What is the difference between a mode and a scale?


A "scale", technically defined, is a sequence of ascending or descending "unit pitches" that form a palette of notes that can be used to form a melody. Most scales in Western music conform to a particular "key"; that is, a sequence of notes that will be "sharp" or "flat" by default. Not all scales have keys; the chromatic scale is a scale of all possible semitone steps used in Western music, while the whole-tone scale is a scale composed of intervals two semitones apart.
Within a particular key, there are 7 notes in a single octave, before reaching the 8th note which is named the same as the first note and is at double the frequency. The seven notes have differing intervals between adjacent notes; sometimes it's one half-step (semitone), while other times it's a whole step (two semitones). The pattern of whole-step/half-step intervals that determine the notes of a key, starting from the note for while the key is named, is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. Within a single key, each of those seven notes could be used as the "base" note of an ascending sequence. Each such sequence, created by starting on a different note in the key, is a "mode" of that key, and each mode has a name:
  • Ionian - starts on the "tonic"; the note for which the key is named. In the key of C, the Ionian mode starts on C. This mode is the most common, and colloquially called the "major scale". The pattern is WWHWWWH.
  • Dorian - starts on the next note higher in the key than the tonic (D, in the key of C). WHWWWHW.
  • Phrygian - starts on the note one major third higher than the tonic (E). HWWWHWW.
  • Lydian - starts on the note one perfect fourth higher than the tonic (F). WWWHWWH.
  • Mixolydian - starts on the note one perfect fifth higher than the tonic (G). WWHWWHW.
  • Aeolian - starts on the note one major sixth higher than the tonic (A). In modern music, this mode is also very important, and is referred to as the "natural minor scale". WHWWHWW.
  • Locrian - starts on the note one major seventh higher than the tonic (B). HWWHWWW.


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