Let’s talk about utilizing modes this time as I was asked to write on this sometime ago. I actually wrote a little about modes before which you can check out at the Lessons section. It’s nice to revisit this topic again in a not so lesson-y way so here it goes:

I didn’t know the modes until some years ago but I knew how chords can be formed from scales. Let’s say a C major scale. C E G forms a C chord, D F A forms a D minor chord i.e. the notes in the scale form chords when stacked in thirds. Knowing this, if I had a chord progression consisting of chords formed from this one scale, I could play through the chords using this one scale and not be ‘wrong’. But wait, there’s more.

I couldn’t just play through the chord changes just like that just because they are all formed using the same scale. I need to consider the chord tones which are notes that make up a chord. While soloing, chord tones are the best notes to hang on to because they are ‘correct’. Some non chord tones are cool to hang on to but be careful because some are not so pleasant.

I found out later on the internet that there were things called Dorian, Lydian and all that funny names and after giving these things a better look, I realized that playing a C major scale over a D minor chord actually is a scale, or in my opinion the more academic way of calling it, a mode on its own. This scale, or mode, is called D Dorian. Since there are 7 chords in a major scale, that means there are also 7 modes in a major scale. I memorized what these modes are and what I realized next was quite interesting.

Assuming I am soloing over a progression with only 1 chord, let’s say that chord is Dm, what scale or mode should I use? I can use the D minor scale which is also called D Aeolian which is the obvious first choice since playing a minor scale over a minor chord can’t be wrong. Wait, knowing my modes I know I can also play D Dorian or D Phrygian as well since both these modes correspond to a Dm chord. From there things become open ended.

Take another example, now we have the classic CM7 Am7 Dm7 G7. Looking at these chords alone, we can play using a C major scale over them no problem. If we were to put it in modes corresponding to the chords then that would be C Ionian, A Aeolian, D Dorian and G Mixolydian. Can we play other modes instead? Theoretically speaking yes. C Lydian, A Dorian, D Phrygian and G Lydian Dominant (the Lydian Dominant is a mode from the melodic minor scale, not major scale) can work.

So far the modes mentioned are all of the same root notes consisting of chords tones with the corresponding chords. Can we play something different? Something out? Something… Wrong? Yes we can but always be careful. For example, playing a Db major scale over a C major chord. In theory, this is wrong but as long as we know how to phrase over it, this ‘wrong’ choice of scale can have a very interesting effect which is prominent in jazz. On the other hand, playing the ‘correct’ scale to certain chords can sound horrible with bad phrasing.

I do not know all the modes out there and I don’t even use all the modes that I know. I still suck at Db major and Gb major, not to mention all the harmonic and melodic minor scales. It’s all about context. If I were to take an improvised solo at a pop gig, I would stick to the ‘correct’ stuff i.e. playing diatonically. When it comes to a jazz or fusion gig though, I would be more adventurous by applying different scales over chords BUT still having a firm grasp of where the chord tones are. There are also times when the chord changes are too hard so I just play random things until I hit a familiar progression (playing fast over the difficult changes helps a lot!). In my opinion, modes are easy on paper but utilizing it in our playing is another thing altogether. We do not want to turn our playing into solving complex physics equation e.g. OMG here comes the Em chord I better prepare my E Aeolian then I’m gonna use my B harmonic minor to create an E Dorian with a #4 then play an Eb minor pentatonic to bring things outside etc. etc.. It’s good to know modes but do not overthink it while playing and to not overthink requires tremendous amount of practice. Meh music is hard.


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