Explaining the Greek Modes

Observe today’s music theory illustration pictured above. Notice the photo of these colorful Four O’clock Flowers – each bloom is unique, but they all are linked together as a family that grows from the same parent plant.

This week one of my newer adult piano students eagerly read ahead in my book Amazing Phrasing – Keyboard, and got a bit confused trying to understand the Greek modes/scales we refer to in both jazz & traditional music theory. During her first lesson this enthusiastic lady openly shared how she recently found her birth siblings after taking a DNA test, so this was a perfect time to discuss the Greek Modes!

I explained there is one Parent Scale who shares common DNA with her children. For example, the C Major Scale contains the DNA of the following notes (all found on the piano’s white keys): C D E  F G A B C. I used the example that a parent normally wouldn’t want to give all 7 of their children the same first name “Bubba”, now would they? Nor would all your children look exactly alike or have identical personalities. So in the same way each offspring of the Parent Scale has its own musical color or sound, and each series of notes has it’s own Greek sounding first name, depending on which root note the scale/mode* starts and ends with.

DNA for a parent scale C Major (Greek name Ionian) = C D E F G A B C. Using these same notes, but starting on different tones of the scale, the offspring get new names – these offspring scales may function and sound a bit different in personality from the parent:

C Ionian  (C D E F G A B C)

D Dorian      (D E F G A B C D)

E Phrygian      (E F G A B C D E)

F Lydian                 (F G A B C D E F)

G Mixolydian           (G A B C D E F G)

A Aeolian                        (A B C D E F G A)

B Locrian                              (B C D E F G A B)

C Ionian (back to the parent again)

Novice music theory students may first visualize this concept by plunking out the white keys on a piano and naming the Greek Modes as they go. Of course, until you are fluent in all 12 major scales it poses more of challenge to conceive of and rapidly play the mode families in keys like Gb or C#, but once you can think of the tones of the parent scale (keeping in mind any flats or sharps), you should be on your DNA way!

*Don’t get hung up in the definition of “mode” vs “scale” – that’s a topic for another day. We’ll use these terms interchangably here.  Jazz instructors place the most emphasis on learning the Dorian, Mixolydian, along with the essential Major scales (to go with iim7 – V7 – Ima chord progressions), but for a shortcut musicians can just think of the one parent scale and soar over all 3 chords using the same 7 notes!

During the late 1950’s and early 1960’s certain jazz musicians explored stretching out by playing one mode for extended solos. For more on Modal Jazz here is an article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modal_jazz

(Multicolored flower pictures below are from a single plant in Bubba’s garden)

Adding Chords to a Jazz Ballad: Skylark Tutorial

Ever wonder how jazz musicians come up with inspired chords when playing ballads? Reharmonization can be a fun experiment to try!  Watch my video to find 3 ways to create a compelling bass line plus some sweet chord voicings to play under the melody of Hoagy Carmichael’s classic composition Skylark:


The Old Rugged Cross: Old School Hymn Played Gospel Style with Sunday Mash-Up

Ever notice how certain old hymns have chords and candences like other familiar tunes? (Especially the ones in 3/4 time can sound like Irish or Country Waltzes, Holiday Hits, or early American Songs.) I was MONKeying around with this request for The Old Rugged Cross, getting ready for a memorial service, when I kept getting distracted by other tunes which sounded similar.

Continue reading “The Old Rugged Cross: Old School Hymn Played Gospel Style with Sunday Mash-Up”

What Do Jazz Musicians Think About When Improvising?

 What goes on in your head when you improvise? Are you thinking about something in particular, or just playing “anything” and not really thinking at all? How are you able to improvise with other musicians you’ve never played with before and sound so good together?

The orthopedic surgeon who was vacationing on a recent Jazz & Wine Riverboat Cruise sincerely wanted to know what goes on inside a jazz musician’s brain. Continue reading “What Do Jazz Musicians Think About When Improvising?”

Doxology: The New Old 100th – An Advanced Reharmonization Tutorial

The following video demonstrates how I came up with new chords using an old hymn as an example. It involves first stripping away the music to discovering the essential chords which give a tune its basic identity – I call these the skeleton chords – usually they are the I, V and perhaps IV chords of the tune. Continue reading “Doxology: The New Old 100th – An Advanced Reharmonization Tutorial”

Aeolian King – Unlock Piano Improvisation

Peace Prayer by Debbie Denke


I’d like to share my most popular composition Aeolian King with you: It was created in about 20 minutes while waiting for a new piano student to arrive at my house, and is a very easy tune designed to free up improvisation for pianists. The trick is, you really can’t hit a bad sounding note if you just stay on the white keys, because the whole tune is based on the A natural minor (Aeolian) scale. Continue reading “Aeolian King – Unlock Piano Improvisation”

Music for Troubled Times

Peace Prayer by Debbie Denke


It’s normally a lively Christmas Season full of parties, pageants, and performances – including outdoor concert venues for musicians, strolling carolers, and elaborately festive church services, but this December 2017 is different. Santa Barbara along with Montecito, Summerland, Carpenteria, Ojai, Santa Paula, Ventura and other nearby cities are having quite the challenge with fires, smoke, power outages, and evacuations.

We musicians wait till the last hour to hear if a gig is still happening,  we check the air quality, look at maps to see if the location has been evacuated, and no one can say for certain what will happen if the winds stir fire and ash up again. We are all truly playing this season by ear. Continue reading “Music for Troubled Times”

CA Here I Come!


The history behind the story also known as…

Bob Takes The 101:  A Road Trip Musical Story/Game

Last Spring our keyboard & bass duo was invited to play a charity fundraising event held in the lovely gardens of El Mirador Estate, Montecito (pictured above). The 2017 theme was “California Dreaming” – they requested that we play as many CA themed tunes as we could – naturally Robert Kim Collins and I included a fair share of West Coast Jazz too. 😉

Once again I turned to musical friends and posted an inquiry on Facebook asking for tune titles specifically written about places in California. I also gathered ideas from my father Frank Denke’s album made for an insurance company in the 1950’s called, Melodies of California: Continue reading “CA Here I Come!”