I have been playing and improvising quite happily for many years on a few different instruments but can't seem to get my head around incorporating modes into my day-to-day playing. I am from a blues / rock background and have got rather tired of widdling around the same old pentatonics and blues scales all the time and would like to get in on some of that 'jazz sound' all the cool kids seem to be doing these days

I understand the concept and construction of the different modes from a technical point of view, but I just can't seem to get my head around exactly how to use them mid-solo. On the rare occasion I manage to get something going during practice, it sounds very contrived and more like an exercise than musical expression.

Any hints, tips, exercises whatever would be much appreciated. My two main instruments are piano and guitar so any specifics for those would also be most welcome.


6 Answers 6


I gave an answer to a similar question here, but I'll recap the main ideas.

Miles Davis famously said (something like) "Play what you hear, not what you know." In other words, when you're soloing, you don't want to be thinking, "Here comes a dominant seventh chord; I'll play a mixolydian mode over it!" There's just no time for that, and it leads to mechanical, unauthentic soloing. Instead, you want to pull off the following two-part process:

  1. Recognize the sounds you hear in your head (and heart, and soul), and then
  2. Execute those sounds faithfully on your instrument.

It sounds like you're struggling with the first part more than the second.

The best way to improve your ability both to hear sounds in your head that you've never heard there before and to recognize what you're hearing so that you can execute them, is to transcribe the solos of the so-called "cool kids" from whom you'd like to take inspiration. By learning to play note-for-note what they've played, you'll deeply internalize the sounds they've made---that will help to expand the repertoire of sounds that you hear in your head. But you also have to analyze their solos to understand what they're doing---that will help you to recognize those sounds once you hear them. Then it's just a question of execution, which it sounds like you have a decent handle on.

Get yourself some software that slows down music without changing its pitch---see this question for some recommendations---and use it to learn the cool kids solos. It's challenging and slow going (isn't everything that's worthwhile?) but it's also the most effective way to expand your musical palette.

  • Thanks for the reply. I definitely agree with the 'play what you hear, not what you know' philosophy. As you say, it is the first part that has got me stumped. Transcribing solos seems like a good idea and for some reason not something I would normally to. On another post on this site I suggested to someone that transcribing lyrics yourself means you remember them and get to know them much better than simply trying to learn them from a piece of paper. Quite why I didn't make the similar step myself with solos, i don't know! I'll give that software a go and thanks for the pointers.
    – Addsy
    Commented Jul 4, 2011 at 9:38
  • I disagree slightly with the notion of "there's just no time for that". There must be time if you plan ahead. At least that's what I'm taught in organ improvisation: one needs a plan. One can change the plan, but must never lose focus of the musical scaffolding the improvisation is built on. The mind must stay ahead of the fingers. While one doesn't need to invoke the names of various music-theoretical concepts, these concepts must be in one's mind - at least as practiced frameworks that can be invoked and executed at will. Commented Nov 19, 2016 at 17:09
  • @KubaOber I agree that the musical concepts must be in one's mind, and I'm a big believer in studying and practicing theoretical concepts so that one can apply them on stage. My point is that learning other people's solos broadens one's own repertoire of ideas, which is what I understood the OP to be asking about. I agree, though, that understanding the theory behind those ideas helps one to execute them in the real-time context of improvisation. Commented Nov 20, 2016 at 18:03

Whenever I improvise, I tend to go by feel. I have a general idea of what I want my solo to sound like, and I let my fingers make that sound happen, without consciously thinking, "this note, then that one, ooh, let's try a flat here!" This means that it's hell for me to pick up a new style or sound. Whenever I do put in the effort, I need to do 2 things: I need to start hearing the sounds in my solo, and I need to figure out how to make them.

In terms of hearing the sounds in the solo, I start slow. I'll play through a song from a fakebook alone (Usually right-hand chords, left hand octaves), and when it comes time to improvise, I literally stop, take a breather, and think about what I want to hear. Then I fumble around the keyboard until I have a fair approximation of what I wanted. Rinse, repeat, and keep trying it with different songs. Eventually it becomes effortless.

