What if you could actually know and use the Lydian mode?
What if, instead of playing a hapless fretboard guessing game, you actually knew what you were playing and why?
You’d be able to identify when, where and why you were using the Lydian mode - its properties, theoretical basics and sound - even within a larger piece of music.
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That would make you a better player, would it not?
Because it’s better to use a mode than to simply memorize it and never really understand what it’s good for or what it means.
And to do that, takes time.
It also means we have to go one mode at a time. So for my own study (and hopefully for yours) I’m going to dissect, and focus on, the Lydian mode; covering what it is, how to understand it and how to use it. In so doing, we’ll cover the following four points:
- What is the Lydian mode?
- How exactly do I play it?
- Solo Construction
- Chord Progression Development
If I’m honest, that first one might be my biggest motivator.
The reality is that getting good at just about anything, requires structural study, and it’s no coincidence that almost all of the world’s best guitar players are also excellent music theorists and students of their instrument.
Because when I’ve heard professional guitarists talk about the Lydian mode (among other modes and scales), and I’ve had no clue what that really meant, it made me feel behind the gun. In a way, that’s just a feeling and doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m a terrible musician.
But why not actually know the system? Why not educate myself like the pros have?
Because the reality is that getting good at just about anything, requires structural study. So it’s no coincidence that almost all of the world’s best guitar players are also excellent music theorists and students of their instrument.
To that end, I think it’s worth my time (and yours) to try and really understand what we’re playing; to go the extra mile in front of memorizing a mode, by making an effort to understand and apply it.
1. Beginning the Lydian Mode Guitar Study: What exactly is it?
To understand the Lydian mode properly, we need to have a little bit of basic music theory under our belts before we dig in.
Some of this I will assume, but most of it, I will explain.
First, the Lydian mode is essentially a small variant on the major scale. The difference is that the Lydian mode, has a raised fourth degree, also called a sharped fourth note (degree and note are the same thing). Otherwise, it’s identical to your typical major scale pattern.
For example, let’s look at a major scale in the key of F: F G A B♭ C D E F
Now, the Lydian mode in the key of F: F G A B C D E F
We simply raise the B♭ to a B, to create the Lydian mode.
Why use it?
So what characterizes this sound?
What’s the point of using it?
To get our answer, we need to examine the sound and mood that this scale creates. We can do that by taking the notes above and plugging them into a tab sheet that displays the scale.
The three is our root F note, while the four is our raised fourth degree. If you know your intervals, you’ll recognize that the distance between these two notes (six semitones - or frets) creates what’s called a tritone.
Tritones sound kind of creepy and eerie, and have historically been considered by music theorists to be a sound that was too distressing and bizarre to have any good use.
These days, the semitone shows up in a lot of music, particularly in hard-rock guitar solos.
For example, Godsmack’s Tony Rombola uses them heavily in his solo for “Awake” to help add to the song’s dark and driving appeal.
But in the Lydian scale, you’ve got the tritone sound overlapping with a major key.
So the result is a somewhat odd combination of tensions.
One of the best examples is probably something you’ll recognize.
The Simpson’s theme song was well thought out by the composer, as he employs the Lydian mode to add a slightly “off-color” and strange sound to the melody.
This matches the spirit of the show quite well and serves as a great example of how the Lydian mode can help change a musical mood.
Here’s how you’d play it on the guitar, beginning at the ninth measure:
The song is in the key of C, which means our Lydian mode would look like this: C D E F♯ G A B C
Our fourth note on the major scale, the F, gets raised one semitone to F♯. We can find that note at the 19th fret, highlighted in red on the tab.
So you can think of the Lydian mode as a structured way to change the tension or feel of a major scale or a particular piece of music that is played in a major key. In fact, that’s why we call Lydian a “mode” and not simply a “scale,” because it’s identical to the major scale, save the raised fourth
2. How exactly do I play it?
So how do we identify and then play the Lydian mode on the fretboard?
What’s the system behind it?
First, we establish a key. In this case, I’m going to continue in the key of C, just to give us an easy example.
If you go to a place like all-guitar-chords.com, you’ll probably end up with something like this:
You’ve selected Lydian, highlighted “C” and selected the third fret pattern.
But is this entire shape necessary to memorize? Shouldn’t the Lydian mode be simpler than this? Well friends, I’ve good news - it is simpler than this - if you’ve done your homework.
Up front, you don’t have to memorize this entire pattern.
