Modes Parts 1 - 9

Today was the perfect morning to go through these methodically and hear some fresh sounds in my improv.
Like having the target notes to aim for to get that point of difference from the next nearest mode
The changing of a single semitone to get the next mode, and that this can elegantly be explained via the circle of fifths has opened up this whole area for me
Really useful lessons

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…and now back to trying to memorise Martin Simpson’s version of In the Bleak Mid Winter.
Yes, really.

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Fresh sounds - sounds good.

Thanks for the introduction to these variations. Be awhile before I get them under my belt, but this was a very helpful way to get me started.

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Thanks Jay. :slight_smile:

Modes Part 8 - A first look at building modal chord progressions.

Remember how we established all chords associated with each mode in Part 6 but then went on to play over the tonic chord only in Part 7?

Well, having played over just the tonic chord, and kept away from the entire set of chords, then surely now we must be able to pick up our guitars, choose whichever mode takes our fancy, bang about with those chords to hammer out some cool progressions, improvise some exotic sounds and enjoy basking in a warm modal glow!


Or … could we perhaps take up Justin’s idea of Dice Songwriting, pick out six chords from one of the modal groups assigned to the dice numbers (excluding the beastly diminished), roll the dice, create a chord progression at random and hey presto! Shazam! We will be making magical modal music right?

Surely that is the next step? Isn’t it?


What … what do you mean no! NO!! For goodness sake! Why not? What’s the problem dude?

Sorry folks, but it ain’t all that simple. Or rather, it is simple, but it isn’t simple in that way.


The thing with modal chord progressions is you need to approach them differently – differently as compared with a typical major key or minor key chord progression. Major and minor music is so ubiquitous, so common place that we need to briefly look at their workings in order to better understand how and what could be different.

In the Dice Songwriting lesson, Justin brilliantly discusses and demonstrates how a major chord progression can be made up of any random chord progression from the diatonic chords of the major scale. He does make sure to begin the sequence on the tonic chord of C, the ‘home base’. Then, by rolling the dice, he allows the chord progression to take a walk, to amble around at will, in any direction, knowing that all will be well and it will return back home as required.

Major key music, put simply, does this. It allows any of the diatonic chords to be played in virtually any order and they will sound good and feel good – especially when they return home to the tonic. This good feeling and this happy homecoming are particularly satisfying if the return is achieved through a dominant to tonic resolution (V or V7 to I … G or G7 to C in the key of C major). Although it must be noted that other chords also lead back to the tonic chord perfectly well too.

Minor key music has a similar openness and flexibility. Chord progressions in minor keys can also journey through long and winding paths of diatonic chords, exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds before a return home. There is one small point that needs to be made here, namely that minor key progressions frequently achieve their resolution by substituting the minor v chord for a V7 chord. Analysis of this requires study of out of key chords and the harmonic minor scale. It is outside of our sights here so, now noted, can be set aside.

Let us think about some frequently used progressions in the major and minor keys. Being aware of course that major = Ionian and minor = Aeolian.

Here are some typical major chord progressions, used countless times in countless songs.

C, F, G, C … I, IV, V progressions … rock ‘n’ roll & pop and much, much more.

Short audio track - C major chord progression I, IV, V

C, G, Am, F, C … I, V, vi, IV progressions … the famous 4-chord song trick.

Short audio track - C major chord progression I, V, vi, IV

C, G, Am, Em, F, C, F, G … I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V progressions (a la Pachelbel’s Canon … a variation on the theme of a 1, 4, 5 where the chords have been taken for a little meander before the 4 and 5 appear to take us home).

Short audio track - C major chord progression I, V, vi, iii, IV, I, IV, V

Here are some typical minor chord progressions, also used many times in popular music.

Cm, Fm, Gm … i, iv, v (a minor version of the 1, 4, 5).

Short audio track - C minor chord progression i, iv, v

Cm, Ab, Eb, Bb … i, VI, III, VII (beloved of countless ballads and more).

