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Composing with Modes: Ionian

Updated: Jan 25

Hello everyone!

Wondering what the Ionian mode is or how to use it when composing? You've come to the right place! (And if you'd like to listen to a podcast on this topic, you can find it here.)

This is a basic but complicated part of music theory, so hold on tight.

A mode, as defined by a search on wikipedia, is: "a set of musical notes forming a scale and from which melodies and harmonies are constructed."

In my own words, a mode is a musical scale that's built based on certain rules that can be used in any key. Sounds complicated. Let me explain.

When you play a scale, there are certain “rules” depending on the kind of sound you want. For example, if you want a major sound, you can’t just play any notes to achieve it. There are certain notes that you should and shouldn't play in order to get the desired sound. These notes are based off of whole and half steps.


To break it down further, let's look at a keyboard. On this keyboard, there are certain notes highlighted. These notes are a half step away from each other. Half steps occur where two notes are played in sequence that are adjacent to each other.

Here are some examples of half steps that you can listen to and watch being played, in this order:

D to Eb, C to C#, Ab to A natural, E to F, and B to C.

Now, let's look at what a whole step is. A whole step is made up of two half-steps. In other words, two notes played in sequence with one note untouched in-between. Below is a keyboard with highlighted whole steps.

And here are some examples of whole steps being played in this order:

D to E, A to B, E to F#, Eb to F, and Db to Eb.

All scales are based off of a series of half and whole steps, and in order to play specific modes, we have to know the pattern to use.


The first and probably easiest mode to learn is the Ionian mode. It is simply the major scale of any given key. Here's an example of what it sounds like, starting from middle C.

Now, let’s bring in our half and whole steps. There is a certain pattern we follow in order to build an Ionian scale. Here's what is looks like (W = whole step & H = half step).


If we start on middle C, we can build the Ionian scale using this pattern of whole and half steps. Watch this video that explains the process:

We can follow this whole and half step pattern starting on any key on a keyboard to build an Ionian scale. Here's another video explaining the process starting on F#.

Before you watch it, try building the scale yourself!


If you'd like to listen to a few examples of pieces of music written in the Ionian mode, here are some examples. Note that many of these pieces have accidentals in them, as it helps to keep the music feel engaging.

1. You're guaranteed to know the first one - Twinkle Twinkle Little Stars!

2. The next is a classical piece, Prelude in C by Bach.

3. We next have some Baroque music, Spring from The Four Seasons, composed by Vivaldi.

... and now onto some popular songs!

4. We have California Gurls by Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg.

5. Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepson!

6. And as a last example, we have Imagine by John Lennon.


The best way to get better at this concept is to practice, practice, practice! Use the pattern of whole and half steps to build your Ionian scale, and try to do it starting on different notes so that you can fully grasp the concept of it.

Once you've mastered that, you have unlocked the ability to use that mode in your composing. You can choose any key you want to write in, and using the notes in that scale, compose away!

Below is a pdf that you can download that contains all of the Ionian scales in each key to help you study and compare to your practice.


Ionian Mode Scales
Download PDF • 75KB

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