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 still there are typical scales used in jazz and here is an overview.

This guide will include Bebop Scales, the 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. Are you interested in playing jazz, the modal scales are of great importance.

Here are the modal scales in the standard order:

In theory the modal 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 feel 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 easy job to memorize the modal scale.

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. In other words, 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.

So how can we use the modes? The modes become useful when you, for example, are playing a scale over a chord and don't want the regular Major sound. In many music styles it will sound wrong using Major scales over chords. You may instead use the Lydian Mode and suddenly you have a different sound. Some modes (Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian) will sound good with Major 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.