This casebook presents a set of functional melodic and harmonic systems directly inspired by the languages of MESSIAEN. The aim is to provide practical tools for exploring the colors of MESSIAEN in jazz improvisation and composition. These micro-systems are developed in both ‘closed circuit’ (modes of limited transpositions in camera) and ‘open circuit’ (modes of limited transpositions permeable to tonal organisations and related structures such as tonal signatures, total chromaticism, etc.). 

Intuition, experimentation, reproducibility of experiences, the pursuit of ideas to their limits, and a deliberate slowing down of the process are favored. The research remains continuously connected to real life, and the tools and ideas featured here are intended for all curious improvising/composing musicians familiar with the basics of the major-minor tonal system.

The harmonic field of MESSIAEN is delineated by the modes of limited transpositions and various other chord colors: chords of transposed inversions on the same bass note, chords of contracted resonance, turning chords, ‘et des milliers d’accords inventés’. Through their permeability and endless possibilities for combinations and superpositions, the music unfolds according to its own rules and techniques of variation. MESSIAEN said : “I am modal, tonal, serial… whatever you want… in fact, I am colored ( ‘je suis coloré’ )… and when one hears or thinks they hear series, notes, or even perfect chords in my music, they are wrong…those are colors! Modes are coloured places, little coloured lands” ( “Je suis modal, tonal, sériel…tout ce qu’on voudra…en fait je suis coloré….et quand on entend ou croit entendre des séries, des tons ou même des accords parfaits dans ma musique, on a tort, ce sont des couleurs! Les modes sont des lieux colorés, des petits pays colorés”).

some basic ideas for exploring these ‘little colored lands’ and integrating them into the practice of improvisation and composition are presented here:

in ‘closed circuit’: polymodality, tonal and modal ambiguities, modal sequences based on different criteria (common notes, disjoint tonal subsets, distant modalities, morphings, etc.)

in ‘open circuit’: how do these little colorful lands function when their scope is expanded to other types of logic ?

  • tonal system : symmetric modes contain subsets of referenced chords, blurred by ‘foreign’ colors surrounding them: ‘tonality’ and ‘modality’ become porous and permeable, welcoming unexpected guests. In this environment of ambiguous tonal and modal suggestions, new perspectives emerge, along with the development of tools exploring a broad, flexible, and subjective set of attraction and gravity laws between the modes and basic-to-complex tonal systems and organisations.
  • dodecaphony : exploring the serial system through the combination of MOLT (= complementary modes), sculpting the total chromatic and revealing it through complementary colors.
  • tonal signatures : set of ideas for using the MOLT and the tonal signatures simultaneously


Thus, primarily, it is MESSIAEN’s harmonic universe that is explored here :

  • There is no allusion to synesthesia or colorimetry; the term ‘color’ is understood in its etymological and symbolic sense, not in all its dizzying manifestations as listed by Messiaen for each of his modes and all their transpositions. The concept of sound-color is not referenced either; for that, one should refer to Volume 7 of ‘TRAITÉ DE RYTHME, DE COULEUR ET D’ORNITHOLOGIE’ (TRCO), where Messiaen explains in detail the different colors of his modes and chords tables.
  • The richness of his orchestration, the formal and expressive aspects of his music, his inspirations (religion, plainchant, Greek and Indian rhythms, etc.), the vast repertoire of bird songs and melodic constructions are not discussed here. Also, Messiaen’s complex rhythmic vocabulary is that of a composer. So these aspects are only briefly touched upon, as improvising in a ‘non-retrogradable’ rhythmic way, or spontaneously using ‘canons par ajout du point’, talas or ‘personnages rythmiques’, etc., seems almost impossible to apply in real time. Incursions into Messiaen’s rhythmic dictionary are therefore rare (with the exception of basic augmentation-diminution principles and variations on some of his talas which I have used in a few songs).


What this casebook is not:

  • a musicological study: the excerpts of MESSIAEN’s music here illustrate a contextualization of the analyzed materials;
  • a rigid method for initiates: on the contrary, all examples serve as guides, and among the myriad possibilities, the goal is to propose pathways for generating ideas and observing how they can generate more;
  • a repertoire of exercises: the written examples primarily serve as springboards.


What it is:

  • a compilation of raw and malleable materials ;

analytical rereading and contextualization of MOLT, along with other chord colors used by MESSIAEN 

tonal signatures 

modal signatures 


complementary modes (regular, irregular, M7)

  • a collection of ideas : explored for their potential for generating material, improbable arrangements and surprises ; 

which are ‘details in the microscope’ : mostly rational, they are ready to be shaken, untangled, loosened, and willingly accept all types of interferences and indeterminacy, and which sometimes are extramusical

  • a toolbox : tables, overlaps, contextualizations, MOLTexplorer program, MIDI files, recordings, demos, etc.

  • a mindset : there is this dogma, that, when improvising, one should be able to ‘hear’ what one plays, only play what one hears, etc. However, there is also the possibility of its exact opposite: playing music that one does not hear in advance. To enter this zone, practical tools exist to use MOLT and mix them with tonal anchors, such as associating modes with chords or cadences based on common notes for example. These rules (listed throughout, especially in the ‘MOLT/tonal system/gravity’ chapter and explored in ‘workout/demos’) are rational but generate an abstract palette. In context, it could sound like this: injecting ‘MOLT micro-climates’ into a tonal/modal color or a cadence, observing improbable cohabitations: balance, phase shift, or tension; staying there, gaining credibility, softening, resolving, emphasizing where it hurts, or escaping. It is a flow where ideas self-generate and respond, always unpredictable. Whether it ‘works’ or not is subjective, but this mindset is worth exploring: a subtle mix of constraints, control (the little rules), uncertainty, illusion, and intuitive letting go regarding the laws of attraction and gravity.