Modal Jazz 101 – Tricks, Tips, & Approaches From Miles Davis

Always searching for a new sound to explore and share with the world, jazz musicians are constantly trying to evolve and push the music forward, reaching for something different and exciting…

And this is exactly how modal jazz came about.

Legends like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and Miles Davis began exploring a new direction that would offer a more open canvas for jazz musicians to create upon.

Without a doubt, the most famous example of this style comes from the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue.

Featuring an all-star lineup, the band pushed the boundaries of what anyone might have previously thought possible over such seemingly simple tunes.

Now fast-forward to today, modal tunes have become a mainstay in jazz education, typically offered up to beginning students as easy tunes to start improvising on…

But while modal tunes may seem easy because of their simplified harmonic content containing only 2 or 3 chords, these songs actually require a ton of knowledge to sound like a pro on.

So today, we’re going to get into everything modal jazz and here are just a few of the things we’ll cover…

  • What modal jazz is and why it’s called modal
  • Why the term modal jazz is actually misleading
  • How to think about modes in an easy way
  • Why each mode sounds unique
  • How modes and chords are related
  • The #1 mistake beginners make on modal tunes
  • A transcription of Miles Davis’s solo on So What
  • 6 vital tactics to play over modal progressions

We have a lot to cover here, so let’s get started…

What is modal jazz?

While it may seem like modal jazz is a well-defined style of music that composers and players came up with, it’s more of a label, just like bebop, hard bob, cool, swing, or even the term jazz itself…

It’s something that music historians, theorists, and educators use to describe a specific stylistic period within this great music we call jazz.

And this new style naturally arose as a new direction after playing songs from the classic American songbook for so long…

Select composers and band leaders like like Miles Davis sought to create new improvisational vehicles that allowed players to stretch out and explore, free from the harmonic confines of the past.

And rather than the typical set of chord changes that typically changed chords every bar, this new style took a different direction…

Instead, it remained on a single chord sound for a much longer time, often a full 8 bars or more, and moved from section to section without making use of typical chord movement like V7 to I or ii V to I.

These tunes generally still used standard forms like the classic AABA, but now, an entire section of the tune would stay on a single chord sound.

Take for instance the Miles Davis tune So What, which is a quintessential tune of the modal style.

It only has two chords for the entire tune and as you move to the Bridge of the tune, the second chord, there is no progression like a V7 or ii V7 pushing the harmony to go there the way you’d see in the classic jazz standards from before.

Two chords for an entire tune and the absence of V7 to I movement was certainly a departure from the jazz standards that came before, so it makes sense to call these new types of tunes something different…

But why is this new compositional direction labeled modal jazz?

Why the Term Modal Jazz is Misleading

The “modal” in modal jazz refers to a specific idea…

It’s the idea that instead of composing a progression of chords that move logically from one to the next using voice leading techniques and other harmonic elements, you instead write a tune based upon modes, remaining on one for an extended period of time before moving to another.

But here’s the thing…

The term modal jazz can be a bit misleading to a player because the tune still consists of chords – it’s not like these so-called modal tunes have a particular mode name in the chord changes for you to solo over, they have chord symbols.

You see, even if the composer was thinking of modes at the time they wrote the tune, for the most part, they still write out chords in the chart.

And moreover the soloist is in no way restricted to using only the notes from a single mode over a particular chord…they’re free to use any notes they want and draw from any improvisational device they have at their disposal.

So the idea that everything is centralized around modes for the soloist, is not entirely true.

In general, the label modal jazz is just another attempt at classifying a piece of this great music we call jazz. Just as terms like bebop and hard bob fall short at describing the style from a PLAYER’S view point, so does the term modal.

As a player, a more accurate way to think about modal jazz might be this…

The tune is still comprised of chords, which are sounds, but because the tune sits on these sounds for a long time, it gives the band time and opportunity to explore the full structure of the chord, which may or may not be thought about as a mode at times by the the soloist, rhythm section, and/or the composer.

