Thursday, 3 May 2012

In The Mode for Jazz

In the Mode for Jazz

Has it struck you as strange the arrangements of the notes on a piano keyboard?

Why are there 7 white notes and 5 black in an octave?

The answer ( very simplified ) is that the white notes came first. There were no pianos back in the pre Bach days, the main instrument that musical theory developed around was the organ (in churches and monasteries mainly, they had the money!) and the very early organs had white notes only.

Why only white notes - the music of the church then (with its roots in Ancient Greek music no less) was based around the 'modes' and the white notes have all seven. The black notes came later;(but they caused a tuning problem which JS Bach and his contemporaries began to solve with equal temperament tuning: thus he published the Well Tempered Clavier, 48 preludes and fugues 2 in each major key and 2 in each minor, published 24 at a time!, a huge issue well outside the scope of this blog - but fascinating all the same. I maintain that had Bach been alive today, he would almost certainly been a jazzman!)

Back to the white notes. If you start from C and play D,E,F,G,A B and (C) you are playing the major scale of C. You are also playing the Ionian mode.

Play from D E F G A B C (D) you've got the Dorian mode. Play around those notes, and you will find a very 'churchy' sound - no accident

E F G A B C D (E) Phrygian mode
F G A B C D E (F) Lydian mode
G A B C D E F (G) Mixolydian mode
A B C D E F G (A) Aeolian mode
B C D E F G A (B) Locrian mode

Or as a jazzplayer might say Mode 1,2 3,4 5 6 and 7 !

The important thing when playing modes is the hear the 'home' note, where does the scale want to end. Whatever note that is, that is the mode you are playing in!

All twelve notes in the octave can be the starting point for modes, not just the white notes and of course to the jazzer, modes can be useful, because they can be a fantastic framework for improvisation. (Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans etc etc)

To progress further down the modal route go on a jazz workshop and you will end up in the mode for jazz! 
Happy Jazzing

Butlers Jazz Workshop, France August 13th -17th 2012

Ring 01323 833770 (UK)
+44 1323 833770 (International)


  1. great post !!! i am always telling my students about the many similarities in baroque music / js bach vs jazz and you explained it so eloquently !!!
    excellent !

  2. Thanks Jamila

    Music is music as they say!