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Modal Chord Progressions

By Chris Liepe Published on May 11th, 2010
Most guitarists, especially in the Rock genre, spend a good amount of time on our scales. We start with the Pentatonic scales, then move to the Major and minor positions. Then, in our quest for further knowledge, we buy the 'Book of Endless Scale Possibilities' or join a cool website that has an extensive library of standard and exotic scales. Somewhere along our journey, we get hooked on modes! We learn the scales; we practice over backing tracks, and then move on to artistic ways of using the modes in our soloing.

Sooner or later, we run in to a wall and a lot of questions start to arise. How can I apply modal playing in everyday music situations if I'm not an instrumental guitar soloist? How can I be intentional about using modes in my writing? How can I learn to spot what modes are being used in a song just by listening to it?

The fact is, most of the time it is a lot easier to learn and blow through the modes, and a lot harder to learn how to skillfully and creatively apply them -- especially as a rhythm player. This article will focus on the seven modes of the Major scale and how to identify and/or create truly modal chord progressions.

Before reading on, I strongly urge you to read one of my previous articles in the "Guides" section entitled "The Nashville Number System." In addition to covering the chord numbering system, it dives deep into fundamental chord harmony, key signatures and the application of common chords within the Major scale. I also recommend that you pay a visit to the JamPlay scale library and brush up on your modes. You don't have to be able to shred them or anything, but having somewhat of a good grasp on modal scale positions, and a basic understanding of the theory behind building basic chords will be very helpful as you are getting in to this content.

In case you didn't take my advice, or you just need some refreshing, we'll do some quick review: All Major Scales have seven notes -- each one representing a scale degree. The seven notes in the C Major Scale are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. C is considered the "1" or the "Tonic". D is the 2nd, E is the 3rd, F is the 4th etc... In the key of C, there are no sharps or flats. Sharps or flats are included in a given key in order to create the sound of the Major scale. The sound of the Major scale is created by a unique combination of whole steps ("W" - a distance of 2 frets) and half steps ("H" - a distance of 1 fret). The makeup of whole steps and half steps of every Major scale is WWHWWWH. This naturally occurs in the key of C, but building a Major scale off of E would require the addition of 4 sharps F, C, G, and D to get the proper whole step/half step chemistry and thus the Major scale sound. Refer to the "Circle of 5ths" chart in the Nashville Number System article and get familiar (if you're not already) with all the different keys and their sharps or flats. Then, take a minute to play through the following C Major Scale:

C Major Scale

This scale is most likely a review, but breaking it down will really help explain basic modal theory. Look at just the first two measures of the above scale. The first two measures is a complete C Major scale from C to C. Next, start playing the scale starting with D, or the 2nd, and then stop when you get to the next D. You're now playing a C Major Scale starting and ending on D. Though this may be intensely boring or tedious for you at the present time, work through the rest of the scale in this same way. Start and end on E, then F etc... You are of course playing the C Major scale the whole time. You are just starting and ending on different notes. If you isolate and focus on the scale sound that is created by starting and ending on say "D," you are essentially playing the 2nd mode of the C Major scale. This is the preverbal tip of the modal iceberg.

Here are the names of the modes of the Major scale generated off of each scale degree:
1 - Ionian, 2 - Dorian, 3 - Phrygian, 4 - Lydian, 5 - Mixolydian, 6 - Aeolian, 7 - Locrian.
If you were to play, in the key of C Major and start and end on an F, you would technically be playing an F Lydian scale. This is the way modes are derived, but not necessarily applied. In order to get a fundamental understanding of how to apply the modes from a scale playing point of view, you must study their sounds, their whole step/half step makeup and their differences when compared to the regular Major scale.

For now, separate all of the modes from the fact that they are derived from a particular major scale.

Lets look at each mode, and outline its whole step/half step makeup, as well as differences in sound when compared with the sound of a regular Major scale.

It is identical in every way to a Major scale.

Intervallic Makeup (the distance between each consecutive note): 1-W-2-H-3-W-4-W-5-W-6-H-7-W-1.

Differs from the sound of a Major Scale: 3rd and 7th degrees are lowered a half step (b3, b7).

Intervallic Makeup: 1-H-2-W-3-W-4-W-5-H-6-W-7-W-1.

Differs from the Major Scale: 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th degrees are lowered a half step (b2, b3, b6, b7)

Intervallic Makeup: 1-W-2-W-3-W-4-H-5-W-6-W-7-H-1.

Differs from the Major Scale: 4th degree is raised a half step (#4).

Intervallic Makeup: 1-W-2-W-3-H-4-W-5-W-6-H-7-W-1.
Differs from the Major Scale: 7th degree is lowered a half step (b7).

