Modes in Improvisation

Thinking of modes as relative or parallel

When musicians talk about modes in jazz, they sometimes think of seven modes, each of which has a starting note based on the major scale.  Even without thinking about modes many people are already used to this idea. We already think of A minor being the relative minor of C, as it has the same key signature and (in it’s simple form as a “natural minor”) has the same notes. It is, in fact, a mode: the Aeolian mode built and we can think of it as being built on the sixth degree of a major scale. So a Dorian mode scale has the same notes as a major scale but starting on the second degree. However this is just one of two main ways to think of modes. We’ll call this the relative mode system – as with any minor scale, the mode can relate back to the major scale which as the same notes.

The other system, which we can think of as the parallel mode system, can often be a lot more useful. Instead of thinking of a mode relating back to its relative major,  we think of each mode as a scale in its own right. So we think of a Dorian in D as a scale of D minor (whose 6th is a major 6th, not a minor 6th). So we think of it purely as a D scale with the intervals TSTTTST (T = Tone, S = Semitone)

Many people start off learning modes as relative. This can make sense as we were often taught the major scale as the very first theoretical concept of music. But as soon as possible you should learn to think of the mode as a scale in its own right, with its own base note or “tonic.” So each mode has its own “flavour” based on the relationship between the intervals involved as above (e.g. TSTTSTS)

Although we know that the major scale is a mode (you can even think of it as a mode of itself) it is useful for learning if we define two systems within western music (of whatever genre):

  • Music using major or minor scales with associated harmony or chord changes we can call tonal.
  • Music based on “the other” modes we can call modal.

Modes are used in Modal Jazz, which is not (yet) covered in this course, but some improvising system teach modes as useful for learning to improvise over chord changes. This can be a bit of a misleading “shortcut” way to learn about chord changes as it does not teach you about the chord tones and function of the chords.

However it can be useful to look at modes in these two ways, relative and parallel:

1) Relative

With this system, we look at the modes relative to the major scale with the same set of notes. The simplest way to understand relative modes is to start with the major scale of C, but instead of beginning and ending on the note C, begin on each degree of the scale in turn to create a different mode:

jazztheory modes

ex 5a: Relative modes.

2) Parallel

Although the above modes are based on the same notes as the C major scale, they each function as a different key in their own right and you can think of the starting note of the mode as the tonic or key note, not the relative major scale. So the Dorian mode starting on D is verfy much a  D Dorian not a scale based on C. Once you get your head around this, you’ve made a huge step in not only understanding modes, but in understanding modal music.

Similarly the Dorian mode starting on C (which would use the same notes as Bb major) is a C Dorian, not a Bb Dorian.

If we take one key centre (ie one note) and base different modes on it using that note as the root we get parallel modes. In other words the Dorian mode starting on the note C is parallel to the C major (Ionian mode) and all the other modes starting on C.

parallel modes

ex 5b: Parallel modes

 Getting to understand parallel modes

A good exercise is to write out and learn all the modes in all keys as relative and parallel. Learn the intervals between each step of the different modes:

( T=Tone, S=Semitone)

Ionian = TTSTTTS (in semitone intervals 2212221)

Dorian = TSTTTST (2122212)


and learn to sing them using (moveable doh) solfege



Chords based on each step of the modes

Just as with


Mode in C
Ionian Imaj7 IIm7 IIIm7 IVmaj7 V7 VIm7 VII𝜙7
Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmj7 G7 Am7 B𝜙7
Dorian Im7 IIm7 IIImaj7 IV7 Vm7 VI𝜙7 VIImaj7
Dm7 Em7 Fmj7 G7 Am7 B𝜙7 Cmaj7
Phrgyian Im7 IImaj7 III7 IVm7 V𝜙7 VImaj7 VIIm7
Em7 Fmj7 G7 Am7 B𝜙7 Cmaj7 Dm7
Lydian Imaj7 II7 IIIm7 IVI𝜙7 Vmaj7 VIm7 VIIm7
Fmj7 G7 Am7 B𝜙7 Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7
Mixolydian I7 IIm7 III𝜙7 IVmaj7 Vm7 VIm7 VIImaj7
G7 Am7 B𝜙7 Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmj7
Aeolian Im7 II𝜙7 IIImaj7 IVm7 Vm7 VImaj7 VI7
Am7 B𝜙7 Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmj7 G7
Locrian I𝜙7 IImaj7 IIIm7 IVm7 Vmaj7 VI7 VIIm7
B𝜙7 Cmaj7 Dm7 Em7 Fmj7 G7 Am7

Chord/Mode System of Improvising

Improvisers today are often taught a system based entirely on modes and scales, but it is important to realise that although it is necessary for the learning improviser to learn them, scales should ultimately be used to construct musically meaningful melodic lines.

The commonest chord progression is the IIm7-V7-I. The most basic implied scale is the major scale of the I chord, but it may be also useful to think in terms of modes of the major scale in order to visualise the root progression. Take the sequence Dm – G7 – C maj7

There are two ways of approaching this sequence.

1) The Key Centre Method:

Analysis tells us that these chords are diatonic to the key of C, i.e. they all have a key centre of C (C:IIm7-V7-Ima7). A C major scale can be used to improvise over all three chords. This can be useful for the beginner, especially with fast-moving chord changes.

