The emotional quality of the tune we are playing is fundamentally built on it's mode. You are probably familiar with the Major scale, known more technically as Ionian Mode. There are actually 7 different modes, each which are based off that fundamental major scale.

The 7 modes of the major scale are:

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phrygian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Lydian

Let's look into where they come from:

Major Modes are based on the Major Scale

The modes of the major scale, at its most simple, are scales built off the notes of the major scale, but starting on different root notes.

Modes can be based on any of the 12 major key centers, but to make it easy to conceptualize, we will present them all in the key of C.

Here’s the C-Major scale:

The major scale starts on its root C and ends on the C an octave higher. That scale can be repeated endlessly up and down, at least to the extent your instrument can play.

Although the major scale is typically played from root to root, it technically has no boundaries. You could play the same notes of the scale starting and ending on G, A, E or any other of its notes instead.

As such, one major scale can actually create 7 different scales with the same notes. Those scales are called modes, and each of them has a unique name and sound.

Breakdown of notes in the C Major Scale

Make Jazz Chords from Each Mode.

Classical harmony uses 3-note chords, where jazz is built on 4-note chords. To build a chord, select your mode and your root note. Starting on the root note, move up the scale, selecting every other note on the way until you have 4 notes. I’ve bolded them in the diagram above.

In Ionian mode, the root chord is constructed as follows. In this case, it produces a C major seventh chord.

Following the same pattern, you can build an E minor seventh chord as the root of the E Phrygian mode.

Notice that the root chord can take on a different chord quality — major, minor, dominant or half-diminished based on the intervals of the specific mode you select as the basis.

Building 2-5-1 Progression in each Mode

The 2-5-1 progression is the most fundamental and important chord progression in jazz. Knowing your 2-5-1 progressions in all major keys (Ionian Mode) is a bedrock foundation for any jazz musician.

By building that 2-5-1 progression in C Ionian mode, you start by building a chord with the 2nd note of the scale, D, as the root. You then repeat that for the chord on the 5th note, and then on the 1st note. By doing so, you use all 7 notes of the scale in a way the drives you back home to the tonic chord.

This creates the following 2-5-1 progression: ii min - V dominant - I major, or simply: ii-V-I.

In addition to mastering these major (Ionian) ii-V-I progressions in all keys, jazz musicians will also learn the minor variation, which is built on the Aeolian mode: ii minor 7 flat 5 - V dominant - i minor, or: ii7b5-V7-i.

Here’s how that looks in A Aeolian mode:

Note the dominant V chord, when it would otherwise diatonically be minor 7th. The dominant chord is used in practice to create a stronger cadence, though that isn't a hard and fast rule.

Knowing both your major ii-V-I and your minor ii7b5-V-i will likely be all you need to be a quite accomplished jazz musician. In fact, it’s rare to see musicians spend time expanding beyond those. But, if you aspire to join the ranks of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea or Jacob Collier, you may enjoy building 2-5-1’s in each of the 7 modes.

Why not just think “C Major?”

So, if the notes are the same between all 7 modes, which means the chords are the same, why not just think “C Major” all the time?

The truth is (and don’t tell my snobby jazz friends) a lot of the time you can. While its most important to recognize the main tonality of the song, C major vs. the relative A minor, for example, you can do quite well improvising by simply thinking “all white notes”... aka, C.

But, there are a few reasons you should think about modes instead.

Go Back to your Roots.

When playing in any mode... even if you are just thinking “play C major” you must remember where “home” is and improvise lines that journey from home, and bring you back again.

For that reason, it’s vital to understand the overall tonality of the song you are playing. If you are playing a minor song in D Dorian, you should aim to base your resolutions around a root of D minor.

“Avoid Notes”

Perhaps the biggest problem with thinking “play C major” is “avoid notes.” These are notes in the scale that clash with the chord you are currently playing. If you just think “play C major” all the time it’s easy to create harsh sounding lines with unpleasant dissonance.

Each chord of your piece has “avoid notes” within its mode. As you play, you need to be conscious of those notes so you can... well... avoid them.

(Aside. There’s always a time and place to break the rules. These “avoid notes” are often employed intentionally to create tension. Or, used as a passing note, the dissonance is hardly noticeable. For this reason, I very much agree with Mark Levine’s renaming of “avoid notes” as “handle with care notes.”)