(identical to the sound of a Natural Minor Scale)
Intervallic Makeup: 1-W-2-H-3-W-4-W-5-H-6-W-7W-1.

Differs from the Major Scale: 3rd, 6th and 7th degrees are lowered a half step (b3, b6, b7).

Intervallic Makeup: 1-H-2-W-3-W-4-H-5-W-6-W-7-W-1.

Differs from the Major Scale: 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th are all lowered a half step (b2, b3, b5, b6, b7).

We've talked about how modes are derived from a single Major scale. Now, we'll look at starting each mode from the same note, "C." When learning and playing modes all from a particular note, it is important to learn the "parent key" that the modes are derived from. For example, a C Dorian scale, the 2nd mode in the Bb Major scale, shares its key signature with Bb Major.

C Phrygian has 4 flats in it from lowering the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th. Having 4 flats in a scale, if you refer to a Circle of 5ths chart, is the parent key of Ab Major.

C Lydian has a raised 4th -- an F#. One sharp and the fact that C Lydian is the fourth mode of the Major scale tell us that the parent key for C Lydian is G Major.

As you can see from the above examples, there are a couple different ways to identify the parent key. You can look at how may sharps or flats the scale has in it, and refer to the circle of 5ths, and/or you can look at which scale degree the mode is built off of and count down to the parent key.

C Mixolydian has one flat, the 7th, which is Bb. Mixolydian is also the 5th mode of the Major scale. The note "C" is the 5th note in the key of F Major.

C Aeolian has a lowered 3rd, 6th and 7th. Three flats is the key of Eb Major.

C Locrian has 5 flats. An easier way to look at finding Locrian is just to count up 1 half step to Db. C Locrian's parent key is Db Major.

This gets a little trickier when your parent key actually has sharps or flats, but using these methods over and over again will eventually help you start to memorize parent keys.

Here are a two more examples:

A Mixolydian is an A Major scale with a lowered 7th. The notes in A Major are A, B, C#, D, E, F# and G#. Lowering the 7th yields a G leaving two sharps, F and C -- the key of D Major. A Mixolydian is also the 5th mode of the Major scale. A is the 5th of D.

E Dorian is a Major scale with a b3 and b7. E Major has four sharps F, C, G, and D. The 3rd of E lowered a half step would then be a G, and the 7th lowered a half step would be D instead of D#. We are left with two sharps, so again, we are in the parent key of D Major.

Shifting attention back to the Major scale and looking at harmonizing chords over each scale degree will be the first step in identifying modal chord progressions. When you harmonize chords, you stack a 3rd and a 5th over each scale degree bearing in mind that you must use only notes within the key signature. The scale degrees function as the root of the chord. When you do this with the Major scale, you wind up with a Major 1 chord, minor 2 chord, minor 3 chord, Major 4 chord, Major 5 chord, minor 6 chord, and a diminished 7 chord. You've probably seen this expressed like this:
I ii iii IV V vi vii°
The capital roman numerals denote Major chords; the lower case denotes a minor chord. Typically, chord progressions based off of Major scale go like this:
I - ii - IV - V,
I - IV - vi - V etc...
When writing or using progressions, it is handy to know that you have a minor 6 chord, or that old faithful 1, 4, 5 sound to draw from. Learning some 'typical' chord progressions for each of the modes will greatly expand your writing and other musical creativity.

If you'll recall earlier, you played through a C Major scale starting and ending on each degree of the scale. You can do the same thing using chord harmony to generate the chords used in any particular mode. Look at and play through this harmonized D Dorian scale (Parent Key of C Major starting and ending on D):

Modal Progressions

The harmonized Dorian scale, like all the other modes, has an even more distinct sound than a plain Dorian scale played without accompaniment. To harmonize any of the modes, remember, use only the notes available in the parent key and then stack a 3rd and a 5th over each scale degree. The above example is expressed in Roman Numerals like this:
ii iii IV V vi vii° I ii
If we express this as D Dorian with the new tonic being D, we shift the numbers over so that ii = i, iii = ii, IV = III etc... So the Dorian chord harmonization structure would look like this:
i ii III IV v vi° VII i
I'll save you the work of going through all of the modes and provide you with a complete chart:

Modal Progressions

Now for some chord progressions! Before getting in to specific ideas, there are a number of general guidelines/suggestions to keep in mind when getting modal with your progressions. These guidelines will help keep the tonal center where it needs to be (on the modal tonic) and not lead back to the parent key's tonic. -In all modes except Ionian and Locrian, the diminished chords should be avoided. This is because they create such a strong suggestion that the Major chord a half step higher is next to be played. This Major chord is the tonic of the parent key, and if the progression resolves to this chord, it is not really a modal chord progression.

