Modal Harmony: An In-Depth How-To Guide

How to write and play with modal harmony? That’s a good question! Once we grasp the sounds of the modes, how do we actually use them in our compositions and improvisations?

Over certain chords in a functional, tonal chord progression? Sure, that works. “The Dorian mode goes over the ii chord and the Mixolydian mode goes over the V7 chord.”

But we can tap into a mode’s true sound by playing modally or playing within modal harmony. This article is an in-depth How To Guide to writing and playing with modal harmony!


What is Modal Harmony?

First things first. Modal harmony is where we use only the notes of a specific mode in the harmony of a chord progression, melody line, or any other musical context we find ourselves in. Special attention must be given to the root (the modal centre) and some extra emphasis should be put on the characteristic tone(s) of the mode.

Oftentimes modal harmony is static. We stay on the “modal chord” for long periods of time. And when we do change chords, we try not to stray too far into tonal (functional) harmony.

One way of conceptualizing modal harmony and especially modal chord changes is to think laterally rather than circularly. Let me explain:


Lateral vs. Circular Cadences

Let’s first look at circular cadences (tonal 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:

  • Emin7
  • Amin7 (or an A7 alteration)
  • Dmin7
  • G7
  • Cmaj7

Those chords’ roots move circularly, counter-clockwise, through the circle of fifths:

In Tonal Harmony (otherwise known as functional harmony), we think of chords as having functions: tonic, dominant, and predominant.

The name of the game in tonal harmony is to have a tonic or “key” and to move toward this key centre with each passing chord. I like to think of it as walking home from the bar. There are plenty of ways to get home: shortcuts and long paths, but by the end of it (hopefully), we make it home to the tonic and feel a great sense of resolution.

As we move toward home, we build up some tension. “Let’s get there already!” you might be thinking. This tension is released when we return to our tonal centre or tonic chord. In this way, tension and release are what drive tonal harmony.

The dominant chord (often a fifth away from the tonic chord) has the most tension (compared to the tonic chord) and therefore the most satisfying resolution (to the tonic chord).

Predominant chords are there to bring us to the dominant chord.

Let’s look at the example chords I gave:
  • Emin7
  • Amin7 (or an A7 alteration)
  • Dmin7
  • G7
  • Cmaj7

C is our tonal centre here. It’s the tonic and everything leads us to the final Cmaj7 chord (the I chord). We say this chord progression “is in the key of C Major.”

G7 (the V chord) is the dominant. It has the most tension and wants to resolve the most to the tonic Cmaj7 chord.

Dmin7 (the ii chord) has a pre-dominant function. It is “pre” G7.

Amin7 (the vi chord) can have a tonal sound, but in this chord progression, it sounds a bit more like a pre-dominant (to C). The A7 alteration would make it a dominant to the temporary Dmin7 “tonic” (a stronger resolution within the bigger picture of getting to our real tonic).

Emin7 (the iii chord) is a kind of tonic prolongation in the grand scheme of getting to our tonic of C. However, we can make it a pre-dominant to A7 in our mini resolution, treating Dmin7 as a temporary “tonic.”

Basically what I mean is that tonal harmony is made up of tensions and resolutions that often find themselves moving in a circular motion!

But this isn’t so for Modal Harmony!

In fact, we want to avoid circular movement in modal harmony, as it sounds too much like tonal harmony. This tonal sound will, oftentimes, effectively nullify our efforts to write and play “modally.”

Instead, we’d like to focus on lateral cadences. Let’s discuss them a bit more:

So what are lateral cadences?

First, let’s forget the naming convention for functional chords. In modal harmony, we’ll call our chords either modal tonic chords or cadential chords.

  • Modal Tonic Chords: The chords built on the mode’s root
  • Cadential Chords: Chords that temporarily leave the tonic, but send us right back.

Although cadential modal chords can be any chord (other than the tonic) based on the notes of the mode in question, they are most often built laterally.

Lateral cadences (or stepwise cadences) happen when the pre-tonic chord is based on a root note on either side of the modal tonic. In a heptatonic mode, these roots would be the seventh degree (below) and the second degree (above).

So rather than going around the circle of fifths, we’re moving laterally through the sequence of notes in the mode.

In D Dorian, for example, the lateral cadences would be built on a root on either C or E.

Why is this so?

These “pseudo-dominant” modal cadential chords give us enough tension and resolution between themselves and the modal tonic without giving a strong sense of tonality.

