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Welcome to my Harmony and Theory Bible series.

These articles will aim to teach you how to approach theory and harmony,in a fun and creative way. Here you will find everything from beginners' areas like intervals, chords, scale construction and modes, to more complex harmony analysis and soloing approaches. Whether you are total beginner or somebody looking to recap on some knowledge, this is the place for you.

In today’s article we are focusing on the 1st mode of the major scale – Ionian mode




Ionian Mode

Last time we discussed major scale modes and their harmony. Today we are focusing on the Ionian mode which is exactly the same as the original major scale. We will cover the formula of this mode as well as cadences (chord progressions) that describe the Ionian mode. At the end of this article you will have audio examples of my approach to the C Ionian mode.

The C Ionian mode is the exact same scale as the C major scale. The Ionian mode is a major scale starting on the 1st degree of the scale and ending on that same degree an octave higher. For example, the C major scale has the following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C (as the octave). The Ionian mode in the C major scale is C Ionian, since we are starting from the 1st scale degree (C is the starting note in this scale) and we end up with the exact same scale. If we were to start from the 2nd scale degree, our mode would be D something and would have a different order of half and whole steps! The C Ionian mode is associated with a type of major chord (major triad or major7th chord) simply because these chords exist on 1st scale degree of any major scale! The mode itself has very happy and triumphant sound and is used in all styles of music from classical to film scoring. A very important thing to remember is that the Ionian mode is associated with major chords. Why? Simply because it is a mode built of the 1st scale degree in a major scale and the chord on that same scale degree is a major triad or major 7th chord. So remember, every time you see a major chord , major6th, major7th or chords with the intervals 9 or 13, you can play the Ionian mode! Let’s now move onto constructing formulas for the Ionian mode.

Here are 3 types of formulas for the Ionian mode:

  • Interval formula from Root of the mode: Root, Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Major 6th, Major 7th and Octave.
  • Formula using whole and half steps: Root, W, W, H, W, W, W and H.
  • Formula using numbering system: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 (same as 1).


Ionian Cadence

In one of the previous articles we have covered the importance of cadence. For those of you who missed that, here is the short and quick version: Cadence is a chord progression that describes the given scale or mode. We have also covered 3 chord families: the Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant. Any chord formed from the major scale fall under one of these 3 chord families. In order to have a strong cadence, we have to use chords that contain a Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant sound. If we want to just have a simplified version of the cadence, we would just have the Tonic and Dominant sounds. When you think about Tonic functioning chords, your ear should tell you it feels like ‘home’ harmony. Subdominant functioning chords go a little bit out, while Dominant functioning chords are really out there and have a tendency to resolve back to the Tonic functioning chord. Think of those 3 chord families as different levels of consonance and dissonance (harmonic stability and instability). The Tonic being most consonant and pleasant, to the Subdominant which is in the middle, while the Dominant is the most dissonant of all.

One final thing worth mentioning is: Every mode has a characteristic note or notes! Those notes must be contained in the chord progressions (cadence) as they give a complete sound to the given scale or mode. The Ionian mode has a major 7th and perfect 4th as characteristic notes. How do we know this? Well simply by checking the interval formula for all major modes! The Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian modes are all major modes (a major triad is assigned to all of them!). The difference between those modes lies in the type of 4th or 7th they have. Ionian has a perfect 4th and major 7th; Lydian has an augmented 4th (or #4) and major 7th while Mixolydian has a perfect 4th and minor 7th (or b7). All the other notes in these modes are common or the same! In other words, the difference between C Ionian and C Lydian is the fact that C Ionian has an F, while Lydian has an F#. By analyzing the notes and intervals using this method, we were able to distinguish the difference between the 3 different modes.


Now we will look at a C Ionian cadence using Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant chords.

Example 1a (3 part harmony)

//: C maj / F maj / G maj / C maj ://


Example 1b (4 part harmony)

//: C maj7 / F maj7 / G7 / C maj7 ://

Both examples 1a and 1b use a Tonic, Subdominant, Dominant resolving to a Tonic chord again.


Here is an alternative cadence using a Subdominant, Dominant to Tonic chord.

Example 2a (3 part harmony)

//: D min / G maj / C maj / C maj ://


Example 2b (4 part harmony)

//: D min7 / G7 / C maj7 / C maj7 ://


Here is one final and very common Ionian cadence using a Tonic, Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant chord.

Example 3a (3 part harmony)

//: C maj / A min / D min / G maj ://


Example 3b (4 part harmony)

//: C maj7 / A min7 / D min7 / G7 ://


Improvisation and Assignment

Now we reach the final chapter of the article. I have included some examples of my improvisation using the C Ionian mode.

Notice how I used example 2b as a backing track and improvised using the C Ionian mode. A perfect assignment for all of you is to:

  • Transcribe my improvisation and analyze what I did
  • Record your own improvisation, transcribe it and analyze what you are doing right or wrong

I hope you enjoy my example.

With all this information I will leave you to enjoy audio examples of C Ionian cadences and my improvisation. Study each cadence carefully and try to apply it to your playing/improvising/accompanying/composing.

Feel free to leave comments, ask any questions or simply share your opinion regarding this article. I will be happy to respond and help everybody!


Here is the Major Scale chart in 5 positions for your reference.

Have fun studying this material and I will see you in part 6 where we will focus on the D Dorian Mode!

Pedja Simovic!/predrag.simovic


Related articles:

Harmony and theory bible (part 4) - Major Scale modes

Harmony and theory bible (part 3) - Major Scale

Harmony and Theory Bible (part 2) - Chords (Triads and 4 Note Chords)

Harmony and theory bible (part 1) - Introduction to intervals and chromatic scale