Question about Modes and Scales for Am - G - D - Em progression

Hi everyone

Can someone help answer a quick question about modes? I don’t know much about theory and default to minor pentatonic for all solos but recently came across modes and started to get a bit confused. If I had a simple chord progression of Am G D Em my rudimentary theory knowledge might tell me that the key is Gmajor. The relative minor is Em so I would probably go to the Em Pentatonic to solo. Now I hear of something called A Dorian that I could also use. The shape of that seems to be Am pentatonic with 2 extra notes. Does that mean I could solo with either Em Pentatonic, Am Pentatonic and/or A Dorian. Are there some simple pointers as to the go to start point for choosing?


There are probably a million ways to think about this.

One of the ways I like is this: the chords are indeed from the key of G maj (or E minor). However, neither G nor Em will feel like the “home” chord here.

Am is the “home” chord, so while we will be playing the notes of the G scale, these will be heard in the context of a Am chord, i.e. we will be thinking A dorian rather than G major.

Note also that A dorian contains 3 pentatonics: Am, Bm and Em.

Sorry, that came out more complicated than I hoped

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Ok, I think of modes as intervals between the root and the other 6 notes:

Tonsteps (1 fret = 1/2 tone, 2 frets whole tone)
ionian: root + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 (repeat)
dorian: root + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 (repeat)
phrygian: root + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 (repeat)
lydian: root + 1 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 (repeat)
mixolydian: root + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 (repeat)
aeolian: root + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 (repeat)
lokrian: root + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 0,5 + 1 + 1 + 1 (repeat)

If you translate this to C major:

ionian: C D E F G A B
dorian: D E F G A B C
phrygian: E F G A B C D
lydian: F G A B C D E
mixolydian: G A B C D E F
aeolian: A B C D E F G
lokrian: B C D E F G A

or as intervals from root:
ionian: 1 + 2 + #3 + 4 + 5 + #6 + #7
dorian: 1 + 2 + b3 + 4 + 5 + #6 + b7
phrygian: 1 + b2 + b3 + 4 + 5 + b6 + b7
lydian: 1 + 2 + #3 + #4 + 5 + #6 + #7
mixolydian: 1 + 2 + #3 + 4 + 5 + #6 + b7
aeolian: 1 + 2 + b3 + 4 + 5 + b6 + b7
lokrian: 1 + b2 + b3 + 4 + b5 + b6 + b7

The major modes would be ionian, mixolydian and lydian - they have a major 3rd
The minor modes would be aeolian, dorian, lokrian and Phrygian due to the minor 3rd

There’s many ways to look at this…

Your example would be: Em/G but as said because it starts on Am it would more probably feel like that. Easy way: Am pentatonic all over.

Level 2: ad the note B and F# voilá- you have A dorian (minor, same bag of notes as Em/G but root on A)

Level 3: adjust your pentatonic scale to the chord: Am (Am pent) G (Em pent) D (Bm pent) Em (back to Em)


Very good / funny lesson by Shredmaster Scott on how modes can be understood in terms of chord progressions:

This might not help but:

  1. I would use G major and all the relevant modes including A dorian as the key is G major.

  2. Focus on notes and phrases from that scale that fit over the chord being played. For example E minor you can use some phrases using the E root and 3rd and 5th (which are of course all in the E pentatonic scale) and coincidentally they fit nicely over G major too.

  3. A minor pentatonic can also be used over A minor, there’s only 1 note difference between E and A minor pentatonic anyway so you could switch between the two easily.

  4. You can also try using F# dimished or E harmonic minor if your feeling really ambitious but might not work well over D.

After I know the key and have an idea of the scales to use I normally record a loop of the chord progression and record an improvised solo over it for 30 minutes or so then listen back and find some things that I like and try to stitch them together somehow. I know Mr Vai does it that way too.

Always good fun to do even if youre not actually planning to do anything with it.