Short audio track - C minor chord progression i, VI, III, VII

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The point about major and minor key music is that (almost) anything goes. It is possible to take any of the chords associated with the major and minor scales, throw them together willy-nilly and end up with a progression that sounds anywhere between reasonable and great. There are some concepts at play, guidelines to look to, rules to be aware of, of course. In major and minor key music something called functional harmony is at play. The chords have functions within a progression. Movement to some chords creates tension, away from them can create release. The tonic chord is home-base. The dominant chord (the chord built off the 5th scale degree) has the most pronounced function - creating the greatest tension and the strongest resolution when it moves back to the tonic. This is even more pronounced if it is played as a dominant 7th chord.

Then for melodic purposes, it will simply be a case of getting creative and improvisational with the major or minor scale respectively. To reiterate Justin when improvising – all notes are equal but some notes are more equal than others. When you do create a major or a minor progression and improvise over the top, now and again, you will need to listen attentively and be judicious with some of the notes over some of the chords. But, overall, in simple terms, it will all sound mostly good most of the time.

Easy peasy.

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The same cannot be said for modal progressions, that are not major or minor (Ionian or Aeolian) however.

Remember the rotating arc around the 12-colour circle of fifths? Remember how we saw that each mode deviates from a major scale by way of either having a single sharp note (Lydian) or an increasing number of flat notes (Mixolydian through to Locrian)?

Those deviations from the major scale formula are the very heart of the different qualities of the modes and how they sound. They are the flavours, the colour tones, the unique characteristics. They are the colour blends. When seeking to play modal music, it is important to consciously bring those notes to the fore, to give them their due prominence, to highlight them and spotlight their characters.

It is not enough to randomly happen upon these special notes, playing them with no particular thought for what their personality is and what they will sound like. This is precisely what I did when creating the ‘modal melody’ for the audio tracks above. I composed a simple melody, making sure to run through all seven notes of each mode in ascending and descending movements. I deliberately gave equal billing to all of the notes in all of the modes, thus overlooking and neglecting the concept that Justin teaches: ‘all notes are equal, but some notes are more equal than others.’ Instead of creating a musical meal of delicious and subtle flavours, I stirred everything up in one big pot and created a mushy stew of perhaps bland texture and taste.

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Well … what then?

Well, first of all, the chord progressions need to be created with much more care and thought. The dice method is not going to give good results for modal progressions. The whole point of modal music is that it does not, should not, will not, sound quite like major or minor music. It needs to sound different, other, fresh, unexpected. It needs to offer us different tastes and textures. And the chord progressions help to achieve this with a focus clearly placed on several vital ingredients.

There is a tonic chord. To help create the modal mood, the tonic chord needs to be emphasised, embedded, thoroughly established as home base by frequent use and repetition of it.

Other chords will float around the tonic. In modal music, the concept of a dominant resolving to a tonic does not really apply. Functional harmony of that type is not at play within modal music.

It is common to choose chords built on the scale degrees one above or one below the root of the tonic.

A drone note playing the root note of the tonic can ground the progression within the mode.

The colour tones need to be emphasised by selecting chords containing those notes. Making use of extended chords or suspended chords, rather than simple triads, can be a big part of this.

Limiting the total number of different chords will make a progression more modal. Often a modal progression will be no more than a two-chord vamp.

The dominant 7th chord of the Parent Major Scale is a chord to avoid. It will trick the ear and almost insist that there be a resolution to the parent major tonic, thus usurping the modal tonic and pushing back to major key functional harmony.


In this next step, to help make sense of modal progressions and to make use of them for improvisation further down the line, we will revisit the basic lists of chords associated with each mode, provide additional information for each, including their quality, their numeric tag and possible extensions to the chords, and follow audio of examples of some modal progressions.

We will focus only on the three major and the three minor modes, ignoring awkward Locrian again.

