Messiaen’s Modes For Jazz Improvisation

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a French composer and organist who used the songs of birds, Indian rhythms, and symmetrical scales he called “modes of limited transposition” to create music he claimed had the “charm of impossibilities.”
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by Brian Charette

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was a French composer and organist who used the songs of birds, Indian rhythms, and symmetrical scales he called “modes of limited transposition” to create music he claimed had the “charm of impossibilities.” On first listen, Messiaen’s music sounds a world away from the traditional major and minor sounding system to which our ears are accustomed.

The modes of limited transposition are seven scale-like groupings, defined by Messiaen in his Technique of My Musical Language as “formed of several symmetrical groups, the last note of each group always being commonwith the first of the following group. At the end of a certain number of chromatic transpositions which varies with each mode, they are no longer transposable, giving exactly the same notes as the first.” These scales offer many intriguing possibilities when used over conventional jazz chord changes. Because of their symmetrical construction, they sound somewhat key-less, and can therefore create a wellspring of interesting sounds.

I don’t use these modes exactly like Messiaen does. I look at each of the seven modes as its own system that I can use as a substitute for the traditional jazz harmony I improvise over. I’m not sure Messiaen would approve, but I think you will quickly see that the modes are an excellent vehicle for improvisation. For the purposes of this lesson, we’ll skip the first mode (the whole tone scale) and the second (the half step/whole step diminished scale), as both are already widely used in jazz. In some of the following examples, I transpose these modes into different keys to demonstrate how their sound can work in limitless ways.

04-2011 Messiaen's Modes for Jazz Improvisation by KeyboardMag

1. The Third Mode

Ex. 1a is Messiaen’s third mode. From it, we can extract three triads: C major, Ab minor, and D augmented. Try playing overlapping arpeggios with these chords, transposing them to all 12 keys. Now, let’s put it into action.

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In Ex. 1b, I’m walking a bass line and playing a solo on the Hammond organ, using a ii-V-I progression in C major. Notice how when I reach the V chord, I play a third mode sound (here called Gmess3), then return to the sound of the I chord. If you transpose the three triads from Ex. 1a up a fifth, you get the following triads: G major, Eb minor, and A augmented. When I reach the V chord, I arpeggiate these triads in my right hand, as my left hand and foot keep the groove going.

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2. The Fourth Mode

Ex. 2a is Messiaen’s fourth mode. I put it into practical use in Ex. 2b, using chord voicings extracted from this mode, here called Cmess4.

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This works extremely well when comping on organ or other keyboards behind a soloist who’s playing outside of the indicated chord changes.

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3. The Fifth Mode

Ex. 3a is Messiaen’s fifth mode, which has an exotic, almost Middle Eastern sound. Let’s harness those intriguing sonorities in Ex. 3b.

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Here, I use this mode a sixth up in the key of A (Amess5) over a slow, mantra-like bass line.

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4. The Sixth Mode

Messiaen’s sixth mode shown in Ex. 4a is similar in sound and construction to the whole tone scale, but it adds the natural fourth and natural seventh scale degrees.

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In Ex. 4b, I use this chromatically enhanced mode a half step down in the key of B (here called Bmess6), where I might otherwise play the whole tone scale.

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5. The Seventh Mode

Ex. 5a illustrates Messiaen’s seventh mode. I put it to work in Ex. 5b, taking a more pianistic approach.

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Here, I use this mode up a fourth in the key of F, where I might normally play a pentatonic sounding passage.

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The chords and right hand lines in bars 2 and 3 are all based on the notes in this mode.

Check out Brian Charette live at 55 Bar.

Brian Charette has performed and recorded with Joni Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to leading his own jazz groups. His latest album is called Learning to Count, and is available on Amazon and iTunes. Visit him at kungfugue.com for more info. Jon Regen

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