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Using Modes in Improvisation

The following are some thoughts on using the modes in improvisation as well as more general comments regarding improvisation.


The basic chord structure in jazz

Although the triad is considered the basic chord structure for the purpose of studying harmony, the style of jazz typically uses 7th chords, i.e. Major 7th, Dominant 7th, Minor 7th, etc. as the most common chord structure. Seventh chords seem more common than triads in jazz, and it is also common to see even more complex chords such as 9th, 11th and 13th chords in jazz. More on the 7th chords can be found in this additional lecture on 7th chords.


Using Modes with common chord progressions
Major keys

The II-V-I chord progressions and the subsets of II-V and V-I are the foundation of functional harmony. Many musicians think in terms of the modes of the major scale that is related to each chord of the II-V-I progression. As an example consider the II-V-I progression in the key of C: the II chord is Dm (or Dm7) the V chord is G (or G7) and the I is C (or Cma7). The C major scale is the source for all of the notes of the progression and a musician could improvise over that chord progression thinking the single scale of C major. Many musicians like to think in more detail by using modes of the major scale in direct relationship to the roots of the chords. So for the II chord the musician might think D dorian instead of C major. It's a subtle difference of course, as both contain the same notes. But when thinking in D dorian the chord tones of the prevailing harmony are 1, 3, 5, 7 etc of the current mode. When the harmony of the V chord, G7, is played the musician could improvise thinking in G mixolydian, again the same notes as C major. However when thinking in G mixolydian the chord tones of the the G7 are 1, 3, 5, 7 of the mode. Actually it's somewhat intuitive to think in this manner, one doesn't even need to know the names of the modes to use this technique. It's the same as thinking "on the Dm7 chord play the C scale but the Dm7 chord tones start on the second note of the C major scale. On the G7 scale, keep playing the C scale but the G7 chord tones start on the the fifth note of the scale, and on the C chord keep playing in C." Knowing where the chord tones are of the prevailing harmony is important to an improvising musician as they may want to play a melody that outlines the harmony. Thinking "D dorian to G mixolydian to C major" during a II-V-I in the key of C is really just a different way of looking at the major scale during a common harmonic context. It only looks complex in print, but it's really quite simple and many find it a useful technique even if they don't actually think of the modal names but instead are thinking of using the C major scale but emphasizing different portions of the scale according to which chord is being played. In this context one might think of D dorian as the portion of the C major scale that best represents the Dm7 chord and likewise G mixolydian as the portion of C major that best represents the G7 chord giving more of a musical hologram regarding the role of C major within the chord progression. This is not to suggest that one should use this as a guide to the range or starting note of a improvised melody but instead the "modal thinking" can simply help the improviser keep track of the chord tones of the harmony by relating it to the scale that starts on the root of the current chord.

On the other hand, some prefer to ignore these modal viewpoints as they find them an exercise in over-analysis.

If you do use these techniques, the subsets II-V and V-I can be treated similarly when in the major keys. The common chord resolution of V-I is used countless times in the harmony of songs. As an improvising musician the most basic scale to play is the major scale of the I chord (George Russell argues that Lydian is the true scale for the I chord in Major). In the key of C the V-I is G7-Cma7 and the C major scale works over both chords. Using the modal thinking technique, a musician might think "G mixolydian to C major" for scale choices, knowing that they both contain the same notes but G mixolydian will contain the chord tones at the 1, 3, 5, and 7 positions of the mode.

Even though one might be thinking in terms of modes, the II-V-I harmony that is described in this section is not referred to as 'modal'. However, there are tunes that are considered inherently 'modal' discussed in the next section.


Minor Keys

The minor keys have more variety in scales and present an interesting study in chord/mode relationship. Before continuing, let me state that the term mode and scale are sometimes used interchangably and although the dorian mode is usually explained as originating from the major scale, the dorian mode is not considered dependent on the major scale for it's existence. Often the term dorian scale is used instead of dorian mode. Any scale can be used to create a set of modes. For instances if we start with the harmonic minor scale, we can create a whole new set of modes using harmonic minor as a "parent" scale (instead of major being the parent scale as is the case in the common modal system). Instead of creating additional names for all of the these modes, a new scale can be described as the "C harmonic minor-5th mode", meaning it's the same notes as C harmonic minor but starting on the fifth note. Modes of both the harmonic minor and melodic minor scales are used in jazz improvisation, increasing the number of available scales considerably.

