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Say I'm playing along to a jam track in C major. From my understanding, this means that C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian etc. would work.

My question is: How do I bring out the flavor/characteristic of the specific mode? For example, if I wanna make my solo feel sinister, I would choose B Locrian. However, this doesn't work, as I'm still only playing the notes in C major/ionian.

Is it because that I in the given case would have to play C Locrian and not B Locrian?

And another question: To make my solos sound better, it seems that I need to emphasize the chord that is being played by playing a note from the given chord (so if D major is playing, I would play either D, F# or A). How do I achieve this effect if the chord is not a simple triad? For example, if the chord is suspended, augmented, diminished, extended etc?

Thanks in advance!

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A full backing track has SO much more harmonic power, with bass and harmony instruments, it rules and bulldozes over your feeble little solo notes. Mode is not just a set of note names, because one of the notes is the King, home note, harmonic center of universe, the tonic. C Ionian and D Dorian have all the same notes, but a different center note.

Mode = TONIC + intervals around it

The feeling of a mode comes from the combination of all pitches and sounds the listener hears, the "total music", which is also affected by the rhythmic placement of notes in relation to a pulse/meter. Even unpitched noises or clicks can affect the harmonic perception and weight of pitched notes, if the clicks create a rhythmic pulse grid, suggesting where the "one" is rhythmically. If your rhythmic centerpoint moves, it might move the tonal centerpoint as well! Beginners sometimes incorrectly think that to establish a modal feeling it's enough to select the right set of notes, but that's not true at all. HOW and WHEN you play the notes is extremely important, and so is what OTHER instruments are playing.

The lowest note i.e. bass is a very powerful factor in tonic-setting. If the bass plays C all the time, it will almost certainly make C the tonic note, and any modal feeling that's built by other notes above the C will be C something.

If the backing track is playing/vamping on C major, there is no way for a soloist to make it sound like D Dorian, because D Dorian would require D to be the tonic note. No can do. BUT if the backing track is playing C major and none of the backing instruments play an F note anywhere, then the soloist CAN make it sound like for example C Lydian, by playing the characteristic F# note. Or if the backing track doesn't play B, the soloist can make it C Mixolydian by playing the characteristic Bb instead of B.

If the backing track is playing/vamping a major chord, the soloist cannot make it sound like any minor mode. Minor modes are: Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Locrian.

If the backing track is playing (vamping) a minor chord, the soloist cannot make it sound like any major mode. Major modes are: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian.

If the backing track only has a C bass note and nothing else, then you have total modal power and can make it sound like any C mode. But you cannot make it sound like e.g. D anything.

(The only real exception I can think of to push the tonic away from a fixed bass note is to utilize perfect fourths/fifths. If the bass plays C, it will set the center to C, EXCEPT maybe if you play a heavy F note and things from e.g. F major or F minor - then maybe you can convince the listener that it's just a very long held F/C or Fm/C chord, waiting to resolve home to F or Fm.)

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My question is: How do I bring out the flavor/characteristic of the specific mode?

By emphasizing characteristic notes. For modes of a major scale these are:

  • lydian: #4 and 7
  • ionian: 4 and 7 (though careful with 4!)
  • mixolydian: 3 and b7
  • dorian: b3 and 6
  • aeolian: 2 and b6
  • phrygian: b2 and 5
  • locrian: b2 and b5

For example, if I wanna make my solo feel sinister, I would choose B Locrian. However, this doesn't work, as I'm still only playing the notes in C major/ionian.

There are two important differences between B-locrian and C-ionian: they are different modes, but they also have different roots (tonal centers). As piiperi wrote it is unlike that you will manage to switch a tonal center when playing over a backing track. What you can do, is to change mode, e.g. play C-locrian. Of course this rises a potential problem: will C-locrian fit. Often backing track strongly suggests the scale to use – but sometimes it leaves some freedom.

To expand a bit, when you are playing accompaniment, it's your job to listen to the soloist and make sure you don't get in their way.

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Say I'm playing along to a jam track in C major. From my understanding, this means that C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian etc. would work.

Well, no. I mean C Ionian is CDEFGAB, D Dorian is DEFGABC, and so on, so it would be the same notes, but the chords would be different. Cmaj, Fmaj and Gmaj with would be allowable chords in D Dorian, but if they're all the chords, you clearly should be thinking C Ionian.

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It's not you, it's the backing tracks! They will almost inevitably dictate what mode you'll need to play in. They will say where 'home' is - they will specify the root. Only then, when you've decided what that actually is, will you be able to play along - but in whatever mode the track is producing.

For instance, if the track starts on Dm, and there are G major chords, you'll be in with a good chance of playing D Dorian, as that track will be choosing those chords which map out D Dorian. With an Am key track, which keeps returning to that Am, you'll be good for A Aeolian.

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