So now that you understand what modal jazz is and why the term does not quite capture the complete picture of this intricate style, let’s talk about modes for a minute…

What are modes?

Again, just to emphasize, modes are only one way of thinking…a single tool that you can add to your tool box, so don’t get lost in them or think that scales and modes are the secret to jazz like so much of jazz education claims today.

Remember, there’s no substitute for understanding chords and harmony even when approaching modal.

Still, it’s certainly beneficial to understand what modes are and how they relate to a chord, so let’s clear up the confusion around modes for you, once and for all…

A mode is essentially a scale within a scale

Now, recall that a scale is simply a collection of intervals organized horizontally, usually major and minor seconds (whole steps and half steps).

In more obscure scales larger intervals may be used like minor or major 3rds, but in most scales you’re familiar with like major or minor, every sequential interval is either a whole step or a half step.

So let’s go deeper into this scale-within-a-scale concept…

If we take the C Major Scale, and we start the scale from the second note, D, instead of the tonic note of the scale, C, we now end up with a different collection of sequential intervals, which in-turn creates a new scale.

Make sure you understand that it’s because of this different intervallic content when moving horizontally, that a new scale emerges.

Now, because there are 7 notes in the C Major Scale, we can start a scale from 7 different places and each of these groups of notes creates a different collection of horizontal intervals, thereby creating 7 different scales.

In other words, the half steps are always between E & F, and B & C, but where these half steps are located within each of these scales is unique.

Each of these different collections of intervals is called a mode of the C Major Scale, and has a fancy Greek name to distinguish it within the set of 7 modes of the Major Scale.

And that’s all modes are…Scales within a scale with a fancy Greek name.

Why does each mode sound different?

The way things sound always goes back to one thing: Intervals.

And in this case, all seven scales contain the exact same intervallic content…

  • 5 whole steps
  • 2 half steps

but where these intervals are located within each scale varies, which is what causes each scale to sound different.

Below I’ve highlighted where the half steps are so you can clearly see how they’re in a different place within each of the modes of C major.

When you change where the 2 half steps are located within the sequence of notes, the sound and the feeling of the scale dramatically changes, and that’s why each mode has its own character.


And when composers or soloists are utilizing modes, they’re aware of the differences in how each mode sounds, and in this case, where the half steps are located within the scale.

How does a Mode Express a Chord?

Today, we use modes a bit differently than the Greeks did about a thousand years ago because we play melodies over chords…

In contrast, they composed songs that had no chords, only a single line melody, so they depended on the mode itself to give a song a specific flavor.

And remember, the intervallic content of each mode is the unique aspect of each mode that creates the specific flavor I’m talking about.

But the way jazz education uses modes within the Chord-Scale-Theory approach, a mode, or several modes, is deemed suitable for a particular chord sound, offering the soloist a scale choice for every chord symbol (if you’re a frequent visitor, you know we talk about the shortcomings of chord scale theory all the time.)

And while we already talked about how a mode can be thought of as a scale within a scale, there’s another way we can think of them that’s helpful in understanding how a mode expresses a chord…

For the most part, especially within major harmony, a mode can be thought of as a chord that’s been reordered into a scale.

For example, take a look at the modes of C major and you’ll notice that the 1357 of each of the modes outlines a chord – these chords are in fact the 7 chord functions that exist in major harmony.

Now, let’s take this a step further…

If we look at the in-between notes, the ones we skipped, you can clearly see that these notes are the 9th, 11th, and 13th of the chord, and that the mode and the chord are actually identical – the mode is simply a scalar view of each chord.

And that’s how a mode expresses a chord – each of the notes within a mode corresponds to a particular chord tone of a chord structure.

Note that I’m listing EVERY alteration within each chord for clarity. For instance, most resources would just call the chord E minor 7 here, but really, up to the 13th, it’s an E minor 7 chord with a b9 and a b13.

