How do modes relate to a chord progression line in jazz improvisation


I just started learning jazz improv. I’m having trouble understanding how to know what notes I can play, withiin a chord progression line.

Let’s take this example here (What Is This Thing Called Love):

I’ve annotated the various modes within each chord change. Should I be able to play the scales within those modes and have it sound good? For example, on the first chord (Gmi7b5), I can play the G locrian scale. And on the C7b9, I can play the C mixolydian scale to improvise. Is this right?

The other rule that I follow for the 2-5-1 chord progression is:

IIm7 - V7 - IMaj7

  • Dm7 - G7 - CMaj7
  • You can use the m ajor scale of the I (Chord) to improvise over the section

IIm7 - V7 - non-resolving

  • You can use the scale of the implied I (chord) to improvise

IIm7b5 - V7 - Imin6

  • Improvise using the harmonic minor scale from the one

IMaj7 VI7 IIm7 V7 IMaj7

  • Cmaj7 - A7 - Dm7 - G7 - Cmaj7
  • Use the major scale from the 1 chord with the exception of the 6th
  • Over the 6 dominant
    • 2 harmonic minor scale
      • So if in the key of C, you can use the D Harmonic Minor scale
    • 2 harmonic melodic scale

These seem like two conflicting theories and I can certainly use a bit of guidance. Thanks!


Hi Sean,

Awesome post here… you highlight some very important points about improvisation, and how to gain the vocabulary needed to improvise over a tune like this.

Here’s a 5-step process you can follow to learn to play over this tune:

1) Firstly, Try Not To Think Of Each Chord/Mode In Isolation

I can see that you have a good knowledge of modal harmony and you have analysed potential modes that could be used over each chord in the progression.

My first recommendation is not to think of these chord in isolation. Instead think of the bigger blocks of 25s and 251s, and also that the tune follows an AABA Form.

This way, we have immediately reduced the form into just 4 pieces of information"

The A Section(s):

  • The first 4 bars are a 251 in F Minor
  • The second 4 bars are a 251 in C Major

Remember that the A Section repeats 3 times (AABA Form) and so once we have memorised these 8 bars, we already know 75% of the tune:

  • G-7b5 / C7b9 / F- / % . /
  • D-7b5 / G7 / C / % /

The B Section (Bridge)

The other 25% of the tune is the bridge, so once we have also memorised these 8 bars, we have now learnt the whole tune.

  • The first 4 bars are a 251 in Bb Major
  • The second 4 bars is 2 measures of the bVI7 and 2 measures of the V7

I hope you can see how this analysis above has simplified the 32-bar form into a much simpler thing to memorise. Now onto the next step… feeling the chord go by:

2) Download iRealPro App and Circle Around The Form

At this point, our goal is to commit these chords and changes to our memory.

Before attempting any improvisation, we want to be able to play through with left hand voicings so that we do not even need to think about what chord is coming next.

This gives us the freedom to explore improvisation in our right hand, and not be mentally bogged-down thinking about what chord is coming next, of where we are in the form.

Here’s the iRealPro chart for “What Is This Thing Called Love”, and you can find detailed download instructions here.

The next step is to cycle around and around the form Sean, so that we can ‘feel’ where we are, we can feel each 8 bar section passing by, and we don’t need to look at the lead sheet, or the chord changes.

I’d recommend using rootless voicings, which has a number of benefits:

  • rootless voicings and rootless 251s are very simple to execute in the right hand.

  • the bass player (or iRealPro) is already playing the root of the chord so this frees up an finger for us to play a more interesting colour or texture in the harmony

  • by practicing rootless voicings, we will be working on extended and altered harmony, and visualising the upper extensions and alterations of each chord.

The following lessons which will give you all of the voicing formulas you need:

In this form, we have major 251s which have a -7b5 chord as the ii-7 chord. This is common in jazz standards. It’s still a major 251, because it resolves to major harmony, but we are ‘borrowing’ or substituting other minor ‘colours’ over the ii-7 chord.

Spend as long as needed on this step Sean, and remember that the goal is to be able to play through the whole form with left hand voicings without looking at a lead sheet.

We must be able to follow the form and feel where we are, if we are attempting to improvise over the tune without this in place, we are simply wasting our time.

