Understanding Modal Harmony: Building Chords from Modes | Hub Guitar

Understanding Modal Harmony: Building Chords from Modes

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Let's talk a bit about constructing chords from modes.

Generally, modal chord progressions don't wander around too much. Major and minor compositions can have long series of chords, but modal progressions usually just have one or two. Why? Because the root of the mode must be constantly reinforced as the tonic. Without this reinforcement, there would be no way to hear that this is a mode, and the music would revert to the sound of a typical major or minor composition.

There are a few methods available to reinforce the tonic.

The first is to use a drone note to reinforce the root. A simple way to do this on guitar is to play the low E or A string as a bass note. And then play a mode which has that note as its root.

For instance, you can play low E on every four beats, and then play around with the notes of an E mode, such as E Mixolydian.

For a broader application, you can play a vamp. A modal vamp will return to the tonic chord often. In this example, every other chord will be the tonic chord.

Just as a note, it's very common to try to reinforce the vamp by including the "characteristic pitch" in as many chords as possible. This pitch is the note that makes the mode sound different from a major scale in the case of modes with a major third, or different from a minor scale in the case of modes with a minor third. For instance, in the Mixolydian mode, the characteristic pitch is b7. That's because without the b7, it would be no different than the major mode. And in the dorian mode, the characteristic pitch is natural 6. Other modes have that tone, but it's the only mode with a minor third that has the natural six.

So when you're building modal chord progressions, keep in mind that you may want to reinforce the tonic, either through a tonic "pedal" note that goes through the whole thing or just by frequently returning to the tonic chord. It's also a good idea to reinforce the characteristic pitch of the mode, by putting it in as many chords as possible.

Just as the major scale and the minor scale have their own harmonies, so do all of the modes. The difference with modal harmony is that we must convince the ear that the root of the mode is the most important pitch. Without this, the tune will simply begin to resemble major or minor harmony.

The root of the mode can assert its importance in one of two ways: the first, through frequent, repetitive modal cadence; a cadence that continually pulls and pushes back to the tonic of the mode. The second is through a tonic pedal—a series of chords in which the tonic note of the mode drones as the bottom note. We will explore both methods here. Before we do we’ll build our diatonic chords with all of the modes. We’ve already covered major harmony and minor harmony, so we’ll exclude those. We’ll also exclude the Locrian mode because it is rarely used. (The curious student can learn more about this mode through self-study.)

In modal harmony, we will also try to emphasize the characteristic pitch of each mode. The characteristic pitch is the note that distinguishes a mode from the other scales. It may be ideal to try to include this pitch somehow in all of the chords we use.

For instance, in the Dorian mode, the natural 6th is the characteristic pitch. That’s because it is the only minor mode with a natural sixth.

ModeCharacteristic Pitch
Dorian ModeNatural 6th
Phrygian Mode♭2
Lydian ModeAugmented 4th
Mixolydian Mode♭7

The harmonies for the modes will be created the same way that they were for the major and minor scales.

Dorian:I-7II-7♭IIImaj7IV7V-7VI-7♭5 ♭VIImaj7

Now we’ll use these chords to build modal vampColloquial term used to describe a repeating structure, often just one or two chords, with a firm and repetitive rhythm. Often serves as a backdrop for an soloist to improvise a melody.s for each of the four modes. The ideal vamp will have the following qualities:

  • The tonic chord will always be clearly understood.
  • The characteristic pitch of each mode will be used as frequently as possible.

Vamp Examples.

Dorian Vamp

  • Imin6, IV9; both chords contain characteristic pitch.
  • In C Dorian: Cmin6, F9.

Phrygian Vamp

  • Imin, ♭IImaj; the second chord contains the characteristic pitch.
  • In C Phrygian: Cmin, D♭maj

Lydian Vamp

  • Imaj7♭5, VII-7: both chords contain the characteristic pitch.
  • In C Lydian: Cmaj7♭5, B-7

Mixolydian Vamp

  • I7(9,13), III-7♭5: both chords contain the characteristic pitch.
  • In C Mixolydian: C13, E-7♭5

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