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Writing Modal Chord Progressions

By David Wallimann Published on Feb 17th, 2010
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Introduction
Playing modal seems to be a popular topic these days. But as you most likely know, modes can be very confusing first. One of the key to playing modal is to understand where and when to use a particular mode. Instead of directly answering that question, let's learn how to build chord progressions that will fit a particular mode.

This should help you in your quest for knowledge and direct you in the right path when it comes to figuring out which mode to use over a certain chord progression.

Church Modes
Before building chord progressions to match a particular mode, let's talk a little about the church mode. The church modes are a set of seven diatonic scales (7 notes scales). We'll use them to build our modal chord progressions. Here are their formulas:

Ionian (also known as the Major scale)
Root - Major 2nd - Major 3rd - 4th - 5th - Major 6th - Major 7th

Dorian
Root - Major 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - 5th - Major 6th - minor 7th

Phrygian
Root - minor 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - 5th - minor 6th - minor 7th

Lydian
Root - Major 2nd - Major 3rd - augmented 4th - 5th - Major 6th - Major 7th

Mixolydian
Root - Major 2nd - Major 3rd - 4th - 5th - Major 6th - minor 7th

Aeolian (also known as the natural minor scale)
Root - Major 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - 5th - minor 6th - minor 7th

Locrian
Root - minor 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - diminished 5th - minor 6th - minor 7th

Modal Classification
We can now build four notes chords for each ones of the previous modes using the Root, Third, Fifth and Seventh according to their formula.

This is what we get:

Ionian:
Root + Major 3rd + 5th + Major 7th = Maj7

Dorian
Root + minor 3rd + 5th + minor 7th = min7

Phrygian
Root + minor 3rd + 5th + minor 7th = min7

Lydian
Root + Major 3rd + 5th + Major 7th = Maj7

Mixolydian
Root + Major 3rd + 5th + minor 7th = 7

Aeolian
Root + minor 3rd + 5th + minor 7th = min7

Locrian
Root + minor 3rd + diminished 5th + minor 7th = min7b5

From that we can see four types of chords appearing:

Major 7th chords
minor 7th chords
7th chords (also known as dominant 7th chords)
minor 7b5 chords

Let's now classify our seven church modes into the chord category they fit in as follow.

Major 7th Chords
Ionian
Lydian

Minor 7th Chords
Dorian
Phrygian
Aeolian

7th Chords
Mixolydian

Minor 7b5 Chords
Locrian

As you can see, some chord types include more than one mode. That means that sometimes, a single chord won’t be enough to know which mode we are in. On the other hand, having a dominant 7th chord will imply a Mixolydian key. In the same way, a min7b5 chord implies a Locrian key.

Characteristic Notes
As previously stated, some chord types include more than one mode. In other words, hearing a Major 7th chord or a minor 7th chord doesn't tell us exactly which mode to use. The difference between the modes found in the same chord category will be found in notes that are not included in the chord.

Let's start with the Major 7th chord family. We'll differentiate the modes found in that category from each other by comparing their formula.

Ionian (also known as the Major scale)
Root - Major 2nd - Major 3rd - 4th - 5th - Major 6th - Major 7th

Lydian
Root - Major 2nd - Major 3rd - augmented 4th - 5th - Major 6th - Major 7th

What differentiates both of these modes is the 4th. The Ionian mode has a perfect 4th, the Lydian mode has an augmented 4th.

Let's do the same thing by comparing the modes included in the minor seventh chord category:

Dorian
Root - Major 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - 5th - Major 6th - minor 7th

Phrygian
Root - minor 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - 5th - minor 6th - minor 7th

Aeolian (also known as the natural minor scale)
Root - Major 2nd - minor 3rd - 4th - 5th - minor 6th - minor 7th

The Dorian mode is the only minor mode that has a Major 6th.

The Phrygian mode is the only one with a minor 2nd.

