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Using more than two chords in modal chord progressions

Question by Justin
(Midland, Texas)

Hi I am having trouble understanding how to use more than just the 4 and the 5 chord to make a progression for use with modes. What I mean is I know how to make a two chord progression for modes but how do I make multiple chord progressions for a particular mode say C Aeolian.


Each modal progression has seven possible chords, based on the intervals of that mode and its related parent scale (the major scale in this case).

However, not every chord in the scale will sound "natural" as part of highlighting that mode's flavour. Therefore, it's up to you to experiment and find out which chord relationships naturally reinforce a given mode's tonality.

For example, the most common Mixolydian mode progression is:

I (1) - VII (7) - IV (4)

In the key of C, that would be

Cmaj - Bbmaj - Fmaj

C Mixolydian would work perfectly over that progression. It resolves nicely to C major and the other chords are rooted on the intervals of the C Mixolydian mode.

We can draw more chord combinations from the C Mixolydian chord scale as follows (this is like starting from the V or 5 chord of the major scale, as Mixolydian is its 5th mode)...

Cmaj - Dm - Edim - Fmaj - Gm - Am - Bbmaj

Now, you have to experiment with using different chord combinations as not every chord will reinforce that C Mixolydian tonic, but generally speaking, modal progressions only tend to use 2, 3 or 4 chords max to keep the tonality focused tightly around the tonic chord of the mode in question.

Therefore, some other C Mixolydian options...

Cmaj - Am - Bbmaj (1 - 6 - 7)

Cmaj - Gm - Fmaj (1 - 5 - 4)

Cmaj - Dm - Bbmaj - Fmaj (1 - 2 - 7 - 4)

The more you play different combinations of chords from a given mode's chord scale, the more you will learn which are the most important chords for reinforcing that mode as the tonal center of the progression.

With Mixolydian, the subtonic 7 chord in relation to the tonic 1 chord brings out that Mixolydian tonality, because of its unique relationship (two major chords a whole step apart suggests Mixolydian).

Let's take another example - C Aeolian. As Aeolian is the 6th mode, we can build our Aeolian chord scale from the 6th chord of the major scale...

Cm - Ddim - Ebmaj - Fm - Gm - Abmaj - Bbmaj

The 4 and 5 chords are functionally important in Aeolian/natural minor chord progressions, but we can technically use any of these 7 chords from its scale as part of an Aeolian progression.

Some examples...

Abmaj - Bbmaj - Cm (7 - 6 - 1)

Cm - Ebmaj - Fm (1 - 3 - 4)

Cm - Gm - Bbmaj - Abmaj (1 - 5 - 7 - 6)

So the first step is to work out the 7 chords of each mode, based on that modes position in the major scale. This is the pot from which you can pull various chord combinations, using the mode's tonic chord (the chord with the same root as the mode you're playing) as the "home" or tonal center of your progression.

The second step is to experiment with different 2, 3 and 4 chord combinations from that mode's chord scale and workout which chord relationships help to reinforce that mode as the tonal center. The easiest way to do this is to start your progression with the mode's root (1) chord and try and resolve your progression to that same root chord. The resolution should sound natural.

The benefit of learning it this way is that when you're called upon to solo/improvise over an existing chord progression, you'll know whether it's modal or not and therefore which mode you can play over the entire progression.

If you're struggling to work out the chords for each mode, first identify that mode's position in the major scale (e.g. Mixolydian = 5, Dorian = 2). That degree's chord becomes the 1 chord of the mode and you can follow the intervals and chords of the major scale from that point.

As you can probably tell, this is not something that is easy to explain, but the more time you spend playing around with modal intervals and chord relationships, the more the pieces of the picture come together.

Use the comments link below to ask any further questions, as I'm aware there's a chance the above answer may have just raised more confusion!

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