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The Emotions of the Seven Church Modes

At some point, everybody in Western culture came across the seven Church Modes in school. We teach and learn them because of their different emotional flavors, but did you know that they all are related to Circle of Fifths, or the Root Cycle 5?
Usually, every teacher starts with the major scale, which is a placeholder for the Ionian scale, but actually, that's not a practical starting point. In this article, we want to present the Church Modes to you in a way that actually makes a considerable difference to your composition!

All Church Modes can be built using the same set of seven scale tones but organized differently. The Modes derived from the various Greek tribes as an artistic extension of their respective culture. The Ionians, for example, were friendly and known as inventors. On the other hand, the Dorians were rather aggressive, and you can hear that attitude in the Dorian mode. But there's one crucial relation that holds all the modes together, and that is the Circle of Fifths! Let's use the RC5 as a tool to coordinate and structure the modes emotionally so that we can use them purposely in composition.

The Lydian Mode

We want to start our explorations with the Lydian. In school, you've probably learned to begin with the Ionian as it only uses the white keys on the piano if you start from the C note. That's a valid point, but still, we choose a different perspective, and you'll find out the reason why in a minute.

But why is the Lydian mode special? Well, this mode follows the exact steps found on the Circle of Fifths in a clockwise direction. Let's start on a C root and see what other notes we get when we move those seven steps.

The Lydian is unique in that its scale tones can all be structured in a way so that they create an equal distance of seven chromatic steps between each other!

In other words, every succession of seven adjacent steps on the RC5 in the clockwise direction creates the Lydian mode, no matter the starting point! This already is efficient knowledge as you can build the Lydian mode on any of the twelve tones quickly, just by reading them from the Circle of Fifths!

Now, let me explain why we want to start with the Lydian as opposed to the Ionian. Members of the Academy know that we don't organize the Church Modes in a conventional way like ...

  • C Ionian
  • D Dorian
  • E Phrygian
  • etc.

Instead, we order them emotionally from the brightest to the darkest, as this is way more practical (and useful) for the application. The root tone never changes during this organization as it describes a second variable that we can (and should) use separately to shape our musical story even more.

It's quite apparent that if you alter more than one variable at a time (like the scale AND the root tone simultaneously), you'll never know where an emotional change came from. But still, that's what every conventional institution teaches. Hence, you will take away the opportunity of experiencing the various core emotions of the Modes and how your compositions can benefit from them.

Now you understand why it's not smart to use them like C Ionian, D Dorian, and so on! It will all sound like C major as the set of tones never changes. That's the result of altering the mode and root tone simultaneously - so please, don't step into that trap as well!

We will present to you a short piano composition, which we put through all of the Church Modes so that you can experience the emotional differences. And as you might have guessed already, the root tone will stay the same. We want to focus on one variable at a time so that you really know where the emotional change comes from!

The Locrian Mode

Ok, so we went seven steps in succession in the clockwise direction, but what happens if we switched the direction? Here's how this looks like on the Root Cycle 5.

If we bring those notes into one octave, it becomes apparent that we've just created the Locrian Mode! So, if the Lydian was the brightest, it seems fair to assume that the Locrian will become the darkest of the Church Modes.

When we look closer at the Lydian and the Locrian, we'll find an interesting relation between the two. Remember that we went seven half steps up to create the Lydian and seven half steps down to build the Locrian?

The distances between all the notes remain the same, but only the direction of movement changed. It's all based on reflection once you've chosen a starting point on the RC5. This starting point becomes the reflection axis. We want to write out the Lydian and the Locrian next to each other while counting the chromatic distances between the scale tones. Whatever distance we go up on the Lydian Mode needs to be reflected on the axis to create the Locrian.

The Lydian (as the brightest) and the Locrian Mode (as the darkest) are reflections of one and another!

Why is this good to know? - Because it opens up many fascinating musical doors that we may enter at any time to change the emotional plot of the story that we want to tell our audience. This relationship becomes even easier to see and use in the "Matrix of Modes", which we teach inside the Composition Course.

The "Emotional Order" of the Church Modes

Now that we know the endpoints, how do we order the remaining Church Modes using the RC5? Again, we want to start with the brightest over the C root tone and shift the whole sequence of the seven adjacent steps in the counter-clockwise direction, without touching the root!

If we moved the succession by one step, we end up with C Ionian. The trick is not to lose your root tone, stick to it all the time!

We can continue this process until we've come to the Locrian mode. So, below you see how can get to the next mode, which is the Mixolydian over the C root tone!

We've just created the emotional order of the Church Modes, congratulations!

Before you ask, what 'emotional order' really means, it's the coordination of all the Church Modes so that we only have to alter one scale step at a time to switch from one to another. The table below shows the order of the Church Modes from the brightest on top to the darkest at the bottom.

Emotional Order








This organization is very beneficial as it creates the highest resolution of an emotional grid that we can apply to composition. It gives you step-wise control over the overall color and emotion. We want to put this concept to the test and have a look at an actual composition. Let's find out how the feeling changes along with the modes.

Musical Demonstration

Ok, let's stop talking about emotional differences and listen to some actual music instead. Below, we've put a short composition through every mode so that you can observe how the color and the emotion changes. We start with Lydian and go down step-wise to the Locrian.

Just the Melody

It's just one single line for now, as this gives you the most transparent impression of how the modes alter the emotion of the same line! Please feel free to listen to all of the examples below!

It's crucial to stick to the same root tone to really explore the emotional differences between the modes. With each step, we bring in another flat, which darkens the sound compared to the upper line.

Adding more parts to the Melody

Next, let's add more lines to this melody to bring out the character of the respective mode even more. Whenever you deal with more than just one part, be aware of 13! Most often, they attract attention in a bad way.

Note: You'll notice that we decided to alter a few notes to avoid 13s! Those substitutions and alterations show up in red with the label "comp" next to it!

The whole composition lives on lines. Simple melodies that weave together to harmony, although, we never thought in terms of chord progressions except for the final bar.

Everything is based on a G root tone! Please note that you can access the different Church Modes by clicking on the chapters in the timeline.

In the Composition Course, we go deeper into exploring the various Church Modes in the line writing segment. You see that all the modes live on the Circle of Fifths, with the Lydian/Locrian being the most natural ones.


Take the emotional order of the Church Modes as your guide for the brightness to darkness in a composition. This knowledge becomes a convenient technique as you quickly take control of the emotion and change it.

Here's what you should take away from this article:

  • All the Church Modes connect directly to the Circle of Fifths
  • The Lydian and the Locrian are the most natural ones
  • Please don't think in a "mother scale" as this destroys the opportunity to explore the various emotions from all the individual modes
  • The Lydian and the Locrian are reflections of one and another
  • Think of the Church Modes as a tool for musical storytelling


Take the Church Modes to extend some initial musical ideas into longer passages. Take full control over the emotion by either changing the mode OR the root. Everything connects to the Root Cycle 5, so let this circle remain your inspiration and guide.

Frank Herrlinger

Co-founder and instructor at Music Interval Theory Academy