Jazz Concepts: Scales & Modes Explained

What’s the difference between a scale and a mode, and does it matter? The answer is two-fold.
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WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SCALE AND A MODE, AND DOES IT matter? The answer is two-fold. Scales and modes might be irrelevant to your situation, if you’re just thumping out roots and playing bass on a need-to-know basis. On the other hand, you should learn about scales and modes if you want to understand how music works. What makes something sound happy, sad, aggressive, urbane, poignant, sexy, funny, funky, bluesy or romantic? A mastery of scales and modes gives you freedom to express yourself.

A scale is usually defined by a key signature or key center and has a tonic, or root—the home note that names the key signature. Most common scales (major, melodic minor, harmonic minor) use seven notes within the range of an octave, and there are 12 possible starting notes on which to build any scale. The major scale has seven modes, one for each of the scale’s seven tones.

Modes are the primordial ancestors of scales, and were in use hundreds of years before Johann Sebastian Bach and the Baroque masters codified our current well-tempered (equally divided) system of 12 key centers within an octave. The modern major/minor system of functional harmony dominated Baroque and Classical compositional styles for centuries.

Since the modes of our modern major scale were first used by the ancient Greeks and later by the Roman church, the names of these church modes reflect their Greek origins: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. Classical modal composition, informed by generations of functional harmony, became popular in the late 19th century with composers like Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Although their music had little in common with early Greek and Roman music, the use of static modal sounds became commonplace in the 20th century. In the post-bop jazz era of the 1950s, players used modes as extended sonic cushions, replacing the constraints of fast-moving chord progressions. Modern pop, jazz, rock, funk, and hip-hop music styles often incorporate elements of both modal and functional harmony.

The simple explanation? Modal music is characterized by extended periods of one tonal color, while in functional harmony, the tonal colors change; these changes can be analyzed by the function of each chord within a key signature or key center.

The seven modes of a major scale are generated by starting on each note of the scale. Here are all the modes of the C major scale, with the names of the notes and a typical chord symbol for each chord/scale sound:

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Many books and methods advocate practicing all of the modes in one key signature—for example, playing C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and B Locrian up and down the bass. This method emphasizes the sameness of the seven modes generated by one scale, but it does not focus on the tonal differences between modes.

Examples 1–7 show a different approach to practicing modes that highlights differences in tonal color, brightness, and darkness. This method uses all seven modes from the common starting tone C. In the following chart, I have noted the chord symbol that suggests the use of each mode, the name of the mode, and the parent major scale for each mode. Play through the exercises slowly or even out-of-time, and notice the differing tonal and emotional qualities that each mode creates.

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Understanding the moods and colors that modes create will help you use modal sounds in your bass lines and solos. Practice this modal exercise and you will improve your ability to hear and grab the “right” notes. As with all building blocks of music, modes are not something that you apply to your playing to magically become hip. Modes offer a glimpse into one of the mysteries of bass playing: Why does a sound make us feel a certain way?

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INFO

JOHN GOLDSBY

John Goldsby loves to talk about modes, scales, and all components of modern bass playing. Introduce yourself at johngoldsby.com.

Quiz Time!
Calling All Theory Nerds: Test Your Modal Knowledge

1.C Mixolydian is derived from which major scale?
2. What is the 3rd mode of an Ab major scale?
3.
The melody to Steppenwolf’s rock anthem, “Born to Be Wild,” uses which mode?
4.
The Miles Davis classic “So What” uses which two Dorian modes?
5. What is the 6th mode of the Gb major scale?
6. Which mode is a good choice to use over the F#m7b5 chord in the first four bars of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” [1964, Blue Note, Bob Cranshaw on bass]?
7.
In bars 5–8 of “Inner Urge,” which mode is a good choice over the Fmaj7#11 chord?
8.
The opening theme to The Simpsons uses which mode?
9.
You’re playing a wedding ceremony in Valencia, Spain, and the bandleader turns to you and says, “We need a long, improvised bass solo while the grandmother walks down the aisle— something Spanish-sounding and sad, like “Concierto de Aranjuez.” Which mode would you use?
10. Name all of the modes generated from the Eb major scale.

Quiz Time! Answers: 1. F major scale 2. C Phrygian 3. E Dorian 4. D Dorian and Eb Dorian 5.Eb Aeolian 6.F# Locrian 7.F Lydian 8. C Lydian 9. Phrygian 10.Eb Ionian, F Dorian, G Phrygian, Ab Lydian, Bb Mixolydian, C Aeolian, D Locrian

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