I am classically trained and just started looking into jazz theory.

I understand that the 2-5-1 progression is a good place to start.

My basic understanding is to play the above progression with arpeggios 1-3-5-7 combinations for improvisation.

I also understand that 2 "types" of jazz are possible: modal or chord based.

My first question is:

If I am in C Ionian mode, my progression is Dm, GM, CM or any variations of these basic chords( I guess??)

However, if I am in the Dorian mode(or any modes), does it change from D,G,C to E,A,D and so on through the modes?

Basically, should I always think of it as 2-5-1 based on the scale, mode... I wish to use?

My second is:

Can modal and chord based jazzed be "blended", used together for improvisation?

  • You can have a look at Kent Hewitt's youtube channel, where there are some beginner stuff about learning improvisation over II/V/Is -- a good approach is to "target" important notes of the chords. As you grow a technique, you can target more interesting notes than the root, third or fifth. See eg. youtube.com/watch?v=wsDMOgLjCXA Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:35
  • 2
    Then, your next step is to transcribe jazz masters and see how they approach this. As to the scale/chord approach, I'd say that both are useful and complementary. "Chord based" means "target notes", "Scale based" is more about which non-chord notes to play. Classical training is useful in this respect, but not the end of the story in the jazz style. Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:46
  • 1
    Anyway, this kind of stuff is easier to learn by listening and transcribing solos. This way, you acquire "jazz vocabulary" and everything becomes clearer. Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:47

4 Answers 4


The ii-V-I progression is a great place to start.

If I am in C Ionian mode, my progression is Dm, GM, CM or any variations of these basic chords( I guess??)

Exactly right. ii, V, and I are what are called Roman numerals, and uppercase Roman numerals mean a major chord (while lowercase means minor). So ii is the minor triad built on the second scale degree, which in this case is D, and thus Dm. GM and CM are the major triads built on scale-degrees 5 and 1.

However, if I am in the Dorian mode(or any modes), does it change from D,G,C to E,A,D and so on through the modes?

The Dorian scale is what you play above the ii chord in the ii-V-I progression. The tonic of the Dorian scale is the root of the ii chord. So in this case you'll play a D Dorian scale while the ii chord is playing.

Now, let's go one step further with this: above the V chord, you'll play a Mixolydian scale (here, G Mixolydian). And above the I chord, you'll obviously just play a C major scale (or C Ionian). If we look at those three scale collections, they contain the exact same pitches: C D E F G A B.

This means that, if you ever see a ii-V-I progression, you can just play around with the major scale built on I throughout all three chords. You'll want to emphasize different pitches and ignore others depending on what chord is playing at the time, but this is a super fast way to start improvising above ii-V-I progressions.

  • Ok. I understood it right. As the mode changes, I need to stick to the Roman numerals to stick to the progression. What about the use of the 1-3-5-7 notes of the scale used as a base to learn? Also, are you saying you can change the scales you use, as long as they are closely related, like C,G,F and relative minors as well as using symmetrical diminished scales or super Locrian scales?
    – user33232
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:07
  • 1
    1357 as a base to learn seems fine. You might also consider basing the modes off of their parent scales. For instance, when you learn C major, also practice D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian, and B Locrian, because these are all the same pitches, they just started on a different scale degree.
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:09
  • 1
    As far as "changing the scales you use," we sort of aren't. Although we switch from D Dorian to G Mixolydian to C Ionian in a ii-V-I, they're all the same scale collections, just beginning on different pitches. So I hesitate to say we're "changing scales."
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:10
  • Ok. I think I missed something here. Are you saying I theoretically should be playing notes starting from D or Dm when playing the ii chord and Starting with C when playing the I chord? Or are any combinations ok?
    – user33232
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:19
  • You can play any notes, it's just that D Dorian uses the exact same pitches as C Major; it's just that the D Dorian scale begins on D, whereas C Major begins on C. When improvising, you don't need to start on those pitches, but it terms of practicing the scales themselves, you should start on those pitches (because that's what distinguishes D Dorian from C Major). Hopefully I understood your question correctly!
    – Richard
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 19:22

In addition to the fine answers already posted, I'll add this: the two ways of thinking about it (modes vs. chords) are exactly the same.

Imagine the chord progression is Dmin7-G7-CMaj7. Someone tells you, "solo over the Dmin chord using the 3-5-13." What numbers is this person referring to? The notes of the D dorian minor scale.

Or imagine that you're transcribing a solo. You take a short lick that occurs over the Dmin7 chord and you want to learn to play it in all 12 keys. So you write out the lick out as numbers: 2-3-4-5-7-5-6-4-3-1. What do the numbers refer to? The degrees of the dorian minor scale. (E-F-G-A-C-A-C-B-G-F-D)

We can think of chords as being built from underlying scales. Modes are the scales from which chords like Dmin, G7, and many more are built. If not for modes, we would have to talk about the tones of a Dmin chord by referencing the notes of the C Major parent scale: the note D would simultaneously be (a) the root of the Dmin chord and (b) the 2nd scale degree of the C Major scale. This would obviously be untenable. Having scales that start on the same note as the chord's root unifies our theory so that (a) the scale degree and (b) the chord degree both refer to the same number.

