Modal Chord Progressions (lesson)

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In this lesson, we are going to us a little bit of theory to explore building chord sequences around the major modes. The inspiration for this theory lesson came from Dave Wallimans lesson on modal chord progressions. We are going to analyse the chord sequences in use and understand where they came from, and why they work so well as modal progressions.

Chords For Modes

To start the analysis, we are going to use a couple of pieces of theory - how to work out the various modes explained here and here, and how to build chords for a particular scale, here. When we put those two pieces of knowledge together, we can figure out the characteristic chords for each of the major modes. Remember that the Major scale (or Ionian mode) has the following sequence of chords associated with it:

I major, II minor 7, III minor 7, IV major 7, V Dominant 7, VI minor 7, VII diminished

We figure this out by building the scale and then creating triads starting at each degree of the scale (for more info see my lesson here). In this case, we also stacked an additional note on top to get a 7th in some cases. If we do the same again with each mode in turn, we get the following list of characteristic chords:

Image:Modal chords1.jpg

You probably noticed that the chords moved over 1 slot for each mode, not surpising when you think about how chords are constructed and how the modes relate to each other. This is a pretty useful table as it allows you to very quickly figure out the chords available in any mode to build a modal chord progression.

We are going to build our chord progressions in the key of A, so the next step is to figure out the the degrees of the scale for each mode based on a tonic of A. You should know how to do this from the previous lessons, so for the record they are as follows:

Image:Modal chords2.jpg

If we couple that with the chord types above, we can figure out the potential chords for each mode:

Image:Modal chords3.jpg

One thing to bear in mind here is that the list I gave above is only one possible list - you can pick and choose the number of notes you use, and that allows a couple of simple substitutions. The most important thing is that you keep the minor/major type the same. Majors can be interchanged with Major 7ths, minors can be interchanged with minor 7ths, and in a scale that has a b7 for the degree inquestion, a major can be replaced with a 7th.

Ok, now we know the possible chords, lets go and figure out how to build a progression.

Building a Progression

One of the challenges of building a modal chord progression is to really bring out the different feel of the various modes. Without care in chord selection, this character can become obscured. As an example, lets look at Dorian and Phrygian. They are both minor modes because they have flattened 3rds. Both will use a Minor 7th as the tonic chord. If we added for insance a III chord into the mix, but played it as a simple triad, we would use the chord of C Major in both cases. So, although we have 2 different modes, we have an identical chord progression. We can fix this up a little by adding another note on top of our III chord, giving us a a major 7 for Dorian and a Dominant 7 for Phrygian (B vs Bb) - that somewhat redresses the balance but it is a fairly subtle change.

A better way of going about this is to carefully select chords that are characteristic to the mode in question. For example, lets look at a Lydian progression, We will start with A major 7 as our tonic. To cement the lydian we want to emphasize what is different in that mode as compared with others. Lydian is a major mode so it runs the risk of being confused with Ionian and Mixolydian. If we look at the table above, we can see that of these three modes, only Lydian has a major chord in the second degree - Mixolydian and Ionian are both minor in the 2nd degree, so this would be a great chord to use. This makes sense, because we know that Lydian has a sharpened 4th. This same sharpened 4th forms the 3rd of the chord derived from the second degree of the scale. Since this chord would normally be minor in a regular major scale, sharpening its 3rd would make it major. So another way to look at picking distinctive chords is to base them on notes within the scale that are distinctive - it pretty much comes to the same thing.

Another trick we can use to really focus on the modality of the progression, is to keep the bass note sounding on the tonic. This complicates the chords a little as they will all become slash chords, but it really draws attention to where in the scale the chord is rooted, and allows you to concentrate on the tonality of the mode you are working with. As you become more advanced, this trick is less important but is a great way to start out.

The Chords Themselves

Ok, so much for theory - lets look at the exact chords Dave used in his progression, and see what we have. In this section I will be using terminology for the degrees of the scale that is described here.


Chords : A, D/A, Amaj7, D/A

A Major and A Major 7th for the tonic, D for the sub-dominant. Similar to the Mixolydian chords, but you could use a Dominant 7 as the tonic in Mixolydian, making this an Ionian progression.


Chords : Am7, D7/A, Am7, D7/A

In this progression, the combination of a Minor 7 in the tonic and a D7 in the sub-dominant makes this a uniquely Dorian progression.


Chords: Am, Bb/A, Am, Bb/A

The combination of a Minor tonic and a major Supertonic (or 2nd) is uniquely Phrygian. Also, the distance of one semitone between the Tonic and Supertonic cements this as Phrygian - although this relationship is shared with the Locrian, the chord types are very different.


Chords: Amaj7, B, Amaj7, B

A Major Tonic and Supertonic is uniquely Lydian.


Chords: A7, G, A7, G

A Major Tonic and a major Subtonic/Leading note is uniquely Mixolydian.


Chords : Am, F, Am, F

A minor Tonic coupled with a Major Sub-Mediant is a little ambiguous and could be confused with Phrygian, but there are few if any distinguinguishing combinations for Aeolian, apart from use of the diminished Super-Tonic which makes for a fairly unpleasant chord progression.


Chords : Adim, Bbmaj, Dm. Adim

Finally, locrian has a diminished tonic which in itself is unique. The remaing chords serve to cement that relationship.

So there you have it, some ideas on putting together a uniquely modal chord progression.