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In the mood for modes

Musicians throughout the centuries have been fascinated by modes, their unique structure and sound, and the opportunity for expressiveness they offer. From folk songs (Scarborough Fair) to pop music (Eleanor Rigby) to jazz (Maiden Uiyage), we have been intrigued by the mystery their distinctive elements create in our ear.

Jazz musicians especially embraced modal sounds in the 1960s, starting with the Miles Davis tune, So What, with its lack of traditional dominant chords and cadences.

Students continue to be both captivated and puzzled by modes. My experience, judging by questions posed to me in work- shops and clinics, is that many teachers go into too intense and complex an explanation when trying to teach the modes. Another problem lies in the tendency of students to rely on finding modes only on white keys, a correct but limiting technique.

In this article, I'd like to offer solutions for teaching the construction of modes, along with some ideas and hints for improvising with the modes. With the right approach, students can discover the intrinsic beautify and distinctive qualities of the modes and expand their jazz vocabulary.  

Constructing the modes

There are two simple ways to build modes on any key. One approach locates the half steps, and the other approach focuses on the key signature. Since Jazz musicians primarily use three modes when improvising, let's concentrate on the Dorian, Lydian, and Mixolydian.

1. Where the half steps are:

As we all know, scales are patterns of half steps and whole steps. A major scale has a half step between scale degrees 3 - 4 and 7 - 8.

Modes change where those half-steps are.

2. The 'key' to the modes:

Another way to create a mode is to begin on any key and use the same key signature as a major scale located a certain interval below. 

Improvising with the modes

Like any concept in jazz, the modes should not just exist on paper. For students to truly understand the modes, train their ears, and learn to apply this knowledge, they should play through the modes and practice employing them in their improvisations. The following section reviews the melodic and harmonic characteristics of the three modes constructed above, followed by some suggested practice steps to help students with beginning improvisation activities.

Dorian

Characteristics:

  • half steps between 2-3 and 6-7
  • same key signature as major scale whole step below
  • minor sound
  • NO dominant sound
  • NO leading tone
  • i   ii   III   IV   v   vi   VII

Practice and improv steps:
Using the example below with the left hand pattern, try these steps in the right hand:
  1. play ascending scale
  2. start at the top and descend
  3. start on different scale degrees, then go up or down
  4. use various broken (and blocked) intervals, especially 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths
  5. play triads in root position (perhaps as whole-notes: e m in m.l, E-flat in m. 2, etc. 
  6. play these triads in different inversions; listen to/ for the differences
  7. play these triads in different measures; listen to/ for the dissonances
  8. arpeggiate the triads, using quarter-quarter-half and half-quarter-quarter rhythms 

(Start with a moderate and steady tempo) 

 Lydian

Characteristics:

  • half steps between 4-5 and 7-8
  • same key signature as major scale perfect fourth below
  • major sound
  • no subdominant 
  • has a leading tone
  • I    II   iii   iv    V    vi   vii

Practice and improv steps:
Using the example below with the left hand pattern, try these steps in the right hand:
  1. play ascending scale
  2. start at the top and descend
  3. start on  different  scale degrees, then go up or down
  4. use various broken (and blocked) intervals, especially 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths
  5. play triads in root position (perhaps as whole-notes: D in m. l, E in m. 2, etc.)
  6. play these triads in different inversions; listen to/ for the differences
  7. play these triads in different measures; listen to/ for the dissonances
  8. arpeggiate the triads, using quarter-quarter-half and half-quarter-quarter rhythms 

Mixolydian 

Characteristics:

  • half steps between 3-4 and 6-7
  • same key signature as major scale perfect fifth below
  • major sound
  • NO dominant
  • NO leading tone
  • I    ii    iii     IV   v    vi    VI

Practice and improv steps:

Using the example below with the left hand pattern, try these steps in the right hand:

  1. play ascending scale
  2. start at the top and descend
  3. start on different scale degrees, then go up or down
  4. use various broken (and blocked) intervals, especially 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths
  5. play triads in root position (perhaps as whole-notes: G in m. l, F in m. 2, etc.)
  6. play these triads in different inversions; listen to/ for the differences
  7. play these triads in different measures; listen to/ for the dissonances
  8. arpeggiate the triads, using quarter-quarter-half and half-quarter-quarter rhythms 

Additional music for the performance and study of modes

 

Ten Fingers ala Mode by Arthur Frackenpohl (Hal Leonard) 

Elementary. Wonderfully creative modal solos including: Ionian Idea, Aeolian Air, Phrygian Frolic, Lydian Lullaby, Mixolydian Minuet.

