Music Improvisation | Mixolydian Jam Track

If you enjoy improvising to backing tracks, here’s a three minute video (above) containing a music improvisation jam track in the Mixolydian mode that you can improvise over. The graphic in the video and below show the chord sequence, which is repeated twice. At the top, you can see the notes of D Mixolydian, and on the left-hand side, the chord tones of each chord are shown.

If you’re new to music improvisation, see the link at the bottom to the music improvisation article I posted earlier here on Writedge. It goes into detail about how to approach music improvisation melodically making use of chord tones and scales.  Basically, you should target the chord tones of each chord on your instrument as it plays and make melodic phrases following the rhythm of the backing track using those notes plus other notes of the Mixolydian scale as well as some ‘outside’ chromatic notes. See below for more info.

Music Improvisation - Mixolydian Mode

What’s the Mixolydian mode?

The Mixolydian mode is a medieval scale that was based on the notes G A B C D E & F. It was around centuries before major and minor scales and keys came into Western music with the development of tonality during the 17th century. Tonality is the system of music composition that establishes tonal centres through the use of functional harmony. That means melodies and chords used in such a way that we can hear one note and chord as the main note and chord of a piece of music, or even of a section of music. It’s the note and chord that feel like ‘home’ when we hear them.  The Mixolydian and other modes weren’t designed for that purpose so fell out of use and were gradually replaced by the ‘new and improved’ major and minor keys with their scales.

Modes such as the Mixolydian mode and Dorian mode continued to be used in folk music, though, and they also began to see a revival when Miles Davis began to use them in a new style of Jazz called ‘modal jazz‘. Miles Davis’ song “All blues” is an example of a modal jazz song using the Mixolydian mode.

In the 1960s, rock music, much of which was influenced by folk and blues music, made quite a lot of use of both the Dorian and Mixolydian modes. Examples of rock and pop songs influenced by the Mixolydian mode music include: Sympathy for the Devil (Rolling Stones), I’m so Glad (Cream), the verse of Norwegian Wood and the end section of Hey Jude (Beatles), If I were a Carpenter (Tim Hardin) and many more.

D Mixolydian Compared with D major

The best way to appreciate why  the Mixolydian mode sounds the way it does is to compare it with the nearest major or minor scale that has the same tonal centre. In the case of D Mixolydian, the most closely related key is D major, and if you compare the scales the difference becomes apparent.

There’s only one note that’s different. The D major scale has C sharp while D Mixolydian has C natural. That small difference actually makes a huge difference, musically. The C# in D major is the leading tone. As it’s only a semitone (half step) away from D, the tonal centre, it leads to it strongly and helps to confirm D as the tonal centre. The C natural in D Mixolydian is a whole tone (whole step) away from the tonal centre, so it doesn’t have the same drive towards it. Its distinctive sound comes from having both a major 3rd and a minor 7th above its tonic. So music in the Mixolydian mode will have a major feel to it because of the major 3rd, but the lack of a leading tone makes it sound very different to major key music.  As tonal, key-based music was rapidly becoming the ‘new black’ in classical music of the late 17th century, the Mixolydian mode eventually found itself surplus to requirements. 

Folk, jazz, rock and pop are much less concerned about tonalty, so the way was clear for a comeback.

Chord-wise that C natural instead of C sharp also makes a huge difference. In the key of D major, the ‘dominant’ chord, which is the next most important chord after the ‘tonic’ chord D, is A major, and it consists of the notes, A, C# (leading tone) and E. The D Mixolydian mode has no C sharp, so the chord built on the note A is A minor. In this piece, you can hear the lovely chord change from the tonic chord D to A minor. This change (moving from the tonic chord to the dominant minor) would be very rare in tonal music. Similarly, C major (notes: C E G), which is native to D Mixolydian, is absent from music in D major except occasionally as a borrowed chord from the key of D minor.

Comparing D Mixolydian with G major

As you may know, D Mixolydian has exactly the same notes as G major. They both have all natural notes except for F sharp. The crucial difference between them is that they have different tonics. (D & G). Because we’re so conditioned to hearing music in major keys, the chord G major has to be used sparingly if at all when making a Mixolydian chord sequence. Otherwise it can mislead listeners into feeling that G is the tonic note and chord and the tonal centre of the music, and that we’re listening to a badly composed progression in the key of G major instead of music in the Mixolydian mode.

How to Approach Music Improvisation

The chord tones of each chord are safe notes that you can target as the chord plays without fear of hitting a bad note.

Diatonic non-chord tones are the the other notes of the key (or mode in this case). For example, while D major is playing, D F# and A are chord tones and the rest are non-chord tones. They make good fill-in notes between chord tones, They cause dissonance when sustained for any length of time, which is a good thing unless you overdo it. With dissonance, you can take the listener to the edge of their comfort zone, and then resolve it just in time. 

Chromatic non-chord tones are those that don’t belong to the key or mode. They sound great and dynamic but must be used even more carefully  than diatonic non-chord tones. A common effect in rock is the pre-bending of guitar strings to a chromatic non-chord tone followed by the release of it to the nearest chord tone below. Another effect is as ‘blue notes’, such as using F natural over the D major chord (which contains F#). The dissonant clash is very noticeable, but also very bluesy, and so is very popular. The dissonance can be resolved by raising the F to the chord tone F#, or dropping it to the chord tone D to complete the effect.

Scale-based music improvisation is another popular approach, but no scale is more suited to this piece than the Mixolydian scale itself. You can also use D pentatonic major (D E F# A B) but it misses out that important C natural note that is important to the Mixolydian mode and distinguishes it from D major.  D pentatonic minor scale (D F G Bb C) is also possible. It has F and Bb as blue notes, but misses out E, F# and A, so it’s a bit limited. If you want to use scales as your note source, you should mix and match some suitable scales so as not to miss out on any important notes. However, using the method described (chord tones plus diatonic and chromatic non-chord tones) covers everything.

My previous music improvisation article gives more details on this if you want more info on how to approach music improvisation.

Articulation

Don’t forget to make the most of articulations. Depending on which instrument you want to improvise with, you can use slides, slurs, bends vibrato, arpeggios, syncopation, staccato, damping, feedback, delay – anything to make your music improvisation more dynamic and vital. It’s not just the notes at your disposal; it’s how you play them that counts. Just keep in mind that music improvisation has to be done tastefully.

Credits

The text, music and images featured in this music improvisation article are by chasmac.

The music style used in the recording is by Band in a Box software  and is copyright free.

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