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Modes and modal chord progressions

Question by Daniel Duffy

Hi FretJam me again. I've got 3 short questions which are bothering me.

The first stems from a series of columns at Ultimateguitar.com about modes and modal progressions, which at one point says that for a piece to really be "modal" no accidentals can be used, i.e. unlike in tonal music, at no point can notes be borrowed from another scale or mode to create a certain feel, lest the "modal setting" is lost. Is this true, as it strikes me as odd, and it certainly isn't justified in the article? If this is the case, why?

Second, as part of my ongoing learning in this area, I came to the conclusion that the common I-bVII-VI progression (ala Sweet home alabama etc.), is actually a mixolydian progression, with the second chord being built on the minor seventh in the mode, which when harmonised gives a perfect fifth and a major 3rd- a major triad. Am I correct in this deduction that this is why that progression has that bluesy feel, and really works well, i.e. because it isn't breaking or bending any rules, or "borrowing chords"- it is just a simple modal chord progression?

Finally, since the root of my confusion in all this, and the trigger for my recent obsession with music theory (which led to me discovering this wonerful site), came from a difference of understanding and and different ways of articulating these ideas between me and my guitar teacher, I'd like to be able to show him that not only (which he disagreed with) are modal chord progressions perfectly possible and usable, but are also common. So my question is, how common in rock/folk and generally modern music are modal progressions, and what about classical music?


Hey Daniel, very interesting questions.

1] Firstly, I kind of understand what the author of the article you refer to is saying - that for a piece to be truly modal, it should not include accidentals (notes outside the mode).

This is because any given mode and its related chords have a very specific tonality based on a specific arrangement of tones from its parent scale (e.g. a mode of the major scale). Therefore, it has a more defined musical purpose than a standard scale, as it is locked into a parent scale system.

Any deviation from that arrangement, and you're technically playing outside the mode, you lose the modal context and so it may not be considered truly modal.

For example, if you were playing Dorian, which is characterised by its major 6th, and introduced the flat/minor 6th, you would be blurring the context of that modal key center between Dorian and Aeolian/natural minor - hence it becomes ambiguous and you lose the Dorian modal setting.

To compound this, if there are chord changes, and they are fixed to the degrees of a particular mode, borrowing tones from other scales/modes will most likely create dissonance (and not the good kind!) and sound awkward against the chord sequence.


I don't think this is such an issue when using passing chromatic tones, as these would be glanced over and heard within the context of the mode you're playing.

For example, taking the minor/major 6th Dorian example again, we could glance quickly over the "outside" minor 6th in a Dorian phrase and still maintain the Dorian setting, because ideally you would resolve the phrase to a Dorian tone.

So I think the caveat here is, don't emphasise outside tones when playing modal, but quick, resolving runs over chromatic tones, if played right, will never compromise the overall tonality of the mode you're playing.

Incidentally, this is why many musicians find modal playing rather restrictive when writing a chord progression and accompanying solo, and may only use modes in a purely functional sense when an existing progression happens to be locked into a particular modal key (e.g. ii IV V ii IV V implies Dorian, so playing Dorian could be deemed a "safe" option).

2] I would agree with you that the Sweet Home Alabama I VII IV implies Mixolydian.

Now, if the context of that sequence was expanded to include natural chords of the major key, such as vi, ii, iii etc. then the VII could be rightly considered the "odd one out" and therefore a borrowed chord.

But, because (as far as I think I know the song) the I VII IV sequence repeats and is therefore pure Mixolydian.

It's all about context.

3] You've touched on a topic that is still hotly debated among musicians.

Personally, I do recognise modal chord progressions and I see them as serving a very specific musical function.

They reinforce a given modal key center by resolving to a tonic chord based on that mode's root.

So a Dorian progression would resolve on the ii chord.

A Mixolydian progression would resolve on the V chord.

But note that Phrygian and Locrian don't work very effectively in this way for the very reason that it's difficult to resolve a progression to their tonic/root chords.

I like to use the word imply. Certain chord progressions, although may not have been purposefully written around a mode, imply a modal key center.

The Sweet Home Alabama example stands true (Mixolydian).

No More Heroes by the Stranglers has always implied Dorian to my ears (ii V ii I).

Metallica's Nothing Else Matters is, for the most part, Aeolian.

