We obtain the elementary modes of a system of parity-time reversal (PT)-symmetric coupled oscillators with balanced loss and gain. These modes are used to give a physical picture of the phase transition recently reported [C. M. Bender, M. Gianfreda, B. Peng, S. K. Özdemir and L. Yang, Phys. Rev. A 88, 062111 (2013); L. Yang, S. K. Özdemir and B. Peng, 12th Int. Workshop and Conf. Pseudo-Hermitian Hamiltonians in Quantum Physics, Istanbul, Turkey, July 2013; B. Peng, S. K. Özdemir, F. Lei, F. Monifi, M. Gianfreda, G. L. Long, S. Fan, F. Nori, C. M. Bender and L. Yang, Nat. Phys. 10, 394 (2014)] in experiments with whispering-gallery microresonators.