Mode and improvisation exercises

Author: 
Milla Viljamaa
Publishing year: 
2004

The modes are one of the most important tools for a folk musician and, thus, it is essential to master them as perfectly as possible. When I was still a student, I noticed that although modes were theoretically quite clear, it was difficult to hear and play them at first. A better understanding of modes has helped me to catch the essence of melodies when I am, for example, playing by ear or transcribing from a record.

Another fundamental skill for a folk musician is improvisation. The aim of my exercises is to enhance the understanding of the tones of the modes and character notes and hone improvisation skills. I have not developed a distinct method for studying improvisation. The aim is to listen, experiment, contemplate and to learn by doing this. Improvisation does not need to be something massive. You can start by experimenting with some easy phrases.

This learning material kit makes you familiar with five different modes and allows you to practise improvisation in each scale. The material is suitable for teaching and independent studies. You can practise with a background tape on your own, but it is worthwhile to play with other musicians: they will be able to react and provide ideas for your own playing. Besides playing, spend a little while on theory. Theory supports your practical skills.

I have represented the modes by means of white keys, which is natural for pianists. Thus, the Ionian mode is in the key of C, the Dorian in the key of E, etc. The exercises can be used in rehearsing other instruments and band workshops. In this case the keys must be adjusted to suit different instruments and players. Tuning in the samples is 442 Hz.

I hope rehearsing provides you with the means to master modes more comprehensively and to utilise them in improvisation. I wish you a pleasant time with the modes!

Recorded and mixed by Hannu Oksala in 2004, studio of the Sibelius Academy Folk Music Department.

Practising

You can listen to a riff in each mode, and build a melody over the mode. There is a short model solo available for each mode. These illustrate how improvisation can be approached from various angles. Model solos should not be repeated as such. Improvise according to your own skills and upgrade your skills little by little. The number of notes or the tempo is not the main point in improvisation: it is the whole that counts.

Practise each mode long enough, at least five minutes at a time. This gives you time to calm down, concentrate on the task at hand and to internalise what you have heard. It also helps you to find the right atmosphere in which to bring out your own ideas.

Practising a mode and a riff

Make yourself familiar with the notes in the mode by playing the scale back and forth until it is familiar to you. Scales can be practised together in a group.

The riff is played from a lower key than the solo part; on a keyboard it is played with both hands simultaneously in octaves. This provides space for solos and prevents the interference of riffs and solos. The more swinging and clearer the riff, the nicer it is to play a solo. It is worth practising the riff until you can play it with ease.

Practising improvisation

It is easiest to start practising by limiting the notes in use. Each player in turn improvises over the riff played by others by using only a couple of notes. Returning to the riff marks the end of the improvisation. Rehearsal riffs and solos played over them can also be used in pieces that are going to be played later.

An independent student can exploit ready-made background riffs when practising improvisation. Solos played over the riffs may be free in their metre. You should return to the riff every now and then and play it as such along the tape. Remember the significance of rests: you do not have to play all the time – not even in solos.

When completing the exercise, aim at a musical ending. If you play in a group setting, the teacher or an appointed player may leave a bass note as in borduna style or use diminuendo. If this doesn’t work, you can agree on mutual ending rules. 15–20 minutes is a suitable duration for an exercise. Exercises can be used as warm-ups before lessons. In this case they can be shorter.

A teacher may provide guidelines without interrupting the exercise in teaching situations. The exercise can be made more difficult by changing the key and by setting extra goals such as ”improvise in the Dorian mode with schottische phrasing.”

The Dorian mode

The Dorian mode: D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D = minor, #6 (minor with a raised sixth note)

Tuning level is a = 442 Hz.

tuning

Start by learning the Dorian riff. Repeat the riff so many times that the fundamental character of the mode becomes familiar to you.

Dorian riff

Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

Dorian riff.

Next, play the notes in the mode over the riff either with another player or with a background tape. Experiment with different rhythms and invent melismas.

Dorian improvisation

Milla Viljamaa, melodica, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

After exercises, listen to other examples of pieces in the Dorian mode and observe:

  • What notes are characteristic of the Dorian mode, in other words, what note/notes make the mode recognisable?
  • How does the D Dorian scale differ from D minor?
  • What is the A Dorian scale like?