Sites and programs like this are helpful, but in this case, the web application has filled in a number of notes that extend the mode beyond its formal scope.
We just want the short version.
So how do we get that?
Remember how we said that a Lydian mode is just a variance on a major scale?
Let’s look at the Major Scale Wikipedia page.
We learn quickly that a major scale is a diatonic scale which is made up a seven notes and eight degrees, where the first and last degree are the same note, just an octave apart. In other words, our major scale - also our Lydian mode - will go from C to C, with all other notes falling between those two octaves.
Note also that this article tells us the interval sequence of a major (diatonic) scale, which are as follows:
Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Whole - Half
Again, it helps to know your intervals, because if you do, you’ll recognize immediately that a whole step is two frets from a given note and a half step is one fret (or semitone) from a given note.
Recall that in a Lydian mode, we take the fourth note of the scale and raise it, or add a sharp.
Armed with this information, let’s take a closer look at the scale that All-Guitar-Chords.com tossed out for us.
This diagram has kindly highlighted the two root notes of our scale, by coloring the two Cs a darker shade of orange.
At a minimum, we can know that our actual Lydian mode is made up of those two notes and everything in between. If we want to take it a step further, we can apply the interval sequence from the major scale, while accounting for the raised fourth degree.
The C to D is whole step, the D to E is a whole step, the E to F would be the half step, but we raise it to F# and the sequence goes on in that manner until we get to the C note at the fifth fret.
It changes the interval sequence to the following: Whole - Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Half
This occurs because moving the fourth degree one semitone higher effects the interval sequence both in front and behind it.
This formally ends our mode, giving us the following tab (which you’ve already seen).
That’s how you put it all together.
Now you can build or identify a Lydian mode in any key. Simply transpose the shape you see here, or use the following knowledge to build your own:
A Lydian mode must…
- Fall between two octaves.
- Raise (sharp) the fourth degree of the scale.
- Adhere to the interval sequence of a basic major scale, but accounting for the raised fourth degree.
If you can apply this and understand it, you’ve gotten the basic theory of the Lydian mode down to a hard science. In my opinion, that’s an important part of making it work in the realm of creative expression.
“Realm of creative expression” is my fancy term for application.
So let’s get to that.
3. Using the Lydian Mode in Guitar Solos
First, you should be aware that the context of this discussion is going to lean towards solo construction, as opposed to improvisation. Since we’re looking at some fairly specific music theory, applying it to our lead work means we’ve got to be intentional about the notes we’re playing.
Again, think back to our Simpson’s melody.
That “solo” or melody line was implemented with a distinct vision and purpose, and the Lydian mode was carefully selected to accomplish the task.
That’s not to say improvising is bad or that you can’t use the Lydian mode in that setting, but just understand that in this case, the context is careful solo construction.
The first step is to incorporate the Lydian melody.
Incorporating the Lydian Melody
It sounds more complicated than it is, especially because we can easily draw up tabs by memorizing the Lydian mode interval sequence.
That sequence can be found on the Lydian mode Wikipedia page (we also drew it up earlier).
The modern Lydian musical scale is a rising pattern of pitches comprising three whole tones, a semitone, two more whole tones, and a final semitone.
That’s the system we’ll use to create Lydian melodies and to incorporate them into our solos, which means memorizing this interval sequence would be time well spent.
Whole - Whole - Whole - Half - Whole - Whole - Half
So, let’s say we wanted to build a Lydian mode in the key of G, beginning on the third fret at the low G note.
We could do it, simply by adhering to this interval sequence.
Beginning on the root G:
Armed with a root note of our choice, we’re able to use the interval sequence to create our Lydian run without having to look anything up.
If we want to continue developing this run, you can either continue in the Lydian mode, break into a different mode entirely or simply add major intervals (since we’re assuming a major key). We could also break into a chromatic scale, but that would likely sound awful.
But the goal, overall, is to develop an ability to recognize these modes and use them intentionally.
They can be used as you improvise once you’ve memorized the interval sequence.
Sure, you might stumble across a Lydian pattern by accident, but if you know when and where you want to play it, you can access the emotional tension that it creates.
And you can do it on purpose.
4. Using the Lydian Mode to Build Chord Progressions
To learn how to build chord progressions from any scale, much less the Lydian mode, we need to understand some basic chord theory and become familiar with how chord progressions are written when they’re derived from modes.