So, the two approaches are equivalent because the numbers refer to the exact same thing.

When learning to improvise, arpeggios are a good place to start. Even better is mixing arpeggios with other techniques. For example, Jamey Aebersold has great patterns for beginning improvisers where you play up the arpeggio (1-3-5-7) and then down the scale/mode. For example, over Dmin (the ii chord), you could play:

  • D-F-A-C - B-A-G-F (1-3-5-7-6-5-4-3) or
  • F-A-C-E - D-C-B-A (3-5-7-9-8-7-6-5)

But you can also reverse the order: descend down the arpeggio and then play up the scale. Pairing two techniques in this way opens a lot of doors for creative practice.

Your question asks: "If I am in C Ionian mode, my progression is Dm, GM, CM or any variations of these basic chords." But there's an issue with how you've phrased this. The chords Dmin-G7-CMaj aren't in C ionian--they're in the key of C Major. Only the CMaj chord pairs with C Ionian. The Dmin chord pairs with D Dorian minor and the G7 chord pairs with G Mixolydian. Referencing these scales (Dorian minor, Mixolydian, and Ionian) is a modal approach because you are drawing on three modes that all come from the same C Maj parent scale. It would be weird, though, to play the entire progression thinking only of a C major scale. To illustrate why this sounds weird, go to your piano, and in your left hand play a Dmin chord while playing a C major arpeggio in your right hand. Improvisation sounds good when the chord tones are emphasized. This is not possible when thinking of the entire ii-V-I progression as being C major. Rather, it will sound better to think in terms of the specific chords/modes belonging to each measure.

Instead of playing a major key, we could play in a minor key. For example, instead of playing a ii-V-I in C Maj, you could play a ii-V-i progression in the key of C minor. Now, the chords would be Dø7-G7alt-Cmin where the first chord is a half-diminished chord (flatted 3rd, flatted 5th, and flatted 7th) and the second chord has alterations on the 9th, 5th, and/or 13th. There are a few choices of scales to use over this progression, but one nice set of scales is: D locrian #2 (the 6th mode of the F melodic minor parent scale), G altered (the 7th mode of the Ab melodic minor parent scale), and C melodic minor. This is again a modal approach because, for each chord, we're pairing a scale that starts on the root of that chord. But this time, the three modes aren't all coming from the same parent scale.

Hopefully these examples elucidate what a mode is, how it is used, and why it is used. That said, when you're improvising, it's really helpful to think about groups of notes. (This sort of technique is called "chunking" in psychology and allows us to store more information using less working memory.) Thinking about the scale in terms of the chord tones can be really beneficial and can have two positive effects: (a) this can help you emphasize the strong tones from the underlying scale and (b) this can help you reduce the amount of working memory you must expend when thinking about which notes to play.


Just to add that, as in classical music, there are lots of ways in jazz to embellish a ii-V-I progression. E.g. D minor 9 (containing the notes D F A C E), G with a sharpened ninth (containing G B D F A sharp), C maj 7 (C E G B).

It's also common to substitute the V with either a flat II or a flat VII. So, instead of the above G chord you could use, say, D flat with an augmented 11 (D flat F A flat B E flat G) or B flat 13 (B flat D F A flat C G).

  • Hi there - if you meant this as an addition or comment on another post you now have enough rep to do that.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 8:45

lots of good answers here, but I think the heart of your question is missed.

Yes, you can play lead over the key of C Major using the different modes of the scale (C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian etc..), but none of these modes contain notes outside of the C major scale.

If you want to take your lead to the next level you can also use any mode that uses C as its tonic. That includes not only C Maj but C Nat Min (aka the "C" Aeolian Mode), C Harmonic Min, & C Melodic Minor & C Dorian (essentially any of the seven modes of C + Harmonic & Melodic Minors). This will give you notes to play that are outside the Diatonic C Major Scale. Try experimenting by playing the G Major scale over a CMaj7 chord. Since G is the V of C major, this is called the C Lydian Mode. In this mode, you'll be using a F# instead of the standard F (from the perspective of C this will be considered a #IV - or the vii degree of G maj).

Here is the best demonstration of modes for guitar that I've come across: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF6kSoxb4mMvhKDfsZo2xymEFGWc-zAOc

Extra Credit: You are not limited only to playing LEADS borrowed from other modes - you can also write CHORD progressions borrowed from other modes. To elaborate on the above example - instead of playing the V7 chord (G7) you could try the VMaj7 (GMaj7)(borrowing that F# from the key of G - aka C Lydian). You haven't technically modulated keys here because C is still the tonic of C Lydian (the mode where the GMaj7 belongs..)

..unless of course you wanted to modulate to another key. This would be a great way to transition into the key of D by following that up with CMaj7 - GMaj7 - A7 - D. The borrowed F# in GMaj7 serves as a great pivot point from the key of C into the key of D.


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