For each mode, we will have:

a] the scale with its scale degrees;

b] the triad chords plus a select few extension chords (these chosen deliberately as they contain the colour notes);

c] some notes on the notes / themes that make each mode sound unique;

d] an audio track providing a chord progression (with a droning bass playing the root note C in straight 8ths across all bars);

e] a pdf of the Guitar Pro file for the backing track;

f] a suggested scale pattern to use as an improvisational start point.

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C Ionian - Scale and Triads

Here’s a progression making use of several chords, all resolving happily to C major at the end.

TAB for audio track

I encourage you to improvise some melody / lead parts over this using this scale pattern from above.

Make something up yourself too.
Select from chords 1 to 6, roll your dice and make merry! :slight_smile:
Improvise over it.

C Lydian - Scale and Triads

The main colour tone is the #4 and chords containing this can help to emphasise the Lydian quality.
The unique aspect in terms of chords is the major I - major II.
A classic Lydian movement in a chord progressions is from a major tonic to a major a whole tone higher.

Here is another short progression. The chords focus heavily on the tonic chord with visits out to the major II and the minor vii, both of which contain the #4.

TAB for audio track

Improvise over this using this scale pattern.

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C Mixolydian - Scale and Triads

The colour tone here is the b7 and the unique chord combination is a major I with a major chord a whole tone below it - the bVII. Many (rock) mixolydian progressions use just three majors - the I, bVII and IV. Note that the minor v also contains the b7 note so is a good choice to highlight that flavour.
The audio track I have created for you to use as a backing track mainly uses the I and the bVII with a small sprinkling of the v chord too.

TAB for audio track

Improvise using this scale pattern from earlier.

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C Aeolian - Scale and Triads

As with the Ionian progression, there is much scope to make use of many chords in creating a chord progression here. The b3 note - making this a minor mode - is an obvious feature and appears in the tonic plus several other chords and their extensions. Note that many minor chord progressions substitute the v for a V7 to give a more resounding resolution back to the tonic. In doing so, strictly speaking, the music has moved away from Aeolian and into using the harmonic minor scale. As that is beyond the terms of reference here we shall not include its use.

The chord progression I have made as a sample / backing track makes generous use of the i, i7, iv, v, bvi and bvii chords.

TAB for audio track

Use this scale pattern to improvise.

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C Dorian - Scale and Triads

Dorian is a minor mode so the b3 is a necessary note to play around with. The unique feature of Dorian, in relation to the other minor modes, is that it has a natural 6, not a b6, so this is where you can extract its unique flavour.


Try improvising using this pattern.

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C Phrygian - Scale and Triads

The big deal with Phrygian is the b2 note and the bII chord it gives rise to. This is unique among the six modes we are concentrating on here. This potent flavour note is an essential ingredient though does need using carefully so as not to overpower the overall mix.
The chord progression provided emphasises the tonic chord with forays to the bII and short bursts of the bvii which also contain the b2 note.


Improvise using this scale pattern.


Hard no to highlight this entire passage. This is golden, new learning for me on top of some fuzzy concepts, in the parlance of the UK - brilliant!

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Hey Richard,

Brilliant, clear cut illumination on a topic that seems to cause great confusion - and often controversy - all over the web. A great resource.
While I’m not studying modes specifically as a study area at this stage, I do find myself increasingly doing some adhoc investigation as I come across modal progressions in songs/ exercises, and then maybe play around with them occasionally in my own playing. I see them alot in some southern rock stuff I like etc, and its even a bit of fascinating topic in its own right for me.

A 10 minute read here has introduced some seemingly crucially important concepts for me, and made some others much clearer. Some of this core, essential stuff is just not being mentioned elsewhere, from many modal ‘experts’ on the web. Or when it is, its very poorly explained.
The whole concept of a different functional harmony as opposed to major/ minor; the importance of really understanding and emphasising specific notes/ chords that bring forth the particular modal sound.
These 2 concepts alone have unmuddied the waters considerably for me, if only at more of an intellectual level for now.
Many many thanks for yet another great series. Another important reference resource moving forward.

Cheers, Shane