The Messiaen modes are a set of 7 scales that all have the property that they are symmetric, so that if you transpose them a certain interval you’ll end up with the same scale. The first 2 are the whole-tone and the diminished scale, which should be fairly familiar to most jazz improvisors.
The 3rd Messiaen mode is, for me, mostly something I place in the special effects department rather than a go to choice for a certain change. It is symmetric every major 3rd, and that is probably one of the reasons the sound of it is in many ways related to augmented triads.
A few ways to view the scale and its construction.
I’ll try to break the scale down a bit. To me when I am improvising I tend to have more luck making good melodies if I have structures like arpeggios besides the scale, so I’ll just try to list at least some of the material available in the scale.
The 3rd Messian mode has 9 notes. From C it would be C D Eb E F# G Ab Bb B. You could see it as a collection of these 3 melodies each a major 3rd apart:
If we look a bit at what is contained in the scale we end up with:
C, Cm, Cdim, Caug, Daug, Eb, Ebaug, Ebsus4 (and then of course these triads moved up a major third and another major third)
Ebmaj7, Ebmaj7(#5), Ebm(maj7), Ebm6
The C whole tone scale
The Augmented Scale (C Eb E G Ab B C)
So we have a lot of different arpeggios and structures to choose from. To keep it a bit simple I only listed the arps for one transposition since the scale is symmetic.
Using the scale in improvisation.
If I use this in a solo, it is mostly in a situation where I can but it on top of a somewhat static sound, ie 4 bars or longer of one chord. If the chords are moving really fast the effect of it is lost because everyhing around it is moving, when there is a bit more time and the ear is expecting one sound but then getting another it is a bit easier to use in a sensible way (to me in any case..).
Here are a few examples of using the scale over different harmonic colors. In each case I tried to work from chords that already have a sound that is present in the scale. I start all of the examples by playing a bit of inside and then going into the notes/arpeggios that sound further away from the harmonic background. In that way I am using the scale in a “functional” way and not as a scale and a sound in itself. I am not very familiar with Messiaens music, but I don’t think that was what he was trying to do.
My approach to making lines is pretty much stringing together the contained structures that I have listed, and examples of how I do that is found in my triad pair blogs (part 1-3).
The first example is over a C7 riff.
The second example is over an AmMaj7 chord. I very often use the scale like this where it is over a chord that has an augmented sound in the upper structure (ie C E G#) in this case and then I ignore that the A is not in the scale.
The last example is still the same scale but now over a Abmaj7 chord. This is very effective since the chord itself is a complete resting point and the other sounds on top (f.ex B,G,C and E major triads) are very out.
If you want to read more about the modes you might have a look here: