The Greeks never shied away from mythological mystery or the opportunity for an odyssey. The Lydian mode was named after the ancient kingdom of Lydia, and if that doesn’t scream ‘mystery and adventure’, then what does?!
This article will explore:
- Basic music theory of the Lydian mode
- Scale shapes
- How to recreate the Lydian sound using chords and triads
- Useful exercises to start exploring the scale
Step inside the Lydian kingdom of sound and find out why modern musicians and the ancient Greeks continue to use the scale for similar purposes..
What’s the Lydian mode?
The Lydian mode is the fourth mode of the major scale and is home to some of the most intriguing sounds that the major scale modes have to offer.
While not a particularly common sound in pop, rock, or blues music, the Lydian mode offers some otherworldly sound qualities that can help a player or composer immerse their listeners in a magical world.
- The Lydian mode is a close relative to the major scale with only one note distinguishing them.
- Scale degrees are one way to learn the similarities between the major scale and the Lydian scale.
- For visual learners, it might be more helpful to see these two scales mapped on the fretboard.
See if you can spot the difference between these two scale patterns:
Major scale fretboard diagram
Here’s a fretboard diagram of the major scale. This is our reference point for analyzing other modes on guitar.
Lydian mode fretboard diagram
Now let’s take a look at the Lydian scale on the guitar fretboard. Try to notice the similarities with the major scale and where the Lydian mode reveals its magic with one simple note change.
Did you see it?
That’s right! The #4th (often called the #11) is where the Lydian mode finds its distinct personality.
- The #4, or #11 are both enharmonic equivalents (same note different name) of the b5th.
- To avoid confusion, it’s easier to think of the Lydian scale as having a #4th rather than a b5th, as it also has a regular, perfect 5th later on in the scale.
What does the Lydian mode sound like?
Nothing in life is perfect, not even 4th intervals.
But the sound of the raised 4th (#11th) against the major scale sound is precisely what gives the Lydian mode an individual soundscape.
Check out these songs with a strong Lydian vibe:
The Simpsons theme
The Simpsons theme song has one of the most obvious uses of the Lydian mode in the opening melody. Both the chords and melody lean into the #11 note from the Lydian scale, check it out!
Flying in a Blue Dream - Joe Satriani
A rock guitar anthem! Joe Satriani’s Flying in a Blue Dream is another classic example of a deep dive into the Lydian scale sound. The opening chords move between Csus#11 and C major.
Waltz #1 - Elliot Smith
Elliot Smith is known to many music fans as the godfather of Indie Folk. But Smith was a composer of the highest regard who took influence from the Beatles, to Rachmaninov.
Waltz #1 features a haunting melody that highlights the tension of singing the #11 note against the I major chord. A bittersweet interpretation of the Lydian sound.
Becoming one of The People - Avatar (soundtrack)
Composer, James Horner, used the Lydian scale throughout the scoring of Avatar to accent the feeling of mystery and the feeling of landing in an unknown world.
Although the Lydian scale is closely linked to the major scale, the #11 note adds a subtle unease and sense of wonder to the soundscape.
Best chords for Lydian
The Lydian mode is primarily a type of major mode. With all the similarities to it’s parent scale, the major scale, we can create the Lydian sound by taking a major 7th chord and adding a #11th.
- It’s easier to use ‘#11’ as a descriptor for the Lydian sound is because it’s usually played as an upper extension note found in the next octave above.
- This means the Lydian note it is usually voiced on the top of the chord above the major 7th.
Here’s how intervals look across two octaves:
When to use the Lydian
Back in the ancient times, the Greeks theorized that the modes of the major scale each had an individual characteristic.
More than a simple difference in sound, the ancient Greeks believed that each of the modes could be used to exert a powerful influence over the audience by tempting them into sadness, excitement, or nostalgia.
The Lydian mode was heavily associated with lightness, mystery, and a sense of adventure.
- Due to its similarity with the major scale, it’s quite common for guitarists to swap the major scale for the Lydian scale to create a little less certainty over the tonal center.
- The major scale and Lydian scale both have a major 3rd and major 7th.
- The #11 has a nice pull towards the perfect 5th, and it can be fun to build major chords that use both notes or to play licks that lean into that tension.
When not to use the Lydian
The Lydian scale is strongly linked to the major scale, not just in sound similarity, but in harmonic functionality too!
- Harmonic functionality simply means: the role of a chord in a progression.
- A regular major chord created from the major scale is a great choice for starting and ending a song because it has a strong sense of resolution.
It’s important to note that the Lydian scale is a bad choice when playing over dominant chords due to the clash of the dominant 7th in dominant chords, and the major 7th in the Lydian scale.
Lydian exercises for guitar
Get to know the Lydian note
The great thing about the Lydian scale is that you can’t go wrong returning to the sounds of the major scale if you get stuck or forget how the Lydian scale looks on the fretboard.
Tricks to learning the Lydian scale on guitar:
- Highlight the one note that helps define the sound of the scale and practice singing and playing it over a major chord.
- Use ‘The Simpsons Theme’ to help you out if you get lost. Referencing Lydian-flavored songs can help guide your ears as you improvise with the scale and will help you stay on track.
Lydian jam tracks
This section is all you!
Play along with our Lydian backing track and teach your ears a new tonal flavor. If you get stuck, just fall back to the major scale shape.
Tips for soloing in Lydian
Want an extra soloing challenge for exploring the Lydian mode?
Triad pairs are used by jazz players and film composers to ‘stack’ two different triads against each other.
When playing between both triads quickly, the pattern starts to form one distinct sound.
- To create the Lydian sound using triad pairs, you can play a combination of major chords a tone apart.
- Pairing C major and D major together will give you the notes of C Lydian in two triads.
Lydian triad pairs are parallel to each other meaning that they sit side by side on the fretboard. This creates an easy and memorable trick to recreating the Lydian sound without having to play all 7 notes of the scale!
Here’s an example of how it looks
- C major in blue
- D major in orange
Remember, there are two different ways to name notes once we go beyond an octave!
Music is a powerful and continually surprising art form. Whenever you examine a scale or even a single note, you can find a whole world of possibilities..
The Lydian mode is a great option whenever you get a little tired with the major scale. The best thing is – there are many more options for you to explore!
Modes allow us to paint new sonic landscapes. The more scales you know, the more colors you have on your palette. If you’re a composer or an improviser who loves to take your listener on a deep, thought-provoking ride – get to grips with as many scales as possible!
Our Jazz Learning Pathway helps demystify scales, chords, and music theory so that you can skip straight to creative exploration and making music.
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