Avoid notes are most effectively memorized. But, you can calculate them by taking any note of your chord and looking at the note that is a minor-ninth above it. If that note falls in your scale, then be careful playing it over the chord.

Example: In C major, be careful around the “F,” as it’s a minor-ninth above the third of the chord, E.

Modal Mood

The last reason to avoid thinking “play C Major” is because you may have intentionally chosen a mode based on the mood it evokes.

For example, the Lydian mode has a dreamy, floating quality to it, which is uplifting and rejuvenating. As such, it was the mode John Williams chose for the famous Flying theme in E.T.

Modes

Let’s break down each of the modes individually. For each of them listed below, I’ll identifying their notes, chord tonality, and list a few example songs you may know in that mode.

For the following section I’ve broken away from thinking about all white notes. Instead, I’ve opted to keep the root of C the same throughout. I encourage you to play through each of the modes on your instrument, and listen to the emotional differences between them. I find that easier to comprehend if you keep the root the same.

Ionian Mode

Perhaps the most famous of all the modes, Ionian, is also known as the Major Scale. It’s bright, sunny and familiar sounding. It’s the scale Maria made famous in The Sound of Music ... “Doe, a deer...”

  • Root: Major 7th Chord
  • Dominant: Dominant 7th Chord
  • Examples
    • Let it Be - Beatles
    • Brown Eyed Girl - Van Morrison
    • Ode to Joy - Symphony #9 - Beethoven

Dorian

The dorian mode is characterized by a flat-3 and flat-7. It’s a brighter sounding minor tonality, compared to the common relative minor Aeolian mode.

  • Tonic: Minor 7th Chord
  • Dominant: Minor 7th Chord
  • Examples
    • A Horse with No Name - America
    • Eleanor Rigby - Beatles
    • Riders on the Storm - The Doors

Phrygian

The phrygian mode has a flat-2, flat-3, flat-6 and flat-7. It has a bit of a middle-eastern or Egyptian flair to my ear.

  • Tonic: Minor 7th Chord
  • Dominant: Half Diminished Chord
  • Examples
    • White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane
    • Space Oddity - David Bowie (intro only)

Lydian

Lydian, with it’s sharp-4, is one of my favorites to play. It’s dreamy feeling and the resolution to the major I chord is gentle, almost as if it’s affected by less gravity.

  • Tonic: Major 7th Chord
  • Dominant: Major 7th Chord
  • Examples
    • Theme from The Simpsons
    • Theme from The Jetsons
    • E.T. Flying Theme - John Williams

Mixolydian

The Mixolydian mode is a favorite of blues artists. It’s flat-7th scale degree makes the resolution always feel a bit unsettled.

  • Tonic: Dominant 7th Chord
  • Dominant: Minor 7th Chord
  • Examples
    • Norwegian Wood - Beatles
    • Sweet Child O’ Mine - Guns ’n Roses

Aeolian

In school I was taught Aeolian as the “relative minor” key. It’s the traditional minor key used in classical music, and has a sad, depressing and sometimes angry quality.

It’s notes are the same as the Natural Minor Scale, with a flat-3, flat-6 and flat-7.

  • Tonic: Minor 7th Chord
  • Dominant: Minor 7th Chord
  • Examples
    • Losing My Religion - R.E.M.
    • You Give Love a Bad Name - Bon Jovi
    • All Along the Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix

Locrian

The Locrian is used in fleeting angry or evil sounding moments. It’s deeply unsettling and unstable, and the root has no feeling of “home.”

It does give a unique dissonant quality that is useful in solo passages, but I’ve never found a song written with Locrian as it’s primary mode.

It contains the flat-2, flat-3, flat-5, flat-6 and flat-7, and has a most unsettling half-diminished chord as it’s tonic.

  • Tonic: Half Diminished Chord
  • Dominant: Major 7th Chord
  • Examples
    • Message me if you know any...

Relationship to the Circle of Fifths

Lastly, because jazz music often changes it’s tonality throughout the piece, switching key centers as the chords progress, you often shift between modes as well. (Especially in a sub-genre of jazz called... wait for it... “modal jazz.”)

Much like chords move around the circle of fifths, feeling brighter when you move clockwise, and darker counter-clockwise, modes work the same way.

To demonstrate this, by arranging the modes in order of the circle of fifths, you’ll see that at each step another flattened-note is added to the scale:

  • Lydian
  • Ionian
  • Mixolydian
  • Dorian
  • Aeolian
  • Phrygian
  • Locrian

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