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Scales, Modes, and Chords


The most common chords in jazz can be formed from the various “modes” of the familiar major scale. A mode of the major scale is simply a sequence of notes from that major scale starting on different notes in that scale.

We define 7 modes, corresponding to the 7 unique notes in the major scale. For this illustration, we use the C major scale. This is the easiest scale to understand because it has no sharps or flats. On a keyboard, it uses only the white keys.

The chart at the right shows how you can form each of the 7 modes: Major, Dorian, Phrygian, and so on. In each mode, you can form a chord by playing every other note in that mode.

We often notate the 7 modes of the scale using Roman numerals, with capital numerals for the modes that yield a major chord and small numerals for the modes that yield minor chords.

In jazz, several of these modes are used very frequently.  Major, Dorian, and Dominant are used in almost every tune.  Mode vi (Aeolian) is used in classical music more than jazz.

Similarly, the Major7, minor7 and Dominant7 chords are the most common chords used in jazz music. Advanced jazz musicians find many embellishments to these chords, but you can trace most of the foundation back to these basic relationships to the familiar major scale.