A friend of mine told me that the usage of scales or modes in jazz music is not common. Even I heard myself in a Miles Davis interview that jazz is a tradition. So here are two questions basically: Is it common practice to use scales (modes) for jazz improvisation? Was is practiced back in the swing era, unlike the modal jazz "era"?

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    I actually find the first question to be poorly-phrased. What do you mean? Are you asking if anyone has ever played an Eb phrygian scale from root up to octave and back down in their solo? Jan 8, 2016 at 18:29
  • The first question isn't very interesting, except in clarifying your intention. Because in a sense, everything is scales. You're playing something purely by ear, purely from theory (based on the changes), or some combination thereof. The changes imply scales, and you're probably hearing scales in your head. So it's all scales. Scales. Jan 8, 2016 at 18:32

2 Answers 2


Is it common practice to use scales (modes) for jazz improvisation?

TL;DR: Yes, of course it is.

For the start of the song, you have a melody and some chords to accompany it. After the melody has been played, the musicians start improvising solos. In order to see what are they going improvise on, they study the chords and the melody. These two belong in some certain scale(s) (usually more than one). So, when they realize what is (harmonically) going on in the song, they start improvising on top of the modes that belong in each chord, or in a scale the chords belong in.

For instance, pretty much all the jazz songs have the ii-V-I, like Dm7-G7-Cmaj7. In a cadence like that, you can improvise on C major or if you are bit more skilled, you can follow the chords and play the respective modes: D Dorian- G Mixolydian - C Ionian.

If you at the questions on this site tagged you'll see many instances and queries concerning the modes/scales played in jazz.

The difference between modal jazz and jazz preceding that era, is that before modal, the musicians used chord progressions, while in the modal era, they used modes. If you listen to Miles Davis's So What, it has the same AABA form, but you won't see a chord progression there. You'll notice that the A is just D Dorian and B is Eb Dorian and that's it. Swing ear musicians didn't use this way of composing; they had chord progressions.

  • "So, when they realize what is (harmonically) going on in the song, they start improvising on top of the modes that belong in each chord, or in a scale the chords belong in." I see this asserted all the time, including in educational materials written by people who are obviously excellent musicians. I've never seen any of them present actual evidence that it provides a useful explanation of anything. Jan 8, 2016 at 15:15
  • I don't play jazz, but when looking at transcriptions of jazz solos I have noticed passages that look pretty clearly to be lines created from broken chords rather than scales. I think the solos were from Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker to set the style context (clearly this isn't modal jazz.) Mentally I took note of the broken chord lines because of the contrast with the jazz scale/chord matching method which is a common teaching method. Jazz players: please let me know if you think I'm making a big mistake here. Jan 22, 2016 at 5:04
  • I've been taught (by no less than Gary Burton - in an online class, not in person), that knowledge and use of modes is central to the modern theory of Jazz improvisation. During the course, I discovered for myself that attempting to use the smallest number of major or minor scales as a basis for improvising over some very typical Jazz progressions just doesn't work. Whether one learns to do it by analysis or by ear, single-note improv in most Jazz numbers is modal improv using multiple modes in one piece. It's not just common practice, it's ubiquitous. Feb 2, 2016 at 20:59

I've seen this quote from Charlie Parker in many places...

"I was working over 'Cherokee' and, as l did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with the appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive."

The part "higher intervals of a chord as a melody line" catches my attention, because they are Parker's own words and pretty clearly indicate melody line from chord tones. Sure, he didn't say "I don't use scales." But, it's ridiculous to even think a musician would think in that way. If you are trying to weigh chord tones versus scales, the gist of Parker's quote seems clear enough: chord tones are central.

Also, it's pretty obvious that filling in a seventh chord with passing tones results in a scale. So, are scales derived from chords, or vice versa? I don't think you will get far trying to place one over the other. You obviously need both even if a melodic line is essentially derived from chord tones.

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