The problem with these types of questions is that there sometimes are really no quick answers. I along with everyone else that answered you, can likely go on and on and on about this, because there is a lot to discuss. Your rudimentary senses regarding the key signature is correct, and emin, GMaj, and a Dorian are all related because they contain the exact same notes, A Dorian is just a mode of the G major (Ionian) scale, thus why it’s called a mode. Since that is the case, playing the notes from the eMinor scale (Aeolian), g major (Ionian) or their pentatonic versions and the a dorian scale will all work, because again, they are all the exact same ones, however, what’s going to make something sound more modal, is the chord movements you are playing behind it especially ones that contain the characteristic notes of the mode. In the example you gave, the chord progression stinks of dorian, because of the Amin to the Dmaj relationship, due to establishing the Amin as your home or tonic chord, and the dmaj containing the characteristic f#. Change that dmaj to a d7 chord and it really reeks of dorian because of the i-IV7 movement. There are reasons for this, and honestly to get the most out of it, you may want to embellish the characteristic note of A Dorian (f#) in your phrasing, instead of relying on the related pentatonics (Emin pent, GMaj pent). While they will work, they purposely avoid the modal characteristic notes, which make them sound very plain and safe. You can actually make the plain ol pentatonics modal sounding, but it’s maybe best to save all of that for a different discussion. This already can go well beyond what you asked.

All this said, you can even choose a mode based solely on the chord you are playing at any given time, instead of trying to establish a key signature across a series of chords. This is actually a little more advanced approach to soloing and improv, and more common in music that doesn’t tend to adhere to a strict key signature or uses a lot of borrowed chords, or constantly modulates.

Thanks for these replies - all really helpful. I’ll give it a go

I had a quick jam on that progression earlier and A dorian sounds nice over it as expected. I tried E harmonic minor and A dimished as well which can spice things up a bit.

I would also think about colouring the chords slightly like changing to Am7 or Em7 and D7.

I personally like chord progressions that have effective key changes where the key changes based on just one chord going from a minor to a major. Makes it easy to solo over as long as you adjust the scale for that one note change.

For example the A minor key (C major) has the D minor chord but if you change it to D major it changes everything to a G major key.

Just one note different, a Major 3rd instead of a Minor 3rd, but gives that part an uplifting or hopeful feel compared to the rest.

Vai uses this in Windows To The Soul at the end of the chord progression in the “chorus”. The song is in A minor and the verse goes goes Am7, Dm7, then the “chorus” F, E, G, still in A minor; then at the end he goes from C to D major for just one bar and he makes sure he plays that major 3rd of the D in the melody to emphasise it.

Wow - one chord changes everything you are right. What if that Am was a major? Is that even ‘allowed’?

Thanks for your replies in this - I’m learning a lot and can see there I are more options than pentatonic. Although I do love the pentatonic!

Yes of course it’s allowed. In your progression, if you changed Amin to an Amaj, and used the same chords it would modally shift towards A mixolydian. But again you would want to arrange the chords in such a way that emphasizes Amaj as your tonic chord.

You can even use what is called modal interchange, and borrow chords from parallel modes or even ones that aren’t closely related to whatever key you established. Not all your chords have to belong to the same key. But again, this topic is so expansive, it would be impossible to convey all of this.

One thing about strictly modal progressions that rarely gets mentioned is that you typically can’t have too many chords, two to three at most usually. That’s because it’s relatively hard to establish just any chord as a tonic chord in a given key. Many are very unstable as a tonic chord. The more chords in the key you incorporate, the more your ear will gravitate towards just hearing the relative major or minor key as the center, So you also have to avoid certain chords in the key that have a strong resolution to those.

for this progression, it looks like it’s A Dorian. Since starting at A Minor and to the D Major in the progression which has a F# which is the 6 of A Major since A minor Pent does not include this note you can use A Minor Pent or you can add it like so many other rock players as well as a blues note b5 and the 2 note B So your pent now an octatonic would look like 1 2 b3 4 b5 5 6 b7 starting from A its
A B C D Eb E F# G then back to A. The added tones really sound better higher in the sound scape so some dont play it in the first octave just the next one up. So give that a shot and see what you got.

I’m teaching my daughter some theory, so please let me know if this helps:

Let’s start way out at the 30,000ft view. In Western music we hear 12 different tones before we hear them repeat. Why 12? That’s for a separate discussion.

That said, we don’t like the way all 12 sound together, so we usually select a subset. There are several patterns you could choose from the 12, including five note patterns and eight note patterns. We call these “scales”. Again in Western music, there is a pattern of 7 notes we tend to like together, and five notes that we find a bit jarring. Nothing transcendent or magical about that pattern, it is just deeply rooted in our culture. We like that particular pattern so much, we call it the “major” scale and we painted those seven notes white on a keyboard and the other notes black.

You can start on any one of the 12 notes and play the same 7 note pattern and it will sound very similar (a big reason we have 12 notes to begin with). So much so that most people have no idea what key you are playing in. Whichever note you choose to start the pattern on is what we call the “key”. You can play the same piece in any key you wish and most audience members will never know.

