The Mixolydian Mode is the fifth mode of the Diatonic Major Scale. Let’s look and listen to it with a bit more detail.
The Mixolydian mode is often described as the white keys on the keyboard from G-G’. This gives us the following intervallic series:
*w=whole step // h=half step*
And the notation looks like this:
That’s the notes G A B C D E F G’ with no alterations (sharps or flats).
However, since we base a mode’s scales degrees on the Major Scale, and the Mixolydian mode has a different intervallic series than the Major Scale, we alter the scale degrees, giving Mixolydian the following:
1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7
Another way to write the scale degrees is:
- Root (as is always the case)
- Major Second (2 semitones above the root)
- Major Third (4 semitones above the root)
- Perfect Fourth (5 semitones above the root)
- Perfect Fifth (7 semitones above the root)
- Major Sixth (9 semitones above the root)
- Minor Seventh (10 semitones above the root)
Let’s listen to the G Mixolydian mode against a droned G:
A quick clarification
If you happen to be coming from the article on the Ionian Mode, you may realize that the white keys from C-C’ (Ionian) are the same notes as the white keys from G-G’ (Mixolydian).
Ionian and Mixolydian are both modes of the Major Scale. More specifically, C Ionian and G Mixolydian are both modes from the C Major Scale. This means that, yes, they have the same notes. But their starting points (roots) are different. And this means a lot:
- Their intervallic series are different
- Their scale degrees are different
- Their quality (major/dominant) is different
- Their inherent chords are different
- Their functionalities are different
So even though C Ionian and G Mixolydian are made up of exactly the same notes, they are different! This is the beginning of modal study.
The modal chords of the Mixolydian mode
The Mixolydian mode yields one triad and one tertian seventh chord. They are:
- Major triad 1 3 5
- Dominant seventh chord 1 3 5 ♭7
Other common chords include:
- Sus2 1 2 5
- Sus4 1 4 5
- Maj6/9 1 3 5 6 9
- Min7sus4 1 4 5 ♭7
Along with all the extensions beyond the major seventh chord, notably:
- (dominant)9 1 3 5 ♭7 9
- (dominant)11 1 3 5 ♭7 11
- (dominant)13 1 3 5 ♭7 13
The Mixolydian Mode shows up with the V7 chord in diatonic harmony. The dominant chord! Its function is very important in western music theory.
The Mixolydian Mode is the only mode of the major scale that provides a dominant seventh chord. The dominant seventh chord contains an important dissonance between its third and seventh scale degrees: a tritone interval!
This dissonance wants to resolve. And it wants to resolve by the two notes involved moving a half-step in opposite directions of one another. This resolution would create a major third (or minor sixth) interval, which sounds very resolved.
In G7 for example, the tritone is between B-F (3-♭7).
B-F (tritone) can resolve nicely to B♭-G♭(minor sixth interval)
B-F (tritone) can also resolve nicely to C-E (major sixth interval)
Since G7 (G Mixolydian) is part of the C Major Scale, C-E seems more fitting. Although B♭-G♭ sounds equally as “resolved.”
So if we take G7 and resolve to Cmaj7, we have:
It’s this common use of Major Diatonic harmony that has made the V7-I resolution so popular. In fact, the V7-I resolution is called an authentic cadence, or perfect cadence (depending on where in the world you’re learning theory).
An so the Mixolydian mode has an important function in music as it’s the first scale to come to mind when playing over a dominant seventh chord. It’s not the only mode, as we’ll find out in future articles, but it’s perhaps the most obvious (again, due to the popularity of the Major Diatonic Scale).
Mixolydian’s Characteristic Tone
When looking for a mode’s characteristic tone(s) (the tone that gives a mode its flavor and differentiates it from other modes), it’s a good idea to first look at the tritone intervals and half step intervals. It’s also very important to look at the quality of the third (is it minor or major?)
Relating a mode to either Ionian (Major Scale) or Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale) can help us to determine characteristic tones as well. The reasoning here is that these two scales are so common they’re almost expected. Altering them in any way peaks our attention and tell us we’re in a different mode.
The Major Scale’s modes each have two half step intervals and one tritone interval.
One tritone interval could mean two tritone intervals. For example, B-F is a tritone and F-B is a tritone. Most of the time we’ll look for the [one] tritone interval in the Major Scale modes.
Mixolydian’s tritone is between its major third and minor seventh. The half step intervals are between the major third/perfect fourth and major sixth/minor seventh. Mixolydian’s third scale degree is major.
If we look only at Mixolydian’s root triad, we’d call it major (root, major third, perfect fifth).
But since there is a tritone between the major third and minor seventh, we have a dominant quality when we look at Mixolydian’s seventh chord.
