpeggios post I’ll use a G root note.

Harmonising the scale like this –

G + Tone = A + Tone = B + Semi-Tone = C + Tone = D + Tone = E + Tone = F♯

Gives the basic pool of notes from which the 7 modes can be built. This can be harmonised into 7 basic chords/triads by stacking thirds leaving, in this key, this pool of triads which has a roman numeral before it to mark it’s modal position –

I – G Major

II – A Minor

III – B Minor

IV – C Major

V – D Major

VI – E Minor

VII – F# Diminshed

To create a modal chord progression in the Ionian mode, which is Mode I, the I chord has to be heard as the ‘home’ chord. This is the case whichever key/root note happens to be the subject of the progression. The simplest way to achieve and understand this is to give the I chord a more prominent place in the progression to mark it as ‘home’. My preferred way to do this, a starting point, is to give the I chord a whole bar at the start of the progression and use a second bar of 2 chords for which I play half of that bar each. This is not a hard and fast rule but a straight-forward start to learning how to build modal sounds from the ground up. Experimentation and creativity are essential to build on this basic understanding and follow my series of modal shape posts to learn the scale shapes to compliment this chord theory with melodic improvisation/composition. Once this basic composition or bed has been set we can play the notes of the Ionian mode melodically (the notes we play over our chord progression must still compliment them, there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to stuff notes that don’t work over certain chords despite being in the same key e.g. a D note will work nicely over a G or D chord as it is a chord tone in those chords but will work only really as a passing note over a C chord as it is not contained there) and the intervals that hit our ear to form the Ionian mode are –

Root Note (G)

Major 2nd (A)

Major 3rd (B)

Perfect 4th (C)

Perfect 5th (D)

Major 6th (E)

Major 7th (F#)

Ionian Mode Explained

Here are a few chord progressions using the Ionian mode and the above basic chord progression building process

Chord Progression 1

G          |C    /   D

I have taken some stylistic liberties with this chord progression to make this a more realistic exercise. Simply playing the above triads is something that would not provide much creative inspiration and I think this will be more fun to play with


Backing Track


Download (PDF, 31KB)

Chord Progression 2

G          |Bm  /  Am

This one is more riff based but the basic sound of the chord progression is still evident. The riff adds a couple of notes outside of the triads (an A note for Bm & a G note for Am)


Backing Track


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Chord Progression 3

G          |Em  /   D  |G        |Bm  /   C

Strum along open chords with alternate endings for each bringing in a few more chords from the harmonisation without losing our Ionian mood


Backing Track


Download (PDF, 25KB)

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