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Scale modes are one of the essential elements of jazz, and they can be easily incorporated into the early stages of piano lessons. In this article, we will look at a number of different ways that modes can be introduced and worked with. These different approaches include explaining the music theory relating to modes, practising the modes as scales, and beginning improvisation exercises.
Although any scale can be broken down into modes, the modes of the major scale are a great starting point for teaching students about modes. They are fairly easy to understand, often encountered in music, and provide a good foundation for further exploration. Thus, they will be our focus.
First, let’s go over the basic structure of scales in order to understand modes.
The first thing a student needs to know is the interval structure of the major scale. This structure consists of a series of whole steps and half steps.
An interval is the distance between two notes. A half step is the smallest interval, and it covers the distance between any note and the closest note next to it – either a black key or a white key. Similarly, a whole step is a little bit bigger. It’s made up of two half steps. So, a whole step covers the distance between one note and a note two notes away, counting any black key or white key in between.
After a student understands this, you can explain that the major scale is made up of a simple pattern of whole steps and half steps. The pattern is as follows: Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Whole Step, Half Step. The pattern can be abbreviated and illustrated as follows:
Once a student understands this pattern, you can explain how it relates to the modes of the major scale.
To start teaching about the modes of the major scale, start by discussing the modes as relative scales.
When compared to the original scale, a relative scale has all the same notes in the same order but starts in a different place.
For example, the first mode of the major scale starting on C goes from C to C – C D E F G A B C. Similarly, the second mode goes from D to D – D E F G A B C D, and so on for each note in the scale.
Thus, there are 7 modes of the major scale – one for each of the 7 notes in the scale. As there are 12 major scales, there are a total of 84 modes (7 x 12). Each of the 7 modes has a unique interval structure – a unique pattern of whole steps and half steps.
The names of the 7 modes are shown below along with their relative scale notes for the C major scale. Below that are the notes in each mode and the interval structure of whole steps and half steps for each mode.
After a student understands the idea of relative scales, you can introduce the idea of parallel scales.
Parallel scales all start on the same note, and they have one or more different notes in them.
As with modes as relative scales, there are 7 parallel modes starting on each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale (84 total).
Each of the 7 modes is shown below. Also shown are the notes and scale degrees for each mode. The accidentals show the differences between the first mode and the others.
Once a student has grasped the above music theory, they will be ready to start working with modes in their piano practice. I recommend providing them with a chart containing the above lists and the major scale interval structure. This way, they can refer back to these materials as they start working with modes.
Get this fantastic modes cheatsheet to take away the confusion for good and get to grips with modes.
If a student is younger or prefers to try new things at the piano before having them explained, you can give them some modal exercises before explaining the theory. Some of the easier exercises described below would work well for this.
Practising the 7 Relative Modes in C Major. One way to start working with the modes of the major scale is to practice the relative modes of the C major scale with the standard C major fingering. These modes can be practised hands separately at first and then hands together. They can also be practised in one, two, and three octaves and in parallel and contrary motion. The standard C major fingering is given below.
Practising the 7 Parallel Modes Starting on C. Another way to work with the major scale modes is by using the parallel modes starting on C. This is a bit more difficult than the relative modes because it involves various combinations of black and white keys. Because of this, you may not want to ask students to practice these in all the various configurations suggested above, such as playing the scales in multiple octaves and in contrary motion. The modes can be practised in these ways, though, if a student is able. With a few exceptions noted below, these modes can also be practised with the standard C major fingering given above.
If a student is practising scales, I recommend that they practise with dynamics or other interpretive elements like different articulations. For example, the student can start quietly at the low end of the scale and then build to a crescendo toward the top of the scale. Alternatively, they can start loudly at the low end and get quieter toward the top.
Related: to incorporate modes in lessons, try this app we really like for exploring scale mode & jazz modes:
After a student has done a bit of work with scale practice, they may be ready to start improvising with modes. As an alternate approach, if a student seems inclined toward improvising, these exercises can be introduced prior to or instead of working with scale practice.
A great way to start improvising with modes is by working with improvised melodies in the right hand and playing a single bass note in the left hand.
In this exercise, the left hand plays only a single note in the bass, repeating it over and over again in whole notes or whenever the bass note dies away. As the left hand does this, the right hand improvises simple melodies within the framework of a single mode.
After a time, the student switches to a different parallel mode by altering a single note in the scale. For example, the student might start in the C Ionian mode and then switch to the Lydian mode by changing the F natural to an F#. The student can then change the F# back to F natural and return to the Ionian mode. Next, the student can change the B to Bb and begin improvising in the Mixolydian mode.
These three modes may be enough for the student to start with. After some practice, the student can begin to add more modes. After Mixolydian, the student can move to Dorian by changing the E to Eb. Next, the student can try Aeolian by changing the A natural to Ab and so on. The following pattern works well.
When the student is comfortable with C as the starting note, they can start going through the 12 different chromatic starting notes. Students should be advised to start with the major keys at the top of the circle of fifths with fewer sharps and flats. Beginning students usually find these to be easier to work with.
There are many good reasons for teaching piano students about jazz modes. Working with jazz modes is an essential skill for anyone who wants to play jazz and improvise. It’s also a great way to get students who may not be as interested in jazz to work with scales differently and learn some theory. My students have enjoyed working with jazz modes. I hope yours do too.
Have you tried incorporating jazz modes into your piano lessons? How did it go? Let us know in the comments, and if you’re keen to study more on jazz teaching, check out our Pro membership course — Preparing Students for Jazz Band. Explore our membership to take this course now!
Dave Long is a musician, pianist, and educator who gives piano lessons in Westchester County, NY and the surrounding areas, as well as online. He studied music at Boston University and the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College. In addition to taking many years of private lessons with various instructors, he has worked extensively with world-class pianist and teacher Seymour Bernstein. He enjoys mixing his background in jazz, music theory, and musicianship into his piano lessons. Visit davelongmusic.com for more information.