A mode of improvisation

The Modes – An alternative to Major and Minor!

what-brass-players-want-mode-of-improvisation

The modal system comes before the major and minor scales that we regularly use today.  They are often a little bit neglected, which is a real shame as they can add a real touch of colour to any music that you write and can be a great tool for improvisation.

Quite often you may well come across some music that sounds a little bit unusual and this may well be because modal melodies, or modal harmonies, have been used.

The modes that we will look at include those that are based on the modern church modal system.  All of the modes are based on just the white notes of the piano.  For example, the Ionian mode would start on C and go up to the C an octave higher using only the white notes.  The Dorian would use the notes from D up to D an octave higher using only the white notes on the piano.  The resulting pattern of semitones and tones could then be transposed up and down so that the mode can be started on different pitches.  The table below shows the names and patterns of the different modes with their original starting notes:

Mode               Notes                           Interval Pattern
Ionian               C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C         T,T,s,T,T,T,s
Dorian              D,E,F,G,A,B,C,D         T,sT,T,T,s,T
Phrygian          E,F,G,A,B,C,D,E          s,T,T,T,s,T,T
Lydian              F,G,A,B,C,D,E,F          T,T,T,s,T,T,s
Mixolydian      G,A,B,C,D,E,F,G         T,T,s,T,T,s,T
Aeolian             A,B,C,D,E,F,G,A         T,s,T,T,s,T,T
Locrian             B,C,D,E,F,G,A,B          s,T,T,s,T,T,T

When these are transposed up or down in pitch the intervals maintain their distances so when the Dorian is started on a different note it will contain sharps or flats.

dorian on D and EThe Ionian mode is known as the major mode and the notes used are the same as those in the C Major scale.  The Aeolian mode is known as the minor mode and uses the same notes as the A natural minor scale. (Please note that this is not melodic or harmonic and uses no chromatic or raised notes!)

Using the Modes

what-brass-players-want-mode-of-improvisationKnowing these mode will help you to be able to improvise more easily over a given chord progression as the notes within each mode will fit with the given chords.  Major chords are always shown in upper case letters and minor chords are always shown using lower case letters.  This makes it easy to see at a glance whether you are looking at a major or minor chord.  In a piece of music that is in a major key it is most likely that the common chords used will be chords I, IV, V, ii, vi and iii.  Chord vii is a diminished chord and is often thought of as an extension to chord 5.  (Chord vii contains two of the notes that are in chord V as well as its 7th.  When combined together chords V and vii form the chord V7.)

When you see the chord C you can improvise over it using the following notes:

  • Ionian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Ionian scale)
  • Using the notes of the major pentatonic scale starting on C (This is made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th notes of the Ionian scale)

ionianWhen you see the chord F written, you can improvise using the following patterns:

  • Lydian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Lydian scale)
  • Using the notes of the major pentatonic scale starting on F (This is made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th note of the Lydian scale)

lydianWhen you see the chord G written, you can improvise using the following patterns:

  • Mixolydian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Mixolydian scale)
  • Using the notes of the major pentatonic scale starting on G (This is made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th note of the Mixolydian scale)

mixolydianIf you see the chord Dm written, you can improvise using the following patterns:

  • Dorian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Dorian scale)
  • Using the notes of the minor pentatonic scale starting on D (This is made up of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th note of the Dorian scale)

DorianIf you see the chord Em written, you can improvise using the following patterns:

  • Phrygian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Phrygian scale)
  • Using the notes of the minor pentatonic scale starting on E (This is made up of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th note of the Phrygian scale)

phrygianIf you see the chord Am written, you can improvise using the following patterns:

  • Aeolian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Aeolian scale)
  • Using the notes of the minor pentatonic scale starting on A (This is made up of the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th note of the Aeolian scale)

aeolianIf you see the chord B dim written, you can improvise using the following patterns:

  • Locrian mode notes
  • Arpeggio notes (Notes 1, 3 and 5 of the Locrian scale)
  • Using the notes of the diminished pentatonic scale starting on B (This is made up of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th note of the Locrian scale)

locrianBeing a classically trained tuba player was initially something that made me feel that improvisation and taking the safety net away (in the form of printed notes) was something that filled me with dread.  The thing to remember is that it is always possible to develop new skills and your starting point should never really be a hindrance to you realising what you want to achieve.  Using the methods given above provides a useful safety net and a really good starting point for developing your own musical voice.  Being able to improvise around the modes will help you to remember what they are, but more importantly will give you a real chance to understand and identify them aurally.

The most important thing is to keep listening and find those artists that really speak to you.  For me, Sam Pilafian got me into the idea of improvising and thinking about music in a completely different way.  This then led me onto listening much more to Oystein Baadsvik and also Ray Draper.  I have been fortunate to attend a workshop with Scott Stroman and have been lucky enough to have a number of workshops that I have run hosted by Greg Abate.  The thing that I have noticed about all of these wonderful musicians is their attention to detail and their true understanding of the music that they are playing.  This sort of true understanding can only really come from listening, listening and more listening.

what-brass-players-want-mode-of-improvisationImprovising and using modes can be something that you can do straight away to give you a broader musical voice.  Getting hold of a backing track is very easy and it is possible to just type into any search engine “free backing track” and a whole host of free to use tracks are available to play along to. (Obviously these will need to be used non-commercially unless otherwise stated!)

Do get in touch to let me know if you have found any of the above information useful, or simply if you would like to have any further information.  Feel free to comment below, or click here to contact me directly.

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