Modal Expressions by Robert D. Vandall (Alfred)

Intermediate. Intended as a precursor for students to the well- loved collection "Modes and Moods," this set of two-page solos is full of contrasts. All works are played across the white keys with no accidentals. Titles include: Ionian Fanfare, *Dorian Taran- tella, Silhouettes (Phrygian), Peace (Lydian), Good Times (Mixolydian), Aeolian Minuet, and *Locrian Toccatina.
* denotes National Federation Selection 2004·2006

Modes and Moods by Robert D . Vandall (Alfred)

Intermediate. Seven impressive piano solos, one in each mode. Pastorale, Jazzy, Reveler's Dance, Lydian Nocturne, Energized, Regrets, and Turbulence 

Grecian Pillars by Wynne-Anne Rossi (Self published - available at www.rossi-music.com or www.pianoatpepper.com, item 5928761) 

Early Advanced.

Miles of Modes: Volume 116 of Aebersold Jazz (Jamey Abersold Jazz) 2 CDs and book.

What do you play when you have one chord for 8 or 16 bars? The Modal Jazz era presented new challenges for improvisers, spawning a fruitful period rich in new ideas, con- cepts, and harmonic exploration. This in-depth study includes several "Standard" forms and important practice tracks; many of which are "period accurate," and others of a more contemporary nature. These practice tracks are designed to foster understand- ing, facility, and familiarity. Many of the first tracks are slow, making them perfect for beginners. Intermediate and advanced players will enjoy the opportunity to double-time and experi- ment with an endless array of chord/ scale substitutions over the otherwise simple tracks, which include a rhythm section. For the intermediate-advancing jazz student, these books contain a great deal of solid pedagogy. 

Modes and Their Use in Jazz by Lee Evans (Hal Leonard)

This unique book provides pianists (and all instrumentalists) with a comprehensive view of diatonic modes - Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian - the way they may be identified in all keys, developing a working knowledge in non-jazz and jazz contexts. Complete jazz pieces in the various modes. Many modal exercises.

Twelve Pieces in Folk Modes by Vladimir Blok (Frederick Harris) 

Early Intermediate. The melodies of these pieces are based on traditional modes used in Russian folk songs. The moods range from a charming Lullaby and a Melancholy Song to a lively Humoresque. With changing meters, a wide keyboard range, changes in texture and tonal centers, and varied accompaniment styles, this delightful collection offers students a wide variety of challenges.

Alfred's Basic Piano Course - Fun with Modes by Willard Palmer, Morton Manus, Amanda Vick Lethco (Alfred) 

Elementary. This 32-page book has a wide variety of appealing material that students will learn with ease. All piano students should know about the modes that make uniquely beautiful melodies and harmonies. May be used after page 16 of Level 3 of Alfred's Basic Piano Library or with any other method.

Improvisation for Keyboard (method using modes) by Jack Wheaton (Alfred)

A successful method developed at the Grove School of Music. Through the use of modes, the student makes new melodies and harmonies in jazz and rock styles. This book prepares keyboard players to improvise through analysis of the 12 basic modes and scales used in improvisation, chords, progressions, voicings, left- hand accompaniment patterns, right-hand comping and much more.

Jazz Piano Scales & Modes by Misha Stefanuk (Mel Bay) 

Following the best-selling Jazz Piano Chords, this informative volume provides a scale reference and practice tool for any pianist wanting to learn to play jazz. Starts with diatonic and pentatonic scales, followed by more advanced symmetrical and exotic scales. The following discussion of polytonality, alternat- ing scales, using scales with chords, and scale chords represents the dominating concepts of contemporary jazz. The book ends with extensive 12-key libraries of scales, and scales arranged by chords. Learning to use these scales will help any pianist play with more tonal and modal variety, color, freedom, and interest.

Jazz Piano Vocabulary by Roberta Picket (Muse-Eek Publishing) 

Vol. 1 - The Major Scale

Vol. 2 - The Dorian Mode

Vol. 3 - The Phyrgian Mode

Vol. 4 - The Lydian Mode

Vol. 5 - The Mixolydian Mode 

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