The Best Scale to Improvise Over Minor Chords

Jonny May
Quick Tip
Level 2
Level 3

Learning Focus
  • Exercises
  • Improvisation
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Fundamentals

A work of great craftsmanship is truly inspiring to behold. But how does one become a master craftsman or craftswomen? Craftsmanship describes the work of an artisan who is highly skilled and seasoned with experience. A master craftsman also tends to have a lot of tools. The focus of today’s Quick Tip is to give you the tools needed to improvise jazz piano over minor chords. But more than that, we’re also going to give you experience using 3 essential improv techniques used by highly skilled jazz pianists that sets their playing above the rest. You’ll learn:

    • 3 Grooves
    • 1 Scale
    • 3 Essential Improv Techniques

This lesson contains grooves for beginner, intermediate and advanced pianists to create a point of entry for all levels. But don’t be surprised if you come out at a different level than where you began.

Now, let’s get to work!

3 Grooves to Improvise Over Minor Chords

An area of study that early jazz students often overlook is the concept of groove. No one intends to ignore this area, but those who do are usually focused too narrowly on just playing right notes. Be sure to remember at the outset of today’s lesson that jazz is not a style that can be completely written down. It has a feel and an attitude that flows through it, and groove is a vastly important component. That’s why we want to give you 3 grooves to improvise over minor chords at the start of this lesson—one for each level. More important that which groove you play is how you play it. Be sure to select the groove that you can most effectively execute.

3 Grooves to Improvise Jazz Piano Over Minor Chords Beginner Intermediate Advanced

Each of these grooves uses the same essential swing rhythm. The beginner groove plays this rhythm from a single hand position, making it a great place to start. The intermediate and advanced grooves require the student quickly shift their hand position while maintaining a steady tempo. The advanced groove also substitutes a harmonically rich rootless voicing (C Minor 9) in place of the C Minor 7 found in the intermediate groove.

In order to master your feel, be sure to practice the groove with one or more of the backing tracks included with this lesson while focusing on effortlessness. The backing tracks and lesson sheet appear at bottom of this page after logging in with your membership.

C Dorian—Everything You Should Know

The most important tool to improvise on minor chords is the Dorian Scale. Here is an image of the C Dorian Scale:

C Dorian Improvise Minor Chords

The Dorian Scale is a type of minor scale in the sense that it features a ♭3 and ♭7, however, it should not be confused with the Natural Minor Scale, which contains the ♭3, ♭7 and the♭6. Compare C Dorian above with C Natural Minor below:

C Natural Minor Scale Notation and Piano Diagram

The Dorian Scale contains elements of both a minor scale (♭3, ♭7) and a major scale (major 6th) which gives is a unique and mysterious sound that is simultaneously dark and bright.

Dorian Scale Key Relationship

Nearly all classical piano methods teach students minor scales by association with major scales sharing the same key signature. The picture below shows the key signature relationship for E♭ Major and C minor. These corresponding scales are called relatives.  A natural minor scale begins on the 6th tone of the relative major scale. In the example below, C is the 6th tone of the E♭ Major Scale.

Eb Major & C Minor—Relative Key Signatures

In a similar manner, Dorian scales are closely associated with a corresponding major scale. However, rather than beginning on the 6th tone of a major scale, Dorian scales are constructed from the 2nd tone of a major scale. In other words, C Dorian shares a key signature with B♭ Major and begins on the 2nd tone of the B♭ Major Scale. The image below shows the key signature for B♭ Major and C Dorian.

Bb Major & C Dorian Mode

Unlike classical music theory, B♭ Major and C Dorian are not called relatives, even though there is an important association between them. Rather, in jazz theory, C Dorian is said to be the 2nd mode of B♭ major. That simply means that “Dorian” is the proper Greek name for the scale that results when beginning a major scale from the 2nd tone. This also means that the Dorian mode has the harmonic function of a ii chord. Just as Cm7 functions as the ii chord in B♭ Major, the C Dorian Scale is the 2nd mode of B♭ major. You can take deep dive in modal theory in our “How to Practice Scales for Jazz Piano” Quick Tip.

C Dorian as a Tonal Center

Does that mean that C Dorian always functions in the context of B♭ Major? Absolutely not. C Dorian can serve as a tonal center on its own. In fact, the backing tracks and improv examples for this lesson are in C Dorian. If this is your first encounter with Dorian as a key, this is likely confusing. A very “eye-opening” (ear opening) exercise for you would be to transcribe a few phrases of the bass line from one of the backing tracks.

