The Secret to Unlocking the Lydian Sound: From Boring Modes to Killing Solos

Open up any music theory book and you’ll find the term “lydian.” A funny sounding word that refers to the fourth mode of the major scale. You’ve, no doubt, played this scale. You’ve probably even practiced it in every key and studied it’s relationship to the tonic…

But what if I told you that you don’t know this scale. That the way that most theory books and teachers teach this mode is putting you into a harmonic straightjacket…

If you’ve only practiced this scale as an exercise, you’re missing out on a sound and harmonic approach that has been utilized by some of the greatest modern improvisers and musicians like Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Mark Turner and Jacob Collier.

And today we’re going to show you the secret to unlocking this sound – turning a mundane theory concept into a real musical technique that you can use in your solos.

Let me show you what I mean…

The lydian mode: What you really need to know

In Western music theory, “lydian” refers to the fourth mode of the Major scale:

It’s one of the seven musical modes of each key, defined by a raised 4th scale degree. In jazz theory the term lydian becomes synonymous with any number of scales that feature the #11.

This definition is fine if you want to memorize your major scales or pass a test, but if you want to improvise over this sound, you need a different approach – and this requires a mental shift.

Instead of a mode or scale that exists only in relation to a major scale, you should look at lydian as a sound all its own. 

And you’ll be surprised to know that this sound has quite a history…

From the teachings of Pythagorus to ancient Chinese musicians, and much later in George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept, lydian” wasn’t a mode or a scale, but a sound – the sound.

These musical minds conceived of a naturally occurring sound built from a series of consecutive 5ths. For instance, take the first 7 tones in the circle of 5ths and stack them vertically:

The resulting chord would be what we would refer to as a Major 7 #11 chord, containing the 9th and 13th. And from that chord you can create the following scale…

A seven note scale constructed from a series of successive Perfect 5ths. For these theorists, this chord, and corresponding scale, was the starting point for harmonic and melodic construction in music.

And this vertical relationship to sound relates closely to how many improvisers conceive of harmony. Listen to how Bill Evans uses this sound in the chord progression to his tune Time Remembered:

When you begin to think of lydian not as a mode within a major scale, but a sound in and of itself you’ll open up a number of harmonic possibilities in your playing.

And this can change the way you approach harmony…

Enter Jacob Collier

By now you’ve probably heard of Jacob Collier.

And if you’ve listened to his compositions and arrangements you may have noticed the lydian sound in his tunes. To see what I mean, check out the last chord of his arrangement of Fascinating Rhythm:

One of the reasons he has such a complex sound is his approach to harmony – the way he conceptualizes the construction of music. To him the lydian mode is not just a scale or a nice chord to end on, but a sound that relates to his overall approach to harmony and the construction of sound.

Check out this masterclass he did in Norway for more on his musical approach. As he explains his musical conception comes out of the inherent 5th relationship in the construction of harmony – the Circle of 5ths.

Some of the points he makes that you should keep in mind when studying harmony…

  • The difference between the bright and dark side of circle of 5ths
  • The intervals of 5ths imply Major and 4ths imply minor
  • By adding successive key centers from the circle of 5ths, the sound becomes brighter
  • Lydian is the natural sound of the Major side of the Circle of  5ths

And in the interview below he talks about his Super-Ultra-Hyper-Mega-Meta Lydian sound: 

He describes this sound as “lydian in it’s most natural form.”

A scale that naturally keeps ascending, the lydian sound moving successively through the circle of fifths:

But enough about the theory, where are you actually going to find this sound in real-life? And more importantly, how are you going to improvise over it?

Tunes: 14 songs that utilize the Major 7 (#11) sound

The key to improvising over the lydian sound starts with ingraining it in your ear. And this means some serious listening

Lucky for us, there are dozens of tunes in the jazz repertoire that utilize the unique sound of the Major7 #11 chord.

