I read that jazz uses the chord progression "ii V I" alot. But another thing I heard is that modal jazz doesn't think in chord functions instead it uses modes. Which made me confused.

Does that mean that I'm using modes to play over "ii V I"? I've seen a video that explains which mode to play over each chord type, for example the Dorian mode would be played over the ii. Or is "ii V I" strictly for tonal jazz and shouldn't be used in modal jazz?

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    You say you heard that "modal jazz doesn't use chords instead it uses modes" Where did you hear it, as matter of interest? It sounds more than a little confused.
    – user48353
    Apr 14, 2019 at 13:02
  • @replete wasn't that the difference between tonal jazz and modal jazz? I mean it uses chords, but I'm talking about the way you look at the harmony.
    – user34288
    Apr 14, 2019 at 13:05
  • it's not such a long time that I heard the first time about the "so what" chord, when I asked my son what kind of chord is this? as I thought had invented a new chord built of fourths. He said: that's a "so what chord". I meant he was fooling me saying: don't mind. it's just something - anything - so what ... Well, maybe we should more often say - when we're going to analyse some chords and modes and functions trying to label them somehow: so what? (what ever it may be...) Apr 14, 2019 at 21:33

5 Answers 5


Definition from Richard Cook's Jazz Encyclopedia:

[...] Chafing against compositions which were stifling with chord changes, [Miles] Davis looked to organize his music around modes -- either the diatonic scales of the European classical heritage [...], or nondiatonic scales of the sort found in flamenco music. [...] [Modal jazz's] main characteristic lies, perhaps, in what it is not: a performance locked into an unyielding grid of a chord progression.

A personal, simple definition: Modal playing emphasizes a specific sound or sounds of chords and scales as opposed to the "direction" or overall motion of the harmony. (This is more in line with Mark Gridley's take on what "modal jazz" is.) This answer is a bit reductive until you see that what we call modal jazz was more or less an implicit response to the complex chord progressions and high tempos of bebop and hard bop. For example, compare and contrast the chord progressions of Bird's Confirmation versus Miles's So What, and you'll instantly find the difference. "Confirmation" has a well-defined harmonic structure that is clearly tonal in nature (i.e., it follows a plainly analyzable structure) which starts and ends on the I chord (usually F major). It takes a journey to its IV chord in the bridge, and then clearly moves to the bVI (Db major) for contrast. But compared to "So What," we find simply two sounds, and only two sounds -- D dorian for 16 bars, Eb dorian for 8 bars, then D dorian again for 8, and that's it. What's more is that the only thing that differentiates the form of the song at all is the transition of the D minor (dorian) sound to the Eb sound. The radical simplicity of the "chord structure" (if it really can be called that) for this tune forces the players to really think and feel about what they're playing, and force an exploration of melody and sound that was decoupled from the usual consonance/dissonance resolution factors implied by tonal chord motion and resolution.

Further information: It's important to note that this "exploration" was taking place the same time several people were experimenting with harmony and melody during the 1960s, including John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Eric Dolphy, to name four figures who made huge contributions to the harmonic and melodic language we now take for granted in jazz. In fact for several tunes that these men composed, it is hard to tell how to classify them as modal or not (Coltrane's Like Sonny is a good example of being both tonal and modal, and an argument can be made for either and both). Often times analyzing tunes written by these men during this period can present problems precisely because they were borrowing freely from the all the available harmonic and melodic material they knew about or could find. Try analyzing Wayne's E.S.P. or Herbie's Maiden Voyage to see what I mean!

  • How exactly does the chord structure's simplicity "force" players to think? I think it could be justifiably said that it's quite on the contrary - the simplicity can be thought of making it possible for players to get away with thinking even less, because they don't even have to follow the changes. Just set this scale and go on autopilot. And the school can tick a box somewhere and legitimately claim that they produced a jazz player. ;) Apr 15, 2019 at 11:02
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    Is this a rhetorical comment?
    – LSM07
    Apr 15, 2019 at 14:14
  • @piiperi, a lack of creativity when improvising over a modal song is often more obvious (easier to identify) than a lack of creativity when improvising over a song with lots of chord changes.
    – jdjazz
    Apr 22, 2019 at 1:52

I really wish I had the jazz experience to give a more informed answer, but I will try to point you in the right direction.

One common example of modal jazz is Miles Davis's So What.

After the head with Bill Evan's chord vamp the solos work over these chords: 16 bars Dm7 8 bars Ebm7, and 8 bars Dm7.

We can note...

  • there are only two chords, most jazz standards have many more chords
  • the chords aren't functional, standards use a lot of functional ii-V-I or other root progression by descending 5th
  • the harmonic rhythm is extremely long, standard harmonic rhythm is between 2 chords per bar and 1 chord for 2 bars

Frankly, the question that comes up in my mind is what does the bass player do to create 16 bars of walking bass on one chord?!? But you ask...

How does modal jazz use chord progressions?

I think it's important to understand there was a desire at that time - roughly the late 1950's and 60's - to break with convention.

