I struggle to memorize the formulae for the modes of the major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales.

Actually the formula for the major scale is pretty much ok. I start learning them by heart already. But then suddenly I have to learn another 14 modes which are so closely related to each other.

Now, lets assume I know the formulae for each mode of the major scale (for simplicity) very well. I find it impossible to remember by heart these modes for any key. I can approach them using the formula of the corresponding mode but of course it is hard to improvise without going up and down the mode a few times (unless the mode is easy).

What is your view on this? How do you approach this problem?


Right or wrong, I go back to parent key. So, if we're talking D Dorian, I think of C notes, rooted on D. A Mixolydian as D notes rooted on A, etc. So, knowing the major scale notes, but with different home notes, works for me.

Minors work the same. Thing is, once you're into a piece, with slight modulations, etc, and the scale pattern per se stops working anyway.

  • This is how I have been trying to improvise for some time. But, the thing is that then, doing what you suggest, there is no point in having modes after all. Still, modal jazz is more popular than thinking in terms of classical harmony. So, I assume that most jazz musicians indeed think modally. The question is how do they memorize all these stuff? – Gorbz Jan 9 '17 at 22:19
  • In that case, the way to go is to memorise teh modes, one by one, so you can use each as its own entity. Of course it works, but it means a lot more memorisation. – Tim Jan 9 '17 at 22:48

This is how I think of the basic (diatonic) modes, you may find it helpful. I group them by the quality of their third scale degrees and then take note of which scale degrees change to form the other modes. Like this:

Modes with a major third above the tonic (also they all have scale degrees of major second, perfect fifth, and major sixth.) The scale degrees which vary are the fourth and the seventh...

IONIAN : perfect fourth, major seventh
MIXOLYDIAN : perfect fourth, minor seventh (like ionian with a minor seventh)
LYDIAN : augmented fourth, major seventh (like ionian with an augmented fourth)

Modes with a minor third above the tonic (also they all have scale degrees of perfect fourth, perfect fifth, and minor seventh.) The scale degrees which vary are the second and sixth...

AEOLIAN : major second, minor sixth
DORIAN : major second, major sixth (like aeolian with a major sixth)
PHRYGIAN : minor second, minor sixth (like aeolian with a minor second)

Notice that all six of the above modes have a perfect fifth.

Locrian mode is then the odd one left out, but you can think of it as aeolian with a diminished fifth.

This arrangement let's you group modes by similarity and then see how a change of one note by half-step forms a different mode.

It should be noted that this imposes a strong major/minor sensibility on the modes that probably doesn't represent ancient music theory. Others could speak with authority on this. Please don't mistake my little shorthand method as ancient music theory. :-)

  • Hi thanks! I have a system too for the diatonic. Basically, I split them into 3 categories, the ones with major 3rd: Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian, the ones with minor 3rd Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and finally the 7th one the Locryan. This is helpful since one can improvise according to the 3rd of the chord played (ok, it depends on what kind of chord it is after the 3rd too but this is a rough guide). The problem comes when I have to instantly lay those on my guitar or piano while improvising. If I think of them like 5 mins before its ok. But on the spot is impossible! – Gorbz Jan 16 '17 at 10:09

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