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Using Modes Over Chords

Question by Ishan

Sir, please explain by parts how to use modes with types of chord progression and what are the various moods that we can hear by using different modes in between songs?

I have looked upon many tutorials and videos but none has specified the criteria of using modes.


Hi Ishan. I love the photo!

First, remember that not all modal playing involves playing over a chord progression.

A lot of modal playing is used to embellish the harmony of a single chord, or at least small movements around a single root chord.

This is the logical first step in understanding the different moods each mode conveys.

For example, over C minor, we might choose Dorian, a minor mode.

Out of the seven modes of the major scale, Dorian's unique color tone is the major 6th (6).

Dorian: 1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7

So we're embellishing the minor triad (1 b3 5) with a major 6th.

There may be "hints" in the backing music that Dorian can be used if that major 6th is already sounded.

So you first need to familiarise yourself with the color tones of each mode (i.e. the tones that make each mode unique from the others) and train your ear to hear these color tones in music.

That way, you'll be able to hear the implied mode in the backing music, if it happens to use any of these tones.

If the backing chord was C7, for example, Mixolydian would be an obvious choice, because it's the mode that uses the minor 7th (b7).

1 2 3 4 5 6 b7

The more you dissect each mode and explore it's tones over a related backing chord with the same root, the more you will train your ear to connect the "mood" of the backing music with its related mode.

The next step is to start harmonising the mode. This means creating some chordal movement within a given mode.

Here's a useful ear training exercise for harmonising a mode/scale.

Start with a mode's pattern. We'll use Mixolydian for this example in its first position (use a root note of your choice):

Mixolydian mode pattern

Next, try creating simple chord movements within this pattern by pulling out three and four string chord shapes. Here are some examples...

1 3 and 5 from mixolydian

b7 2 and 5 from mixolydian

5 b7 and 4 from mixolydian

The more you explore the mode in this way, the easier it'll be to hear that "mixolydian sound".

What this exercise will do is accustom your ear to Mixolydian harmony. By harmonising the scale like this, you'll internalize the connection between the mode and its related chord tones.

Only when you're confident with connecting a mode to its related chord tones will it be clearer how to use modes over more defined chord progressions.

When you break it down, a chord progression is simply a movement of harmony - a group of related notes.

So you need to listen out for movements and relationships that imply a given mode.

The video below gives you examples of typical chord movements for each mode. A good starting point for training your ear to identify the correct mode...

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