Applying Modes To Your Improvisation

It is easy to forget about and/or disregard modes, to push them aside just because they seem complicated, but they really need not be treated so badly.  In this post, which will require perfect knowledge, away from the piano, of all 12 major scales, I shall ease you against your will to approach modes and hopefully by the end of your reading session, you will be on more friendly terms with the blighters and thus be more inclined to incorporate them into your playing.  For a deeper discussion with audio examples, check out my book available from this blog.


Modes are exciting; they provide a variety of colours and improvisation assistance in one.  Without modes, your improvisations will be lacking in colour and ideas.  The problem is not only knowing how to use them, but how to use them well, intelligently...

In a nutshell, which shall be cracked open incredibly soon, a mode is 7 notes which are logically, and musically, connected to a major scale.  By taking the 1st, 3rd, 5th and (major) 7th of a major scale, having made sure the notes are logically and musically correct (to be expanded upon shortly, fear not!), you will have a collection of chords, too.  Knowing which chord is associated with which major scale(s) is enormously useful in helping you hit musically-correct notes in your improvisations.  They also break down all 'difficult key' nonsense since with modes, and in my philosophical approach to jazz piano in general, there are no 'difficult keys' since all physical notes are only note values (again, see my book).

Let's start in C major, in the knowledge that this principle applies to ALL 12 MAJOR SCALES.  I'm only using C because it's easy to imagine, but the same template can be (and is) applied to the other 11 keys.  C is not easier than any other key just because it has 'no black notes'.

We will follow this same process 7 times (for each degree of the major scale) to obtain 7 chord types.  What we do with this knowledge will then be revealed after...

1.  On each degree of your chosen major scale (C, here, but all keys follow this very same principle), find the 1st, 3rd, 5th and (major) 7th.
2.  Question each of the 4 notes and ask yourself if they are in the chosen major scale (C, here).
3.  If they are, don't move them, if one or more notes is not in the chosen major scale, flatten it (descend one semitone/half note).
4.  Name the resulting chord for that degree you are on.

Example following above rules:

1.  C, D, E, F, G, A, B - the 7 degrees of C major (again, every key follows the same rule, I can't highlight this enough!!!)... C = C, E, G, B... D = D, F#, A, C#...E = E, G#, B, D#... etc, etc until B...
2.  C = C, E, G, B = all notes are C major... D = D, F#, A, C = F# flattened to F, C# flattened to C...E = E, G#, B, D# = G# flattened to G, D# flattened to D... etc etc... (F would be unchanged because F, A, C, E are in C major... G would lower the F# to F, etc...)
3.  Play the resulting chords from the above process which is kind of 2 processes in one; a visual 'look at notes' and a physical 'flatten what is required' process.
4.  C, E, G, B = Major7...D, F, A, C = m7... E, G, B, D = m7... (F doesn't change, G is a dominant 7th due to the F# to F giving G, B, D, F), etc...

Once this process is done, you will have the follow chord types, in order of degree from the root to the (major) 7 of your selected major key (all 12!):  M7, m7, m7, M7, 7, m7, dim7.

With this knowledge, you now know which chord is associated with which major scales for use in your improvisation.  Let's take a look at a standard VI, II, V, I turn-around song such as Fly Me To The Moon:  Am7, Dm7, G7, CM7.  We remember the order of chord types noted in the paragraph just above and then remember which degree each chord type represents.

Am7 is a minor 7th chord type.  m7's fall on the 2nd, 3rd and 6th degrees of 3 related MAJOR scales (as if we did the 4 step process in all 12 keys, but we don't need to because the template from C applies to all keys!).  So, this Am7 means that A is the 2nd, 3rd and 6th degree of 3 major scales, but which?  Well, respectively it is 2=G, 3=F and 6=C!  What does that mean?  It means, and here is the magic!:  The major scales of G, F and C can be played on top of/with the Am7 chord!

Do you notice, however, that each major scale has slightly different notes?  C is all white notes, F orders a Bb and not a B which we can use in C and G major, but G gives an F# which we can't use from the C or F major scales.

And there it is, dear jazzy reader:  the colours of modal improvisation logic!  Selection of a particular mode provides a particular colour, a tonal quality.  Just to make things easier for you, some clever people invented names for the 7 modes so you can find them quickly and use them at your guise:

1 - Ionian
2 - Dorian
3 - Phrygian
4 - Lydian
5 - Mixolydian
6 - Aeolian
7 - Locrian

So, if I say:  "Hey, on the next round of Fly Me To The Moon, let's give the audience some Phrygian sounds!".  You will know that I mean the 3rd, so every m7 chord (because 3rd degrees are always m7's) must be accompanied by the major scale of which it is the 3rd degree.  Am7 = F (giving the Bb and no B!), Dm7 = Bb (giving Bb and Eb and no B or E which we could get from C if D were acting as the Dorian, the second mode), G7 = does not apply since mixolydian (5th) is dominant 7 so G is the 5th of C, CM7 = does not apply since M7's are only 1st (Ionian) or 4th (Lydian).

This is something you need to sit at the piano and listen to.  Each mode has a particular sound.  Study them in ONE key before getting excited in other keys first.  You need to internalise the sound qualities.

Try to use this concept in your improvisations.  As a quick final example, let's take the song:  All The Things You Are... It begins in Fm7... so?  m7's are...?  Dorian (2nd), Phrygian (3rd) and Aeolian (6th) so F is acting as the 2nd of Eb (giving Eb major notes only), the 3rd of Db (giving only its major scale) and the 6th, Ab and its scale only.  However, each one provides a slightly different quality because of the notes it demands be played from its major scale.  Sometimes it sounds weird, but the idea is to mix up modes, blues scales, arpeggios, random notes, connecting chromatic runs, etc...

Share, study, comment and good luck!

Best,
Dan