Listening samples of the Dorian mode:

  • Liisa Matveinen & Tellu Virkkala: Viluvatsa
  • Väsen: Bisonpolska

Repeat the improvisation exercise after this and analyse the things you noticed. Pay attention how the different modes are built on the notes in the C major. The mode scales can be found at the Mode tables section.

The Phrygian mode

The Phrygian mode: E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E = minor, b2 (minor scale with a lowered second note)

Spend five minutes playing the previous exercises in the Dorian mode. Go through the important things in the scale.

Start by learning the Phrygian riff. Repeat the riff so many times that the fundamental character of the mode becomes familiar to you. Aim at clear and precise rhythm, look for suitable swing. Try double stops as well!

The Phrygian riff

Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

The Phrygian riff.

Next, play the notes in the mode over the riff either with another player or with a background tape. Experiment with different rhythms and invent melismata.

The Phrygian improvisation

Valtteri Bruun, electric guitar
Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

After exercises, listen to pieces in the Phrygian mode and observe:

  • What notes are characteristic of the mode, in other words, what note/notes makes the mode recognisable?
  • How does the E Phrygian scale differ from E minor?
  • How would a Phrygian scale from B sound?
  • Did you know that gypsy music utilises the Phrygian scale?

Listening samples in the Phrygian mode:

  • Anna-Kaisa Liedes: Kuuttaren korut
  • Hedningarna: Vals i fel dur (Waltz in the wrong major scale)

Repeat the improvisation exercise after this and analyse the things you noticed. Make yourself familiar with the theoretical approach to the mode at the Mode tables section.

The Lydian Mode

The Lydian mode: F, G, A, H, C, D, E, F = major, #4 (major scale with a raised fourth note)

Spend five minutes playing the previous exercises in the Phrygian mode. Go through the important things in the scale.

Start by learning the Lydian riff. Repeat the riff so many times that the fundamental character of the mode becomes familiar to you. Focus on swing when playing the riff. A background tape can be used in order to find rhythm and swing even if you play in a group setting.

The Lydian riff

Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

The Lydian riff.

Next, play the notes in the mode over the riff either with another player or with a background tape. Experiment with different rhythms and invent melismata.

The Lydian improvisation

Emilia Lajunen, violin
Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

After the exercises listen to other examples of pieces in the Lydian mode and observe:

  • What notes are characteristic of the mode, in other words, what notes makes the mode recognisable?
  • How does the Lydian mode differ from the major scale?
  • How would you play the Lydian scale from C?

Listening samples of the Lydian mode:

  • Maria Kalaniemi & Aldargaz: Nautilus

Repeat the improvisation exercise after this and study the things you noticed. Make yourself familiar with the theoretical approach to the mode at the Mode tables section.

N.B.! The Lydian scale is similar to the overtone scale with the exception of the raised seventh note. The overtone scale is the fourth mode of the melodic mode and it is also called the natural or pure scale.

The Mixolydian mode

The Mixolydian mode: G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G = major, b7 (major scale with a lowered seventh note)

Spend five minutes playing the previous exercises in the Lydian mode. Go through the important things in the scale.

Start by learning the Mixolydian riff. Repeat the riff so many times that the fundamental character of the mode becomes familiar to you. Look for suitable swing. Play the piece below and try playing the riff in the solo section of the piece.

The Mixolydian riff

Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

The Mixolydian riff.

Next, play the notes in the mode over the riff either with another player or with a background tape. Experiment with different rhythms and invent different melismata.

The Mixolydian improvisation

Mimmi Laaksonen, recorder
Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

After exercises listen to other examples of pieces in the Mixolydian mode and observe:

  • What notes are characteristic of the mode, in other words, what note/notes make the mode recognisable?
  • How does the Mixolydian mode differ from the major scale?
  • How would you play the Mixolydian scale from D?

Listening samples of the Mixolydian mode:

  • Spontaani Vire: Viuhu Vilma
  • Sanna Kurki-Suonio: Johda mua

Repeat the improvisation exercise after this and study the things you noticed. Familiarise yourself with the theoretical approach to the mode at the Mode tables section.

Additional exercise: Rehearse the Mixolydian improvisation and the piece below with a background tape.

Reinländer (PDF)

The fifth mode of the melodic minor scale

The fifth mode of the melodic minor scale: E, F#, G#, A, H, C, D, E = Mixolydian, b6

Spend five minutes playing the previous exercises in the Mixolydian mode. Go through the important things in the scale.

