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Practical use of modal scales

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Bryan Hassing, Oct 20, 2003.

  1. Hello:

    I have searched this bulletin board and other sources for direction on the practical use of modal scales in the performance of music. Over and over I have read how modes are constructed. However, I still do not understand how to make practical use of the unique coloration afforded by each mode. In other words, when does one begin playing a modal passage versus simply "wandering" through notes of the key signature?

    Jimmy Haslip provides in his book "The Melodic Bass Library" several examples of bass lines constructed using modes of the C-Major scale. However, these lines do not necessarily begin with the root of the mode (i.e. the D-Dorian bass line ends in "D" but does not begin with "D").

    I play bass in a group at the church I attend. I understand it's best to play the root of a chord at each chord change. Following that, I realize I may choose to use other notes of the chord. But I become confused at this point. As an example, let's say we're playing a song in the key of C-Major and the organ is sustaining a Dmin7 chord. I realize one of the modes I can play over this chord is D-Dorian. Must I begin a phrase with "D" and then play up or down from there (using only notes within C-Major) to establish the color of D-Dorian? Put another way, would the phrase D F A C B C B C be an example of the use of D-Dorian or have too many intervals been left out to consider this a D-Dorian phrase? Thanks.
  2. ClarkW


    Aug 1, 2003
    Provo, UT. USA
    While the end result might sound a bit the same, knowledge of modal theory changes that "wandering" to a directed path. It will also make you quicker at picking out which notes to use in the event of a key change or a chord that is out of the key.

    In another sense, and to give you a more specific example, there is a subsection of jazz often called "modal jazz" (Miles Davis was a big player in this genre) where the song would involve very long (16 measures or more) sections of a single chord, such as "D minor." D minor, of course, knowing nothing else about the song, could be in dorian, phrygian, or aeolian mode, couldn't it? So they would use all of them. Whatever the soloist felt like playing, s/he would.

    "Must" is a strong word. I'd agree that it's a good idea to hit the root on the chord changes and go from there, as that's what gives a characteristic walking feel. Doing otherwise (hitting the 3rd or the 5th or something else) would likely change the whole feel of the chord, and thus the song.

    As for your latter question, the phrase "D F A C B C B C" definitely fits in with the Dorian mode, and I wouldn't worry one bit about leaving out intervals. All you've really left out is the 2nd and 4th, and it's a rare occasion that anyone actually wants to hear straight scale runs (Yngwie Malmsteen, for example?) in a song, especially from the bass player. In fact, I would encourage you to think about playing even FEWER notes.

    I usually think in terms of the Ionian and Aeolian modes, and go from there, because those are the two modes (and perhaps Mixolydian) that people's ears are "used" to hearing. So then you ask yourself, what differentiates the current mode? Well the Dorian mode only has one note different from the Aeolian mode, right? A 6th instead of the flatted 6th in the Aeolian. The Dorian mode is only one note off from the Mixolydian mode, with a flat 3rd instead of the (major) 3rd, right? And it's two notes different from the Ionian, with the flat (minor) 3rd and the flat (minor) 7th. So in the context of the song, I might try to emphasize the notes that are DIFFERENT.

    You're essentially doing that by playing the F and the B and the C, but you can probably get away with less if you wanted to and still IMPLY the Dorian mode. Something like this:

    1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &
    D     ABd   F
    The lowercase d is for the 8th, or the octave up. See how I use the root, fifth, and octave, a very conservative line, using the B (the 6th) as an almost passing note, and then the F (minor 3rd) as a leading tone into either another measure of Dm7 or maybe a G chord, or if you're moving back to the C, replace that F with a B. It's the 6th, emphasizing the Dorian mode, but also the strong 7th of the C Ionian, so it makes a great leading tone.

    Hope that gives you some ideas. I think you've got a good grasp of it, you just need to experiment a bit to find out what your ear likes, and what the music needs. Good luck.
  3. ClarkW: Thanks. That clears things up quite a bit.
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