Jazz scales and improvisation

There isn’t 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 The Modal Scales, Jazz Minor Scales and Bebop Scales.

The Modal Scales

The modal scales (often referred to as just modes) were once discovered in ancient Greek. 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 since they are not like other typical scales. But the thing is: they are really just variations of major scales but start on another degree. So, if you know the major scales you have an easy job to memorize the modal scale.

For example, if we take the C major scale and play this in the Dorian mode, what happens is that the notes remain the same, but the starting point is altered. So C - D - E - F - G - A - B can change to D - E - F - G - A - B - C and become Dorian.


Let’s look at 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 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 then you for example are playing a scale over a chord and don't want the regular major sound. In many music styles it will not always sound good using major scales over chords. You may instead use the Dorian 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.

Jazz Minor Scales

The “Jazz Minor Scale” is a melodic minor scale, but without any change of notes when descending, see Melodic Minor. The Jazz Minor is often used as a replacement for other minor scales in jazz.
jazz minor scale in C
Above is an illustration of this scale in Cm. The next step is to use these notes in different modes according to this:

Other useful scales

Bebop Scales – click the link for description and diagrams of these scales.
Super Locrian Scales – click the link for description and diagrams of these scales.
Nine Tone Scales – click the link for description and diagrams of these scales.