Jazz scales and improvisation

There is not a single group of scales that can be called jazz scales – a jazz pianist uses lots of different scales. But there are typical scales used in jazz as this overview shows. F, Bb, Eb and Ab are all common keys in jazz since they work well for brass instrument.

This guide will include Bebop Scales, Modal Scales and Jazz Minor scales.

Useful scales:

Bebop Scales – great for soloing or improvising in jazz.
Super Locrian Scales – common for modern jazz.
Nine Tone Scales – sometimes used for jazz improvising.

The Modal Scales

The Modal Scales (often referred to as just modes) were once discovered in Ancient Greece. In modern days the Modal Scales are frequently used in jazz improvisation. Dorian is often played over minor chords, Lydian is often played over major chords and Mixolydian is often played over dominant chords.

Here are the modal scales in the standard order:

In theory, these scales are more like keys or modus (‘interval’ in Latin), but we will use either “scales” or “modes” as terms. The Modal Scales will probably be kind of complicated in the beginning, but the thing is: they are really just variations of major scales starting on another degree. Therefore, if you know the major scales you will have an easier job to memorize each of the modes.

If we take the C Major Scale and play it in the Dorian Mode, what happens is that the notes remain the same, but the starting point is altered. C - D - E - F - G - A - B change to D - E - F - G - A - B - C and become Dorian.


Here is a complete overview of the modus of C Major:

Ionian: The tonic is still C.
Dorian: The tonic change to D.
Phrygian: The tonic change to E.
Lydian: The tonic change to F.
Mixolydian: The tonic change to G.
Aeolian: The tonic change to A (this is identical with the A Minor Scale).
Locrian: The tonic change to B.

What is all this good for you may ask. Why don't stick to the regular Major scales? It is true that the notes are the same in modes as in Major scales, but not the note order and that makes a big difference. It is the changed order that gives them a unique sound quality that is caused by a different root note.

We can see the differences by comparing the interval formula of the Major Scale:

with the intervals in some of the modes …

So how can we use the modes? As already said, the modes can become useful when you are playing a scale over a chord in an improvisation situation. Some modes (Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian) will sound good with Major or Dominant chords and some (Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian and Locrian) will sound good with Minor chords. Exceptions from this is possible, although.

Jazz Minor Scales

The “Jazz Minor Scale” is a melodic minor scale, but without any change of notes when descending, see Melodic Minor.
Jazz minor scale in C
The Jazz Minor is often used as a replacement for other minor scales in jazz.

Backing tracks

It is also possible to improvise jazz piano by playing the common Major and Minor scales. Backing tracks for jazz presented by Pianoscales.org.

Jazz Scales backing tracks album cover
Track list

C Sweet and Soft

Show scale C major scale diagram

Gm Gypsy

Show scale G minor scale diagram

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