How to Practice Scales for Jazz Piano
Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!
Do you want to learn how to effectively practice your scales so that you can play jazz piano? Most students learn their major scales by playing them up and down the piano. While this is a good exercise to master technique, it does not help you effectively improvise using your scales. To accomplish this, you need an exercise that helps you practice the scales at different starting points. In today’s piano lesson you are going to learn this exercise, which I call a Connecting Modes Exercise. Specifically, you will learn:
- C Major Scale Fingering
- The Modes of C Major
- How to Connect the Modes of C Major Using Chromatic Connectors
- A Jazz Swing Accompaniment Using the Turnaround Progression
Whether you are new to jazz or have experience playing jazz piano, you will find this exercise to be highly beneficial to you. It’s not only fun to play, but it will help you develop both excellent technique and the ability improvise jazz comfortably at the keyboard. Let’s get started.
Jazz Piano Scale Practice: The C Major Scale
The first step to effectively practice your scales for jazz piano is to make sure you understand the C Major Scale. If you don’t know the C Major Scale, here it is:
The C Major scale is all white notes, which makes it easy to play. Pay attention to the fingering above! You will use the same fingering as you practice each of the positions of the exercise.
If you don’t know your major scales, you can learn all of them in our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track.
Now that you know the C Major Scale, let’s talk about the each of the modes.
Jazz Piano Scale Practice: The 8 Musical Modes
To practice your scales for jazz piano, you must understand your music “modes”. Musical modes can be explained in either a very confusing way or a very simple way. I’m a big fan of simplicity, so here you go.
What is a music mode?
A music mode is when you play the notes of a major scale starting on other notes from the scale.
For example, if you play a C Major scale starting on a the D, you have what is called D Dorian:
If you play the C Major Scale starting on E, you have an E Phrygian Scale:
If you play the C Major Scale starting on F, you have an F Lydian Scale:
If you play the C Major Scale starting on G, you have an G Mixolydian Scale:
If you play the C Major Scale starting on A, you have an A Aeolian Scale:
If you play the C Major Scale starting on B, you have an B Locrian Scale:
Finally, if you play C Scale on the C, you have C Ionian Scale (which is the same scale as a regular C Major Scale):
I highly encourage you to play each mode up and down the piano. You can also practice these modes in all 12 keys with our Smart Sheet Music, which allows you to change the key with the click of one button. You can also download the lesson sheet music for this Quick Tip at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.
Learn from about how modes work from our partner at Jazz-Library.
Now that you know your music modes, it’s time to learn the Mode Connecting Exercise.
Jazz Piano Scale Practice: Mode Connecting Exercise
To effectively practice your scales so that you can improvise jazz piano, you need to be able to comfortably play all of your modes on that piano that you just learned. Now, you could just play each scale up and down the piano, but there is a better way to switch between the modes seamlessly. I call this the Mode Connecting Exercise:
What is the Mode Connecting Exercise?
The Mode Connecting Exercise is an exercise where you play each mode up and down the piano, connecting each mode to the next with a “chromatic connector”. In other words, if you played the first mode up the piano, C Ionian, you start and end on the C. Now, what if we wanted to connect this to our second mode, D Dorian? We can do this by using the note just one half step below the target note of D, which is a C#. Check it out!
Now, with this idea, you can string together all of your modes using a chromatic connector. Here are the first 8 measures of the exercise:
Pretty cool huh?!? If you continue this idea, you can practice your modes all the way up the piano. Now, when you get to your 4th mode, F Lydian, you will want to use a chromatic connector above your target note F. Why? Because prior to the F, you are already on the E. In other words, you are already on the lower chromatic connector. In this case, it’s smart to use the upper chromatic connecting to land on the next note.
Also, make sure you are swinging the 8th notes in your right hand (don’t play them “straight”). Now that you have the right hand, let’s make it even more interesting and fun to play by adding some chords.
Jazz Piano Scale Practice: Turnaround Progression
If you want this exercise to be even more fun to play, you’ll want to add some chords in the left hand. One of the best progressions to use is the Turnaround Progression, which is this sequence of chords: C Major 7, A Minor 7, D Minor 7, and G7. Here is a very simple way of playing it using chord shells:
If you don’t know your chord shells in all 12 keys, I highly recommend our Chord Shell & Guide Tones course.
Now that you have your Turnaround Progression, you’ll want to add it to the Connecting Modes Exercise. Here are the first 8 measures:
Now that you have the full exercise, you’ll want to gradually increase your speed. An excellent resource for this is the attached backing tracks, which you can download at the bottom of this page after logging into your membership.
For a deep dive on other scales you can use on the Turnaround Progression, plus tricks for improvising sweet jazz lines, checkout the Soloing Over the Turnaround courses (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced) for the swing style. If you want to improvise over this progression in the Jazz Ballad or Cocktail Jazz style, checkout our Jazz Ballad Soloing Challenge.
I recommend that you get this exercise to 130BPM since that is the most common tempo for medium jazz swing tunes.
Putting It All Together
Once you have this up to tempo, you’ll want to practice improvising over the turnaround progression using the C Major Scale. You can use any notes from the C Scale over the left hand chords, and they will sound great! The key is to leave little gaps in-between your lines and explore the full range of your keyboard. Each time you improvise a jazz line, try starting on a different note from the C Scale. The more you practice the Connecting Modes Exercise, the more comfortable you will be improvising on any note of the C Scale.
Now, if you want to practice soloing over other chord progressions, here are a few of my top recommendations:
- Extended Turnaround Soloing (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced)
- Soloing Over a 2-5-1
- Latin Jazz Soloing
- Bossa Nova Soloing
- Blues Soloing (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced)
- Funky Blues Soloing (Beginner/Intermediate, Intermediate/Advanced)
- Scales for Improv on Major & Minor Chords
- Scales for Improv on 7th Chords
And if you want to hear how I use modes to solo, checkout my Fly Me to the Moon improvisation.
Thanks for learning with me, and see you in the next Quick Tip!
More Free Lessons
Discover a fun improv practice game for expanding your jazz vocabulary with original 2-5-1 jazz licks using 3 different dominant scales.
How do Hollywood film composers like John Williams, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer create gripping chord progressions? Learn 3 tricks to create cinematic chords on piano.
Bored with music theory? Check out this C Natural Minor Scale—The Complete Guide...everything you need to create beautiful minor piano music.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Start your free 14-day trial today!