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Modal Chord Progressions - Identifying The Mode

Each of the modes of the major scale can be used as scales in their own right. In other words, each mode can be connected to, and used to accompany, individual chords that use tones from that given mode.

But chord progressions can also be formed around each mode, built from the mode's harmonic structure. We can build a chord on each degree of the mode, just like the major scale, and from that form what is known as a modal chord progression.

By training your ear to these modal chord movements, you'll be able to determine which mode is intrinsic to the music (and it happens a lot!), jump into the right pattern and accompany the music more confidently.

The Theory Behind Modal Chord Progressions

In the introductory section, we identified seven modes. Each mode was built on a degree/note of its parent scale (the major scale in this case).

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

5th mode Mixolydian was built on the scale's 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.

The diagram below shows the degrees of the major scale, each with its own chord type, based on how the scale harmonises in triads (three tones instead of one per degree).

Each degree of the scale also represents a mode and its corresponding chord type, from I (Ionian) to vii (Locrian) and then back to I again...

The numerals correspond to the scale degree, and therefore mode number, 1 through 7. You can also see that the maj/min label corresponds with the chord/mode type (the triad around which the mode is built/centered)...

For example, the scale's 3rd degree chord is minor, so its 3rd mode Phrygian's tonic will also be minor. The scale's 4th degree builds a major chord, so its 4th mode Lydian's tonic will also be... yep, major.

By knowing the interval sequence of the parent scale and its chord degrees, we automatically know each mode's chord degrees, the only difference being that mode's degree within the scale becomes the tonic or center of our modal progression.

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

In modal terms, if we were to isolate each degree as the "home" or tonic of our mode, that would be: C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and B Locrian.

Remember, this is a movable relationship, so if the scale changed to G major, for example, the interval sequence would be built accordingly from there...

This is how we'd get the chords for our modes G Ionian, A Dorian, B Phrygian, C Lydian, D Mixolydian, E Aeolian and F♯ Locrian.

So all we're really doing is harmonising the appropriate major (parent) scale in chord form and identifying one of its degrees as the center/tonic of our modal progression.

Get to know the harmonised major scale sequence in all keys first, then identifying modal progressions will be a lot easier. My chord progressions section will help you with this.

Establishing a Modal Tonic & Center

The tonic of a progression can also be thought of as the "home" chord, or the center around which a movement or progression resolves.

With a modal progression, one of the degrees of the parent scale becomes the tonic. Most often it'll be Ionian (I) or Aeolian (vi), the natural (and strongest) major and minor key centers. But we can also have a "Dorian tonic", built on the ii of the scale. Or a "Mixolydian tonic" build on the V.

This means the progression will typically begin or feel at rest on one of these other degrees. In a way, the biggest challenge for understanding modal progressions is knowing when a major or minor key doesn't resolve around the more common I or vi of the scale. This is determined by both the feeling of another degree (e.g. ii, iii, IV, V) being "home" and the relationship between the chords being played around that degree.

For example, take D Dorian. We know its tonic is Dm, based on the ii of the C major scale...

Dm now becomes the tonic, or new i of our progression. Sometimes, you might see the degree numerals change to reference that new tonic as the starting position in the scale. We'd assign the same flat to the 3rd degree as we would in the mode's pattern (since Dorian's 3rd degree is a ♭3, so its 3rd degree chord becomes ♭III)...

However, you might find it less confusing to simply reference the related parent scale numeral (ii in this case) for the mode's tonic.

Similarly, take G Mixolydian. We know its tonic is G, based on the V of the C major scale...

G now becomes the tonic, or new I of our progression. We could assign the numerals based on this new tonic (Mixolydian has a ♭7, so its 7th degree technically becomes ♭VII)...

We can see Mixolydian's 5th degree chord (v) is minor, based on its position in the scale relative to the new tonic. As a major mode, this modified v is one clue we are not in the more common major (Ionian) key, which would have a major V.

Another Mixolydian clue is the major ♭VII, a whole step down from the tonic. A common Mixolydian movement you'll hear, therefore, is between its I and ♭VII (or V and IV relative to its parent major scale degrees).

Becoming aware of these differences between the chord relationships of regular major and minor keys and modal keys will help you identify which mode a movement is connected to. More on this below...

Common Modal Chord Progressions

In most cases, a modal progression won't use every chord from the scale. This is because for a modal tonic to feel like "home", it tends to avoid resolving on stronger tonics such as the I and vi of the major scale, which you'll hear in the majority of songs. There are also certain chords and movements that support a particular mode and its tonic chord more than others.