HOWEVER it is often useful for chord notes to fall on strong beats. If you use the C major scale but start the scale on a chord note for each chord you will probably have more success than if you merely use a C major scale indiscriminately over the sequence. This is not easy until you have a thorough grasp of all notes in all chords, hence the alternative approach:

2) The Modal method:

Each chord can be associated with the mode based on its root note.

jazztheory modes

Ex 5c: modes implied by IIm7-V7-I

Note that chord notes fall on the beat. This method also has some drawbacks.

  • You would not always want to start a scale on the root note of a chord.
  • With descending scales the chord notes do not fall on the beat.
  • With fast moving changes it is difficult to think of the modes in time.

In practice it is often useful to cut out one mode in this process: as most V7 chords in mainstream jazz have a preceding IIm7 it can be useful to use the Dorian mode to cover the V7 chord as well.

The key centre method is useful for fast moving chord changes, the modal method for slow moving changes when there is more time to think of the modes.

Alternative key centres

In the progression we looked at in ex 2e we found an alternative way of analysing the progression, with a possible key centre of D. If we take a similar progression we can use either the modal or key centre method to choose which scales on which to base an improvisation.

alternative key centre

ex 5d: RN analysis showing alternative key centre.

With the simplified modal method (ignoring Mixolydian) we would think: E Dorian, D Dorian, C major, D Dorian (ex 5e-1)

With the key centre method we would use the alternative key centre and only need to think: D major, C major. (ex 5e-2)

modal method

ex 5e: Modal method and key centre method.

The modal method becomes easier if you treat all minor chords (in a major key) as IIm7 (Dorian). This makes some sense because VIm7 chords are often changed to become secondary dominants (as above -ex 5d), so in many cases minor 7 chords will either be an actual IIm7, or a IIm7 in the new key centre implied by the secondary dominant as with the Em7 above).

Both of these methods can be useful for beginners, as they can make the process of playing over chord changes less daunting, but it is very important to realise that this is only a small step on the way to understanding harmony. In the above example we are thinking of the Em7-A7 as being in D major (key centre method) or E Dorian. The problem is that in this case, although the A7 does not resolve to a tonic, it does not necessarily imply D major, in fact D minor often sounds better for jazz. You will find that a D harmonic minor scale sounds more interesting. You could think in terms of modes of minor scales, however it is far more important to learn the notes of the chords and begin to think about the scale using those notes on the strong beats. This leads to a more musical and melodic approach than the more technical process of thinking in modes for chord changes.

Whenever a cycle of dominant 7ths appears without a preceding IIm7 chord, (e.g. middle 8 of I Got Rhythm sequences), it is either necessary to think of Mixolydian modes (ex 5g) or major scales with a flattened 7th (same thing but easier to learn ):

mixolydian modes

ex 5g: partial cycle of fifths (Mixolydian modes).

Modes in Jazz, Pop & Commercial Composition

Before reading this make sure you are familiar with the basic concept of modes in jazz above. I prefer not to think of modes as relative to a major scale (e.g. D Dorian as a mode of C major), but as a scale in its own right. So D Dorian is based on the note D and functions purely as a D Dorian, and is not a relation of the a C major. This may not be as easy as relating each mode to a major scale with the same notes, but it makes more sense in the end. You need to learn the relationship between each note of the scale and the root as well as each note of the scale and the adjacent note.

Modes can be used freely in pop music, either in a traditional form, as a one or two chord riff (eg modal jazz or riff based pop, funk etc) or as a way of finding interesting chord substitutions as with modal interchange.

Traditional (melodic) use of modes

Typical examples can be found in folk music. As with conventional tonal harmony a chord can be built up in 3rds from a root note, which can be any note of the scale:

Dorian mode


Obviously in folk genres we’d want to keep the harmony simple, e.g. using triads rather than 7ths. And in a dorian mode the half diminished on VI would rarely be used.



Note that in this Dorian example the VII chord (C) is used for the final cadence. One of the main features of modal music is the lack of a traditional V7 -I perfect cadence (Except, of course, the Ionian mode which is the major scale). In this example the Am could also have been continued through bar 7 to give a Vm-I cadence.

Modal Jazz & Riffs

If only one chord is used for a tune, it can imply more than one mode, either for composing a melody or for improvising. This ambiguity can be used very effectively to allow the music to shift between different modes (and moods):

modal 1


If two chords are used as a riff, then they will usually imply a particular mode:

modal 2


In the following example of a typical Latin riff, the C# is a passing note, so a Dorian mode is still implied, though in improvisation or composition a C# could be used either to coincide with the C# in the riff, or as a neighbour (or “leading”) note.



Modal Interchange

This is where conventional tonal harmony is used but chord substitutions are used which “borrow” chords from a mode – see Modal Interchange. In the following example a bVII chord is used to substitute for a more conventional V7. In this case the D and F in the melody could conventionally have been harmonised with a G7, but in this case on the D note you imagine that you switch temporarily from C major to C Aeolian mode. This contains a chord of Bb7 and as it contains a D and F, can be used to harmonise those notes. It gives a very different flavour.

modal interchange


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