by Gjermund Sivertsen
How To Crack The Mode Code

This lesson in how to play modes is maybe the most valuable giveaway I can give to my many followers. Once I discovered this little trick, I found it strange that nobody had shown me this before. 

The idea is to see the modes as just diatonic scales and practice all the modes systematically in all keys. This requires you to only practice the 12 diatonic scales, and not 12 x 7 modes. 

This is my video from YouTube on how to play walking bass lines (jazz piano):

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Back in the days, I learned that if you just practice the modes (Ionian, dorian, phrygian, lydian, mixolydian, locrian), you’ll have what you need to improvise over any jazz standard. Sounds great!


1. The structure

​​​​​​​Ionian = C-C on the white keys. This is the same as the major scale or diatonic scale.

Dorian = D-D on the white keys. A minor scale with a (#6)

Phrygian = E-E on the white keys. A minor scale with a (b2)

Lydian = F-F on the white keys. Major scale with (#4) (ehhem.. the correct spelling should be Augmented fourth, but for the simplicity here I’ll call it a #4)

Mixolydian = G-G on the white keys. A major scale with (b7)

Aeloian = A-A on the white keys. This is the natural minor scale.

Locrian = B-B on the white keys. Can be seen as a major scale with (b2,b3,b5,b6,b7)

2. The usage

The scales are normally used in this context:

Major7 chords = Ionian or Lydian

Minor7 chords = Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian (if you want to add the exotic sound)

Dominan7 chords = Mixolydian

Minor7(b5) = Locrian


3. The problem

First problem:

If you have played jazz piano for some time, all of the above should be common knowledge to you. So now, let’s go to practice all the scales in 12 keys. That’s 7 scales that you should practice in 12 keys = 84 things to do.

Honestly: I tried to do just that when I was a jazz piano student. But: This is exceptionally overwhelming and completely unnecessary. It will only overwhelm you and give you the feeling of not being able to complete anything.

Second problem:

How do you remember what the scales look like? For example: Let’s say you play an II-V-I progression like this:

We know that you now can play the Locrian scale over the Dmi7(b5) chord, the Mixolydian over the G7 chord and the Dorian over the Cmi7. But how to remember exactly what that would look like?

The usual explanation (before our new methods) would be to say: Over the Dmi7(b5), you just need to play the D scale, but now with a b2,b3,b5,b6,b7. Simple! No. It is confusing!

The G Mixolydian is more straightforward to remember. Now you just have to pick notes from the G scale and make sure to play a (b7).

The C Dorian is the same as a minor scale. Now you have to remember how the minor scale was, and then to make it sound Dorian, you also have to raise the sixth note (#6), so you play A instead of Ab.

All of the above is confusing, tedious and completely unnecessary!

4. The solution: Rethink

When I discovered the new way to look at things, it became a lot easier for me. Also, I love seeing the “Aha” look of my students when I present things the new way.

Here it is:


By doing this, you’ll save a lot of time! Not only that: You can now see patterns that were hard to discover in the past.

5. Explanation: The new way

The modes as presented above all contain notes from the C scale. Hence, we can see them as the C major scale.

Here are the scales again, now with a different approach:​​​​​​​

1. The Ionian: The major scale starting from the root
2. The Dorian: The major scale starting from -1 whole step

3. The Phrygian: The major scale starting from -2 whole steps, down a major third.

4. The Lydian: The major scale starting from up a perfect fifth

5. The Mixolydian: The major scale starting from up a perfect fourth

6. The Aeolian: The major scale starting from up a minor third
7. The Locrian: The major scale starting from up a minor second

Let’s have a look at the chord progression again with the new perspective in mind:

The Dmi7(b5): Now we should know that we can play the major scale starting from up a semitone. In this case: An Eb major scale.

The G7: This is the major scale starting from up a fourth. The C scale in this scenario.

The Cmi7: If we choose to play the Dorian mode here, we can just play the Bb scale. Alternatively, we can play the Aeolian scale. This is the major scale starting from up a minor 3rd step.

6. What to practice

I guess you already know how to play the major scales, if not: Practice the 12 major scales. (The C scale, the G scale, the D scale, etc.).

This is all you need to improvise over the different chord changes of (almost) any jazz standard.

Use the MODE-ULATOR that you can find here. (CLICK HERE TO OPEN LINK)

The MODE-ULATOR is my little calculator that shows what major/diatonic scale you need to play to get the different modes.

For example, if the chord (in the tune you’re playing) is a Dmaj7 chord, then you can play the D scale to get the Ionian mode and the A scale to get the Lydian mode.

To change the chord extension, just change this number:

7. How to practice

Once you know in theory how things work, you should practice using the major scales when you’re improvising over any jazz standard:


In this example, I wrote some Major scales that you can play over the different chords. Then I can play the tune and improvising by using the scales.

8. What to expect

If you choose to work this way (You can still use the old form if you find that more accessible), then you can expect to see the relationships with the scales/chords instantly. More than anything, this will give you a lot of freedom to play the way you want!

Please remember: The scales are just tools! You won’t make music if you just play the scales up/down. I see the scales as collections of notes you can pick to better improvise.

Also remember: All the rules are made so we can break them. Don’t get caught up in thinking “Am I now doing it right?” Use your ear and intuition more than anything else when you’re improvising.

I hope it helps!

Take care of your music!

P.S: Check out the additional exercises (both for students and non-students) that come with this lesson.


-=Gjermund Sivertsen=-