Start by learning the riff of the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale. Repeat the riff so many times that the fundamental character of the mode becomes familiar to you. Look for suitable swing. Even though the mode is theoretically unknown to you, it is better to start by playing than by learning the theory, which could make things unnecessarily complicated.

The riff of the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale

Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

The riff of the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale.

Next, play the notes in the mode over the riff either with another player or with a background tape. Experiment with different rhythms and invent different melismata.

Improvisation in the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale

Johanna Juhola, accordion
Milla Viljamaa, harmonium
Sara Puljula, percussion

After exercises listen to other examples of pieces in the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale and observe:

  • What notes are characteristic of the mode, in other words, what note/notes makes the mode recognisable?
  • How does the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale differ from the major?

Listening samples of the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale:

  • Väsen: Amanda
  • Maria Kalaniemi & Aldargaz: Triolipolska

Analyse the building of the modes on the notes in the melodic minor scale. The scales are available at the Mode tables section.

N.B.! The fifth mode of the melodic minor scale is similar to the Mixolydian scale, with the exception of the lowered sixth note. Another way of marking this is b13.

Additional exercise: Practise the improvisation in the fifth mode of the melodic minor scale with a background tape. Study the other modes of the melodic minor scale, see the Mode tables.

Variations

The following list provides some alternatives enabling you to explore the modes in even more depth.

  • Composition tasks: Study the pieces where the modes in question are used. Pick up the scale, and if you wish, a theme and compose a little piece. This helps you to ensure that you have learnt the modes. The piece has to sound like the mode. This will happen if the piece has sufficient characteristic notes and the root note does not disappear.
  • More difficult scales. Explore the modes in more depth by searching for them in more difficult scales. Practise by playing and improvising over them.
  • Other scales and modes. Study other scales and the building of modes over them. Do remember that a scale must have seven notes and the structure has to be different from the major and melodic minor scales. These scales are, for example, harmonic minor and harmonic major scales.
  • Illustrating modes in different ways. Make yourself familiar with different theoretical illustration methods at the Mode tables section.

Mode tables

The modes of the major scale can be derived from C major as follows (the white keys of the piano only in use)

the name of the mode the notes in the mode in comparison with the major or minor scale
Ionian C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C major
Dorian D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D natural minor, #6
Phrygian E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E natural minor, b2
Lydian F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F major, #4
Mixolydian G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G major, b7 (minor seventh)
Aeolian A, B, C, D, E, F, G, A natural minor
Locrian B, C, D, E, F, G, A, H natural minor, b2, b5

The modes of a major scale from the same root note:

the name of the mode the notes in the mode in comparison with the major or minor scale
Ionian C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C major
Dorian C, D, Eb, F, G, A, Bb, C natural minor, #6
Phrygian C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C natural minor, b2
Lydian C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C major, #4
Mixolydian C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, C major, b7 (pieni septimi)
Aeolian C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C natural minor
Locrian C, Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C natural minor, b2, b5

The modes of the melodic minor scale: The modes of the melodic minor scale are built on a scale where the sixth and seventh notes are raised both up and down the progression.

the name of the mode the notes in the mode  
1. mode A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A melodic minor
2. mode B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A, B Phrygian #6
3. mode C, D, E, F#, G#, A, B, C Lydian #5
4. mode D, E, F#, G#, A, B, C, D Lydian b7, i.e. overtone
5. mode E, F#, G#, A, B, C, D, E Mixolydian b6
6. mode F#, G#, A, B, C, D, E, F# Locric #2
7. mode G#, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G# alt scale

N.B.! Alt = altered.

The modes of the melodic minor scale from the same root note: N.B.! The scales are compared with major scale modes starting from A.

the name of the mode the notes in the mode  
1. mode A, B, C, D, E, F#, G#, A melodic minor
2. mode A, Bb, C, D, E, F#, G, A Phrygian #6
3. mode A, B, C#, D#, E#, F#, G#, A Lydian #5
4. mode A, B, C#, D#, E, F#, G, A Lydian b7
5. mode A, B, C#, D, E, F, G, A Mixolydian b6
6. mode A, B, C, D, Eb, F, G, A Locric #2
7. mode A, Bb, C, Db, Eb, F, G, A alt scale

All differently built modes of the scales can be formed in this way.

The modes in major scale after Kaj Backlund (Improvisointi pop/jazzmusiikissa (Improvisation in pop/jazz music), F-Kustannus Oy 2003).