In the mid-1960’s the lydian sound became a central part of the sound of modern jazz from the compositions of Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and Chick Corea to the harmonic and melodic conception of the great Woody Shaw.

If you truly want to master this sound, you need to study the tunes that use it…

To begin, let’s take a listen to two compositions that prominently feature the Major 7 #11 sound. The most well-known is Joe Henderson’s composition Inner Urge from his album of the same name.

As you can see in this excerpt, the first 16 bars of the tune feature extended sections of the Major7#11 or lydian sound, descending by whole-steps. 

Another great example is the tune Zoltan from Larry Young’s album Unity

the first step in transforming the lydian scale from a theory term that you memorized into a musical device that you can actually improvise with is listening. Below is a list of tunes from the jazz repertoire that prominently feature this lydian sound:

Here’s  a spotify playlist to get started…

Before you worry about harmonic patterns, improvisation techniques, and transcribing solos, ingrain this sound in your ear.

Solo Techniques: 4 Melodic Tactics for the lydian sound

Now that you have this sound in your ear, what you are going to improvise over it??

The most obvious place to gather melodic material is with the standard lydian mode

The scale doesn’t need to resolve and isn’t pulled in any harmonic direction. It’s what George Russell called a “concept of tonal unity.” The great thing about this sound is that every note works over the underlying chord.

In other words, the root, the #11, the 5th…all have equal footing within the lydian sound. Keep this in mind as you implement this scale in your solos. 

Listen to how Freddie Hubbard uses a lydian scale fragment in his solo over Dolphin Dance at [1:19] in the video:

Here he uses the sound as a sort of G7 alt. sound, including a B natural in the line that resolves to C minor. 

The defining feature of this scale or sound is the raised 4th scale degree or #11. When improvising, you can simply emphasize or incorporate the #11 over a Major 7 chord to imply a lydian sound.

This will take a little practice. Start by acclimating your ear to the sound of the #11 with some ear training exercises. By exposing yourself to this sound your ear will change, making this “dissonant” note sound right. Next, practice using the #11 as a color tone over standard Major7 chords.

A great example of a tune that utilizes this unique sound of the #11 over Major 7 chords is Herbie Hancock’s Tell Me a Bedtime Story:

You can utilize this technique in your solos as well, creating a musical idea around the raised 4th.

Check out how Kenny Garrett emphasizes the #11 (C#) over a GMaj7 in his solo over I’ll Remember April:

Remember, anytime you have a long stretch of a Major 7 chord, you can access this sound by incorporating or emphasizing the #11 in your lines.

But what if you want to get beyond using the lydian scale or throwing the #11 into your solos? Well, here are four ideas to get the creative juices flowing…

Technique #1: Minor pentatonic from the 7th

The first technique we’ll look at is based on the pentatonic scale – a scale that you’re probably familiar with.

If you’ve listened to Woody ShawMcCoy Tyner or Kenny Garrett you’ve heard the pentatonic scale used in a melodic way, and you can use this same minor pentatonic scale when approaching a lydian tonality.

Play a minor pentatonic scale from the 7th degree of any Major 7 or Major 7 #11 sound.

Simply go down a half-step from the root and play a minor pentatonic scale. For example, in the key of F# it would work like this:

Over an F#Maj7 #11 chord, the 7th scale degree is F (E#), so you would play an F minor pentatonic scale:

With the minor pentatonic you emphasize not only the strong chord tones of the underlying chord (the 3rd and 7th), but the upper structures (9th, #11, 13th) as well – essentially hitting all the important notes with one scale.

Take a listen to how the F minor pentatonic (enharmonically spelled) sounds over a F#Maj.7 (#11) chord:

(You also can think of the related major pentatonic as well, Ab Maj pentatonic =F minor pentatonic, the notes are the same.)

If you listen again to the melody of Zoltan you’ll find that it is constructed using this technique of a minor pentatonic from the 7th of Major 7 #11 chords:

Let’s take a look at a few examples of this “lydian pentatonic” technique in some solos…

A perfect example of this technique used in a solo is from Woody Shaw’s solo on Zoltan:

Here he plays F minor pentatonic material over an F#Maj7 #11 sound, accessing the minor pentatonic a half-step below the root. 

Another excellent Woody Shaw example comes from his solo on In Case You Haven’t Heard, highlighting the Bb minor pentatonic over a BMaj7 #11:

Notice how Woody utilizes the inherent 4th and 5th intervals within the pentatonic scale. Aim to get away from the root to root mentality when you are improvising with scales!

Finally check out how Mark Turner incorporates blues language as well as minor pentatonic material over the Maj.7 (#11) chords in his tune Jacky’s Place.  

In the excerpt he is essentially moving between C#- pentatonic over DMaj.7 (#11) and C# (Db) Major over the Ab7 chords.

Ready to try this in your own solos? Here are a few exercises to get you started…

  • Review your minor pentatonic scales in every key and in all ranges
  • Visualization exercise: Think of a Major 7 (#11) chord and recall the corresponding minor pentatonic a half-step below the root. Go through every key:
  • Practice applying these pentatonic scales to Major chords, employing different variations and directions within your lines
  • Remember to use stylistic elements in your phrases – not just inserting scales, but making melodies!
  • A good way to practice this concept is on the ending vamp to Jinrikisha, in this case using the C- pentatonic:
  • Create your own practice track like the one above with Transcribe! Slow down the tempo and transpose to every key until you master this technique. 

Technique #2: The “minor-Major 3rd” trick

Once you become comfortable applying the minor pentatonic scale to Major chords, you might want to add some harmonic tension to the mix…

In the same way that you would alter the notes in a V7 chord (b9, #9, b13) to create tension and make your line more interesting, you can alter the notes of the minor pentatonic scale to achieve the same effect. 

One way to do this is by including the harmonic tension of the major 3rd in the minor pentatonic scale. For example, introducing the major 3rd (G#) within an E minor pentatonic scale:

This technique allows you to temporarily step outside of the harmony of the written chord progression. And when you apply this minor-major pentatonic sound to a Major chord it includes the harmonic dissonance of the minor 3rd (ex. E- pentatonic over FMaj7 #11):

One tune that uses this technique is Joe Henderson’s Afro-CentricNotice how the melody uses the E natural:

The melody is composed of C- pentatonic material over a DbMaj7 #11 chord and includes the dissonant E natural

Another similar example can be found in Vincent Herring’s tune Don’t Let It Go:

Over a Db Maj7 #11 chord he employs a C minor pentatonic scale with the addition of an E natural that is emphasized on the downbeat.

Finally check out how Woody Shaw uses this technique in his solo over In Case You Haven’t Heard:

Here Shaw employs E minor pentatonic material with an Ab (G#) – a harmonic side-stepping between consonance and dissonance.

Here are a few practice ideas to master this technique:

  • Create melodic variations and patterns with this modified pentatonic scale, emphasizing the half-step motion between the minor and major 3rd
  • Within the minor pentatonic scale, utilize the major 3rd as an approach note, as a passing tone, and as an emphasized dissonance
  • Utilizing the same technique as the major-minor 3rds, experiment with the half-step motion between the b7 and natural 7 in the minor pentatonic scale as Woody Shaw does in the above excerpt

Technique #3: A triadic approach to lydian

The great thing about the lydian sound is that some very simple melodic techniques can create some unique harmonic and melodic effect in your solos.

One of these techniques centers around a major triad built on the 2nd scale degree.

To practice this simply play a major triad a whole-step up from root. For instance over a GMaj.7 (#11) chord you would employ an A Major triad…

Here are a few examples of this triadic technique in action…

Listen the opening of Wynton Marsalis’s solo on Delfeayo’s Dilemma starting at 1:11 in the video below:

He creates a simple melody around the 2nd-degree triad (A major) over the underlying GMaj7 chord. Using a simple harmonic structure in a different context to create a “modern sound.”

Another example of this technique can be found in Robert Glasper’s solo on Tell Me a Bedtime Story:

Here he uses a D Major triad over a C Maj7 chord. Practice applying this technique to the major chords in your own solos.

The next step is incorporating some melodic techniques to make these triads sound more musical within your phrases. You can do this by including the 4th and 6th scale degrees within the triad, and you can play the major pentatonic scale from the 2nd scale degree.

This will create more linear motion and interest in your solos. An example of this technique can be found in Wynton’s solo. Notice how he centers his line around an A triad and includes the D, F# and B to augment his line:

Another melodic approach you can do with triads involves pairing the root triad with the 2nd degree triadFor instance, in the key of G you could alternate between a G Maj triad and an A Maj triad:

Check out how John Swana uses this technique in his solo on Inner Urge:

He is alternating between an F triad and an Eb triad, using enclosures and approach notes to create linear motion. Later in the same solo he uses the same triad technique once more…

Here are a few practice ideas to get these triadic techniques under your fingers…

  • Use visualization exercises to ingrain these triad relationships a whole-step up from root of chord:
  • Practice these triads in different inversions
  • Incorporate the 2nd, 6th, 4th into the triad to create melodic motion
  • Utilize approach notes or enclosures with these triads
  • Experiment with the idea of triad pairs, alternating and combining the root and 2nd degree major triads
  • Create a practice track over a Major 7 vamp to practice implementing these techniques, for example the opening vamp to I’ll Remember April in GMaj7:

Technique #4: Applying the jazz language to lydian sounds

Learning language from the masters is essential for becoming a proficient improviser.

Whether you see the lydian scale as the ‘root’ scale or as the 4th mode of a major scale, the fact remains that these two sounds are related and interconnected.

And exploiting this harmonic connection can yield some effective improvisation tools. Let’s look at the lydian mode as it relates to a Major key – the way you would in traditional music theory.

For example the FMaj7 #11 sound relates to the modes of C Major and vice versa

The same sounds or language that you would use in the key of C Major can be applied to the F Lydian sound. Simply take the Major, V7, and minor language that you’ve learned and apply it in a new harmonic setting. 

Here are a few example the illustrate this technique…

The first is from Robert Glasper’s solo on Tell Me a Bedtime Story:

Over a C Maj7 (#11) sound he uses melodic material from G Major, borrowing major language from the related I chord (G).

You can use the same concept by borrowing language from the related V7 chord. Listen to the line Mulgrew Miller plays in his solo on Inner Urge:

Over a DbMaj 7 #11 chord he play Eb7 language, utilizing the bebop scale and enclosing the chord tones. Think of playing dominant language from the 2nd scale degree, like you did with the triadic technique.

In the same solo, Mulgrew also applies minor language to a lydian sound. Check out the line he plays at 0:53 in the video:

Once you’ve transcribed and ingrained some jazz language, you’ll find that it can be applied to a number of harmonic situations. The trick lies in know the harmonic relationship between these chords and tonalities.

What about the other lydian scales??

In this lesson we’ve looked at how the lydian sound relates to the circle of 5ths and we’ve focused on improvisation techniques you can use on the Major 7 #11 chord.

When you add more successive 5ths to construct a chord, you’ll get more scale options and harmonic possibilities. In the future we’ll take a look at these sounds – lydian dominant, lydian #5, etc. Stay tuned for more!

As you head into the practice room, focus on one of these techniques at a time and aim for mastery. It’s a great idea to work these sounds out at the piano in every key. Create a practice track with Transcribe, loop a lydian section, slow it down or change keys, and work out these concepts on your instrument.

Another great exercise is to practice with a drone. Starting with improvised lines in major and slowly incorporating the #11 or lydian tonalities. You can do this as a warm-up exercise.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to wait for a written Major 7 #11 chord to use these techniques, you can apply a lydian scale or melodic concept to any Major chord that you encounter!

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