Play Like A Jazz Pianist (An Introduction To Modes)

Sam Vesely  /  Scales and Keys  /  UPDATED Jan 13, 2023

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Who’s ready for some jazz?!

Jazz music and jazz piano can be daunting for a lot of people. Sometimes it feels like there are no rules. You can just play anything and say, “Well that’s jazz!”

And while that might have some truth to it, it doesn’t really help you know where to start. That’s what today is all about. Sam is here to teach us about modes and how to use them to start playing and soloing like a jazz virtuoso!

If you haven’t met Sam yet, he’s the newest member of the Pianote team and has a university degree in jazz piano (fancy!). You can learn more about him, his likes and dislikes here. Needless to say, he’s the perfect person to teach this lesson.

Let’s start with the biggest question:

What the heck are modes?

Modes are types of scales that are super common in jazz piano. They are similar to major and minor scales, but they each have their own characteristic. You can call them modes OR scales, but they are most often called modes.

There are 7 modern modes, and each one has its own name (they are weird too) and its own pattern (of Whole-steps and Half-steps). But today we are only going to look at the 3 MOST common (and most useful) modes to get you started. It can take a little time to wrap your head around modes. We’ll do our best to make it as simple as possible, but if you have to go back and read something again don’t worry!

Modes are a BIG concept.

In my opinion, the easiest way to think about modes when you’re starting out is to look at them in relation to a key signature, and that’s what we’re going to do today. We’ll be in the key of F major. There is one black key (Bb) and the rest are white.

So in the key of F major, there are 7 notes. F-G-A-Bb-C-D-E. Here it is written out in the treble clef:

Every one of those notes has a mode build on it. So there is a mode (or scale) that USES the key signature of F major but STARTS on different notes. One mode will start on G, another will start on C, etc.

BUT the key signature DOESN’T change. No matter what note you start with, there is ONLY the Bb. That’s what gives the modes such a unique sound.

Don’t worry, we’ll break this down in detail below.

But let’s start with the FIRST note – F. If you know the F major scale, then I have some good news for you…

Mode #1 – The Ionian Mode

You already know the first mode!

That’s right, you already know a piano mode. The F Ionian mode is just another fancy way of saying F major.

So here is the F Ionian mode written out:

See how it’s exactly the same?! Cool huh 🙂

And just like major scales have a pattern, every mode has its own pattern. The Ionian mode has the same pattern as the major scale, which is:
W – W – H – W – W – W – H
One down, two to go.

Mode # 2 – The Dorian Mode

Now we get to see and hear how modes are kinda weird and funky. Earlier I said that modes begin on different notes of the scale. That’s what happens here.

The Dorian mode begins on the 2nd note of the scale. In this case, that’s a G. So the scale will go from G to G – BUT it will only use the notes of the F major scale. So it looks like this:

Take a second to look at the notes, and if you’re at your piano — play it. The notes are G-A-Bb-C-D-E-F. It’s like we’re playing an F major scale but we’re starting on the 2nd note instead of the 1st.

It has a really interesting sound – similar to a minor scale but not quite.

And even though we are still in the key of F, this mode is called the G Dorian mode, because it begins on a G.

The Dorian mode has its own pattern as well, which allows you to build a Dorian scale on ANY key. Its pattern is:

W – H – W – W – W – H – W

Now to the third and final mode we’ll look at today.

Mode # 3 – The Mixolydian Mode

I told you the modes had weird names.

Let’s do a quick recap. The Ionian mode begins on the 1st note of the major scale (F in this case) and the Dorian mode begins on the 2nd note of the major scale (G).

The Mixolydian mode begins on the 5th note of the major scale. Can you guess what note that is?

If you guessed C — you’re correct!

So the starting note for this mode (or scale) is C — BUT REMEMBER — we’re still only using the notes of the F Major scale. So our mode looks like this:

Play it! It’s CLOSE to a C major scale, but it has a Bb instead of a B. And because it begins and ends on a C it’s called the C Mixolydian mode.