Once you establish a “key” in your ear, certain notes tend to take on certain qualities. Some will feel more stable, some will want to move to the next note in the scale, some will feel uplifting and airy, some will feel dark, etc. Playing an entire song in one key will be very familiar and comfortable, if possibly a bit boring, to most Western listeners. The notes within the scale will have familiar roles and you can reliably build your melodies with those roles in mind.

So what if you don’t want a comfortable “major” feel to your song? One option is you can play the EXACT SAME pattern, but starting on different notes in the scale. You can force the listener to hear a new or different role of a particular note within the scale. For example, the seventh note in the scale pulls very strongly to the root (or its octave). But by emphasizing that you are playing the sixth note as your root the listener hears the seventh as much more stable and ambiguously pulling either up or down.

Playing the same major scale but emphasizing as the “root” note something other than the 1 is playing a “mode”. For example, if you are in the key of G, you could play the exact same notes as G major, just emphasizing the E as the root. How do you do that? By resolving phrases at the end of a bar on the E (Aeolian), or starting your phrases on the A (Dorian), or playing a triad starting on the D (Mixolydian) or the notes of a C arpeggio only on the down beats (Lydian). You can use rhythm to make the listener hear E as the root while playing the notes of G.

Or you can… This is where your artistry comes into play.

If you play that progression using the notes of the G major scales, but emphasize the A-C-E notes you will likely set up the listener to think they are hearing something in A Dorian. Emphasize the D-F#-A (without resolving to G) and the listener will hear D Mixo.

There are other ways you can spice up your melodies. You can change keys, rather than just modes. You can change modes over each chord to emphasize the harmonic movement of the song. You can borrow the mode of another key (for example using G Lydian, instead of G Ionian). But that all gets pretty complicated and advanced. For modes all you need to know is that you are playing the same notes, just emphasizing different notes to imply a different root.

Hope that helps.


I mean, you clearly get this, but the problem with these questions is there are NEVER quick answers. :laughing:

That’s also what’s awesome about music - there are almost infinite ways you can approach even simple chord progressions.

Something like this, I’d almost always suggest by looking for a single scale that you can play across everything, and if your overall tonality is clear that you’re resolving to that A minor, then A Dorian is probably your best, most complete answer.

But, it’s hardly the only one - two other off the cuff ideas that could be fun:

  • You could look at it as two tonalities, not one, and play A minor for Am-G, and then E minor for Em-D, and try to emphasize the way the F in Am and the F# in Em shift - for bonus points maybe make that a G7
  • You could throw scales out the window and play arpeggios exclusively for each chord, which would have the added bonus of helping you really focus on chord tone resolutions. If you wanted to get fancy you could start adding in passing tones - say, walk down from the Am to the G with an A-Ab-G line and play the G as you resolve to the new chord, or from the 5th of the Am to the 5th of the G, E-Eb-D.
  • as others have pointed out, Am Pentatonic doesn’t have the 6th degree, which would be the major 3rd of D, so you can gloss over that pitch by playing pure pentatonic or blues runs. You could also play a pentatonic but add in the M6 when playing over the D to highlight that color a little

I’ve never liked describing theory as “rules,” because the only real “rule” in music is if it sounds good, it IS good What you have, though, is more of a “toolkit,” and a whole bunch of concepts that can help you understand why things sound good.

Thanks so much for these answers and insights. This has really opened up new possibilities for me and I’m enjoying the experimentation. Appreciate your help and support

Well, you know, I try to remain hopeful. But you’re right it hasn’t happened yet.


This is usually the first approach taken by most, especially those who play music that falls into distinct keys. This approach too though really does benefit from using target notes and emphasizing characteristic notes as well to really bring it out, so it’s good for the budding musician to learn what that is and how to do it with the typical scale patterns.

So these I would tend to group together into the more sophisticated method I mentioned earlier, because they are more related than not. Using arpeggios that fit the type of each chord or guide/target tones (Berklee teaches to aim for the 3rd and 7th) is really a good way to add some more interesting content to solos. Viewing each chord as its own unique tonal center is popular and common in the jazz world, but also with rock players like Marty Friedman and Vito Bratta.

You know, I’m not sure they were ever meant to be strict rules, or even originally viewed that way, at least that’s my thought. I think a lot of the rules especially in the old school voice leading sense we’re really a means of making parts easier to do for vocal performers, then academically were always meant to be a study of stylistic commonality in the institutional setting only and essentially a dissection of why something works. you see the greats even in the tonal (common practice) era breaking them all the time or loosely adhering to them, morphing them to suit their needs, because they also were evolving stylistically like we do now, and wanted to write music they felt was interesting or stood out amongst a sea of others - they knew they couldn’t do that being tethered to cookie cutter “rules”. I think that just happens and seems that way sometimes when something like music or any kind of art becomes institutionalized in a scientific or mathematical context.