Or, instead of just saying B minor 7 b5, or B half diminished here, I’m specifying all the alterations, so it’s actually B minor 7 b5 with a b9 and a b13.

I’m doing this to express extreme clarity about how the mode and the chord are the exact same notes.

So modes and chords are not all that different here within major harmony, they’re simply two different views of the same information – One is vertical, the chord, and one is horizontal, the mode.

The #1 Mistake Beginners Make With Modal jazz

Okay, at this point we’ve talk about what modal jazz is, why it’s called modal, and what modes are…

And we touched on why the term modal jazz is a bit misleading…the term modal jazz incorrectly puts in the player’s mind that this style of jazz is all about mixing up notes from a particular mode.

But this is far from the truth and this pick-a-mode-and-mix-up-the-notes approach to playing is the #1 mistake beginners make when trying to play modal jazz (or any style of jazz for that matter).

And when I was a beginner, I was no different…

I thought that the whole idea was to take a mode and freely mix up the notes, after all, I was playing modal jazz. This had to be the correct approach, right?

To be fair, there’s no correct or incorrect way to play, but there certainly are ways that are more effective than others, ways that align themselves more with how the legends of this music tend to approach things.

And as you’ll see later when we get into how Miles Davis approaches modal tunes, he’s not randomly mixing up notes or running up and down a mode.

Instead, he’s carefully crafting lines based on concise choices, architecting his ideas using extensive harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic knowledge.

So if modal jazz is more than noodling around with a mode, what tactics and techniques can you use to improvise over a modal tune?

Even another word of caution before you work on Modal Tunes

Before we get into specific modal jazz tactics, a word of caution…

When it comes to modal, most people and especially beginners, think what’s the big deal? There are only 2 chords? It’s EASY!!

Sure, anyone can mix up the notes of a mode and call it a day, but as we’ve talked about at length, the way pros think about modal tunes does not come from this pick-a-mode-and-mix-up-the-notes approach…

The truth is, the way greats like John Coltrane, Miles, or Bill Evans play over modal tunes originates from everything they developed over the classic standard jazz tunes prior to encountering this new style.

Things like:

Jazz Theory Unlocked

And this is why modal is not truly a beginner style even though teachers tend to present it as such…

Not to say that you can’t start improvising on modal tunes early on in your jazz journey, but you want to make sure that you don’t miss out on developing the fundamental skills that come from studying the classic jazz repertoire.

The Modal style is NOT a substitute for learning the intricacies of how to play over jazz standards and making use of the Bebop language

Remember, by the time players like Miles Davis and John Coltrane got to modal, they had already tackled essential jazz forms and progressions, things like:

And they acquired and developed all sorts of jazz language…(Make sure to check out Melodic Power for an easy and approachable system to jazz language.)

Melodic Power Course

Do yourself a favor and do not substitute playing modal tunes for learning how to play over the classic jazz standards.

I made this mistake and so many young players do as well, thinking that it’s perfectly fine to favor one style of jazz over another.

Realize that if you choose to do this, the only person you’re holding back is yourself, and instead, work on the modal style in conjunction with the standard jazz repertoire.

How to Improvise on Modal Tunes – Miles Davis on So What

Okay, now you should understand that the basics of playing over modal are the same as playing over anything else, and that it’s not a completely different improvisational approach…

So let’s get into some specific tactics you can use over modal by studying the man, the myth, the legend: Miles Davis.

While other players certainly played and composed in the modal style, Miles led the way with the number one selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue.

Throughout this album, Miles explores compositions that only have a few chords – tunes that are classified as modal that truly allow the improvisers to stretch out.

And you’re probably familiar with these tunes especially the opening track, So What. The unique bass line and sparse melody has become so iconic, it can be heard almost anywhere.

But today, rather than studying the So What version from the studio album, we’ll pull apart his perfect solo from a a live version of the tune recorded at the Robert Herridge Theater in New York on April 2, 1959.