Here is a transcription of the first 8 bars of the bass line from the 90 BPM backing track:

C Dorian Bass Line

You can see that all of the tones of the bass line come from the C Dorian Scale, and they revolve around C, not B♭. C is the tonal center. It would be misleading to say the backing track is in C minor, however, because that would imply a harmonic environment that includes an A♭. You will hear that the bass line uses A♮, which places the piece solidly in C Dorian.

Now that you a better understanding of C Dorian, let’s look at some improv techniques.

Improv Technique 1: 8th Notes

The first technique for improvising over minor chords uses 8th notes from the C Dorian Scale. The 8th note exercise below combines an ascending and descending scale over a C minor swing groove. Practicing this exercise will help you develop the hand coordination and rhythmic independence needed to improvise freely.

8th Note Exercise

C Dorian 8th Note Exercise to improvise over minor chords

Great job! Now, let’s take that exercise out for a ride and create an 8th note line.

8th Note Line

To covert the 8th note exercise into an improv line, you’ll want to create small musical thoughts comprised primarily of 8th notes. Your lines should have a clear beginning and ending as well as a general direction. The example below is a sample 8th note line that begins with an upward direction and concludes in a downward direction. The line incorporates a few quarter notes which are important for creating space, breaking monotony and creating an overall effect that sounds less mechanical than the scale exercise.

C Dorian 8th Note Line c minor jazz piano improv

Next, try playing this example over one of the backing tracks included with this lesson. Be sure to try a few 8th note lines of your own. If you’d like to see these examples in another key you use our Smart Sheet Music to transpose all the lesson material into any key with a single click!

Next, we’ll examine how highly-skilled improvisers approach their 8th note lines with an additional improv technique.

Improv Technique 2: Enclosures

Returning to our craftsmanship metaphor—if C Dorian is a craftsman’s tool, then enclosure is that craftsman’s painstaking technique for creating exquisite one-of-a-kind designs. This technique clearly differentiates a professional improv sound from that of an amateur. But don’t let that intimidate you…the enclosure exercise below will help you get this technique under your fingers in short time. But first, lets look a little closer at what makes up an enclosure.

What are jazz enclosures?

Enclosures are a melodic improv device jazz musicians use to lead to a chord tone by preceding the target note with its neighbor notes. Neighbor notes are the notes either a half-step or whole-step above and below the target note. Enclosures can use diatonic neighbor notes (derived from the same parent scale as the target note) or chromatic neighbor notes (a half-step from the target note).

Enclosure Exercise

For today’s Quick Tip, we will be using diatonic enclosures in which the upper and lower neighbor notes come from the same scale as the target chord tone—the C Dorian Scale. The enclosure exercise below will acclimate you with this improv technique. The enclosures are labeled for you along with the notes they target. If the enclosure begins on the upper neighbor, it is an upper enclosure. Enclosures beginning on the lower neighbor are lower enclosures.

Jazz Piano Enclosure Exercise to improvise over minor chords

Notice how the target notes on beats 1 and 3 outline a Cm7 chord. If you would like to see examples of chromatic enclosures, check out our Quick Tip entitled “Chord Enclosures Jazz Piano Improv Exercise.” Now, let’s see how to use this technique to improvise over minor chords.

Enclosure Line

The sample line below transforms the enclosure exercise above into a continuous string of 8th notes by adding passing tones.

Jazz Piano Improv Line using Diatonic Enclosures

Can you can create a downline of continuous 8th notes in a similar manner by adding passing tones to the descending portion of the enclosure exercise?

You’re doing a great job! Now let’s look at our final improve technique.

Improv Technique 3: Outlining 7th Chords

Another popular technique used to improvise over minor chords is outlining 7th chords. Chord outlining uses 3 or 4 note chords to create melodic ideas by playing the chord tones in succession, as in an arpeggio.

Outining 7ths Exercise

The exercise below expands each tone of the C Dorian Scale into a 7th chord outline.

Jazz Piano improve minor chord outlining

Chord outlines can be played ascending as in the example above, or descending as in the example below.

Jazz Piano improve minor chord outlining

Now let’s see how to apply this technique in an improv line.

Outlining 7ths Line

The sample line below demonstrates several ways in which you can use outlining in your improvisation. Notice that you can use outlining 7th chords over a triplet rhythm as well as 8th notes. You’ll also want to notice the filler lines used to connect the chord outlines.

Jazz Improv Line using chord outlines

Wow, that sounds incredible! With the improv techniques you’ve learned today, you are well on your way to crafting some amazing solos. If you want to explore more soloing techniques, check out the following full-length courses:

Thanks for learning with us today—we’ll see you next time!


Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May

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