Songwriting Tip: Quick Start to Using Modes

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There’s more to life than the major key and the minor key.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past few weeks, listening to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s new song, Unholy, which was topping the global charts (until Taylor Swift released Midnights a week or so ago). 

I wrote in a previous post about one of the things that makes this song so unique—it is written in a very uncommon mode: Phrygian.

For a more in-depth look at Phrygian, and how to write a song in Phrygian, check out this video from our channel:

There are broadly 2 categories of modes—the modes that are actually fairly common, and the modes that aren’t.

Common modes are Mixolydian and Dorian.

You hear Mixolydian everywhere. It is highly idiomatic of certain genres—RnB, soul, gospel; and also bluegrass, country rock, and rock n roll.

You can hear it in action in the Verses of Ray LaMontagne’s ‘Beg, Steal, or Borrow’; in Brandi Carlile’s heart-rending ‘The Joke’; in The Eagles’ ‘Seven Bridges Road’; and shining in the Chorus of Beyonce’s ‘Spirit’.

For more on Mixo, and chord progressions in Mixo, check out this video on the channel:

The natural 6 injects some brightness into the darker palette of a minor key. It’s the swirling yellow star in a Van Gogh indigo night sky.

Dorian is idiomatic to lots of Celtic music traditions, but is also much loved in funk, dance, and pop.

Check out Dorian in Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky‘; in ‘Evil Ways’ by Santana; and Chris Isaak’s classic ‘Wicked Game‘.

For a deeper look at Dorian and Dorian chord progressions, check out this video on the channel:

The uncommon modes.

Which leaves us with the less-used modes, such as Phrygian, Lydian, and Locrian.


Lydian is a major scale with a #4. It gives a song or section a slightly ethereal, untether feeling. It is much loved and used in film composition, when a composer wants to create a sense of magic, wonder, or lightness. Something drifting off into the sky.

For some Lydian immersion, check out the Verses in Sting’s ‘When We Dance’; and Elliott Smith’s ‘Waltz #1’.


Ignoring Locrian (sorry Locrian!) for the time being, it brings us back to Phrygian! Our dark minor mode made inky black by that brooding b2 note…

For some more listening in Phrygian to get your dark juices flowing, you can also check out ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane; and ‘New Person, Same Old Mistakes’, by Tame Impala.

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About the author

Hi! My name is Joan Smith, I’m a travel blogger from the UK and founder of Hevor. In this blog I share my adventures around the world and give you tips about hotels, restaurants, activities and destinations to visit. You can watch my videos or join my group tours that I organize to selected destinations. [Suggestion: You could use the Author Biography Block here]

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