A common strategy to learning to improvise is to learn modes. On quite a few different guitar sites (source), I've found a strategy presented that goes like this:

  1. Learn all the modes in a parent key. (C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, etc.)
  2. When a chord comes up, choose the mode that goes along with the chord, and use that. For instance, when the Dm7 comes up, play the D Dorian, but when F comes up, play F Lydian.

This has always bugged me as both needless and misleading.

Needless because if you take a standard progression like Dm7 - G7 - C, this method would have you play D Dorian, G Mixolyian, C Ionian. But because they all belong to C major, the notes in use are exactly the same. They only difference is the final, but we don't really care about that during 2 beats of a Dm7 chord. Couldn't you just play whichever notes from the key of C sound good to you?

Misleading because an Em7 chord does not always use the same mode. In the key of C, yes it would use the Phrygian mode. But what if you encounter the Em7 chord in the key of G? Playing E Phrygian over and Em7 (with that F-natural) would definitely not sound right. If you subscribe to this theory, you'd have to not only recognize the chord, but also think about the prevailing key of the song. But if you simply think, "I'm in the key of G here," any note would be reasonable.

So, anyways the question is this: is it really helpful and necessary to teach guitarists to use modes at all, and wouldn't it be better to teach them to identify larger sections of a piece that all use the same parent key instead?

  • 4
    I'm perhaps biased by being from a different music-culture, but my perception is NO. I know a blues(ish) guitarist who was in the Muscle Shoals studios for decades, and one of his favorite points was "meh, improvising ain't hard; if you hit a 'wrong' note, you're just one note away from a 'right' one; just go to it instead." Feb 29 at 20:41
  • From the way some folks talk I get the idea they're just running up and down scales in constant scalar motion, which sounds bizarre as well as kinda boring. Feb 29 at 20:42
  • Besides, rather than identifying multiple notes to play within each chord, I find that melodic playing is often more effective when we find a single note to sustain through several chords. I regularly, in I IV V situations, just sit on ^5 and enjoy the tension during the IV. Feb 29 at 20:44
  • 2
    Nothing is necessary. Some things are helpful in some contexts. Modal improvisation is mainly helpful in modal music. Bebop is an example of a kind of music where modal improvisation can help. Pop and rock can be quite modal and so it can help in pop and rock. Is it the only way to learn improv? No. Does it help many people? Yes. Feb 29 at 22:19
  • You don't need to memorize modes, just be familiar with common ones and the kinds of melodies they produce.
    – qwr
    Mar 4 at 2:26

8 Answers 8


You're correct. It's not essential.

The chord-scale (i.e., chord-mode) "method" is a convenient shortcut for teaching beginners and works often enough to be effective.

However, the more important technique is to be aware of the chord tones themselves, with any other pitches being available as "ornaments" (passing tones, neighbors, chord extensions, etc.).


Music theory is to music like grammar is to language. It is an abstraction of the patterns pervading the system, and the brain is good at picking up the patterns and reproducing them and structuring deliberate utterances accordingly.

And that's what children do when acquiring their first language. But as an adult, your brain is not as impressionable. But we have trained it in dealing with abstract concepts and thoughts in a rational rather than intuitive manner, and so we can counsciously apply rules and theory instead of waiting for them to become ingrained.

We can understand things that are not actually factual. Or even mandatory: we can deal with exceptions contextualized over the backdrop of the rules they are breaking. We can comprehend a literary rendition of a strong dialect even when written in a rather loosely phonetic language like English.

So a "native musician" does not need to learn music theory, but they cannot avoid breathing it, like a native speaker breathes the grammar of the language they are speaking. And when you are not a native, it is an intellectual shortcut and abstraction to what music revolves about. The purpose of music theory is not to make understanding music hard, but to make it approachable for someone accustomed to thinking.

It may well be that different theoretic approaches map reasonably to the same music. And some music intentionally aims at such ambiguity or multi-facetedness.

So "truly necessary": for what? For whom? The answer may well be "no, but it's fun/educative/illuminating/interesting/thought-provoking/inspiring".

  • Thanks for contributing! I think this answer misses the intent of the question, though. This is a very valid defense of studying theory in the first place, but the question was whether a certain approach to theory is practical and helpful. I think the OP takes as a given that theory in general is worthwhile. Mar 2 at 15:02
  • I think this is wrong, because it implies that all the theory talk about modes is right, educational and does no harm. When IMO talking about modes as something that you could find and apply everywhere in any pop/rock music, and thinking that there's a separate mode for every chord, is wrong, harmful, misleading, and even prevents many guitarists from understanding what's happening in music. Theory is descriptions of practices, and if the "students" are lead to believe that all musical situations can be seen as modal, is just wrong theory, plain and simple. Theory can be bad if it's wrong. Mar 3 at 14:06

I would say the best answer to your question is: “It depends…” it depends on how much knowledge and facility you want to achieve on your instrument and it also depends on whether modes will be useful to you based on the musical genres you choose to play.

Regarding your “needless” paragraph, it is true that you can play a C scale over a ii-V-I (or any diatonic progression for that matter) and not bother thinking of the individual modes associated with each chord. The way we conceptualize when we improvise is a personal thing. So in answer to your final question, you can play a single parent scale over a long passage of chords IF they are all diatonic to the home key.

Now to address your “misleading” paragraph, you are mistaken in thinking that Em7 only applies to a C parent scale. Em7 exists in three different major keys, as the iii in C major, as the vi in G major and as the ii in D major. Whichever key you are playing in would determine which mode you would play if you choose to play modally. In C it is E Phrygian. In G it is E Aeolian. In D it is E Dorian. The point is that context must be taken into consideration when using modes.

The bottom line about modes is that no, they are not necessary to know and understand unless you want to play in a style that requires them. Without even trying, most musicians know at least a few, like Mixolydian for playing on 7th chords and Aeolian for minor keys. They are a part of standard music theory so if you want to know theory and harmony you will encounter them. They certainly can be helpful depending on what style of music you play. Modes can be very useful in music that is more advanced harmonically like jazz. Modes are also useful from the standpoint of being able to add a distinct flavor to something. One example is if you want to play something that has a Flamenco flavor, Phrygian is a much better choice than a natural minor or minor pentatonic scale.

If you choose to learn more about them I will leave you with one final thought. Modes are constructed from a parent scale but it is best to think of them as individual scales with unique constructions in their own right. Don’t think of a D Dorian mode as a C scale from D to D, think of it as a D scale with a construction of W-H-W-W-W-H-W. The reason for that is you want to tonicize the root of the mode you are playing. There are three major, three minor and one diminished mode. They all have unique characteristics and knowing them can add a layer of depth to your playing.


For the guitar, there are two good reasons to learn the modes.

  1. For positional playing.

    If you only know the major scale in one position on the fretboard, you'll be jumping around if there are any key changes.

  2. To play modally.
    This works best when chords are being held for a second or longer and there is no single key center, similar to 'Maiden Voyage' by Herbie Hancock. Each chord acts like a different tonal center. When thirds are omitted from a chord, one of several modes can be chosen.

You are correct that when playing a chord progression in a single key and you are looking for the most consonant set of notes to improvise with, stick to the parent key.


We're almost on to - 'must use diatonic notes for solos, else it won't work'!

I get your point, that C Ionian uses the same notes as D Dorian, as E Phrygian, and so on, and have frequently asked the same question myself. Never getting any convincing answers. In fact, some of the nicest players I've worked with didn't have a clue how to play scales, let alone modes (what are they?)

So, for a majority, it would seem that playing 'over the modes' is a pointless way to make up a solo. In fact, doing so would incorporate utilisation of 'avoid' notes at some points in those solos. Not that that is such a bad thing - tension and release are essential parts of any good solo.

Perhaps knowledge of the parent scales is more important, as that gives the power to use or not use, the appropriate notes. However, as I keep saying, any note, anywhere, in any key can be made to fit - and effectively! Maybe it's rather like the 'must use diatonics' belief. It keeps greenhorn players on the straight and narrow - almost.

Some players will depend an awful lot on knowing, and using those modal notes, and for them, it's probably applicable, but for others, quite the majority, I'd say, manage in blissful ignorance, probably playing more interesting solos into the bargain!

The main raison d'etre for modes, though, is targeting the root notes, and that can be done quite happily by doing just that. This question is going to split answers innto the ievitable two discrete groups - for and against. This is my argument.