Before we get into his specific tactics, go ahead and listen to the first chorus solo from this live recording…

And now listen to his second chorus…

Ok, now that you’ve heard and seen this perfect solo on So What, let’s explore 6 tactics that Miles Davis uses over modal chord progressions that you can start using today!

Modal Tactic #1 – Use Two or Three Note Melodic Statements

Stemming from the big mistake that beginners make that we talked about earlier, mixing up notes from a 7 note mode can cause quite a mess…

There are just so many possible combinations, that creating any sort of meaningful melodic statement becomes quite a challenge…

Instead, learn to hear what each of the seven notes sounds like against the chord, and then use only two or three of these notes in a rhythmic way to create a strong melodic statement.

Have a listen to what Miles does here with just the root and the 3rd of the chord to get an idea about what I’m talking about.

With only two notes, the root and the 3rd of the chord, he makes a clear and beautiful melodic statement.

And it’s especially his over-the-bar-line phrasing and the interesting rhythm that allows him to so easily create ideas like this…

By using over-the-bar-line phrasing, varying his rhythms, and focusing on 2 or 3 chord-tones, as you’ll see in a moment, Miles can make statements all day!

Check out this statement using the root, the 2nd (which is the same as the 9th), and the 3rd…

This is the same deal as before – push your ideas over the bar line, use interesting rhythms, and focus on just a few notes to create strong lyrical ideas.

And here’s another example of this where Miles uses the root, the 2nd/9th, and the 4th/11th, and his rhythm is especially interesting in this line…

This first tactic of using just a few notes to make a melodic statement is so important and so often ignored! Do not underestimate the power of being able to craft simple melodic statements with just a few notes.

Take chorus after chorus over a form like The Blues, Rhythm Changes, a tune you like, or even just a single chord, and focus on making statements with just a couple notes.

It’s harder than you might think, but with some continued practice, you’ll be able to do it consistently.

Modal Tactic #2 – Use a Mode With Direction, Rhythm, Target, & Contrast

Using scales and modes in their natural horizontal form is not bad or wrong, but to make them sound like more than an exercise, you need some particular know-how.

And Miles Davis has this know-how…

Listen to this scale-based line and try to hear what he’s doing…

Miles uses specific concepts here to transform a simple ascending scale, something that would sound like a boring exercise when played by most, into a clear, strong, and beautiful melodic idea.

So how does he do this??

Rather than just playing up and down a scale, or mixing up the notes in some random way, he architects his scalar line by:

  • Starting on the up-beat
  • Imposing a clear ascending direction
  • Having a target or destination for the scale
  • Contrasting the material with arpeggio/chordal material

You see, by having a target that you’re aiming for with your scale or mode, along with a clear direction, up-beat rhythms, and contrasting material, you can use scalar material in a melodic way.

Miles does this throughout his solo…

Check out this next idea and try to hear how he’s using the same exact tactics (I’ve simplified the rhythm of the first bar to make it more readable)…

Can you hear it?

He’s doing all the same stuff – starting on the up beat, using a clear direction which leads to a target, and adding in some contrasting material near the end of his line…

And here’s yet another example…

Again, it’s essentially the same tactics at work…

With this second tactic under your fingers, you’ll be able to use scales and modes in a scalar way that sounds musical.

Some things you might try are: changing up the direction of the scale, adding in syncopation, varying your contrasting material, or adding in some chromaticism like Miles does in this example…

Work on this tactic, and over time, using a scale with a clear target and direction along with interesting rhythms and contrasting material will sound natural and effortless.

Modal Tactic #3 – Use Triads From Within the Chord Structure

So much of the time when playing over a modal tune, jazz improvisers get tunnel-vision…

Thinking it’s obvious what the “right” notes are, they go on autopilot, randomly selecting notes from the mode, forgetting all about the interesting structures that exist within a chord.

One of the most interesting and definitive structures that lives within any chord structure or mode is a triad.