A lot of songs aren't purely modal for the very reason they're not purposefully written to be so. However, you can pick out certain repeating passages in countless songs that imply a mode.

Keep the debate going with your tutor! You're clearly keeping your ears open for this stuff and it's helping you internalise the relationship between chords and scales which is great.

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By: Daniel Duffy

Thanks a lot- all very helpful. But would you say that either actual modal progressions, or progressions with chords borrowed from modes with the same root note, are very common in rock/folk and classical music ie lots of people use them a lot, or are they a rarity, and the exception to the rule? :)

By: Mike

The more I think about it, the more I think it really is subjective.

Take the No More Heroes example. I might interpret that in a modal sense - Dorian, whereas someone could simply interpret it as a ii V ii I major key progression, outside a modal context. To me, the ii chord is the tonal center, so to my ears Dorian (the ii chord's related mode) becomes the setting.

Someone else might interpret the I chord as the theoretical resolution point, and would just see it as a major key progression.

I would say that modes can be applied to a lot of music out there, rock, pop, classical etc. Whether or not they can be specifically called modal pieces is a debate of semantics.

Like I said before, musicians rarely, if at all, write specifically modal songs, because there's no need to restrict your creativity like that. However, because of the natural chord relationships favoured by many songwriters and composers that also happen to support modes, we can find countless examples of progressions in which modes can be used.

By: Daniel Duffy

Ok thanks a lot! :)

What is your tutor's view?
By: Mike

Daniel, could you elaborate on this comment: "I'd like to be able to show [my tutor] that not only (which he disagreed with) are modal chord progressions perfectly possible and usable..."

If he disagrees that modal chord progressions are possible and usable then I'd be interested to know what he does see as the extent of modal function.

I remember having a similar debate with someone (funnily enough I think it was also on Ultimate Guitar) and they refused to "accept the existence" of modal chord progressions. I do think, however, a lot of the debate is about semantics.

By: Daniel

The disagreement was part of a long (2 hours spanning 2 lessons), fairly unproductive discussion about chords, modes and progressions. Essentially, I'm planning to write a song in the summer, and I'd asked him (i think-tough to remember) how people come up with basic chord progressions, and when extended chords could be used in them. After about 5 minutes my guitar literally almost went crazy, as he gesticulated wilidy (silently) after his speech faded out, and he became completely unable to articulate anything he was thinking. I "prompted" him a little with what I'd heard, from here and other sites, about taking a scale, harmonising all the notes in it with other notes in the scale to make triads, then extended chords etc. My guitar teacher was quite convinced that this wasn't how it was done, and could think of no reason anyone would harmonise a scale, and seemed to think that almost all chord progressions came from either harmonising a melody (but he couldnt explain how this is done), or by just playing around and finding something that sounds right. This sounded a little "off" to me, as I was coming to understand that music theory is much more conclusive than I previously had thought. In the second lesson, I stuck to my guns, and tried to ask whether there was such thing as a "dorian chrord progressions", and if not, why not, as surely it could be done in the same way (harmonising all notes in the mode). "no" again was the reply-my teacher thought that a dorian progression would simply sound like a minor one for the first 5 chords, and then change to a major sounding one when the last 2 chords were used, in a fairly jerky unpleasant way, and having no overal dorian fel, ie that a dorian progressions wouldn't be dorian, but would be half-minor and half-major. It is becoming clear he is simply wrong-nobody is suggesting any other way of doing it than harmonising the moode/scale, it works, and harmonising a melody essentially comes to the same thing because all the melody notes will be in the scale/mode! As you know from my previous question on this site, I've been analysing all the andy mckee, rodrigo-y-gabriela and preston reed tabs I have, and they all work according to the system of harmonising the scale. Admittedly I may have confused my teacher by also trying the byzantine mode as an example, which (fair enough this time) probably wouldn't be usable to make a progression, only a drone, as it isn't really major OR minor (to western ears)! So to answer your question, I think my teacher sees modes as something he cannot, unless telepathy is invented, communicate through human speech, but probably roughly as exotic things, normally only used in melody, having nothing to do with harmony of any kind! How wrong he is......- but now I've got my head roughly straight about it, we'll talk again and I'll see if I can persuade him! :)

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