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2 Exercises for Practicing the Major Modes

As jazz improvisers, we want to know how to navigate our instruments competently. The ultimate goal is to have the freedom to play whatever we want, and not be tied down by our technical limitations. An important part of learning our instruments is practicing scales and arpeggios.

As I always do when talking about scales, let me put in this disclaimer: scales are not a means to make music, but a means to learn your instrument. When it comes to jazz improvisation, we want to be listening to jazz and mimicking the greats to learn jazz language. If you choose to use scales as your primary tool for improvising over chord changes, it will sound like you are.

That being said, scales are essential for musicians to study. We want to have freedom on our instruments. We want to be able to map out our instruments so we can navigate them easily. Scales are a fundamental of being able to do this.

Today I want to provide you a few exercises for practicing the modes of the major scale. If you aren’t familiar with the modes already, be sure to study up on them a little bit more here. However, let me give you a little bit of review:

What is a mode?

Essentially a mode is a type of scale. ‘Mode’ comes from the Latin for ‘manner or method’ but the names of them are Greek because that’s where they originated from. Each mode is related to its parent major scale (Ionian). You can think of each mode as starting and finishing on a given tone of the parent scale. The modes of the major scale are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

For example, Ionian is the parent scale. In the key of C, it would be a C major scale. From there you can build each mode from its corresponding scale degree. Dorian starts on the second scale degree, so to create a Dorian mode, you start and end on D moving through the C major scale. Again, if you aren’t familiar with the modes already, I would suggest going here to learn them. For more specifically on the Dorian mode, check out this cool lesson from Musical U.

Here is a simple exercise to practice your modes. The idea of this exercise is to go up one mode and go down the next. So you will walk up the Ionian and instead of descending Ionian again, you descend Dorian. Then move back up Phrygian, down Lydian, and so on and so forth. Give this a try:

Not too difficult right? So here are a few challenges that can help you take this a step further:

  • Practice this exercise in all 12 keysThis will make sure that you understand how to re-create this exercise in other keys and will help you explore other keys on your instrument.
  • Add a second octave to each mode. The exercise as written only has you playing one octave of each mode. If the range of your instrument permits, try adding a second octave!

Okay, now let’s make this exercise a little more interesting. Let’s add a pattern to it. I call this pattern the 3rds pattern because you are jumping up a major or minor third from each scale degree and back down a step to the proceeding scale degree. If that doesn’t make sense by description, the exercise will be self-explanatory.

Notice that the ascending modes start on the tonic, and the descending modes start on the 3rd above the tonic. Now, depending on your instrument this exercise might push you past your range, so feel free to drop down an octave when you have to.

You can apply the same challenges I gave you earlier to this exercise. But here’s a new one:

  • Come up with your own pattern to apply to the modes. There are a lot of different combinations to try. Practice as many different kinds of patterns as you can to this, and you have yourself months of work!

Try adding these to your practice routine this week, and see how you do!

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


  1. Brent
    This post makes sense to me. However the “Modal Pattern Exercise” in The Jazz Standards Playbook (page 112) doesn’t.
    The part that doesn’t make sense is that D Dorian has exactly the same notes F Lydian. Similarly E Phrygian has the same notes as G Mixolydian.
    Any clarification most appreciated.

  2. So, when I take a ii-V-I backing track, go for appropriate major scale, try to imitate the rhythmic patterns and phrases that I've heard from jazz recordings plus a few phrases from my head… Is that still practicing a scale? 🙂

    • I think practicing these in ii-V-I form is more valuable, especially rotating them in cycle of 5ths/4ths. I originally practiced all my scales and patterns in modes and in chromatic order, until i realized how rarely I encounter them that way. You only have so many hours to practice. So best to prioritize scales/arps/patterns in order of how you're most likely to encounter them.


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