Let's say we have a progression where all of the chords fit within traditional diatonic harmony. Maybe something like this:

| E♭Maj♯11 |  Cmin7   |    F7    |  B♭Maj   |

All of these chords fit within a B♭Maj tonal center. In particular, this is a IV-II-V-I progression. Keeping with the B♭Maj tonality, we could choose these modes to play over the progression:

  • E♭Maj♯11: use E♭ Lydian
  • Cmin7: use C Dorian
  • F7: use F Mixolydian
  • B♭Maj: use B♭ Ionian

But all of these modes/scales have the same 7 notes. Specifically, they all contain the same notes as a B♭ major scale. So what's the value in using modes when a musician can instead simply improvise using a B♭ major scale? What advantages are gained by thinking in terms of modes, or by practicing in terms of modes?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please also calm down with the ad hominems, folks.
    – user28
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 18:23

5 Answers 5


Play B♭ Ionian, then C Dorian and then E♭ Lydian. Do they sound the same because they are comprised of the same notes? Of course not. Why? Because the root in B♭ Ionian, becomes a m7 in Dorian instead of Ionian's M7, and the P4th in Ionian becomes m3 in Dorian instead of Ionian's M3, completely changing the sound and tonality of Dorian vs Ionian: Ionian is the definitive major tonality. Dorian, in modern music, is the definitive minor tonality, because although both contain a P4 and P5, their respective 3rd's and 7ths are different - major vs minor. Same with any mode of any scale, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the mode relative to the parent scale: Shifting modes == Shifting tonality:

The notes of the different modes of any scale are the same, but because they are played in a different sequence ("mode" = the manner of playing a scale), their sound - their tonality changes. They sound different and they imply different chords entirely. These differences become very significant as you play different modes in different harmonic contexts.

To hear this really well, play C Ionian and then B Locrian, the 7th mode of C Major. You're playing the same notes in both cases- the notes of the C Major scale - but they sound entirely different. Carry this further and think about the diatonic 7th chords derived from each mode: When you play a C Ionian -Major scale, the 7th chord is a CM7. When you play B Locrian scale, the 7th chord is a B half diminished chord ( Bm7b5 ) a very different chord with a tritone, the diminished 5th, at its core. Yet that's all with the same 7 notes of C Ionian - just starting the sequence at a different note. Now you are starting to understand the concept of modes and their use:

Harmony is created through manipulating the relationships of various notes and chords to one another in particular ways, to create different sounds and mixtures of sounds that have different effects on the listener. When you change the order of the notes in question, their harmonic relationships to one another - and the other notes surrounding them - changes - for better, or for worse.

Very simple: If you play a B♭ major scale over an E♭Maj♯11 chord, your root B♭ will be a P 5th in relation to Eb - not necessarily the chord tone you want in that context, etc. (Not the best example. @jdjazz in their more articulate, precise answer gives better examples of how you can run afoul in improvisation if you don't use modes.)

But when you play E♭ Lydian over an E♭Maj♯11 chord, you are playing a scale (mode and scale are in this sense interchangeable) that has the same root as the chord being played, and is a harmonic refection of that chord, to the extent that the chord is derived from that mode. The notes that comprise the chord correspond directly to the notes, at their same intervalic positions, as the mode being played - that's the key to diatonic harmony.

When you play Lydian, the notes that determine the unique tonality of that mode - root/#4/M7 - are exactly the chord tones you are playing, and the other notes of that mode are harmonically related to the chord in way that generally sounds good and "make sense". Another way of saying it is that E♭Maj♯11 is diatonic to E♭ Lydian.

(The late, great jazz/fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth once said that his great breakthrough came at age of 12, when he realized that chords were derived from scales [and modes - again, interchangeable here] and not vice versa.)

It is true that in many cases, you can get away with just playing the parent scale, but you will be treading on shaky ground - hit or miss - and your playing will not sound well integrated and organic - it will sound boring and not quite right - you'll likely come off as an amateur to "those who know". (Been there, done that...) If you listen to the great jazz players, you'll hear the difference. That's one of the things that tells you someone really knows how to play and isn't just faking it through - they're playing through different modes and scales to reflect the harmonic context of the music.

Listen carefully to what someone like Coltrane or Freddy Hubbard or Horace Silver is doing as they play through the changes of a piece - how they are constantly shifting the harmonies and tonalities as the music moves and develops - they are working modes and scales and chords in many different ways to create a rich and interesting harmonic blend. They seem to do it automatically - until you try to do it yourself. Sure they all have great talent and great ears - but they also worked their butts off - every one them - to figure out how things worked so they could play the way they do. Some of them used the names you'll find in a music textbook, others had their own private language - but they all understood how things hang together.

Like everything in music, your ear must be the ultimate judge, but the rules and recommendations that have been handed down in books or by word of mouth among musicians make sense and they work.

