Modes and Positions

There are many different scales and tonalities you can play in any position because of bends (and even more for those who can overland.)

But If we consider 1st position to be our basic major scale, then here is a short introduction to the mode of each position and what it means. Note: although we do have to do a couple bends to play the complete major scale in the lower octave (namely the -2" and -3") and the 10’ bend in the top octave, I think everyone agrees that 1st position on a C harmonica naturally produced the tonality of C major.

The Major mode, also known as the Ionian mode in classical theory, is charecterized by a happy sound thanks to it’s Major 3rd, and 6th, as well as it’s major 2nd and 7th degrees. So it’s intervals are all major and perfect - 1,2,3,4,5,6,7. It’s is found in much pop, country, soul, gospel, rock, folk, reggae, and classical genres to name a few.

2nd Position is naturally the Mixolydian mode. The only difference between a Mixolydian scale and a regular major scale is the 7th degree is lowered a half-step. So you could say that the Mixolydian mode is a major scale with a minor 7th. So 1,2,3,4,5,6,b7. This sound makes it suitable for Blues, Jazz, some Reggae, as well as some Bluegrass and Fiddle tunes, just to name a few. A few famous songs in this mode are On Broadway by George Benson, Fire on the Mountain by the Grateful Dead, Low Rider by War, Crosseyed Cat by Muddy Waters, and Freddie the Freeloader by Miles Davis.

3 position is the Dorian mode, which is similar to Mixolydian, except the 3rd degree is minor instead of a major. When I learned about the Dorian mode, I thought about it as a natural minor scale with a Major 6th. So 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7. I think the sound of this scale maybe the hippest of all the modes. Famous songs that embody this tonality are So What by Miles Davis, Riders on the Storm by the Doors, Oye Como Va by Santana, Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel, and some old fiddle tunes like Star of the County Down.

4th Position is the Natural Minor scale, also known as Aeolian, which is similar to Dorian except it’s 6th degree is a half-step lower. So 1, 2, b3, 4,5, b6, b7. This is your most common minor tonality. Most of the music in any genre that has a somber, pensive, or forbidding mood is usually in this tonality.

5th Position is the Phrygian scale, which is like Natural Minor but it also has a b2 which gives it a distinctly Spanish sound. The intervals are 1, b2, b3, 4 5, b6, b7. Because the b2 is so dissonant, that note is usually avoided by harp players (-2" and -5.) When I play 5th position I’m usually thinking in a terms of Minor Pentatonic / Blues kind of framework. This approach is very similar to playing a Major Pentatonic scale in 2nd position.

Okaaaaay. And I think that’s enough geeking out on theory for the day. LMK if you have any thoughts or questions on the subject…



I was try to do some solos over Oyo Cuomo Va by Santana on my guitar. Some video guy suggested the Dorian mode. I added the 3b and mostly 6b to my minor pentatonic and voila, it sounded so Santana. So fun. Would that be difficult on the harp?


Hi @ingog,

Adding the flat 3rd (-3’ or three draw with a half-step bend) is easy and absolutely imperative to master in order to play most blues.

However the same cannot be so easily accomplished with the flat 6. When playing, for example, a C harp in 2nd position that would be the note Eb. That would require playing the very difficult advanced technique of overblow bending on hole one, or the still advanced (but somewhat easier to play) overblow bend on hole four. It can be played as a blow bend on hole eight relatively easily.

Playing the song in other positions (1st, 3rd, fourth, fifth, etc.) are too much for me to describe in this reply, but they each have their own “troubles” as well, although you might find one that is easier than 2nd position – e.g. 5th might work well).

– Slim

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That is way beyond my skill level. I’ll stick to guitar for that stuff. Way easier to bend on a guitar.


Hey there my friend - yes Dorian is a blast on the harmonica, referred to by harmonica players as “3rd Position” and is very easy to play in the middle octave.

Just a point of clarification:
The 6th degree of the Dorian mode is not lowered. Dorian is like Natural Minor, but with a MAJOR 6TH. And, as you said in your post, THAT IS THE SANTANA SOUND! And what a great sound it is!!!

So, said another way, the Dorian mode is like a major scale, but with the 3rd and 7th degrees lowered a half-step.

Also - the Minor Pentatonic scale already has a b3. The intervals of the Minor Pentatonic scale are:
MINOR 3RD (b3)
MINOR 7TH (b7)

On a harmonica in 3rd position this is played:
-4 -5 6 -6 7 -8
-8 7 -6 6 -5 -4

This is a scale worth practicing!

The difference between Minor Pentatonic and Dorian is that with the latter we are adding in the intervals of Major 2nd and Major 6th. And again, as your ears rightly told you, the Major 6th is the real color note of the scale.

The Dorian mode played in 3rd position on a harmonica is:
-4 5 -5 6 -6 -7 7 -8
-8 7 -7 -6 6 -5 5 -4

And the the -7 is that money Major 6th, as is the -3 in the lower octave.

Here’s a Santanna riff you’ll recoginize right away:
-5 -5 -4 -4 -5 -4 -3 -4
And if you can bend into the -3 it will sound even cooler.

And putting it up an octave and adding the second part of the lick:
-9 -9 -8 -8 -9 -8 -7 -8
-4 -5 6 -5 -4 -4
(And the -5 6 -5 is a fast triplet.)

BTW the top octave pentatonic scale is easy to:
-8 -9 9 -10 10
10 -10 9 -9 -8

Hope that helps you get going with 3rd position Dorian. So much fun!


 Now for the next question.  The two significant chords played on the sold is A minor and D 9.  I found out front a knowledgeable jazz player ( and verified it) the  KEY of Oye is G. And the Am and D 9 are the 2 and the 5 of the G. 
  When I first tried to solo on guitar I used the A minor pentatonic.  It was ok but not very Santana-ish.. Adding two notes (recognizing later they put me in the Dorian mode) it sounded great. Since I had just added it to the A minor pentatonic I am assuming I’m playing A Dorian.  What key harmonica do I use?  To play A minor,  normally I would use the G harmonica. What was the key(s) in the scales you gave us.

Hello @ingog,
Your chosen text format is very difficult (for me) to read.
Can you write your comments or questions in the provided text fields like we do? That would help a lot to help you. :slightly_smiling_face: Thank you!
Greetings from Astrid :woman_in_lotus_position:

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I didn’t type it like that. I have no idea why it printed out that way. Nor do I know how to change it

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Enter exactly as the answer was written here. Maybe something was specially marked in the bar beforehand.
Unfortunately I do not know it.

It appears fine while Im typing right now. See how linear it is. Is the email I’m typing now doing the same thing?

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Perfect! :+1::slightly_smiling_face: