The Magic Mode

Internalizing the sound, character, and mood-states of modes helps us develop a deeper relationship with melody and harmony. This post features material from my book The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony.

The “church modes” come from medieval liturgical melodies, and the modern modes are rotations of the major scale. This framework helps us remember how to construct and transpose the modes, but playing them in this order sounds like a sequence in C major:


Instead, playing parallel modes (modes that begin on the same pitch) lets us experience the character and mood of each mode. Let’s also organize the modes in a spectrum. Many people hear Lydian as a bright mode, and each subsequent mode becomes a slightly darker in mood as we lower pitches one by one:


(The Locrian mode isn’t a stable tonal center because the tonic chord forms a diminished triad, so it isn’t included in this exercise.)

Explore each mode with an accompanying drone. You can download drone mp3 tracks for free here.

  • Play the mode along with a C drone, listen to how each pitch resonates with the drone and internalize the mood-state of each interval.
  • Sing the mode with the drone.
  • Improvise lyrical, singable melodies.
  • Stretch out into an improvisation with wider intervals.
  • Add a drum groove for improvisation (I like to run the iTanpura and Drumgenius Apps simultaneously).
  • Improvise in Lydian, then transition to Ionian and down the spectrum to travel from bright to dark. Then reverse the order from Phrygian to Lydian, or dark to bright.
  • Transpose the spectrum into other keys.
  • Freely mix and combine the modes. In Harmonic Experience, W.A. Mathieu introduces the “Magic Mode.” Scale degrees 1 and 5 are fixed, and degrees 2, 3, 6, and 7 are adjustable. This gives us a modal experience of a chromatic scale.*

The Magic Mode


My free book Creativity Triggers for Musicians includes “mode menus” with more structures to explore over a drone. If you want to dive deeper into modal harmony (including melody and harmony derived from melodic minor and symmetrical scales), check out my book The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony, which is used in college improvisation courses across the country.

*In Harmonic Experience, Mathieu guides us through the experience of intervals and modes by singing in “just” or “pure” intonation.” Pure intonation doesn’t generate a smooth, even chromatic scale, so the experience of exploring modal combinations of the magic mode is different than playing up and down an equal-tempered chromatic scale.