Beginner here trying to figure out which Jazz scales should be studied first.

The Jazz scale wikipedia entry give a pretty good overview of the main scales used in Jazz. However, there are so many of them (from a beginner's perspective) that is not easy to get my head around all of them.

What are the most commonly used and important scales in mainstream contemporary jazz - those you need to know in order to get a good start in playing jazz?

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    As a complete beginner, who may have stumbled into jazz without any other musical experience, I'd say the basic major and jazz minor are the first to get sorted, in all 12 keys. That's enough for a good few months at least - and with those, start playing with others rather than widdling at home. – Tim Aug 6 '17 at 17:46
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    I'm worried that this question might be too opinion-based. The two answers below seem to suggest this. They differ primarily in opinion, and I'm not sure there's any authoritatively correct answer or even guiding principles. – jdjazz Aug 6 '17 at 21:34

From Mark Levine's The Jazz Theory Book: The Jazz Theory Book

We've now completed three of the four scales from which most of the chords played by jazz musicians are derived [Major, Melodic Minor, Diminished]. There's only one to go and it's the simplest, and least played of the four scales: the whole tone scale.

Further on a bit:

You've now learned about all four of the scales [Major, Melodic Minor, Diminished, Whole Tone] you'll need under your fingers to play over chord changes.

So, from one of the most respected and well known sources for jazz theory the answer is:

Major: Ionian mode.

Melodic Minor: Levine describes this as a major scale with flatted 3rd - using C Major, Eb instead of E. This seemingly small difference has great ramifications when developing melodic minor harmony.

Diminished: A symmetrical 8 note scale with two forms - Half step/Whole step; Whole step/Half Step.

Whole Tone Scale: A symmetrical 6 note scale, every interval comprised of a whole step (two notes in the chromatic octave), resulting a #4 and a #5. Here's a whole tone octave starting with A: A, B, C#, D#, F, G, A. (There will always be one note missing when spelling out a whole tone scale - where to put it is discretionary - in this case I skipped E, using F instead of what could be called E# - a common way of doing it.)

Important: The point is not simply to learn these scales. Levine devotes considerable space to discussing each of them, with all of their modes and derived chords, and how their various harmonies work and are used in jazz. (His discussions will lead you to many of the other scales and forms discussed in other answers posted here.) The modes and harmonies derived from these four simple scales encompass huge swaths of jazz music and jazz theory.

Familiarity with that material unlocks the secrets of good/great jazz playing to those dedicated and talented enough to penetrate it and play it. (That doesn't really include me...)

This part of the question was subsequently edited out, but I am leaving this section intact because the information is, IMO, valuable:

As a bonus question, should they be practiced with all the notes as the tonic or just with "musically interesting" tonics with respect to the considered scale ? If so, how to identify which tonics are the most important ?

You are apparently asking which modes [see endnote] are the most important ones: Playing a mode of a given scale means using the same key signature as the 'parent scale' but starting the scale on a different note, which is called the "root". ("tonic" is a term which is usually used in reference to chord progressions or discreet melodies, where that note acts as the tonal center - think of "tonic" as "tonal center" - not with abstract scales, when it's called the "root" - the base/reference note on which the scale is built.) The most familiar example is Aeolian mode, what we call the Natural Minor, which is the 6th mode of the C Major scale: A scale with no sharps or flats, using A as the root.

Rather than venturing a guess about which modes are the most used, I'll again relate what Levine has to say on this: (Emphasis is his)

Remember your goal: to see, think, and play scales as an available pool of notes, of which "do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do" is only one possible combination.

So in essence, all notes are created equal - they all can and should be used to make music, depending on the context and your own ear and talent, and that understanding is a cornerstone of modern jazz playing. (Atonal and "free' jazz are styles that flourished in the late 50's and 60's - not usually easy music to listen to, often looked down upon. But those artists were driving home some very important points - among them is this one: All notes are created equal.) Levine also devotes whole chapter to practice techniques that will help you realize that stated goal.

If you have a solid grounding in basic theory and want to get up and running with jazz, you will be hard pressed to do better than Levine's book. (If you're new to theory, it will be very rough going.)


The term mode is often the subject of confusion, but it's really quite simple:

Mode in the musical sense means a 'manner' or 'fashion' of playing a scale. There is no absolute difference between a mode and a scale: Every scale has a given key signature and one can play any ordered collection of 7 notes using that key signature - start on any note in the chromatic octave (which has no accidentals) and play a conventional 7 note scale, following the key signature - you now have a what's called a scale or mode.

Mode is a relative term: when you decide, for whatever reason, to make one particular note your root, that pattern is called the scale, and becomes a 'parent scale', as it were, to its other modes: Building a scale with the same key signature but using a different root than the 'parent' root becomes a mode: A different fashion/manner of playing the parent scale.