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This has been something I have been grappling with ever since I started playing. I studied music theory and found the ‘rules’ or the fact that there are rules, assuring. That you can learn all these rules or recipes and the result will be some good music.

But when you study your favourite artists you will see things that don’t quite follow the rules.

Vai did some weird stuff that I couldn’t fit into the music theory framework, and he went to Berkeley, but I guess he was influenced by Zappa alot which led me to study Zappa and discover a whole load of great deviations from the rules.

Then on a completely different level when Nirvana came along, Kurt’s chord progressions didn’t follow the rules either. Teen Spirit for example, I was sat there for ages trying to work out the theory behind it.
(I guess you could say he’s changing key every 2 chords to make it fit but I’m sure Kurt wasn’t thinking about that when he wrote it.

@Fossegrim, how would Berkeley teach Teen Spirit from a theory perspective?)

These discoveries led me to the conclusion that I had to think out of the box, not necessarily throw out the rule book, but go with trying to create music that sounds great, whether it’s within the music theory framework or not.

It’s important to understand though that these rules and recipes are essential to western music. You can deviate from them but there’s a reason why they work and if you deviate too much not many people will like the results.

But most importantly music is art, and the music that you create should express, represent and convey your unique feelings and unique self. If you approach it in a paint by numbers fashion you will never sound unique.

@SlyVai I think at any school, it would just depend on the course. I have been out of school on the closer end of 20yrs now, so If I were to guess, a theory class that looked at contemporary music would likely just analyze it in one predominant key with a bunch of borrowed chords from others. It wouldn’t quite get the jazz harmony treatment of crazy modulations every other beat and vast secondary functions. (I mean I’m exaggerating a little) although you could analyze it that way for sure. The thing is, these really are academic exercises in retrospective analysis, and perspective based on listener interpretation, so there might not be a correct answer, unless you have an artist specifically going into detail about it. Although it (theory in the a endemic sense) often tries at times, it sometimes doesn’t or more often can’t take into account the artistic intentions, or if the artist even understood what he or she was doing or constructing, so there is a lot of debate and speculation involved as well.

The human brain loves patterns and organization, it’s how we’ve evolved, it’s how we understand and make sense of world around us. It loves them so much, it tends to seek them out and find them even where none exist.


You guys really like to get into some interesting discussions on this board. When I signed up two weeks ago I had no idea this is what I would be jumping into.

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Ok @Fossegrim interesting.

For sure this true but it seems some people are better at recognising patterns than others. I used to decode and decipher communication protocols and streams for a living and sometimes me or a colleague would struggle to see a pattern in a comms stream, but the next guy could see it right away.
Also we would sometimes see a pattern that was completely incidental and not designed to be a pattern, that could then kickstart the deciphering process to reverse engineer the protocol.

It was meant more as a generalized statement, not so much as an individualized one, or one of individual aptitude. Of course you’re going to have that variance, but by and large…

This is a little tangental, but I gotta disagree, in two respects -

First, I don’t think Cobain was “breaking rules” - Rick Beato’s “What Makes this Song Great” series is a little inconsistent sometimes, but he does an AMAZING analysis of this song and how it works harmonically, and it’s pretty straightforward F Aeolean.

Rickis doing something else, maybe sus4ths on the 6th string chords and major on the 5th, but to my ears his performance at the start is wrong and it’s straight power chords (compare his version to 2:39). If so, the only “out” pitches are the sort of raked open strings between chords, and that’s just texture, really.

After that, 7:05 or so and he starts breaking it down harmonically, and it’s pure diatonic. And, I think this is how you would see it taught in a theory class. 13:00 is great too, when he starts walking through the chorus harmony on the piano, which frankly sounds haunting in this format.

Best part of this whole video, too, is that this is clearly a labor of love - there’s no doubt he loves this song.

Second, again, “rules…” I struggle with that framework, because what we see as the “rules” today, pure diatonic harmony, have hardly been ironclad throughout musical history and are probably followed more rigidly now than they have been for a lot of pop history. If you go back and analyze the harmony of a lot of Beatles songs, they seem to break the “rules” all over the place… but that’s because they’re coming from a more jazz harmonic place than what we now consider pop, and the fact as much music is as purely diatonic as we have today is kind of a historical anomaly.