Let’s begin with this entry in the Chord Progressions Wikipedia page:
In western classical notation, chords built on the scale are numbered with Roman numerals. A D chord will be figured I in the key of D, for example, but IV in the key of A. Minor chords are signified by lower case Roman, so that D minor in the key of C would be written ii.
So, let’s start with something simple, like the chords in the key of C.
We first need the notes in the key of C.
They are the following: C D E F G A B C
You can use this reference to figure out which chords would correspond to each note. Or simply refer to (or memorize) the following diagram:
Other keys simply must be looked up and memorized.
No silver bullet.
Now, if you understand chord progressions in the context of their parent scales, you can then write them using these roman numerals, as shown in the chart.
When you see that numeral in reference to a chord, it’s talking about the chords position within a given key. Once you know those positions, you can create chord progressions using this as your structure.
Note that of the chords shown in the diagram, the seventh chord version of each one is also useable.
If we were to write some “common” chord progressions derived from the key of C, they would look like this:
If you want to indicate any combination or arrangement of chords within a given scale, that Roman numeral pattern is how you should write it.
We can use the same process to build chord progressions from the Lydian mode. All we need to do is switch out our C major scale for a C Lydian.
So let’s break down the Lydian mode in that manner.
Modal Lydian Chord Progression
Remember, to get to our Lydian mode, we add a raised fourth degree to our C major scale.
We can then easily establish our progression from the Lydian mode notes: C D E F# G A B C
So, a “modal” progression would be derived from these notes and written using roman numerals, just like the above diagram.
For example, E, F# and A would be written like this: III - IV - VI.
This doesn’t mean that your chord progressions always have to be backed by a mode (although they probably are), nor does it mean that you have to think through this process every time you want to develop a progression. But whether you realize it or not, this is theoretically, what’s going on underneath the hood of any grouping of guitar chords.
Here’s part of that same graphic (from the markerboard in the video) that’s a bit easier to read.
By doing some harmony analysis (whether the chord is major, minor or diminished), Andrew Wasson comes up with a number of extended chords that he can use to develop chord progressions based on the Lydian mode.
If you watch the video, you’ll see that Wasson actually extends his harmony analysis to other intervals (5th, 7th, 9th etc.).
Dude is smart.
But for our purposes, this gives you enough understanding of the options you have when deriving chords from the Lydian mode.
Since you’ve understood the basic music theory involved, you can now do the same.
Follow Up and Other Resources
If you want to keep studying modes, there are plenty of resources, both paid and free that can help you out.
The following links in particular can be helpful in Lydian mode guitar study:
- Ancient Modes
- Modal Tonicization in Rock: Special Case of the Lydian Mode
- Emotional Cases of Diatonic Modes
If you want a quicker read, I’d recommend some Wikipedia browsing to help get you familiar with the Lydian mode and the concepts surrounding it.
The information there is up-to-date, accurate, succinct and it’s all interconnected.
It’s one of modern man’s best resources, so don’t be afraid to use it. You can also refer to the works cited portion of a Wikipedia page to see where the information is coming from.
It’s all there, folks.
You don’t have to go to college and pay an obscene amount of money to take music theory. All this information is available to us, right here, right now.
Why not take advantage of it?
For guitar players, it’s well worth the effort to get to know the mechanics and the science of our instrument. It’ll give structure to what we play, and help us to have a better understanding of what’s happening on the fretboard and why.
Best of luck.
Other Advanced Lead Guitar Resources
Building Harmonic Variety into the D Major Chord Shape: A lead guitar lesson that focuses on harmony and melodic variance within the D major chord shape.
Jazz Guitar Harmony and the Basics of Shell Voicing: An advanced lesson on Jazz patterns and shell voicing from music professor Mark Whetzel.
Clean, Easy Moonlight Sonata Guitar Tab: The "Moonlight Sonata" parsed into seven different tabs that are easy to learn, one by one.
Exploring Guitar Arpeggios on the Higher Register: Using short melodic patterns via arpeggios on the higher frets.
Write and Record Pentatonic Scale Guitar Solos: A lesson on writing and recording solos using the pentatonic scale shape.
How to Superimpose the Pentatonic Minor Scale Over Chords: An advanced lead guitar lesson on applying the pentatonic minor scale.
Diatonic Scale Guitar Theory: Explaining and applying the theory behind the diatonic guitar scale.
Simple Classical Guitar Tabs: Sampling and learning tabs from some of the most popular classical pieces.
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