If the conventional use of chords tells the soloist to change every bar, there is a certain predictability to what the soloist will do.

What could be done to allow the soloist more freedom and create a less predictable melody? One thing to do - the modal approach - is to more or less stop using chord changes to control the soloist. In this sense modal jazz uses chords to given the soloist more freedom by slowing down the harmonic rhythm and not using frequent chord changes.

A natural follow up question is: why use non-functional changes?

After playing 16 bars of one chord you certainly risk beating to death the set of notes for a single mode. (Conventional changes mitigate this through frequent chord changes where you hear a limited portion of the key per chord change.) In order to 'refresh' the tonal palette in modal jazz we can't change to a closely related tonality, as it will contain nearly all the same notes. We need a strong contrast. In So What changing the chord by half-step Dm7 to Ebm7 gives a completely new tonal palette.

I think that is the general idea of how the chords are used.

In terms of scale/chord, So What uses the Dorian mode for both chords which is the conventional scale/chord pairing. I suggest listening to Miles Davis's Flamenco Sketches to get an idea of how you can break out of scale/chord thinking. Scale/chord sort set's up this notion of selecting a scale to realize a chord in a lead sheet. Obviously modal jazz doesn't require a lot of chord realization. Instead of thinking that way, we can think scale choice and treatment driven by an expressive goal.

Anyway, how to solo in modal jazz is a different question from how are chords used that seems worthy of a separate post.

  • The point about non-functional use of chords is a defining characteristic that is often cited in textbook definitions of modal tunes. In my jazz composition class, we were given an assignment to write a modal tune and were told to avoid functional uses of the chords.
    – jdjazz
    Apr 22, 2019 at 2:01

It's probably better to think of modal jazz as a certain specific tunes as opposed to "a type of jazz". The way of thinking about playing on these tunes is only a consequence of how they are written. If you look at two tunes: modal "So what" and functional "Autumn Leaves" first obvious observation is the modal tune has progession made of 2 chords that change only 2 times throughout whereas in Autumn Leaves you have lots of chords, many changes and they happen relatively fast. So as an improviser you need to use a fundamentally different tactics to play an interesting improvisation on two chord sparse progression and many chords of dense progression.

This above is essentially what the distinction between 'modal' and 'functional' jazz is.

So to answer your question: how modal jazz uses chord progression - I'd say modal jazz IS certain progressions that are different that usual jazz harmonic vocabulary of II-V-Is and modulations through cycle of fifths.

Now, because these modal progression are very sparse, the harmonic "background" on its own doesn't contain enough variation to make improvisation interesting by just following the changes as you would in more typical jazz tune. So the improviser needs to look for different devices to tell a musical 'story' with its tensions and relaxations.

And what's interesting, one way of creating such tension is to think about II-V-Is or similar typical progressions while playing the melody on long static chords to create some sort of 'virtual harmony' and introduce harmonic tension in the melody. So that might be more unexpected answer to the question how to use chord progressions in the context of modal jazz tunes.

It's worth listening to classic modal albums like 'Kind of Blue' and trying to spot how that internal harmonic movement is used. Those cats had these changes imprinted under their fingers and faced with unusual task of playing on static chords just did what they did best - kept playing changes even if formally they weren't there. That's partly what makes this album great.


There's a lot of questionable 'theory' opinions around, probably more for 'jazz theory' than any other sort!

You can think 'chord=scale' in any style of music. If you're in one of those extended funk grooves that just alternates Am9 and Gm9 there probably isn't any OTHER way to think :-) If you're playing 'Sweet Georgia Brown' you're clearly in functional 'circle of 5ths' territory. Or you might be somewhere in-between.

If it's possible to see a piece functionally - to see (maybe modified) ii, V, I progressions in it - then that's a useful way of looking at it. If you like to see ii, V, I as a series of modes, that's fine too.


It sort of comes to the same thing. Let's take your example of ii - V - I in key C. The ii represents D minor (actually in your example not quite, D Dorian. Notes diatonic are D E F G A B C. The V represents G Mixolydian, notes available G A B C D E F, and the I represents C Ionian (aka C major), notes available C D E F G A B.

It's the same bank of notes for all, with different 'home' notes. But that's pretty well what will happen anyway - on a G chord, G is a good note to include; on C, C is a good note to play.

looking at the chords used: D Dorian will have Dm as its primary chord, G Mixolydian has G maj., and C Ionian has C maj. Not much difference from the ordinary stae of play.

Or have I misunderstood the question?

The ii - V - I idea doesn't just work from sub-mediant - dominant - tonic in jazz. It can go much further back. As when, in key C still, there's say, an A chord, it may be approached by Bm7 - E7 - A, still ii V I, but the target isn't always the root tonc.

  • 2
    first time I asked this question was a bit of a trainwreck so I had to edit it to make more sense to what I was asking. I didn't downvote your question as I always appreciate your great answers but perhaps this answer is not in context anymore.
    – user34288
    Apr 15, 2019 at 3:00

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