How to Find Out What Musical Mode a Piece Is in

How to Find Out What Musical Mode a Piece Is in

Musical Modes

If you’re reading this, you are probably aware there are eight modes a piece of music can be played in.

Some are easy to get your head around.

For example, the major scale can also be referred to as the Ionian mode. The Aeolian mode is another way of referring to the natural minor scale.

Don’t be put off teaching these to your students – sometimes pronouncing the name is actually the hardest bit.

So in all, as I said, there are eight modes. Let’s look at all of them in a bit more depth.

Related: Check out my podcast on Teaching and Exploring Modes in the Piano Studio.


Quite simply, this is the major scale. Not too much to explain here, so let’s not waste time.


Working from the major scale, the Dorian mode has a minor third and seventh. If you add in a minor sixth, you have the natural minor scale, but more on that later.


The Phrygian mode has four flats. The 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th notes of the major scale are all flattened in this mode. An easier way of thinking of this mode is that it is the natural minor scale with a flattened 2nd note. Magic, isn’t it?


The Lydian mode just has a raised fourth note from the major scale.


This mode has a flattened 7th from the major scale. Take a listen to the chorus in Hey Jude.


We’ve touched on this one, but just to reiterate this is the natural minor scale. You should start off teaching this one before moving onto the more difficult modes.


Ahh, the Locrian mode, about as flat as a trodden on ant. This has five flattened notes from the major scale being the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th notes. It’s not the nicest sounding mode.

Here is a visual representation of the modes, which might be more helpful when teaching your students. Click here to download it as a PDF document.

Finding What Musical Mode a Piece Is in

When it comes to teaching modes, teachers can come across all sorts of stumbling blocks. For one thing, they might not have the in-depth knowledge they feel they need – or they may just be unsure of where modes fit in the piano curriculum.

I get questions about modes all the time from teachers. How to identify them, when to teach them, and what their place is in our studios.

Sometimes when teaching a piece of music, you might realise that the notes don’t seem to align with the key signature. You may also notice that it doesn’t sound quite major or minor. Chances are that the piece is in a mode.

A mode is just a set of notes (or scale) used to compose music and there are seven different types with Ionian = Major Scale and Aeolian = Natural Minor Scale.

How do you know which mode a piece is written in? Just follow this workflow in my free download below and I’ll show you exactly how to work out the mode for any piece.

Keep in mind that this process relies on the lowest starting note in the LH being the tonic note of the mode. This isn’t always going to be the case, but will be in 9/10 cases.

Here are the five steps you and your student can take to find out what musical mode the piece is in:

  1. Find out what the tonic major key is by looking at the key signature.
  2. Find out what the lowest starting note is in the first downbeat in the left hand, ignoring any upbeat/anarcrusis
  3. How many notes up is this from the original major key?
  4. Move along the order of modes by the same number of steps.
  5. You now have your mode.

All of this is visually explained in today’s free worksheet.


What role do you think modes should play in your studio? Have you had trouble teaching them? Leave your thoughts below.

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Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. this honestly helped me so much!
    I have a piano theory mock exam tomorrow and I had no idea how to identify any of these, thanks for coming along and saving the day!

    • Wonderful – so glad it’s been helpful 🙂

      • You are the only person that actually gives steps to identifying the mode. The problem though is that when I was given sheet music with no accidentals in the key signature, I assumed it was in C, the first measure is A- Bb-A-G and I am only given treble clef. Then last measure ends on D. The answer says it is Mixolydian, and then there reasoning is something I don’t understand saying Harmonic functions are I (so-re-ti) and IV (do-mi-so) and bVII (fa-la-do)? I just want to use your method to find out the mode, but why are they referring to scale degrees, and how would I know that the Tonic is (So-re-ti)?

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