By Saul Richardson.
In this article I will compare two different ways of presenting and teaching modes to students for improvisation. The first is the common method in which we teach where modes come from. The second, and the more useful for the improviser, is what modes do.
Modes are different ways of playing the same scale. The Ionian mode, the first mode, is the normal major scale, starting on the tonic and moving up diatonically through the octave. The Dorian, the second mode, starts on the second note of the original major scale and moves up diatonically an octave. And so on through Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.
This is where they come from, but that is not particularly useful for most improvisers in practice. It is useful to know that, for instance, G Major, A Dorian, B Phrygian, D Mixolydian all share the same key signature. But many students waste a lot of time frantically trying to calculate backwards and forwards: “A Dorian is the second mode so I play G major…”, and so on. But most of the time this has little to do with how modes are used in improvisation.
The second way of thinking about modes is in relation to what they actually do. A Mixolydian is a major scale with the 7th note flattened. Dorian has a flat 3rd and a flat 7th:
Major 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Mixolydian 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 8
Dorian 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7, 8
Aeolian 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 8
Phrygian 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7, 8
Locrian 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7, 8
Lydian 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7, 8
This allows us to associate various modes with chord types and tonalities. Some are minor, in that they have a flat 3rd. These will “go”, with varying degrees of dissonance or consonance with minor types of chord. Mixolydian “goes” with dominant family chords, which like the scale have a major 3rd and a flat 7th in them.
This holds for vertical approaches to playing (“running chord changes”) or modal playing (a single chord for an extended time).
This is a useful way to understand modes and to practice them too. Students can practice playing them all, one after the other, from a single root note.
It is important to know where modes come from, and certainly useful to be able to play through the various modes of a single key. But for the improviser it is usually far more useful to understand what they do and how they fit with various types of chord. Understanding how manipulating different notes in a scale alters their characteristics is powerful and useful for the student of improvisation.