So we're listening out for movements that support/resolve around a tonic degree other than the more common I and vi of the major scale.

Some examples...

Dorian Progressions

Typical Dorian movements make use of the major scale's IV (Dorian: ♭III) and V (Dorian: IV), sometimes touching on the I (Dorian: ♭VII), but resolving around the ii (Dorian: i)...

Song: Supersonic by Oasis

Mode: F♯ Dorian

Progression: F♯m / A / B (verse)

Parent Scale: E Major

Degrees: ii / IV / V

Song: Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel

Mode: E Dorian

Progression:  Em / D / Em / Em / G / A / Em

Parent Scale: D Major

Degrees: ii / I / ii / ii / IV / V / ii

Song: Great Gig in the Sky by Pink Floyd

Mode: G Dorian

Progression: Gm / C (from 0:18)

Parent Scale: F Major

Degrees: ii / V

Song: Mad World by Tears for Fears

Mode: F♯ Dorian

Progression: F♯m / A / E / B  chorus: F#m / B

Parent Scale: E Major

Degrees: ii / IV / I / V  chorus:  ii / V

Jam to more Dorian progressions here

Phrygian Progressions

Phrygian's distinctive sound comes from its minor 2nd (♭2) interval. So its flat second degree major chord (what the IV of the major scale becomes in relation to Phrygian) plays a characteristic role in any Phrygian based movement. Because of its dark sound, you'll hear it used a lot in power chord form in heavy metal...

Song: Would by Alice In Chains

Mode: F Phrygian

Progression: Fm / G♭ (verse)

Parent Scale: D♭ Major

Degrees: iii / IV

Song: Start by The Jam

Mode: B Phrygian

Progression:  Bm / C / Bm / D (verse)

Parent Scale: G Major

Degrees: iii / IV / iii / V

Song: Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth

Mode: E Phrygian

Progression: F5 / E5 / F G F (verse)

Parent Scale: C Major

Degrees: IV / iii

Song: Black Napkins by Frank Zappa

Mode: C♯ Phrygian

Progression: C♯m / D

Parent Scale: A Major

Degrees: iii / IV

Jam to more Phrygian progressions here

Lydian Progressions

Lydian movements are characterised by touching on the mode's second degree major chord (IV to V in relation to its parent major scale). You'll hear it a lot in film and TV scores, but it does show up in popular music occasionally...

Song: Flying In A Blue Dream by Joe Satriani

Mode: C Lydian

Progression: C / D / C (fixed C bass)

Parent Scale: G Major

Degrees: IV / V / IV

Song: Dreams by Fleetwood Mac

Mode: F Lydian

Progression:  F / G

Parent Scale: C Major

Degrees: IV / V

Jam to more Lydian progressions here

Mixolydian Progressions

Mixolydian is characterised by a movement down from its major tonic to its ♭VII (that's V to IV in relation to the major scale). It also has a minor v chord (ii in relation to the major scale), so listen out for that. It's a very commonly used major mode in popular music, second only to the major scale/Ionian itself...

Song: Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd

Mode: D Mixolydian

Progression: D / C / G

Parent Scale: G Major

Degrees: V / IV / I

Song: Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses

Mode: D♭ Mixolydian

Progression:  D♭ / C♭ / G♭ / D♭ (verse)

Parent Scale: G♭ Major

Degrees: V / IV / I / V

Song: Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters

Mode: B Mixolydian

Progression: B / F♯m / E

Parent Scale: E Major

Degrees: V / ii / I

Song: Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater

Mode: F♯ Mixolydian

Progression: F♯ / E / B / F♯

Parent Scale: B Major

Degrees: V / IV / I / V

Jam to more Mixolydian progressions here

Final Thoughts...

Hopefully, by listening to those examples above (and there are countless more out there), you can hear a different tonic/resolution chord with each mode. It's the resolution around this tonic chord, and its relationship between other chords in the parent scale, that brings out the mode's unique flavour.

Think of these modal chord movements as supporting their melodic movements (and vice versa).

Also keep in mind that some songs are only modal in sections, e.g. the verse, bridge or chorus. This is really all about identifying movements as they arise and thinking "ah, that sounds like Mixolydian", for example.

Songs may also move between different modes, as a form of modal interchange. We'll look at that more advanced concept another time!

In a nutshell...

  • Modal chord progressions use the same harmonic structure as their parent major scale.
  • Each mode has its own tonic chord rooted on its related degree of the parent scale.
  • Chord progressions can be built around each mode to reaffirm their tonic or "home". The tonic therefore also defines the key center of the progression.

You can learn more about modal harmony, and further train your ears to modal movements here.

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