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Home > Theory > Modal Chord Progressions

Modal Chord Progressions

This lesson was made to accompany the guitar modes series, where we looked at the individual modes of the major scale and how you can use them as unique scales in their own right.

Now we're going to learn how to identify modal chord progressions so we can apply the modes (e.g. in a solo) confidently over their related chord changes. It's about building a chord scale that ties in with the sequence of modes we learned. Each mode builds a related chord.

Take your time with this. There's a fair bit of overlap between this lesson and other concepts covered in the theory section, such as chord construction.

Video lesson: finding chord progressions for modes

The theory behind modal chord progressions

In the modes series, we identified 7 modes. Each mode was built on a degree/note of its parent scale.

e.g. 2nd mode Dorian was built on the 2nd degree of the major scale.

5th mode Mixolydian was built on the 5th degree etc.

We also learned each mode as major, minor or diminished (7th mode Locrian - the "odd one out").

The same applies when building chords on the degrees of the major scale.

Below is a diagram showing the intervals of the major scale. Each yellow box can be seen as a degree of the major scale, so each one also represents a mode, from 1 (Ionian) to 7 (Locrian) and then back to 1 again.

Maj W min W min H Maj W Maj W min W dim H Maj
I ii iii IV V vi vii I

The numerals correspond to the chord/mode number 1-7. You can also see that the maj/min label corresponds with the chord/mode type (the triad around which the mode is built). For example, 3rd mode Phrygian is a minor mode, so therefore the 3 (iii) chord will also be minor. 4th mode Lydian is a major mode, so therefore the 4 (IV) chord will also be... yep, major!

It's just like superimposing chords onto the mode patterns, using some or all of the mode's tones in the chord.

By knowing the interval sequence between each mode (covered in more depth in the mode relatonships lesson of the series), we automatically know the interval sequence of the modal chord scale.

So, based on this knowledge, if we were to assign the root chord of the sequence - I - as E major, the sequence would progress as follows...

E W F#m W G#m H A W B W C#m W D#dim H E
I ii iii IV V vi vii I

In modal terms, that's E Ionian, F# Dorian, G# Phrygian, A Lydian, B Mixolydian, C# Aeolian, D# Locrian and then the sequence repeats as we're back to the first degree of the scale.

Remember, this is a movable relationship, so if the I chord (also called the "tonic") changed to D major, the interval sequence would be built accordingly from there. This is why it's important to know the the fretboard!

Once we're confident with building these interval sequences in any key (the key being defined by the tonic I note/chord), we can then move on to learning how to identify modal chord sequences - applying the correct mode to chord combinations from this scale.

Common modal chord progressions

For these examples, we'll use the C major chord scale, which means the Ionian/I chord will be C major. But remember, the sequences we build are relative to wherever that tonic Ionian/I chord lies.

Degree I ii iii IV V vi vii
Mode Ionian Dorian Phrygian Lydian Mixolydian Aeolian Locrian
Chord C Dm Em F G Am Bdim

So, from that C major chord scale, we can assign a chord to each of its degrees, and therefore each of its modes. We can then build progressions around a given degree chord, and therefore a given mode, using the related chords of the scale.

To make it a specifically modal progression, the mode's related chord must become the tonic of the progression. This is the chord to which the progression resolves. Some examples...

Ionian chord progression

Mode: C Ionian
Progression: C (I) Dm (ii) G (V) / C (I) G (V) F (IV) C (I)
Example: Play

Dorian chord progression

Mode: D Dorian
Progression: Dm (ii) Em (iii) Dm (ii) G (V)
Example: Play

Phrygian chord progression

Mode: E Phrygian
Progression: Em (iii) F (IV) Em (iii) Dm (ii)
Example: Play

Lydian chord progression

Mode: F Lydian
Progression: F (IV) G (V)
Example: Play

Mixolydian chord progression

Mode: G Mixolydian
Progression: G (V) Dm (ii) G (V) F (IV)
Example: Play

Aeolian chord progression
Mode: A Aeolian
Progression: Am (vi) F (IV) G (V)
Example: Play

Locrian has been left out simply because Locrian's associated chord - the diminished (m7b5) chord - isn't really appliable as a tonic chord, or as a stable key center. In other words, it doesn't provide an adequate resolution to a progression because it naturally sounds unresolved!

Locrian, therefore, is used as more of a modal link/bridge between two other chords in the scale (mainly, the vi minor and I major tonics), rather than a modal key center.

So, hopefully from listening to those examples above, you can hear a different tonic/resolution chord in each modal progression we use. It's this tonic chord that brings out the mode's unique flavour.

In a nutshell...
A lot of this stuff becomes clearer once you've mastered the fretboard.

Thanks for your time. See you soon!

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