So using the example of C Ionian - which we call the C Major Scale, the 6th mode of that scale - a scale that starts on the 6th degree of the parent scale, (whose key signature has no sharps and no flats) in this case A - becomes the Aeolian mode, commonly known as the A Minor Scale. But note that C major also has a modal name: Ionian. In fact, if we decide that A Aeolian is the parent scale, C Ionian would then be considered the third mode of A Minor. And so it goes with all modes and scales.

Because today we tend to think of the C Major and A Minor Scales as the basis for our tonal system, everything else we refer to as "modes", but it's by no means so clear-cut, and in truth it's simpler than one might think.

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    Very useful, thank you ! Having tried to read Levin's book as a complete beginner, I can confirm that it can be rough at first ! – JazzNoob Aug 7 '17 at 21:26
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    @JazzNoob - Get a good book or take a course in basic theory, work on it for a while - practicing and playing - spend some time listening to good jazz, and then hit Levin's book. – Stinkfoot Aug 8 '17 at 1:23
  • Well-referenced, although I'm surprised that the Lydian din't make the cut, nevertheless the #11 is included, together with the #5. – Kirk A Aug 10 '17 at 0:45
  • @KirkA - Lydian is a covered as a mode of the major scale. Perhaps you missed this that I wrote: Important: The point is not simply to learn these scales...Levin devotes considerable space to discussing each of them, with all of their modes and derived chords... – Stinkfoot Aug 10 '17 at 3:02

Learning ten scales is an extremely ambitious number of learn at once in all 12 keys. But here are the scales/modes I'd recommend learning.

  1. Ionian scale
  2. Mixolydian scale
  3. Dorian scale
  4. Aeolian scale
  5. Phrygian scale
  6. Locrian scale
  7. Lydian scale
  8. Major pentatonic scale
  9. Minor pentatonic scale
  10. Diminished scale

After learning those, try:

  1. Altered scale (as a substitute for the phrygian scale)
  2. Locrian #2 scale (as a substitute for the locrian scale)

The motivation is simple: scales 1-7 are the modes of the major scale, in rough order of importance/usefulness. The most common chord progression in jazz is the ii-V-I, and scales 1-3 correspond to what you would play over a major ii-V-I. Scales 4-6 correspond to what you would play over a minor ii-V-i. Scale 7 won't be too common as you begin. Scales 8 and 9 will be incredibly important, and could be placed at the very top of the list. (I haven't placed them at the top in order to avoid interrupting the modes.) To finish the list is the diminished scale, which is actually two scales: there's the half-whole diminished scale and the whole-half diminished scale.

Scales 5 and 6 aren't actually the most useful. For a hipper/more modern sound, you can replace them with scales 11 and 12. However, it's still good to learn scales 5 and 6, then you'll appreciate how scales 11 and 12 serve to modify scales 5 and 6--this is a helpful thing to understand.

For each scale that you learn (each of the 10), I recommend learning it in all 12 keys.

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    @JazzNoob Learning ten scales is an extremely ambitious number of learn at once in all 12 keys Certainly true. What I've seen recommended, and what I've done myself is to take a scale, or a few related scales and work through the circle of fifths with them a few times until you're comfortable with them and can use them (for jazz it's recommended to work from the flat side - counter-clockwise - because it always gives you a II/V/I progression.) Then move on to a few more. – Stinkfoot Aug 9 '17 at 3:30

I wouldn't limit yourself to just scales so I'll broaden it to "patterns" to include arpeggios as well. Also don't get hung up on a lot of exotic scales and modes when improvising because most of the time you'll do just as well thinking in terms of chord tones and alterations of them. That said here are some things to practice:

  • Major scales and associated modes
  • Triad arpeggios. These can be very effective especially when grouped in pairs. As an example you can take your study of major scale modes and instead of playing the given scale/mode break it up into two adjacent diatonic triads. You'll have 6 of the 7 notes but you'll be playing in a more melodic fashion.
  • 7th chord arpeggios in the same positions as you're playing the major and minor scales. For example the major scale has Maj7, m7, 7, m7b5 chords diatonically so you should know those arpeggios that are contained within those same major scale patterns. The minor scales add min(Maj7), Maj7#5, and dim7 arpeggios.
  • "3 to 9" patterns and other superimposed arpeggios. Get used to playing arpeggios without the root and up to higher degrees than just the 7th. From the 3rd to the 9th is a popular pattern (CMaj7 = E G B D). Another way to to think about this is that you're superimposing the arpeggio that's a 3rd above diatonically. So playing an Em7 is the same as playing a CMaj9 from the 3rd to 9th. That's the most basic superimposition, but once you know your 7th arpeggios there are all kinds of options.
  • Melodic Minor (jazz minor—forget about the ascending/descending aspect). Minor scales have associated modes but don't worry about them just yet.
  • Harmonic Minor. Same as with melodic minor, there are modes but don't worry about them yet.
  • Pentatonic scales - Yes these get used in Jazz too.
  • Embellishments - scale step from above, half step from below, appoggiaturas, etc.