If we look within a D minor chord up to the 13th, or the D Dorian mode, we can find quite a few triads:

Now, one of the great things about transcribing, is that you find out that your favorite players have their go-to devices for every situation, and triads within a chord are no different…

Miles likes to use the minor triad built from the 5th of the chord, and frequently does this throughout his modal playing.

This particular triad emphasizes the 5th, 7th, and 9th of the chord, and over D minor, this would be A minor as seen in this Miles line here…

And over Eb minor, the Bridge of So What, this would be a Bb minor triad, which sure enough, Miles uses as well…

With this second line, you can really see that he’s thinking of the Bb minor triad and not just the 9th, 7th, and 5th of Eb minor because after he plays down the entire Bb minor triad, F-Db-Bb, he then continues to the 5th of the Bb minor triad, F.

If he were just thinking of the Eb minor chord tones, he’d likely continue to the 3rd of the Eb minor chord, Gb, but he doesn’t do that, he goes to F because he’s thinking of the Bb minor triad.

Using the minor triad from the 5th is a powerful, yet easy tactic to employ.

Make sure to combine it with an interesting rhythm, and then, once you’re comfortable, experiment with some of the other triads that exist within the chord/mode structure.

Modal Tactic #4 – Use The V7 Pair of the ii Chord

Another interesting structure that we often forget about over modal tunes is what I like to think of as the V7 pair.

Not all, but most modal tunes tend to focus on minor chords, and as you know, every minor chord is part of a ii V7 pair from a ii V progression.

For instance, the V7 pair of D minor is G7 because the G7 is the V7 part of a ii V7 when D minor is the ii chord…

So, whenever you’re soloing over D minor, as is the case with So What, try using the chord tones of G7, which would emphasize the 11th, 13th, root, and 3rd of the D minor chord.

But, know that you don’t need to stick to these chord tones to make it work either – you can simply use the harmonic relationship, and think of G7 over D minor as Miles does here…

It’s a subtle shift in your perspective, but it will drastically change how you play over the minor chord when you’re simply thinking of the V7 pair.

Can you hear how Miles uses this trick over the Bridge here?

He simply uses the Ab triad, the V7 pair of Eb minor, and really the entire line may be thought of as Ab7.

This V7 pair tactic is so easy to use and will get you out of the habit of thinking one strict way all the time.

Make sure you can easily think through all the V7 pairs by visualizing them in all keys, and then start using this relationship in your solos.

Modal Tactic #5 – Use Pentatonic Ideas

Pentatonic scales are popular in rock and pop music, but certainly have a place in jazz as well. While many players like to use all sorts of pentatonic patterns, Miles likes to use them in a much simpler way, which tends to be more lyrical.

Have a listen to this line and try to hear his use of pentatonics, in fact, the entire phrase is made from a single pentatonic scale, the D minor pentatonic scale.

The minor pentatonic scale is simple. It’s just the 13457 notes of a minor chord or scale.

And it’s important to know that the 1345, or 5431 in the other direction, tends to be a frequently used piece of the scale by Miles, as you can see in the beginning of the line.

Remember, even a pentatonic scale is not made to be run up and down aimlessly!

That’s NOT improvising.

Your goal is to use a scale like this as a means to hear and craft melodic statements, just like Miles is doing.

Now another pentatonic scale that Miles likes to use is the pentatonic scale that starts from the 5th of the chord.

So over the Bridge of Eb minor, this scale would be Bb minor pentatonic. This would give you the 5-7-1-2-4 of the Eb minor.

Starting from the 7th of the Bb minor pentatonic scale, Miles descends it in a rhythmic way to create a beautiful idea

Pentatonic scales are a powerful device. Just remember that like any scale, you don’t need to use the whole thing, and that your goal is to use them as a tool to better hear and create musical ideas.

Modal Tactic #6- Use Blue Notes

And the final tactic we’ll share with you today is a subtle trait that miles possess – his ability to use blue notes to add a classic bluesy element to his playing without sounding dated or stylistically out of place.