Meanwhile, back to the regular modes, many jazz tunes in minor keys use the dorian mode as the scale for the I chord. Also there is a style of jazz known as 'modal jazz' which use the modes as the parent scale for a tonality. For instance the Miles Davis tune "So What" (from Kind of Blue) uses simple harmony that can be written on a chart as having two sections, A and B, in the following form.

 A                A                B                A
| 8 bars of Dm7  | 8 bars of Dm7  | 8 bars of Ebm7 | 8 bars of Dm7  |

The improviser will play several choruses of the AABA form during a solo. In reality, many more chords than the literal Dm7 structure are used but this is a result of improvisation not predesigned harmonic changes. A voicing used by pianist Bill Evans in the original Miles Davis recording of "So What", was a stacking of P4ths from D, to G to C, to F with a ma3rd on top to A. This voicing was not literally a Dm7 chord but it became a hip substitution for Dm7 that can be analyzed as Dm7sus4. In fact, Evans approaches the chord from a whole step above, all the notes of both chord structures come from the D dorian scale. The series of P4th also make it a candidate to be termed "quartal" harmony (chords built in 4ths) as opposed to the usual tertial harmony (chord built in 3rds). Below is the opening phrase of the main section of 'So What' and also an example of the typical voicings of quartal harmony applied to the D dorian scale.

For each 8 bar section of 'So What' the dorian scale is used. The Dm7 chord of the A section calls for D dorian and the Ebm7 of the B sections uses Eb dorian. The Dm7 isn't a II chord in C it is the tonic chord (I) in the key of D, D dorian. Many of the modal tunes of the 60's used modes from the major scale but like "So What" they weren't in the keys of the major scales but instead in the key of the mode's starting note. Tunes such as Maiden Voyage, Impressions, Little Sunflower, and Dolphin Dance make use of the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and/or Mixolydian scales in a manner that uses those scales as the parent scale of a tone center. Tunes suchs as this which do not use the traditional major or minor scales and instead use one of more of the modes as the parent scale are referred to as 'modal' tunes.

Even within non-modal tunes in jazz (i.e. jazz standards) it is common for the minor II-V-I chord progression to use dorian on the I chord. This is in contrast to classical music which might use aeolian (natural minor) as the scale used on the I chord in minor. In contrast to the how the major scale works over all of chords of the II-V-I in major, the dorian scale does NOT work over all of the chords of the minor II-V-I progression . During the II chord in minor the chord quality is usually m7b5 (sometimes called half diminished). In the key of Cm the II chord is usually Dm7b5. The mode that works well with that chord is D locrian (same notes as C natural minor). The V chord presents many possibilities for scale choices. One of the common choices for the V chord is C harmonic minor, 5th mode, i.e. C harmonic minor but start on G (the 5th note). Additional scale choices are mentioned in the section on Common Alterations and Substitutions.

Using the modal technique of matching the root of the chord to a starting tone of a mode, one way of navigating through the changes of the II-V-I in minor is to think "on Dm7b5 play D locrian, on G7 play C harmonic minor-5th mode and on Cm7 play C dorian" Unlike the II-V-I in major which in it simplist form boils down to a single set of notes (the major scale), in this case there isn't a single set of notes that satisfies all of the chords. Here we play D locrian (same as C natural minor), C harmonic minor then C dorian. The three scales contain one or two differences between them but they contain mostly common tones. Once again, the technique of selecting a scale for each chord isn't meant to make the musical situation overly complex but instead to give the player a very specific linear view of the harmonic progression. In this case we are in C minor and each of the chord/scale choices (Dm7b5/D locrian, G7/C harmonic minor-5th mode, Cm7/C dorian) provide a good set of notes for each specific chord.


