Please help. I'm in a bad mode

I’ve seen in various videos and teachings that, in a 2-5-1 (for example), I can improvise using notes from the dorian mode over the 2 (eg. Dm7 if in C), the mixolydian mode over the 5 (G7), and Ionian mode over the 1 (Cmaj7). But aren’t these all just picking notes from the major scale?

Am I being naive when I think I don’t need to know the modes at all for this, but just the scale tones (ie. in this example, the notes of C major scale), and improvise using them over all 3 chords?

Why does knowing the modes matter?

Anyone know what I’m talking about (I’m not sure i do!)?


In my opinion, knowing all the modes is handy, but not necessary. As long as you have a basic understanding of what they are and how they relate to the scales, you can use them occasionally for a little spice.

To me, it’s more important knowing the intervals and the chord tones etc.

The thing to keep in mind in the major scale, the 2nd degree is minor, the 5th is perfect, and the root is Major.

In your 2-5-1 progression in C, for example, you would play the Dm triad or Dm7 (whichever you prefer) first, then the G major triad (or G7,) and then the C major triad (or Cmaj7).

Hope this helps


This is an excellent and massive question!

You are exactly right that the notes are the same for the scales of all three modes through that progression. I completely understand the “why does it matter which one I’m using” question.

Here is why.

For each chord there is a different frame of reference to show the structure of the specific chord you’re playing on.
The mode defines this.
For improvising bass lines, it is absolutely imperative that you build from the correct root note, and establish the tonality by emphasizing the chord tones of the chord you’re in.
If you’re playing in Dmin7, you should be building from D, and emphasizing the D,F,A,C. The notes of the mode (all the even scale degrees of the mode) will help you connect these more important chord tones in a smooth and melodic way, but not all notes in the mode should be treated equally.
Chord tones have the gravity! They are the places to build from and land on in a melodic solo, and they are the structure that needs to be identified and emphasized in a bass line.
If you’re using the wrong mode (building from the wrong root), or noodling in C ionian the entire time, the clarity and specifics of the chord change will be lost.

In a solo, you can get away with this, but it will sound general, noodly, and possibly unconnected to the music behind it. It can get you through in a pinch, but is not ideal.

In a bass line it is unforgivable, because the move from mode to mode as the chord moves is essential to defining the structure of the song and the place in the form of the song.

Holler with any questions! This can of worms is alllll sorts of fun to mess with.


So @Gio are you saying my answer is incorrect? If so, I stand corrected…


I feel like we are articulating the same thing differently?
I think any technical bass knowledge / jargon / etc is handy but not necessary!

Necessary: good ears, non-stop hunger to learn bass lines and play what hits your ear/brain.
Handy: knowing the terms other musicians might use to describe the above.

I think the bottom part of your response is the same as what I was getting at - making sure you know the specific sounds/changes that are happening during the progression.

So, I’d say very correct?

I was answering from the position of really trying to explain what the modes can help with / how they can be applied in a clear way to an improvised line, and just tried to get more specific.


@Gio I think if we venture deeper down this rabbit hole, we could say that the 2nd is a D Dorian mode, the 5th is a G Mixolydian mode, and the 1st (root) is simply C major (Ionian mode). Am I correct in this assertion?


Absolutely correct.

The actual specifics of each of the modes can be helpful when trying to develop a bassline that based around any of those chords.

Some songs use the traditional 2-5-1 chord progression.

Some songs just want to jam on the 2 chord for 20 minutes.

It’s nice to have the Dorian/Mixolydian/Ionian modes understood and a few scale & arpeggio fingerings all practiced and ready to go for these occasions.


OK, so if I understand you right, and to put it crudely, I can (in this example) just play around with the C major scale, so long as I’m focused mainly on the Dm7 chord tones, and ensure the D root is holding it together (when playing over the Dm7 chord - and then the equivalent on the G7 chord, etc)?? If so, thanks for a fabulous explanation. If not, then, umm, aarrgghh!


Yes, yes, and yes.
You got it.

The root and chord tones will define where everyone is in musical space.
The notes of the C major scale are shared between both of the chords listed, so they will work to connect and embellish.
The root is your island home, the chord tones are the nearby islands, and the notes of the scale are the passages of safe water. You’ll still drown if you don’t spend enough time on the islands… but you won’t get devoured by sharks.

… not sure how that last analogy worked, but I like it anyway.


Woohoo! A life raft, thank you very much. Basically, play around the Dm7 chord tones, and if using passing notes, make sure they’re from the C maj scale rather than anywhere else. Then do the same as you hit G7, and again Cmaj7. Jeez, I hope I’m paddling in the right direction here.


Brilliant extension of the metaphor.
Yes - everything you wrote is spot on.

As in all things, as you get more experience and confidence, all rules will be broken. BUT! This is the way towards breaking the rules with authority.