Modes Parts 1 - 9

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


Love it. Once you understand the key concepts, it’s not scary at all. My ‘modal’ progressions never really sounded as I wanted them to sound. Why? I introduced too many different chords, including the V(7) of the PMS, which is just an open door for the PMS to come through and say hi. Less is more!


Less is more all right. Having developed into a “noodler” I am in a bad place on this. Many things start to sound similar …

This is a good reminder as well then for me to focus and reduce and limit what I’m playing before it goes to the blah mush mode.

Gotta think motifs, in a modal arena as well as the yes-its-a-mode Ionian and Aeolian.

Bill Frisell is brilliant here and in countless other ways.


Modes Part 9 - Some Backing Tracks

There are thousands of backing tracks available for major and minor music. Lydian progressions are seldom used for full songs, they tend to be small passages within larger pieces. No-one really creates Locrian modal music. Well really - who is going to spend time playing a m7b5 and think of it as home? :wink:
That leaves Mixolydian, Dorian and Phrygian. No doubt many pro quality backing tracks are available out in internet land. You may find Mixolydian tracks created with a tip of the hat to either southern rock boogie or with an AC/DC no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll vibe. You may find Dorian tracks in a funky-latin-cool-cats style. Phrygian is perhaps something you will find with an eastern-mystical flavour.
I thought I would cook up some backing tracks in just those three modes. I have written them all out on Guitar Pro with no fancy mixing or anything. Besides, I’m suffering a bad dose of covid and my ears feel like they have several wads of cotton wool stuffed in them so that would be futile just now. If anybody fancies doing a post-production number on them by all means, just let me know.
So here they are, just raw, come and take what you can backing tracks to try some modal improvisation over.



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C Mixolydian acoustic track


Improvise using this scale pattern from earlier - or a fuller scale pattern if you have scale pattern knowledge.

The flat 7th scale degree (the note Bb here) is the note to target. Notice that it sits within both the Bb and the Gm7 chords.

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C Dorian ambient track


Improvise using this scale pattern from earlier - or a fuller scale pattern(s) if you have scale pattern knowledge.

The flat 3rd and the natural 6th scale degrees (the notes Eb and A respectively here) are the notes to target. Notice that Eb sits within the tonic chord (it is the minor 3rd) and A sits within both the Dm7 and the Gmadd9 chords.

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C Phrygian rock track


Guitar 1

Guitar 2

Improvise using this scale pattern from earlier - or a fuller scale pattern(s) if you have scale pattern knowledge.

The flat 2nd and the flat 3rd scale degrees (the notes Db and Eb respectively here) are the notes to target. Notice that Eb sits within the tonic chord (it is the minor 3rd) and Db sits within all the Db, Bbm, the Gm7b5 and the dyad Bbm (no5) chords. And listen out for that last one - it’s a doozy!

Oh yeah - crank your amp for this one!


In the Triad list, shouldn’t the Em be an Edim?

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Good spot, thank you. I have corrected it now.

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I would just like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to @Richard_close2u for this series. I just this week finally sat down and worked out all the triads in all the modes so that I could pinpoint which ones contained the flavour notes. Then a couple of days later I come here and find this, presented in a much better way than I could, THANK YOU!

The quick takeaway I arrived at after all my working out, is this, and I am now in the process of trying to commit them to memory:


Notes, questions, and observations:

  1. I haven’t yet tried adding in any of the diminished chords that contain the flavour note, to my modal chord vamps, but am assuming in Rock, Pop and Folk they are not very common?

  2. Why is the one flavour chord more common than the other? I.e. in a Mixolydian vamp it’s more common to go I bVII than I v, or in a Phrygian vamp it’s more common to go i bII than I bvii etc? Is it because they are closer to the home chord/tonal centre?

  3. You mention, “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.” This opens up a WHOLE OTHER WORLD of searching for extended and Sus chords which will also contain the flavour note and bring more variety to your chord progressions while still maintaining that “modal feel”, very, very cool! :slight_smile: I think this probably happens a lot in acoustic fingerpicked folk guitar (my main area of interest).

  4. I also hadn’t really considered the chords to avoid, so that’s great info, don’t do the classic dom 7th resolve!

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Wow, thank you Gregg, your appreciation is very much appreciated. It seems you’ve absorbed and are beginning to use this. :slight_smile:

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