Instant Composing

The process of improvisation is very individual and each must find there own path but since improvisation is sometimes described as composing music in the moment, it is worth thinking of common compositional devices one could use "on the fly". Improvising in the the style associated with jazz standards is more based on the harmony of the songs than the original melody. However it is useful to examine some common manipulations of melodic material that can be used.

melodic variations

Melodic inversion

The original melody can be used as a source to create new melodies. One technique involves inverting the melodic direction of the original melody. There are two different ways to use melodic inversion.

method one

One way involves changing the direction of the melodic interval of each note and use the same interval, i.e. if an interval from the original melody is an ascending 3rd then the inverted melody would be a descending 3rd. The quality of the 3rd (major, minor) could be adjusted so that you are in the same scale, i.e. if the original melody used an ascending major 3rd, the inverted melody might use a descending minor 3rd if the descending major 3rd resulted in a note outside the scale.

method two

Another way of using melodic inversion is to move to a interval that is the octave compliment of the original interval, i.e if the original melody moves from from C up to E (up a major 3rd), then the interval inversion would be from C down to E (down a minor 6th). In this manner, the inverted melody will contain the same notes as the the original but the melodic contour will be very different. However, this type of inversion doesn't work well for melodies containing as series of 2nds such as scale passages. The series of 2nds when inverted by this method turn into a very angular series of 7ths.

merging the two methods

The problem with method one is that sometimes the leap of a 3rd or larger when inverted will result in a note that just doesn't work. As mentioned above sometimes a simple adjustment from minor to major (or dim, or aug) in the quality of the of the interval will solve the 'wrong note' problem. Another solution might be to use method two when it results in a better sound. Also one can use the idea of inversion as a loose guide and simply change direction compared to the original, i.e. when the original melody moves up, the inverted melody move down, and vice versa, you choose the interval size for the inverted melody without strict adherence to the size of the interval from the original melody.

Melodic retrograde

The retrograde of a melody is that melody played backwards. This technique is one of the common manipulation used with a tone row in 12 tone serial music. With a melody the results may or may not be of use to the improviser. But it is worth a quick experiment, perhaps a passage played backwards might be surprisingly expressive.

Melodic retrograde inversion

This process takes the original melody a plays it backwards and inverted. A strict mathematical processing of the original melody might not be useful material in many situations but a using this concept as a general guide for creating new material might prove fruitful.

Rhythmic Augmentation

This process takes a rhythmic passage from the original and stretches it out. One example would be to double the duration of all of the notes. Other ratios in time manipulation might be explored.

Rhythmic Diminution

This process takes a rhythmic passage from the original and compress it. One example would be play a rhythmic passage twice as fast. Other ratios in time manipulation might be explored.

All of these explorations of the original melody are the 'perspiration' that hopefully will lead to 'inspiration' during an improvisation. These melodic and rhythmic devices can be drawn from in the moment of creation and add cohesion to a improvisation if the improviser has previously explored the variations of the original melody in these ways during practice sessions. It is common for improvising jazz musicians to practice a piece over and over. But unlike a classical musician who is reading a score with precisely the notes required, the jazz musician strives to play it differently each time.


Basic Training

The following is what I consider to be some of the basic training required to improvise in the style typical of jazz standards.

Many jazz musicians will practice melodic ideas using common chord progressions as a harmonic framework within which to paint their melodic improvisation. This practice session might consist of dozens of choruses being played so that many ideas can be explored. Commonly not a single note is written down and all improvisations and patterns are spontaneously sent directly from the mind to the instrument. I consider this process "preparing for the improvisation". No extended passages are memorized but you gain a good feel for the scales and harmonies of the piece on which you will improvise.

II-V-I patterns
Below are two patterns I find useful. Both are melodic outlines of the II-V-I chord progression. The melodic essense of these pattern comes from a passage from Thelonius Monk's "'Round Midnight". In that phrase the harmony is II-V, and Monk's melody ascends root, 3rd, 5th, 7th of the II chord and resolves down a scale degree to the 3rd of the V chord. In this expanded melodic pattern here the phrase is extended to arpeggiate both the V and I chords as well. In the routine that I use, I start in the key signature of no sharps or flats (C/Am) first playing in C using Dm7-G7-Cma7 then move to the relative minor (Am) using Bm7b5-E7-Am#7 then move to the key signature of 1 flat, do the same routine and continue all around the circle of fifths. This type of playing is considered 'inside' the chord changes.

pattern 1

pattern 2

I find the playing of these pattern helpful to my understanding of guitar fretboard. In an opposing viewpoint, others argue that practicing patterns is antithetical to true improvisation.

knowing the landmarks
When one is confident about finding the chords tones of the harmony in a II-V-I it is easier to improvise in the context of music that commonly uses that chord progression, i.e. jazz "standards". The above patterns will allow you to become familiar with the landmark notes of the moving chord progression. One exercise that is used by jazz musician is 'running the changes', that is to play a series of eighth notes or faster throughout the tune's changing chord progression, often outlining the chord structure in manner similar to the shown exercise.