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    I like this answer. I think it boils down to these points. Modes are useful because: (1) they give a name to harmonically distinct scales, (2) they provide scale constructions from which diatonic seventh chords can be built (and it's crucial for music theory to describe correct harmony-melody relationships), and (3) they avoid the problem of strange-sounding improvisation. Do I have this right?
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jul 22, 2017 at 4:45
  • Do I have this right? Yes - sounds good to me. I was trying to explain the theoretical underpinnings but you have distilled from that the practical implications to be derived from the whole thing. In fact, I think I will incorporate your comments into the answer. :)
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 3:32
  • ignores the fact that the scale/lick is related to the underlying harmony - Not sure what you mean by 'harmony' here. What you're saying is certainly correct, but it's more than that: It is a mistake to call them both "Bb maj" licks because Dorian Bb is not Bb maj , It's Dorian Bb : The Dorian mode of Bb, not the Ionian mode of Bb (What we call Major). I think of it as the 'the Dorian POV on the Bb major scale': Use the notes of Bb major but make the M2 (C) the root. No matter - I think we are clear here.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 3:55
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    @Stinkfoot - a word of warning here. Bb Dorian is one thing, the Dorian of Bb is another. As in Bb Dorian uses the notes from the key of Ab, with Bb as its root. The Dorian of Bb uses the Bb scale notes, but centred around C. Two rather different sets of notes...'Dorian Bb' is a new one on me - confusion is possible!
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 5:42
  • @Tim - Yes. That's what I said - :) | the Dorian POV on the Bb major scale: Use the notes of Bb major but make the M2 (C) the root . But I agree - one should say Dorian of Bb to be clear and avoid confusion.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 9:26

The benefits and advantages of using modes are expansive and pervade both music theory and music performance. The advantages can be summarized in this way: (1) modes are useful theoretical melodic constructs that link diatonic harmony to melody and (2) modes provide useful ways of categorizing and creating licks/melodies.

Modes in Theory

First, to clarify terminology: harmony refers to the chords/underlying chord progression of a song, and melody refers to the lines/licks, which can be predetermined (written on a page) or improvised.

There is a crucial and foundational relationship between harmony and melody. Melody often reflects and emphasizes the harmony. Arpeggios, strong/weak tones, and approach/target notes are all melodic examples that illustrate the relationship melody has to harmony. To give a concrete example, when playing a Cmin6 chord, the melody often emphasizes the notes C, Eb, G, and A--the exact tones that define a Cmin6 chord. At this juncture, it's worth pointing out that this is not a result of music theory. Rather, music theory exists to describe this pattern that we find in music, much like physics laws merely describe patterns in how the physical world behaves.

Here's where this leaves us: we need a theoretical construction that allows us to consistently describe melody in a way that is linked to the underlying harmony. Modes do exactly that for diatonic harmony. Each chord (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii) has an associated mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian), which allows us to refer to the 'root,' 'third,' and 'fifth' of each chord. When we say "play a Cmin6 chord using 1-3-5-6," the numbers refer to the scale tones of the C Dorian minor scale. And when we say "play a Bbmaj6 chord using 1-3-5-6," the numbers refer to the scale tones of the Bb Ionian scale. Modes establish a root and allow us to identify chord tones relative to the root. The creates a consistent language for talking about the scale tones relative to the root--it allows us to say things like "the third of a scale distinguishes major chords from minor chords" and "the 6th distinguishes Dorian minor from Aeolian minor." It allows us to write extensions like Cmin9, where the 9 refers to the interval between the extension and the root of C.

This has considerable advantages when talking and writing about music. It creates consistency and allows us to reference chords and their associated scales without having to think back to the parent scale. Eschewing modes and only referring to the major parent scale could be awkward in progressions like this one where the relative I chords don't appear:


It adds an extra step to think in terms of major parent scales (Cmaj, Bbmaj, Dbmaj) when those major chords don't appear in the progression. It's not as straightforward or as simple as thinking in terms of the root of the minor chords themselves. And it ignores the fact that each chord has a different quality (minor, dominant 7th, major). The progression above sounds different from a Cmaj-Bbmaj-Dbmaj progression, and modes give us a theoretical framework for describing those melodic differences.

Modes in Performance

When put into practice, modes enable a useful way to categorize licks. A lick in F7 will sound different from a lick in Ebmaj#11, because of the tendency for melody to mirror harmony. Categorizing F7 licks and Ebmaj#11 licks both as a 'Bbmaj licks' conflates two very different melodic structures. An Ebmaj#11 lick may conflict with an F7 harmony because the lick won't emphasize the tones of the F7 harmony. Categorizing Mixolydian licks into a single group makes for successful transfer of those licks to different dominant 7th chords in different musical contexts.

Similarly, if playing a song with these changes:

| G7 | G7 | F7 | F7 |
| Bb7 | Amin D7 | G7 E7alt | Amin D7 |

even if one isn't using practiced Mixolydian licks, thinking about the F7 chord in terms of the Mixolydian scale and the strong 1-3-5 tones will produce greater success than thinking about Bb major with no additional melodic specificity.