If you’re like me, early on in development as an improviser, you were introduced to the Blues Scale…

And thinking that you stumbled upon improvisational gold, you start running up and down this magical scale for days, ignorant to the chords or anything harmonic going on in a tune, allowing this scale to serve as your primary improvisational tool for quite some time.

The thing is, no great jazz improviser plays like this…In fact, running up and down a scale, and especially the Blues Scale, is not jazz improvisation.

But that doesn’t mean that blue notes or scales are useless…

The most common Blues Scale is typically built using the root, b3, 4, b5, 5, and the b7 and is usually played over a dominant or a minor chord…so the D Blues Scale here could be used on D7 or D minor.

Notice that it’s exactly the same notes as a minor pentatonic scale, but includes the b5, so D minor pentatonic and the D blues scale are nearly identical…

And the “blue notes” within this scale are usually referred to as the b3 and the b5 because in the right context, they produce a bluesy sound…

Now, knowing this, you can see in this Miles line here, he uses the b5 and a piece of the blues scale, or the minor pentatonic scale, to create a bluesy sounding line.

He loves to use this sequence of notes in his melodies, emphasizing the subtle glide from the b5 to the 4th, In fact he does exactly this several more times in this solo.

Have a listen to this line…

And then again, he adds in the blue note here…

In most solos, Miles will use this tactic at least once because he likes to add this bluesy flavor to his lines, without going overboard. Dipping into the b5 for a second is a great way to accomplish this.

As with all these tactics, pay attention to your rhythms and where you’re placing the blue note within your line.

Notice how sometimes Miles places it on the up beat and just drifts off it quickly, while other times, he places it directly on the downbeat.

Getting Started With Modal Jazz tunes

So today we went over a ton…

We started by giving you an overview of everything modal, going over the the specifics behind:

  • What modal jazz is and how it came about
  • Some of the legends that created this style
  • How the term is a bit misleading
  • Why modal is not actually a beginner style
  • What modes are and how to think about them
  • Why the modes sound different from one another
  • How modes express chords
  • What to watch out for with modes

Then we got into Miles Davis’s epic solo on So What, giving you 6 powerful tactics that hopefully you’ll start using today!

Remember, they’re…

  1. Using 2 or 3 note melodic statements – Often we get bogged down on trying to use a whole scale when just a few notes works far better. Make sure to check out our course Melodic Power for more insight on this.
  2. Using a mode with direction, rhythm, target, and contrast – We say it over and over…Don’t just mix up notes from a scale or mode! Using this tactic will give your scalar lines purpose and direction, the much needed elements to make them sound musical.
  3. Using triads from the chord/mode structure – Remember that every musical structure contains dozens of defined structures within it. Utilizing these little units that already exist within the chord will help give you meaningful melodic content to work with.
  4. Using the V7 pair of the ii chord – Almost every modal tune is put together with primarily minor chords. This little bebop trick of using the V7 chord pair will give you an alternate way to think about these chords whenever you feel like changing things up.
  5. Using Pentatonic ideas – The Pentatonic scale is a powerful tool for melodic construction if you study how the greats like Miles use it. Just like any other scale, don’t just run up and down it, but really learn how to wield it as a melodic tool.
  6. Using Blue notes – Adding in a hint of blues to your playing will give it a classic style and swagger that only greats like Miles use. You don’t need to go overboard with it, but a blue note here and there is always a nice effect.

After today’s lesson, you’ve probably realized that the modal style is actually quite a bit more complicated than you may have realized, but don’t let that stop you!

Modal tunes have become a mainstay in jazz because of one simple reason: They’re FUN to play!!

Use the concepts we talked about today, all the subtle ideas, and of course the solid Miles Davis soloing tactics on So What to start, or re-start, your modal journey. Add this style to your jazz repertoire and you’re sure to open up a brand new world of improvisational exploration.

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