Celtic Modes

The Four (or scales) that are commonly used in traditional Irish music:
  1.     Ionian (Major Scale)
  2.     Mixolydian.
  3.     Dorian.
  4.     Aeolian (Relative Minor)
Ionian is more commonly referred to as the Major Scale. This is the most widely used scale in Irish music. It’s used in tunes such as “Miss McCloud’s Reel”, “Off to California”, and “The Blackthorn Stick”. The two most popular keys are G and D, with stringed instruments often using A. Sometimes C and F are used.

Mode    Tonic relative to major scale    Interval sequence    Example
Ionian    I                                                  T-T-s-T-T-T-s            C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C


Examples of mixolydian mode can be found in the tunes “My Love is in America”, “Langstrom’s Pony”, and “Rakish Paddy”.

Mode         Tonic relative to major scale    Interval sequence    Example
Mixolydian V                                                 T-T-T-s-T-s-T            G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G 

There is one note different between The Ionian and Mixolydian. The sixth note of the Ionian is flattened by a semitone. A contrasting example of these two modes in use is to be found in the Lennon/McCartney song “With a Little Help From My Friends”. The verse is in the Ionian mode but switches to a mixolydian mode for the chorus.

Dorian mode is the most common form of minor scale in Irish music. Examples of tunes using this mode include “Star of Munster”, “Pigeon on the Gate”, “Green Groves of Erin”, and “Julia Delaney’s”. The majority of “minor” tunes use this mode.

Mode Tonic relative to major scaleInterval sequenceExample
Dorian II                                            T-s-T-T-T-s-T         D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D

The Aeolian mode is known as the “natural minor”. It is often found in tunes that move to the related major key. “Paddy Lynn’s Delight” and “The Galtee Reel” are examples of this.

Mode    Tonic relative to major scale    Interval sequence    Example
Aeolian  VI                                                T-T-s-T-T-s-T-T            A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A 

When practicing modes, practice them the same as you would practice regular scales.  Use the same picking or bowing patterns assigned you, and practice the 4 modes with each tonic according to the schedule you are following around the Circle of Fifths

For example, if you are practicing the C scale, you are already practicing the Ionian mode and the Aeolian (relative minor) mode.  Just include the Dorian mode (starting on D) and the Mixolydian mode (starting on G)