-In all modes except for Ionian and Locrian, a straight minor chord may be a suitable substitute for the diminished chord if arranged properly. This is especially common with the 3 chord in Mixolydian.

-In Phrygian, Mixolydian, and Aeolian, a Major or Dominant 7th V (5) chord may be played in place of the existing minor or diminished 5 chord. Having a Major or Dominant 5 chord draws the ear back to the 1 chord.

-It is acceptable and common practice to enter a mode or switch modes for only a brief period during a song. You can modulate and change modes all over the place so long as you keep your intended tonal centers in mind. When implementing these suggestions, there will be accidentals (notes outside the parent key signature, and thus outside a single mode) but remember that it is all about pointing back to the modal tonic. Use your ear! Here is a non-comprehensive list of common modal chord progression possibilities (keep in mind the exceptions discussed above when playing through them):
I - IV - vi - V - I
I - ii - IV - V - I
I - V - vi - IV - I
I - iii - vi - V - I

i - IV - i - VII - i
i - VII - i - VII - i
i - IV - ii - v - VII - i
i - III - IV - i - VII - i

i - II - III - i
i - V7 - i - II - i
i - iv - i - II - i
i - III - vii - i

I - II - I - II (modulate whole step up and repeat, then go back down)
I - II - I - II - iv - V - iv - V - I
I - vi - II - V - I
I - V - I - II - I

I - VII - I - VII - I
I - vi - IV - V - VII - I
I - IV - I - VII - I
I - ii - IV - VII - I

i - VI - VII - i
i - iv - v - i
i - iv V7 - i
i - III - i - VII - i

i° - V - i° - V - i°
i° - iii - i° - II - i°
i° - iii - vii - i°
i° - vii - i° - vii - i°
Using these chord progressions as a starting point in your writing and arranging will take you to a new level in your playing. It will also improve your improvising and train your ear. For example, if you're listening to a song that appears to be in a minor key (having a minor 1 chord) but you are hearing a Major 4 chord, you know you can use Dorian to improvise over that song. If you hear a chord progression with a pretty noticeable and consistent toggle between a two Major chords, you just might be in Lydian. A minor 1 chord with a half step up to a Major 2 chord, followed by a Major 3 chord would suggest Phrygian.

There are some of those substituted chords present in the above examples. When soloing over these chords, try to figure out where there may be a temporary shift in the parent key and then work that into a seamless shift in your modal position playing. For example, consider the following chord progression in based off of G tonic:
G - C - Em - D - F - F - G - G
This chord progression is really modulating from G Major to G Mixolydian (who's parent key is C) and still sounds like a very complete and musical thought. When improvising, start with G Major, and then simply drop the 7th scale degree a half step over the second half of the progression.

There may not be a clear 'modulation' point, which makes it more difficult to switch the thinking around. A chord progression could be written like this:
G - F - G - C - D - F - G
In this example, there is a D Major chord followed by an F Major Chord. This isn't entirely sticking to G Major or G Mixolydian for a convenient amount of time. So, it will actually sound good to use both within the same phrase. Tastefully putting in both a F and an F# will sound great. When deciding where to place these notes, it is helpful to analyze the 'misfit' chord (in this case D Major if we're classifying the progression as G Mixolydian). In a D Major chord, there is an F# present as the 3rd. So dwelling on a regular F over the D will not work, but using the F and the F# in a chromatic fashion over the D to F to G chord changes will sound very cool.

Another common occurrence is the presence of a V7 chord in an otherwise (apparently) Aeolian mode. Whenever you hear this substitution, you can play the harmonic minor scale which is a natural minor (or Aeolian mode) with a natural 7th tone.

As your diving in to this stuff more deeply, keep in mind that all the sounds, and the theory behind the sounds are, or should be primarily fueled by raw creativity. Modes, chord progressions based on modes, alterations/outside chords within a modal chord progression are all just ways of making music sound cool. The theory and explanations behind all if it should be seen as a starting point and learning and mastering the ideas should be a practiced discipline that fuels greater creativity.

Here are some exercises and habits to start working out these ideas and theoretical situations into your everyday musical life:
-Turn on your radio, MP3 player or Internet music stream, sit down with your guitar and try to identify modal moments. You may be able to identify entire songs, but you may also be able to identify just a bridge that goes in to Mixolydian while the rest of the song appears to be in Ionian. Try to figure out the chord progressions by ear, and write down modes as you hear them.

-Take your own tunes and analyze them. Odds are, you may be using some modal chord progressions and not even know it. If you can't find any, try altering your melodies in places to apply some modal flavors.

-Finally, record some of the modal chord progression examples listed in this article and practice soloing and writing melodies over them.
Thanks for making it through the whole article! May new modal knowledge and possibilities add new flavor to your playing!