Outside of the context of a piece, I'll often just think of riffs, and figure out how to play them. It's all about getting enough muscle memory to not need to think about how to play.

Good luck!

  • Thanks man. I know what you mean, it sounds similar to how I do things - I'm not really that technical a player. It's the hearing the sounds in my solos part that's got me stumped. Maybe it's to do with the fact that I have been doing the same thing for long so it's always the same kind of patters / sounds that come to mind. Am never a big fan of playing from sheets but perhaps some fakebook practice would help get some new ideas into the head. Cheers for the pointers
    – Addsy
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 16:45
  • The fakebook is there just to get a song going; the melodies are usually too boring to actually help with improvising. I just don't know a lot of standards, so I have to cheat a little bit ;)
    – Babu
    Commented Jun 30, 2011 at 17:46

Listening is everything. So hear those notes.

If you're playing around with a minor pentatonic, for example, once you play that major 6th you'll be playing in the dorian mode. Just think of a mode as having some characteristic notes in it. To get your head around this, I recommend playing around with the modes over pedal tones, and NOT doing them like this: hold C and play C maj scale, hold d and play c maj scale. NO. instead, hold c and play c maj scale, then play c lydian, c mixolydian. Maybe change to A and play around with A dorian, A mixolydian, A locrian, stuff like that. Try and hear each scale on its own and play around with it. Get familiar with how each mode sounds over the root, learn to hear that scale.

This kind of thinking about modes is called parallel as against to derivative. Derivative approach is like this: G mixolydian = C major played from 5th note, F lydian = C major played from forth etc. That's true the notes are the same, but their qualities/importance and color are much diffrent against underlying chords. This qualities require a lot more ear proficiency to master in this approach. Try parallel approach in exercise like dominant in cycle of 5ths let say 2 bars each (D7 -> G7 -> C7 -> F7 and so on). It could really help You

  • Pedal tones... good idea.
    – Nathan
    Commented Jul 12, 2011 at 19:38

Don't try to learn all the modes at once. Each mode has a distinctive "flavor" that can only be recognized with practice so concentrate on mastering the sound of one mode at a time.

You have had your whole life to get used to the sounds of the traditional major and minor scales and these patterns are deeply ingrained - even untrained musicians can usually sing a major scale.

Pick a mode and mess around with it, sit with your instrument and try to compose or improvise using that mode. Try improvising over a drone note on either the root or fifth of the mode. Listen to other music that uses that mode and try to recognize the distinctive, special sounding melodic elements and cadences that make it what it is.

After a while of practice you will start to recognize situations, when improvising, where a particular modal musical effect would sound good, and you will be able to play it without thinking.


When it comes to soloing with modes this is one of my favorite resources How to Solo with Modes


The modes are already there in the song if it has a strong or logical chord progression based on western even tempered 12-tone harmony (like 90%+ of the music you have most likely heard in life) You have to be able to anylize the chord progression...Now a lot of jazz players will pretty much play any minor or minor7(same thing) or minor11 or minor13(same thing, same thing)chord as a Dorion mode,a seven note minor scale as if it was the root note of the chord(let's go with d-minor for math simplicity),was the second note in a major scale: d-minor Dorion is the c-major scale starting on d.....However if you have a chord progression that has,say, a-minor followed by d-minor (which will probably be followed by some form of a g chord,not necessarily,I digress)then you have a-aeolian mode over the a-minor and d-dorian mode over the d-minor, which are the same scale:c-major,the scale that if you start on the sixth note 'a' is called a-aeolian mode....Two minor chords a fifth apart are most likely the minor6th&2nd of a major scale,the strongest progression is 6251 ,therefore in the key of c would be:a-minor,d-minor,g7,c-maj(or maj7)& that is the simplest example I can even come up with.....Whew...

  • And I am right, don't listen to these 'play by ear' geezers...😋 Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 22:22
  • Music is the intersect of emotion and mathematics Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 22:24

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