Extra credit:

  • Melodic minor modes (especially Altered scale, Lydian Augmented, Lydian Dominant)
  • Harmonic minor modes (mostly just Phrygian Dominant, Mixolydian#1)
  • Bebop scales - These shouldn't be new. It's just a way of adding in specific chromatic passing notes to scales you already know.
  • Diminished scale
  • Whole Tone scale
  • Augmented scale

Again, start with the major scales and know them well. Then know your triads and 7th chord arpeggios really well.

Also a thing to remember about scales is that they'll always sound like scales if you play them that way. So, no, don't worry about playing scales or modes "root to root" or any specific exercise beyond the initial phase of learning the notes, the pattern, and the sound. Try to quickly move on to using the scales to create melodic patterns over chords.

The great thing about arpeggios is that thirds already sound more melodic than scale steps and they cut directly to the tonality at hand (if the band is comping a CMaj7 chord then start with the notes of a CMaj7 chord as your basis instead of the entire C major scale).

Worry about getting those fundamentals down before tackling the symmetric scales at the end of the list or any of the minor modes. That will get you 90% of the way there and the rest will start to give your lines some outside color.

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I agree with "Stinkfoot" that a good teacher is really what you need. There will be so many questions along the way. Here is a partial list:

  • What chords do these scales work over?
  • Within each scale what notes are tensions and which are avoid notes?
  • In what situations can I superimpose a scale over another chord?
  • How can I practice the scale besides just playing it ascending and descending?
  • How should I apply the scale so that I can make music out of it?
  • What is a good way to hear these scales in various musical situations?
  • What are some typical chord changes where I would use a scale?
  • In what musical styles are each scale most often found?
  • What techniques can I use to hear the scale correctly when practicing?

That's just a quick check list. If you rely on the internet as your only source you will get a different answers for all of these questions. Think of the internet as a place to find different view points that you then take to your teacher to get definitive advice. Remember, most teachers give Skype lessons now so you can study with great teachers no matter where you live.

Hope that helps

Warm Regards,

Bruce Arnold

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What are the ten most important scale that a beginner should learn first ?

When classical pieces are often using a IV-V-I figure in Jazz it is more likely you find a II V I progression as main structure of the chord progression.

In terms of practice I would start with the major (ionian) scales. As you are on the way (it usually takes some time) I would add the dorian later the mixolydian scale to the practice of those scales you are already familiar with. In my opinion you don't need to wait until you are able to play the ionian scales in all keys before your start with the dorian and mixolydian ones, since a D-dorian or G-mixolydian is a lot simpler then a A-flat-major.

Also a good practice in my opinion is it to play all modes in the easier keys pretty much from the beginning. And if you want to limit yourself on the heavier ones I would limit to ionian, dorian and mixolydian.

Starting with the natural minor (aeolian) in all keys I would there just add harmonic- and melodic-minor to the practice schedule.

Explanation on the relation of II-V-I(*) and the recommended scales:

if you build your modes on the major scale you'll get:

I*  Ionian     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
II* Dorian     1  2 ♭3  4  5  6 ♭7
III Phrygian   1 ♭2 ♭3  4  5  6 ♭7
IV  Lydian     1  2  3 ♯4  5  6  7
V*  Mixolydian 1  2  3  4  5  6 ♭7
VI  Aeolian    1  2 ♭3  4  5 ♭6 ♭7
VII Locrian    1 ♭2 ♭3  4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7

if you build your Chords on the major scale you'll get:

I*  CMaj7
II* Dmin7
III Emin7
IV  FMaj7
V*  G7
VI  Amin7
VII B7♭5

Putting it together:

I*  CMaj7 -> Ionian     1  2  3  4  5  6  7
II* Dmin7 -> Dorian     1  2 ♭3  4  5  6 ♭7
III Emin7 -> Phrygian   1 ♭2 ♭3  4  5  6 ♭7
IV  FMaj7 -> Lydian     1  2  3 ♯4  5  6  7
V*  G7    -> Mixolydian 1  2  3  4  5  6 ♭7
VI  Amin7 -> Aeolian    1  2 ♭3  4  5 ♭6 ♭7
VII B7♭5  -> Locrian    1 ♭2 ♭3  4 ♭5 ♭6 ♭7

though you can also play a phrygian scale over the C-Maj Chord and so on, I think this is a good way to start with.

Last but not least, (I might update this later) you have major and minor pentatonic scales that are pretty useful for improvisation especially in the beginning. My recommendation here would be: Werner Pöhlerts "Basic Harmony".

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