MODAL HARMONY IN JAZZ
So what is modal harmony?
Modal harmonies roots can be found in ancient Greek music, and Gregorian chants. While our modern concept of modal music differs slightly from these, what they have in common is the use of a “drone” note. This “drone” note gives us a point of reference to which we hear the all other notes. So there is more a focus on the intervallic relationship between these notes, rather than the chords which are being played.
There are 7 modes in the Major scale, one for each note. While it seems complicated at first, the easiest way to look at these most is comparing them to their Major scale counterparts. So in this table, when it says b7, one would have to perform that alteration to the starting notes Major scale counter part.
e.g. G mixolydian = G A B C D E F
G major = G A B C D E F#
- to get G mixolydian you have to flatten the 7th (F#)
Ionian (major) - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Dorian - 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7
Phrygian - 1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Lydian - 1 2 3 #4 5 6 7
Mixolydian - 1 2 3 4 5 6 b7
Aeolian (minor)- 1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7
Locrian - 1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7
“So what”, is modal harmony
Well, it was the use of this kind of harmony and approach which changed the landscape of jazz quite significantly in the 50’s and 60’s, most notably with Miles Davis’ album “Kind of Blue”. The track “So What” combines modal harmony, and traditional 32 bar song form (AABA). He uses D Dorian in the A sections and Eb Dorian in the B section, each Section is 8 bars long. In the intro the players are just playing the melodic idea, but when soloing, they are improvising over this chord progression. But instead of the focus on the chord progression, as with most jazz standards, the focus is on the melodic ideas, since the chord progression is quite static.
Another good example is on the track “All Blues”, which borrows a lot from the 12-bar Blues form. The use of Dominant 7th chords and the blues chord structure. It’s its scale use that sets it apart. Over the G7, G mixolydian is suggested, which is the same in most blues songs, but over the IV7 (the C7), instead of thinking of the scale of C mixolydian, it is heard more like a G Dorian scale (same notes as C mixolydian), because the bass line has not changed, and it still ascents the G tonic note. So “sound” or “colour” doesn’t come from the chords, but from the intervals in the scales used, the b7 over the G7 and the b3 and b7 over the C7. It sound more complicated than it really is. It’s best to listen to these songs, and compare them to non modal music in a similar style to hear the difference.
This approach in jazz has spawned its own sub-genre known as modal jazz.
· “So What” – Davis, Miles. Kind of Blue (1959) Columbia Records (Audio)
· “All Blues” – Davis, Miles. Kinds of Blue (1959) Columbia Records (Audio)
· “Modal Harmony” by Ted Pease. Berklee Press (Online lesson)
· “Harmony” by Marc Sabatella. Outside Shore Music (online article)
· “A beginners guide to modal harmony”