The Aeolian does not have a unique characteristic note, but rather two: the Major 2nd and the minor 6th. Those two notes will set that scale apart from the other two.

Here is a recap of the characteristic notes organized according to the type of chord they work with:

Major 7th Chords
Ionian (4th)
Lydian (augmented 4th)

Minor 7th Chords
Dorian (Major 6th)
Phrygian (minor 2nd)
Aeolian (Major 2nd + minor 6th)

7th Chords
Mixolydian

Minor 7b5 Chords
Locrian

Modal Chord Progressions
Now that we associated each mode with a chord and differentiated them from each other, we can start building some chord progressions specifically designed for each one of them.

Before we do so, let's talk a little about how these modes relate to each other on the fretboard. Each of the seven church modes we've discussed follow each other on the fretboard. By memorizing that order, not only will we be able to link these modes on the guitar, but also have a good understanding of how the chords built on them follow each other as well. Here is that order:

Ionian - Dorian - Phrygian - Lydian - Mixolydian - Aeolian - Locrian

If we replace these modes by their corresponding chords, this is what we get:

Maj7 - min7 - min7 - Maj7 - 7 - min7 - min7b5

We will use the previous chord chart to complement our modal chord progressions.

The key thing to remember is that in order to fit a particular mode, our chords need to include the first chord extracted from the mode (see previous chord families) and if necessary the characteristic note(s) of the mode you are working with.

Example 1: Dorian
Let's build something in D Dorian for example.

The Dorian mode is found in the min7 chord category, therefore we'll use a Dm7 as our first chord.

Unfortunately, there are more than one mode that fit into the minor 7 category. In other words, if you play a Dm7, you could also be in D Phrygian or D Aeolian. In that case, we will need to add a second chord that will include the characteristic note of the Dorian mode: the Major 6th. Adding a Major 6th to a D minor chord will give the improviser enough notes to know that he is in D Dorian (a minor 7th chord with an additional Major 6th implies a Dorian key).

Dm7 Dm6

Example 2: Mixolydian
Let'ss now build something in G Mixolydian.

The Mixolydian mode is found in the dominant 7 chord category. Therefore we will use a G7 chord as our first chord.

The Mixolydian mode is the only church mode that fits the dominant 7 chord category. There chord alone gives the improviser enough information to know he is in a Mixolydian key. However, in order to make the progression a bit more interesting, we'll add a second chord.

Picking the second chord is not mandatory, but will help your accompaniment track sound more interesting. We'll pick our next chord using the order of the chords we deducted in the previous chapter. Let's pick the next chord in the list which will be a minor 7th chord (corresponding to the Aeolian mode).

In order to really accentuate the fact that G is the root of our key, we will keep a G on bass throughout the chords as follow:

G7 - Am/G

Going Further
Although we used four notes chords to build our modal chord progressions, it is also quite common to use three notes chords (triads). These will work in the same way, however you will need to make sure that the triads used give you enough notes to distinguish one mode from the other.

When using triads, keeping a common bass note to all the chords used will really help you create something modal. The following chapter will list some simple two chord progression specifically designed to help you hear the color of each modes.

Practical examples for each modes
The process described in the previous chapter was used to create the following short chord progressions. Playing these will give you the color of each of the seven church modes. In order to help you really distinguish one mode from the other, I organized them into their chord family and wrote them all starting from the same root.

Major 7th Chords

Ionian
A - Bm/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

Lydian
A - B/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

Minor 7th Chords

Dorian
Am - Bm/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

Phrygian
Am - Bb/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

Aeolian
Am - G/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

7th Chords

Mixolydian
A - G/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

Minor 7b5 Chords

Locrian
Amb5 - Bb/A
this will be replaced by the SWF.

Final Thoughts
As always with theory, don't worry if you don't grasp all the information given here. Take this article step by step and take your time to digest every aspect given to you. Don't let theory keep you from enjoying your instrument and making music.

Practice well, have fun and keep asking questions!