The growth of high quality AlN epitaxial films relies on precise control of the initial growth stages. In this work, we examined the influence of the trimethylaluminum (TMAl) pretreatment of sapphire substrates on the structural properties, crystal quality and growth modes of heteroepitaxial AlN films on (0001) sapphire substrates. Without the pretreatment, the AlN films nucleated on the smooth surface but exhibited mixed crystallographic Al- (N-) polarity, resulting in rough AlN film surfaces. With increasing the pretreatment time from 1 to 5 s, the N-polarity started to be impeded. However, small islands were formed on sapphire surface due to the decompostion of TMAl. As a result, small voids became noticeable at the nucleation layer (NL) because the growth started as quasi three-dimensional (3D) but transformed to 2D mode as the film grew thicker and got coalesced, leading to smoother and Al-polar films. On the other hand, longer pretreatment time of 40 s formed large 3D islands on sapphire, and thus initiated a 3D-growth mode of the AlN film, generating Al-polar AlN nanocolumns with different facets, which resulted into rougher film surfaces. The epitaxial growth modes and their correlation with the AlN film crystal quality under different TMAl pretreatments are also discussed.