  • I mean, one can do whatever one damn well wants. For some reason this discussion has made me imagine: You start the accompaniment part to "Heart and Soul" in C. You know, C Am F G. I walk on with a saxophone; after a couple of rounds of the progression I take a big breath and just play a giant F#. Just a big, loud, in-your-face, 8-bar HONK. Does it "sound good"? Arguably not. But it's clearly a choice, and it's an artistic gesture. People will talk, but nobody supposes it was an accident. Mar 2 at 15:11
  • @AndyBonner - thanks for the input! Not exactly what I meant, and you're probably aware of that! Judicious use of 'out of key' notes do work well - and an F# ('wrong' note') followed on the beat with a G does sound good (on the C chord). We learn about 'good, right' notes, that do fit, then should be capable of putting 'wrong' notes, to add colour. I might play the notes of an arpeggio one semitone too low, each followed by the correct one. Thus half the bar could be considered 'wrong'. Agreed? I hope and expect you do...
    – Tim
    Mar 2 at 15:34

The short answer is yes it is not necessary to know modes to be great improviser. In fact it is not necessary to study any aspect of theory to be great improviser as history of improvised music shows.

Modes might be helpful though as long as they are not thought as something you can just directly apply to musical situations. And unfortunately the way specifically guitar centered education market evolved most of it seems to be advice focused on modes.

And you present perfect examples of how misleading this "direct" and "applied" way of thinking about the modes is. These simple solutions like you see this chord you play that mode are typically missing the context in many different ways.

The good example is II-V-I you mention where applying "different" models is meaningless as we end up using the same set of notes and not really doing anything interesting over these changes. This is in contrast to the harmonic approach and undestanding jazz improvisation as playing the changes - sometimes substituted, abstracted or bimodal but still essentially propelling dominant -> tonic -> dominant etc. tension and release cycle. This is what is actually happening in improvised music and possibly the best description of this approach out there is Dave Liebman's Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody.

Your second example illustrates the other case where we apply basic chord->scale relation without looking at the context. There are many harmonies in modern music or even folk music that are outside of classcal diatonic major-minor system but still because the classical theory is so well developed there is a tendency to apply it to the musical situation that are not applicable. I've seen complex attempts to "explain" blues in terms of functional harmony.

What I always find truly missing in the education on improvisation is the focus on ear training and developing the apparatus where we can think about something and just play it. How many budding improvisers out there know all the modes but can't play "Happy Birthday" just like that starting from any note on the fretboard. If you can't then question yourself why do I need to know about Dorian mode if I still need to work on playing the simplest melody. Today's education doesn't want to be harsh, it wants to be inclusive instead and sell lots of books. That's why the right way and the hard way is rarely spoken about.

Still practicing modes is something I find useful as they provide an overview map of "correct notes" for various contexts so it is good to have them ingrained in your muscle memory but even more importantly in your head. If you can't sing the mode do you actually know it?


I do agree that talking about modes is often misleading. But it is not needless. There is clearly a need, or should I say, market demand, for systematic, intellectual, theoretical approaches to music, which offer formulaic methods of coming up with notes to play and don't require learning hearing skills. I think this is symptomatic of the Western culture, which values logical, intellectual, systematic thinking over practical physical and social experience.

Talking about modes is also done because modes are something that can be talked about, in textual course material and Youtube videos. And it's something that can be used in textual exams, and the answers can be given a numerical score, right/wrong, so-and-so many points. It fits a teaching culture that requires objective right-or-wrong questions and numerical scores.

Youtube's monetization and incentive system needs things like modes for Youtubers to talk about, for many, many minutes. Offering a formulaic system must feel very attractive to viewers. There is an implied promise that this is something you could learn by simply watching, by receiving information. It is much more difficult to talk about feelings of tonality, feelings of harmonic balance, etc. and it is certainly less appealing to watch, because I don't think anyone believes that watching someone talk about their feelings would lead the viewer to develop a similar capability to feel about the things. It would be like expecting someone to learn to ride a bicycle by watching a bicyclist talk about how they feel when they ride.


What is a scale? A scale is a constriction. You could play any note, but you limit yourself to certain notes. And sometimes constricting your choices enables you to come up with more interesting stuff.

Also in this case: Modal theory does not really work out over a dynamic chord progression. Modal music works when you have a strong tonal center and you can keep to this tonal center (at least for a longer passage). So even if the harmony changes (within the scope of your tonal center) your mode should be consistent.

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