Writing Modal Chord Progressions Authored by David Wallimann 02/17/2016 JamPlay, LLC Guitar Lessons Articles Guides Writing Modal Chord Progressions Tweet 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 Your browser does not support the audio element. Lydian A - B/A Your browser does not support the audio element. Minor 7th Chords Dorian Am - Bm/A Your browser does not support the audio element. Phrygian Am - Bb/A Your browser does not support the audio element. Aeolian Am - G/A Your browser does not support the audio element. 7th Chords Mixolydian A - G/A Your browser does not support the audio element. Minor 7b5 Chords Locrian Amb5 - Bb/A Your browser does not support the audio element. 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!