If you want to think about it in terms of its pattern then it looks like this:

W – W – H – W – W – H – W

You can use these patterns to build modes on any key but as I said earlier, I think it helps to think about modes in relation to the major scale, at least to begin with. The Ionion is the same as the major scale, the Dorian is built from the 2nd note and the Mixolydian is built from the 5th note.

And it works in EVERY key signature. Let’s take C major for example. The C major scale is also the C Ionian mode. The 2nd note of C major is D. So the D Dorian mode is the notes D-E-F-G-A-B-C. It’s a D to D scale using only the notes of C major.

And finally, the 5th note of the C major scale is G. So the scale G-A-B-C-D-E-F (all white notes) is the G Mixolydian mode.

And now you might be thinking…

So what??!! How the heck does this help me?

I’m so glad you asked 🙂

Modes are amazing because you can use them to IMPROVISE and SOLO over different chords and chord progressions. Because the modes are built from different notes, you can use those modes to play over the top of their matching chords.

Let me show you.

The most common chord progression in jazz is the 2-5-1 progression. That means it uses chords built from the 2nd, 5th and 1st notes of the major scale. Click here for a full lesson on the 2-5-1.

In the key of F major, those chords are Gm, C, F. And because it’s jazz, we’ll add 7ths to each chord so they become Gm7, C7 (remember the Bb) and FMaj7. We have a full lesson on 7ths here if you’re not sure about the differences.

So we have chords staring on G, C, and F. And wouldn’t you know it — we have MODES starting on each of those notes as well! So we can use the modes we have learned and play them over the top of the chords.

Here it is in a very basic format (and a great way to start practicing):

Try playing through this a few times. The left hand is playing Gm7 in the 1st measure, C7 (using an inversion) in the second measure, and FMaj7 in the last measure.

Meanwhile, your right hand will play the G Dorian mode in measure 1, the C Mixolydian mode in measure 2, and the F Ionian mode in measure 3.

In this way you can see that the Dorian mode matches a minor 7th chord, the Mixolydian mode matches a dominant 7th chord, and the Ionian mode matches a Major 7th chord!

Now again, you might be thinking…

How is this different than just playing the F major scale?

It’s a great question. And honestly — it’s not much different here. The notes are still the same. You could play any pattern of the F major scale over this progression and it would sound good.

But here’s the thing…

Jazz piano likes to jump around key signatures!

In the example above, all the chords and notes are in F major, so it’s very safe. But in a REAL jazz song — you’ll find chords that don’t belong to the key signature.

For example, let’s look at Satin Doll – a jazz classic. Here are the first 2 lines:

If you look at the key signature you’ll see it’s in C major – no black keys. But look at the CHORDS.

There’s an A7 which has a C#. There’s also a D7, which has an F#. And then look at that Abm7 and Db7 in the last measure. Those are NOT in the key of C!

This is where modes are amazing. Because when you see a minor 7 chord (like Dm7, which is the same as D-7), you will be able to play the corresponding Dorian mode over the top of it (in this case, D Dorian). When you see a dominant 7 chord (like that G7) you can play a Mixolydian scale over the top (G Mixolydian).

So modes become super helpful when you want to improvise, solo and create melodies based on the CHORDS instead of the key signature.

This is a lot to take in…

I know that. And as I said at the start, don’t worry too much if you don’t get it all straight away. These are BIG musical concepts. But I wanted this to be a resource you could keep coming back to.

Just remember that modes are similar to scales — but a little bit different 😉

If you have questions PLEASE leave them in the comments below, and have fun practicing modes!

Lisa Witt has been teaching piano for more than 20 years and in that time has helped hundreds of students learn to play the songs they love. Lisa received classical piano training through the Royal Conservatory of Music, but she has since embraced popular music and playing by ear in order to accompany herself and others. Learn more about Lisa.

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