Thinking in terms of modes contributes to a richer understanding of the melodic structure associated with diatonic harmonies. It supports composition and theory.

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    At this juncture, it's worth pointing out that this is not a result of music theory... | Worth the price of admission.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 19:58

While that whole progression falls into Bb major, your ignoring the fact that there are "avoid" notes depending on the chord. For example: play 4th/11th over a 'Imaj7'... it is quite dissonant. The the same tone functions different on every chord change, and while you can use the "avoid" tones, you need to be aware of them.

Check out Mark Levines Jazz theory book. He brings up this exact question and then answers it. enter image description here

There are others like this example; take G7 for instance.

Playing a C over a G7 on a strong beat is dissonant. Usually, the avoid notes are where the tendencies want to resolve to. Again, there are not many intervals that are dissonant in jazz these days (even the minor 2nd Thelonious Monk made popular), so use taste as you deem fit.

  • @jdjazz Yessir. I'll put it up sometime tonight Commented Jul 23, 2017 at 19:57
  • Not really a question I can air here, but since you mention the Levine book - what the heck does he mean on pg 17, two musos talking, and the 'chord is F Lydian'? Could it be the tune's in C, and there's an F chord? No one I talk with says that...
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 14:24
  • @Tim That confused the hell out of me at first too. I think he's referring to F∆#4 and the lydian mode... but, I've also heard Rick Beato call F B C, the 1st the 4th and 5th of a chord a lydian chord. Terminology killed the cat Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 5:18
  • @jdjazz I added it Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 5:27
  • @Tim sorry 1 #4 5 is Lydian chord Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 5:37

Modes also are easier to memorize than different types of (especially minor) scales.

Once you have all of your 12 (15) major scales memorized, which is easier?

Play an A major scale, but flat the 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes to make a natural minor scale.


Play a C major scale from A to A.

The easiest way for me to remember all of the modes is the "word" LIMDAPL. I don't really have a mnemonic device for it other than saying it as a word: limdapple.

It stands for:








This order of the modes ranks them from "brightest" sounding to "darkest" sounding; it's also the order of the modes along the circle of fifths for any scale. Just place Ionian on the scale you want to play, Lydian on the key signature with one extra sharp/one fewer flat, and the others on the key signatures in the opposite direction.

For instance, if I wanted to play my C modes, I would place Ionian on C, Lydian on G, etc. What if I want C Dorian? Looking at LIMDAPL, Dorian is two key signatures "flatter" than C, so I add two flats; this means that C Dorian is a C scale over the Bb major key signature. C Lydian? That's one "sharper", so it's C in the key of G major. C Locrian? That's 5 "flatter", so it's C in the key of Db major.

A Mixolydian? That's an A scale in the key of D major. Bb Dorian? That's Bb in the key of Ab major. E Aolian? That's E in the key of G major.

This might sound confusing when reading it, but try this: take a small circle of paper, and write down the key signatures around the circle in order of the circle of fifths; try and line up the 12 key signatures evenly around the circle (pretend it's a clock). Then draw a slightly bigger circle on a second sheet of paper. Pretend this second circle is another clock for a moment: put Ionian at 12, Lydian at 1, Mixolydian at 11, Dorian at 10, Aolian at 9, Phrygian at 8, and Locrian at 7 (you can use initials). Then think of the mode you want to play (e.g. Ab Dorian). Take the first circle you made, and place the key signature of that note's major scale (Ab major has 4 flats) at 12, the Ionian spot. All of Ab's modes now line up with their correct key signatures. Look at the D(orian) spot, which should be at 10. There should be a key signature with 6 flats there.

Returning to my original statement, once you know your 12 major scales (which you should know anyways) and the mnemonic device LIMDAPL, you've gone from knowing 12 scales to 84 scales without much extra effort.

This way of thinking about modes might confuse some people, but hopefully it helps more people than it doesn't. If I need to elaborate or clarify, post a comment, please!


First: I don't know a lot about modes, so sorry if I get anything wrong.

Second: The reason to practice the use of modes and thinking in terms of modes is because not all cases will be like this. What if the chords are different? Then, modes will apply. Always thinking about modes when you practice, and using them, makes it easier to remember them, as well.

Third: I personally have never learned about modes and I only find knowing them useful when working with other material/people, e.g. a theory study book, or a music teacher. So don't feel bad if you don't know them.

  • It's a confused and confusing answer. Can you clarify your statements, please?
    – Tim
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 6:29
  • Basically what I'm saying is that practicing the use of modes even where they do not help is important because it will help you memorize the modes, and it will keep your view of things consistent. It's tougher to first figure out whether or not modes are applicable to a chord progression and then decide whether or not to use modes, than just always using modes. Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 14:03

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