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Lesson 12 - Modes and modal chords

The use of modes and chords derived from modes has become progressively more common among modern jazz players. The most simple way to think of modes is to derive them from the C major scale. The C major scale has seven different notes, and you can play the scale starting on any of its seven notes. So there's a C major scale that starts on C, one on D, one on E, and so on. The seven modes have Greek names. A mnemonic trick to help you remember the names of the modes is "I Don't Play Like My Aunt Lucy". In the following table you can see the seven modes derived from the C major scale. You can also see the chord that is derived from the root. 3rd, 5th, and 7th of each mode.

The C major scale and its modes
mode name chord 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C ionian c d e f g a b c
D dorian Dm7 d e f g a b c d
E phrygian Em7 e f g a b c d e
F lydian FΔ#4 f g a b c d e f
G mixolydian G7 g a b c d e f g
A aeolian Am7 a b c d e f g a
B locrian b c d e f g a b
Modes and their intervals
mode name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
ionian 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
dorian 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 8
phrygian 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
lydian 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7 8
mixolydian 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7 8
aeolian 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8
locrian 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7 8
Modes and their tones starting on root c
mode name 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C ionian c d e f g a b c
C dorian c d eb f g a bb c
C phrygian c db eb f g ab bb c
C lydian c d e f# g a b c
C mixolydian c d e f g a bb c
C aeolian c d eb f g ab bb c
C locrian c db eb f gb ab bb c

Notice that the ionian mode is a standard major scale and the aeolian mode is a natural minor.

It's effective to think in terms of "modes" because you can think "root". For instance, if you have a II-V-I in the key of C. You can solo in the C major key over the entire progression, but you can also think "dorian" over the II-chord, "mixolydian" over the V-chord and "ionian" over the I-chord, so D dorian over Dm7, G mixolydian over G7, and C ionian over CΔ.

Modes can be used as a basis for composition to produce fresh, innovative sounds. The dorian mode especially, has come into prominence in modern compositions.

Each mode has improvisational uses as well. The ionian mode can be used against a I chord (C ionian against CΔ), the dorian mode against the II chord (D dorian against Dm7), the phrygian mode against a III chord (E phrygian against Em7), a lydian mode against a IV chord (F lydian against FΔ#4), a mixolydian against a V chord (G mixolydian against G7), an aeolian against a VI chord (A aeolian against Am7), and a locrian mode against a VII chord (B locrian against BØ).

This modal approach to improvisation is a very useful tool, especially in dealing with isolated chords.

The modes can also be used against other than the chords mentioned above. The dorian mode has two "blues notes" (b3 and b7) and consequently is very effective against a dominant seventh chord as well as a minor seventh.

By analyzing the characteristics of each mode, certain "modal chords" can be formulated. The ionian, dorian, and mixolydian modes provide no new chordal types than have already been shown. The lydian mode has a characteristic sharped fourth degree which can create a maj7(#11) or maj7(b5). The phrygian mode is characterized by a flatted second, third, sixth, and seventh degree. The phrygian mode can create min7(b9), and min7(#5) or min7(b13). The aeolian mode also can create a m7(#5) or m7(b13). The locrian mode produces Ø(b9) as well as the m7(#5) and m7(b13). These "modal chords" are not in common use and belong more to the realm of theory rather than practice. However, the Δ(b5) or Δ(#11) is used in more progressive compositions and is sometimes designated as C(lyd), D(lyd), etc. Abbreviations such as E(phr) or D(dor) are also used but they indicate the mode (phrygian or dorian) to be used in improvisation over a minor seventh.

The melodic elements are indicated more strongly than the harmonic aspects by this kind of abbreviation.

Modes and modal chords


  1. Play the following progressions.
  2. Analyze each progression and determine key centers.
  3. Practice soloing ever these chord sequences by using a tape recorder to make a rhythm track or have a friend play the progression while you solo.

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