It is during these practice sessions that an improviser will learn the sound of the different chord tones of the harmony of the song.

Common Alterations and Substitutions
If one uses the basic scale choices discussed above several interesting notes choices are NOT available. Jazz musicians have long been attracted to certain altered tones especially when the V chord is being sounded. It is common to hear jazz musicians altering the 5th or 9th of the V chord. On the V chord in C (G7) the 5th is D and the 9th is A. The altered 5ths are Db (b5) and D# (#5) while the altered 9ths are Ab (b9) and A# (#9). Sometimes these tones are the result of a chromatic scale segment being used, i.e. playing the note D on the Dm7, the note D# on the G7 (using a #5) followed by the note E on the Cma7 chord. Another example of chromaticism is using the note A on the Dm7, the note Ab on the G7 (using a b9) followed by the note G on the Cma7 chord.

In addition to the C harmonic minor-5th mode mentioned above as a scale choice for the V chord, C melodic minor-5th mode is another choice. Another is the seemingly odd (but very effective) choice of Ab melodic minor-7th mode (sometimes called G superlocrian). This scale contains the root, 3rd, and 7th of the G7 chord plus that altered 5ths (b5 and #5) and 9ths (b9 and #9). When starting on G this scale is spelled G, Ab, Bb (A#), Cb (B), Db (C#), Eb (D#), F, G. Still another choice is the half/whole diminished scale starting on G: G, Ab, Bb, B, C#, D, E, F, G, which contains both altered 9ths (Ab, Bb/A#) and the enharmonic of the the b5 (C#/Db). The use of altered tones provide an introduction to a concept sometimes known as playing "outside". This concept of playing outside can be taken to extreme where the scale choice purposely conflicts with the prevailing chord. In these examples the "outside" quality is more mild, providing some tension that is resolved in the change to the I chord.

The V7 chord with the 5th lowered is an interesting chord structure. The chord G7b5 is spelled G, B, Db, F. As it turns out, that is the enharmonic spelling of another chord of the same structure whose root is a tritone away from G (say what?) Yes, a G7b5 contains the same notes (enharmonically) as Db7b5 which is spelled Db, F, Abb (G), and Cb (B).

Since these two chords are enharmonically equivalent, the notion of substituting a Db7 type chord for a G7 type chord has been expanded to include several chords from the Db7 family to be used as substitutes for the G7 in the II-V-I chord progression. When the Db7 is substituted for G7 the progression becomes Dm7-Db7-Cma7 which is analyzed as II-bII-I. This technique is known as "tritone substitution". This chord substitution technique is, of course, available to those who are playing the chords but it can also be used by someone who is playing a single line improvisation.

Below are some examples of these ideas.

b9 and #9

[insert example of II-V-I pattern using b9, #9]

b5 and #5

[insert example of II-V-I pattern using b5, #5]

tritone substitution

[insert example of II-V-I pattern with tritone substitution]


Is this really improvising?

Indeed, I am suggesting that the improvising musician doesn't simply create a ad lib solo without first preparing for the musical situations that will be encountered during the solo section, i.e. the chord changes and the implied scale choices. The improvising musician needs to have technical command of several scales and know sound of those scales in their mind's ear. Even a collection of certified "hip" licks might be at the tip of one's fingers. So, is this really improvising? It's true that if you prepare for the improvisation with the techniques described here that you would be 'qualified' to play in a uncreative pattern oriented manner that is lacking in musical spirit, we've all heard that sound. But there isn't any reason that being prepared should result in a lack of creativity. I find that being prepared for the situation is liberating, I can go outside on a limb if I want because I'm confident I can find my way back inside the chord changes if I get in trouble. And if I want to play inside, I'm confident that I won't accidentally play any clams.

I remember attending a music education conference several years ago where the pianist Mike Garson was performing/lecturing. He told a story of when he lived outside of London and rode the train into the city. A classical viola player rode the same train and they would talk. The violist was curious about improvisation and asked Garson how long would it take the violist to learn to improvise well, as this wasn't something that he was used to doing on his instrument. Garson, who measures practice time in 100 hour blocks (i.e. "it will probably take x hundred hours to do this, x hundred to do that") outlined a practice routine for the violist and after a week or so the violist confessed that he wasn't really willing to put in that kind of effort.

There is no magic pill.

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©2002 Mike Sult