A musical way to learn modes

Have you learned your modes yet?

If so, then you know how useful they are to have under our fingertips.

And if not, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Modes are a huge stumbling block for most aspiring jazz pianists and there are some very specific reasons for this. However, the more you understand why you haven’t learned them yet, the easier they’ll become to learn.

Modes aren’t difficult; they’re just taught in a way that makes them difficult.

For starters, there’s a huge disconnect between the way modes are usually taught to beginners, and the way they’re used musically.

A typical explanation of the Dorian Mode, for example, usually goes like this:

“Take any major scale and begin on the second scale degree.”


“Ask yourself what major scale is a whole step lower, and then play that scale but beginning on the note you started with.”

Let’s try to figure out the D Dorian Mode by using the two statements given above:

With the first statement, we’d take a C major scale and begin on the second scale degree, D. This is fine, but it doesn’t help us in actual practice. That’s why the second statement exists.

By following the second statement, we’d reason that C is a whole step lower than D, so we’d play a C major scale starting on D. (It’s the way to use the first statement in actual practice.)

Do you see why these methods are too complex? While they are theoretically correct, they’re like giving someone directions to your office suite by saying “Get in the elevator and take it to the top floor. Then, come back down to the 8th floor.”

It’s too roundabout for actual practice, and way to difficult to do with a fast-moving chord progression. After all, who wants to think about C when we’re playing D?

Can you imagine the mental gyrations we’d have to go through when playing “Autumn Leaves” using this method??? “OK, the first chord is A minor, so I can use an A Dorian mode which is a G major scale but beginning on A. Now, I’ll use a D Mixolydian mode on the D7 chord in the second measure, which will be a major scale located a perfect 5th lower, but using D as the tonic. And so on and so on…” (And this was just for the first few seconds of the tune!

A simpler and more musical way is to understand how each mode is constructed in relation to the underlying harmony.

So instead of thinking about C at all, let’s view the D Dorian Mode in relation to a D minor chord. Dorian is a minor scale, and the mode itself is very similar to the D Natural Minor Scale. The only difference is that the 6th scale degree is a B in the Dorian Mode, instead of the Bb in the Natural Minor Scale. (Yes, “modes” are simply alternative scales.)

If we take the D Natural Minor Scale: D E F G A Bb C D

And raise the 6th scale degree by a half-step, we get the D Dorian Mode:



The key here is to spend some time going back and forth between these two minor scales, while listening to the big difference in sound quality this raised 6th scale degree makes. To my ears, the Natural Minor sounds more subdued while the Dorian sounds brighter. (Incidentally, Paul McCartney brilliantly alternated between the Dorian and Natural Minor scales in his song “Eleanor Rigby.” Check it out.)

If you really want to get over the “learn your modes” learning curve, spend some time with each mode while thinking of it in the way I’ve outlined here. Yes, study them in theoretically a bit, and then enjoy spending some “quality time” with each of them in this way.

After a while, they become as easy to identify and use as the major scales are.

Each mode has its own unique character, and by discovering them, you’ll be learning your modes in a practical, musical way.

After all, which is more fun? Memorizing the names of 144 modes in a roundabout, non-musical way? OR using each one right away, by tapping into its unique character to inspire you as you improvise?

For me, there’s no comparison.

Have fun, and good luck. It’s about enjoying the journey and “letting the music flow!”


PS – If you’d like to see a performance which uses modes over a great jazz standard, check out my new Journey Through The Real Book video, in which I play Wayne Shorter’s 1960s classic “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” This is one of the most-loved Wayne Shorter tunes. (And it’s hard for me to believe I’m already up to # 116!)

Journey Through The Real Book #116: Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum

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