3) Listen To Every Recording You Can Find

I can see you understand modal theory, and so you are now ready to listen, analyse, and transcribe. Your knowledge of the modes allow you to analyse and understand what you are hearing, and how this relates to the underlying chords and changes.

I’d recommend that you listen to every version of the tune you can find.

Then make a shortlist of the tunes you like.

Here’s some versions of the tune that I like:

Bill Evans Trio - What Is This Thing Called Love:

Red Garland Trio - What Is This Thing Called Love:

The first step is for us to just listen. If we have completed step (2) correctly, we should be able to follow along with the form in our head, we should be able to count along and feel where we are in the song.

4) Play Along With The Recordings & Transcribe

Using programs like Transcribe, we must then slow down the recording and work out some of the improvised lines and ideas. This tune is perfect because it’s mostly 251s and so any material you transcribe will immediately be applicable and transferable to many other tunes.

I find that a nice first step is to play along with the record, play the left hand voicings underneath the improvised solo and really listen to where the improvised notes are falling in relation to the underlying harmony.

For Every 251 line you transcribe:

  • First analyse it in terms of scale degrees, this gives us the ‘blueprint’ for the next step…

  • Next take it around all 12 keys, so that you can play that exact same line in all 12 keys.

  • The we will have added this line to our ‘vocabulary’. This line is then a musical ‘word’ or ‘sentence’ that we can use over any 251 progression. You will never loose it from your vocab.

  • Each time we do this, we have more ‘words’ and ‘sentences’ to construct a whole improvised solo.

We have a dedicated course on Transcription here:

also here’s a lesson where we analyse a Red Garland solo:

This isn’t a quick process Sean, this is a journey we take over many years, and one that should be enjoyed!

5) Make Sure We Understand The Underlying Theory

Again looking at your brilliant annotated chart, there a few important things you may have overlooked.

Firstly, the first 4 bars of the A Section are a minor 251. In minor 251 progressions, you will usually play an altered V7 chord. Notice, for example, your chart says C7b9 which implies that the C7 could take the C Altered Scale.

The Altered Mode/Altered Scale is a beautiful sound, and if you are not familiar with this, I would recommend checking out the following lessons:

Also check out this improvisation study of the tune “Alone Together” where we look at some interesting lines to play over altered 251 progressions:


Pay attention to the melody note, for example:

In bar 6, we have a G7 chord with D#/Eb in the melody. This is the #5/b13, and again this indicates that the G7 chord is altered, we may want to reflect this in your chords and improvised ideas.

Apply Scales/Modes Over Complete 251s

For example, try playing the F Minor Blues Scale over the first 4 bars, and we should notice that it sounds great. We look at this in the tutorials on “Alone Together” highlighted above.

Understand The Relationship Between The ii-7 & V7 Chord

Also you can treat the ii-7 and the V7 chord as the same thing, this is a concept that Tuomo explores in his course on Advanced Improvisation Concepts:

Tuomo talks about “tension and release” which I find is a much more effective way to view the chords, as appose to thinking “this mode goes with this chord, and this mode goes with the next chord”

Finally, always have a point in mind where to resolve your lines

Again, the improv study of “Alone Together” will help you understand this, and it should give you some direction with your improvised ideas.

I hope this helps Sean and enjoy working on this stuff! :sunglasses:



@john1156589 - I thought you’d find this helpful.

It’s similar to what we have been talking about for developing improvisation abilities and the process here can be applied to any tune.

@sean - Jovino has just done an improvisation study on the tune you are working on “What Is This Thing Called Love”.

Listen to his wisdom about scales in jazz improvisation:

The key points are:

  • Try not to always think in a linear mindset which is scalar approach to creating music.

  • Thinking in terms of scales gives you a lot of notes but not much lyrical melodic content.

  • Whilst scales can be very useful, if your playing is completely scalar in nature, then it does not leave a lingering feeling of melody because scales in their rawest form are not music, they are just a series of notes.

  • Viewing the triads of each chord will help you make music that is vertically-meaningful, as well as horizontally-meaningful.

  • Check out the related lessons above for in-depth studies of upper structure triads.

Hope this helps give you some direction with your improvisation :sunglasses: