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?

6 Answers 6


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
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 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
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 22:48
  • @Gorbz "...doing what you suggest, there is no point in having modes after all" - I don't think that's quite true; if you think in terms of parent key, the 'point' is to structure your phrasing and chord progressions such that a note other than the usual tonic of the scale becomes the 'home note'. Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 7:05
  • 1
    @Gorbz - the modes are seen to exist, like it or not. We can't just deny their existence! And the reason they're recognised is that they're very useful tools to use. And they aren't far from any major or minor set of notes. They allow, just like the different minor scale patterns, other flavours to be added to music.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 7:11

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 lets 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. :-)

  • 1
    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
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 10:09
  • That somehow reflects the way I think about this. I wanted to add something. These character notes (4th and 7th for major and 2nd and 6th for minor modes) are exactly the notes that are excluded from the pentatonic scale. So I think of the pentatonic as a "scaffold" that I decorate with the character notes depending on which mode I am. Say I want to play Myxolyidian: I play major pentatonic, and add a perfect 4th and a minor 7th. And so on...
    – mkorman
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 9:55

Systematically looking at scales from the perspective of the chord they are to be played over is the basis of what we call chord-scale theory. While this system is by far the most widespread and accepted, I think it's important to note that it's been criticized as widely as it's been praised. My own way to look at "chords and improvised melodies" was related to C-S for a while, then I moved on. I believe many improvisers have experienced a similar process.

The thing is, when the tones proposed for playing over the whole of a major II-V-I are those on the very major scale of I, you need a way to create awareness of harmonic movement in your mind (that hopefully matches the awareness in your ears), and this system of looking at the very same 7 tones from 3 different perspectives (one for each of the chords I'm using as an example) can provide that.

I'm aware that I'm not answering the question, but I'm hoping to provide some side insight of what C-S can do for you, as well as it not being mandatory.

From my own experience playing and teaching (neither professional), if I were in the OP's shoes, I'd:

  • Learn the 12 major scales and the 12 natural minor scales.
  • Try to build awareness of how different chords fit in those scales (including the non-diatonic chords such as V7 in minor and many others).
  • Try to build solid awareness of the voice leading that exists in chord changes in order to identify which "land tones" work best.

Lately I've been providing advice on improvisation to a classically trained violin player whose theory knowledge is restricted to knowing those 12 + 12 scales, strictly. She's not familiar with chord symbols, even (it takes her ages to spell one). Well, in around two weeks, without expanding that theory knowledge, just guiding her to focus on the 3 tips I've given above, she was already producing convincing solos (i.e. successfully following the changes) over the sort of jazz tune that uses standard harmonic formulas. C-S may (or may not) be of use to her at some point, but this teaching experience has shown me very clearly that C-S is not as important as those other aspects, at all.

  • Thanks for the insights. I think that all these "frameworks" (CST for instance) are a good way to help you learn and build an intuitive knowledge about your instrument, and then you outgrow them. Do you have a good resource to learn CST for guitarists?
    – mkorman
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 9:57
  • I'm afraid I do not, sorry. I learnt all that stuff mostly by reading it online many years ago and I can't remember the sources at all anymore. I have the very same feeling as you with regards to these frameworks. Adopting them can be great as they will take your playing to whatever level, but once there you need to break away in order to continue growing.
    – Alex Lopez
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 10:41
  • To me, ultimately, any system like this can take your playing to whatever level, but eventually will prevent you from improving further. The rules and musical restrictions they propose and impose are useful until you've made the material work for you, only.
    – Alex Lopez
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 10:56

I can only imagine you are referring to the modes that are related to the major scale and the melodic minor scale, as those are the more common ones. There is a simple way to organize your thoughts regarding these. Seven of these modes can be generated from the major scale by simply starting on a different note and playing the sequence up an octave.

For example starting on the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C)

The D Dorian mode is (D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D)

The E Phrygian mode is (E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E)

The F Lydian mode is (F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F)

The G Mixolydian mode is (G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G)

The A Aeolian mode is (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A)

The B Locrean mode is (B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B)

This pattern extends to ALL keys. The Dorian mode in the key of X starts on the second note of the X major scale. From this you can figure out the whole step and half step pattern if you want. Which one formula is "easier" to remember and apply is partly a matter of taste and experience.

The second set of modes are related to the Melodic minor and are commonly used in Jazz. Starting with the Jazz-Melodic minor (which descends the same way it ascends) we have the following note (using the Key of A minor/C major as an example) (A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A).

All you have to do to generate the other modes related to this scale is to start the sequence on a different note, e.g. (C, D, E, F#, G#, A, B, C) is one of the modes.

From this perspective it is pretty easy to recall all seven diatonic modes in any key. Just remember the sequence in order and map it to the degrees of the Major scale in order, and similarly for the other set of modes. The real question is how does this help with "improvise over them in any key". To improvise I think your time would be better spent developing a good ear for voice leading. From the point of view of classical music theory we generally tend to gravitate towards the use of arpeggios in developing melodies and those naturally fall on the chords that harmonize the melody. It could be thought of as a Chicken vs. Egg argument that no one will ever win but IMO the melody comes first and chords are added later to harmonize or support the natural movement of the melody. That doesn't mean one cannot start from chords and develop original melodies from chord tones but... chicken/egg.

Trying to pick a mode for a solo line takes a lot of mental energy. In Jazz it is often taught that we should pick a new mode that best matches each chord. This can be a challenge since there are dozens of chords in a single tune. But the chords follow well defined sequences within the key of the tune. For example the progression C -> E-7 -> A-7 -> D-7 -> G7 -> C never leaves the key of C major. It would not make a lot of sense to think Ionian -> Phrygian -> Aeolean -> Dorian -> Mixolydian -> Ionian as you solo. Better to realize you are in the Key of C, without any modulation, and stay on C major but use voice leading to generate melodic themes that gravitate to the chord tones. Simple diatonic sequences move linearly through the circle of 4ths and 5ths very nicely. In fact walking right up the scale matches chords tones in this sequence. The above progression can be made a little more interesting by inserting a modulation to the relative minor, i.e. C -> B-7(b5) -> E7 -> A-7 -> D-7 -> G7 ->C. Now the A-7 doesn't just sound like part of the sequence of chords leading back to C but as the ending point. This is due to the presence of the E7 before it. The B-7(b5) is strictly in the Key of C but its function is as a ii chord for the Key of A-. The grouping of chords (B-7(b5) -> E7 -> A-7) calls for an A melodic or harmonic minor scale all the way through.

In some cases committing the patterns to memory can be useful on an instrument. I have them in my muscle memory for guitar. But in reality, after decades of playing, these patterns are not very useful from a practical point of view. Learn how to analyze a chord progression to find the key of each section of a tune then stay on the primary scale of that key using voice leading to land on "good" notes as you go. This will take you much farther in improv that modes.

If you really want to get into interesting melodic ideas spend more time on the major and minor Blues scales, Be Bop scale, 1/2-whole and whole-1/2 scales, etc. The ones that DON'T fit into the diatonic sequence are more interesting.


There is a shortcut to learn the modes: Like Tim and Michael I sort them by the third in major and minor groups, minding the difference to the parent key, like Tim says:


I: ionian => the major parent key

IV: lydian => #4

V: mixolydian => b7


vi: aeolian => natural minor parent key (i)

ii: dorian => major 6

iii: phrygian => minor 2

vii: locrian => similar to V7 without root, starting with the 3rd

  • 1
    Whilst I'm aware of which are maj. or min.I don't sort them that way. Only really by harking back to parent keys.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 14:35
  • sure, Tim! This was just for learners. And I ignore them in practice - just minding I'm in minor with an major 6th (e.g. for Dorian) Commented Jun 13, 2020 at 16:30

Check out the question here: Does this progression have a name?

It's possible to cycle through all the modes related to a Major key, and after you've played all seven modes you're playing in a key one semitone lower than you started.

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