Mixolydian’s characteristic tone is its minor seventh!
Although very different in functionality and quality, we can think about Mixolydian as an Ionian mode with a minor 7 or as a Dorian mode with a major 3.
Mixolydian’s Modal Chord
As we discussed, functionally, Mixolydian’s dominant chord is the most basic form of the dominant function.
So for the same reason why Ionian’s importance (popularity) gave it the major seventh modal chord, Mixolydian’s modal chord is simply the dominant seventh chord.
1 3 5 ♭7
When dealing with heptatonic modes, we can only truly get an absolutely “modal chord” when all seven of the notes are present within it. But the dominant seventh chord gives us a strong sense of the mode Mixolydian!
Practicing Mixolydian and Modal Harmony
As with all modal practice, I prefer the pedal point method.
Pedal (drone a constant tone) the root of Mixolydian, if you have a polyphonic instrument. And go through each of the scale degrees to hear the intervals they create against the root.
1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7
If you have a monophonic instrument, try alternating between the root and each scale degree, one-by-one, to get a sense of each distinct interval.
Once again, pay special attention to the characteristic tones (major third and minor seventh).
Next, try droning the “modal chord.” In Mixolydian’s case, the 7 chord. Of course, this is only possible on a monophonic instrument. Although, arpeggios could work on monophonic instruments.
Go through the same exercise of relating every scale degree to the chord and listen to how each one compares.
Next, cycle through all possible intervals played against a droning root note. Pay special attention to the half step intervals against the root and the tritone intervals against the root.
Finally, have some fun creating modal chords with any of the Mixolydian notes played with its root.
Stacking fourths a common way to express openness and modality. In Mixolydian’s case, a stacked fourth tetrad would create a bit of tension, as the tritone interval still shows up between the minor seventh/major third, but I think we can live with it in modal harmony.
1 4 ♭7 3
Writing and Composing with Mixolydian
A quick note on tonal harmony vs. modal harmony
When composing with tonal harmony, we have “circular cadences.” Resolutions that often happen while moving around the circle of fifths (or fourths, depending on how you look at it).
For example, the iii-vi-ii-V-I chord progression in C Major would be:
- Amin7 (or A7 as a common alteration)
Those chords’ roots move circularly counter-clockwise through the circle of fifths.
This is tonal (functional) harmony.
Modal harmony has linear, or lateral cadential movement. Often times the best cadential chord is built on the second or seventh scale degree of the mode.
In modal harmony, we must take great care as to not seek out the dominant V chord, or to play too many chords other than the tonic. Doing so will result in our ears hearing tonal harmony, as it’s so commonly used in music.
We must reference the tonic chord very often to ensure that we are indeed in that specific mode!
In modal harmony, we don’t absolutely need to use all the notes in the mode, but it helps to further specify, unambiguously, which mode we’re in. For example, Mixolydian without the minor seventh is the same as Ionian without the major seventh.
Mixolydian’s modal cadences
We want to look step-wise to find the most cadential chords. The more cadential chords are chords that:
- are major in quality.
- contain the characteristic note.
- do not contain a tritone interval (making them sound dominant)
Note that chords a third away from a modes root do not provide much tension and are often merely heard as “changes of color” (especially in tertian harmony).
Note also that chords a fourth/fifth away tend to lead us out of modal harmony and back toward the circular nature of tonal harmony.
Also note that when playing modally in Mixolydian, extra care must be taken with its minor seventh degree. I try not to include it in the modal tonic chord and only include it in the cadential chords that lead back to the modal tonic. The reason, again, is because the dominant seventh chord has quite a bit of tension that wants to resolve to something else!
The most cadential chord in Mixolydian modal harmony is the♭VII(maj7) (Lydian chord).
- It’s a whole step away (lateral movement)
- It has a major third
- And it contains the characteristic tone (♭7) as its root!
The ii(min7) (Aeolian chord) could also be a good choice, but
- It’s a whole step away (lateral movement)
- The minor third weakens its cadential strength
- It doesn’t contain the characteristic tone
and so the♭VII(maj7) is a “more cadential” choice.
Of course, this is all just for your information and not set in stone, if it sounds good, play it!
I invite you to write a song based on the Mixolydian mode! For more information, check out my article on writing and playing modally.
Chances are, even if you don’t know the mode, you’ve been using it plenty in writing and playing music. A teacher of mine once told me that the Mixolydian mode is the most common (although I believe he was speaking in functional harmony terms).
Let me know what you come up with while writing with the Mixolydian mode! And if there’s anything else you’d like to add to the discussion of the Mixolydian mode, please leave a message in the comment section!
As always, thank you for reading and for your support,