Modes Parts 1 - 9

We need a simple backing track that plays just the appropriate tonic chord – either C major (for Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian) or C minor (for Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian). Make one yourself if you have a looper or DAW. I am providing a 32-bar (1 min 28 sec) backing track for both types to begin.

We will start the major modes with Ionian (THE major scale). The sound of the major scale should be such a familiar one that this will feel immediately safe and secure.

Then the other two major modes, Lydian and Mixolydian will follow. Each differs from the Ionian by just one note each. These will be the notes to pay special attention to and use - target notes to add the modal flavours.

When moving on to the minor modes, Aeolian (THE minor scale) is first up. This too should be familiar. The other two minor modes differ from it by just one note each. As above, these need to be targeted and used to bring out the unique character of each mode.

Let’s have at it!

Modal improvising with C Ionian

Yes – this is basically major scale improvising.

If you have followed any of Justin’s teaching on improvising with the major scale, this will be very familiar and comfortable territory. I encourage you to also watch the recent lesson on improvising with Re-Active Listening.

32 bar looped C major chord

Improvise using this scale pattern. The root note is red and all other notes are shown as black. Ionian is a major type so the major 3rd is a good choice to target. The sound of this should be recognisable to your ears.

Modal improvising with C Lydian

32 bar looped C major chord

Improvise using this scale pattern. Note the #4 ‘colour tone’ note is shown in purple on the neck diagram. This is what separates Lydian from Ionian so make a conscious effort to aim for this target note. Use your ears to discern how it impacts the sound and the overall vibe.

Modal improvising with C Mixolydian

32 bar looped C major chord

Improvise using this scale pattern. Note the b7 ‘colour tone’ note is shown in purple on the neck diagram. This single note is what separates Mixolydian from Ionian. Aim for it and, as before, use your ears when you play it to get a sense of its affect on the overall vibe.

Modal improvising with C Aeolian

32 bar looped C minor chord

Improvise using this scale pattern. Because this is THE minor scale no particular target note is selected as the colour tone. It is a minor type mode so the b3 should be included in the improvisation to bring out the minor quality.

Modal improvising with C Dorian

32 bar looped C minor chord

Improvise using this scale pattern. Note the natural 6 ‘colour tone’ which sets it apart from Aeolian. This is shown in purple on the neck diagram. Aim for this target note. Use your ears when you play it and try to detect the qualities it brings.

Modal improvising with C Phrygian

32 bar looped C minor chord

Improvise using this scale pattern. Note the b2 which sets it apart from Aeolian. This is shown in purple on the neck diagram. This is the note to give some attention to. How does it affect the feel of the improvisation? What special magic does it bring?

Finally music. I can let my brain relax. Or can I? :wink: Ok no modal meandering until after the OM.


Breathe deeply, relax, unloose your brain from its daily workings, let your fingers and ears flow in sweet melodic bliss.

Thank you Master Po.

A year on from round one and I think I am going find those boxes hard to stay in. I’ll put away the key to the door and stay in those modal cells, doing some drone doodling. :sunglasses:

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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