Let’s look at the alternatives for cadential modal chords in D Dorian (for this example we’ll stick to tertian seventh chords for simplicity sake):

D Dorian is made up of:

D     E     F     G     A     B     C

And D Dorian’s tertian seventh chord is Dmin7 (D F A C)

Chord based on E (Phrygian) relative to D Dorian

The tertian seventh chord built on E is Emin7 (E G B D). It has the modal root (D) and D Dorian’s characteristic tone (B). It also doesn’t tend to lead us anywhere, tonally speaking, making it a great cadential chord to go back and forth with the modal centre of D Dorian!

Chord based on F (Lydian) relative to D Dorian

The tertian seventh chord built on F is Fmaj7 (F A C E). 3 of the 4 notes in this chord (F A C) are also in the modal tonic chord. And so this chord doesn’t really add much tension, and is rather heard/felt as a “change of colour.” Even though the modal root is not in this cadential chord.

Chord based on G (Mixolydian) relative to D Dorian

The tertian seventh chord built on G is G7 (G B D F). It does contain the modal root (D) and D Dorian’s characteristic tone (B). However, we must be careful, since we’re moving circularly here. D to G is a counterclockwise motion around the circle of fifths and is the beginning of the common tonal jazz progression of 2-5-1 (Dmin7-G7-Cmaj7 in this case).

So caution must be taken not to get into tonal harmony when our intention is to play modal harmony. Although this change (Dmin7-G7) can be used to good effect in modal harmony by teasing the listener, when first starting to learn modal harmony, it’s probably best to avoid it and stick to more lateral movements.

Chord based on A (Aeolian) relative to D Dorian

The tertian seventh chord built on A is Amin7 (A C E G). It doesn’t have the modal root or the characteristic tone. It’s also a circular motion. Sure, you could use this chord, but there are better options when it comes to modal cadential chords.

Chord based on B (Locrian) relative to D Dorian

The tertian seventh chord built on B is Bmin7♭5 (B D F A). It has 3 of 4 notes the same as the Dmin7 (D F A). So in this regard, it’s heard almost as an extension.

There’s a special case with B Locrian though, in that it contains a tritone interval (B-F). This tritone interval contains a tension that wants to resolve inward or outward by half steps. To stay within the mode, this resolution would be B-F into C-E. And with this resolution, brings a strong sense of tonality to C Major (the parent scale or “key” of D Dorian). So it’s best to stay away from this chord and others that contain tritone intervals!

Chord based on C (Ionian) relative to D Dorian

The tertian seventh chord based on C is Cmaj7 (C E G B). It contains the characteristic tone of D Dorian (B); it doesn’t have a tritone interval, and it’s based on stepwise motion. This makes it a great candidate for a modal cadential chord to D Dorian!

Recap/more information

In modal harmony, we want to play the modal tonic chords as often as we can in order to establish the mode we’re basing our harmony on. This, however, can get a bit monotonous, and so these modal cadential chords give a sense of movement without being overly “tonal.” The key is to strike a good balance!

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 of the mode in question.
  • do not contain a tritone interval (making them sound dominant and tonal)

Chords based a third away from a mode’s root in either direction 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.

It’s possible to play many other chords and remain in modal harmony! However, these modal cadential chords are very useful for adding movement without straying outside of modal harmony.

Let’s take a look at the best lateral cadences for each mode of the Major Scale:

Note that, once again, these chords are built using tertian harmony 🙂

Ionian modal cadential chord

The most cadential chord in Ionian modal harmony is the ii(min7).

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • But it contains the characteristic tone (4) as its minor third degree

The other most cadential chord would be the half diminished vii*. Due to its tritone interval, we’d like to avoid it in order to stay within strict modal harmony. Although even in tonal harmony, the vii* chord typically wants to resolve upward to the tonic (Ionian) chord, so I could make an argument that it’d more cadential to the Ionian modal tonic. I’d just like to make a note of this!

Dorian modal cadential chord

The most cadential chord in Dorian modal harmony is the♭VII(maj7)

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • It has a major third
  • And it contains the characteristic tone as its major seventh degree!

The ii(min7)  would also be a good choice.

  • It’s a half step away (lateral)
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • But it contains the characteristic tone as its perfect fifth degree

There are always exceptions to the rule though, and a common choice, although perhaps a bit tonal, is the IV7 (which would be the tonal dominant chord). It’s typically avoided in modal harmony, but in the case of Dorian, see and hear if you can get away with it. Personally, my mind wants to turn this into a 2-5-1.

Phrygian modal cadential chord

The most cadential chord in Phrygian modal harmony is the♭II(maj7).

  • It’s a half step away (lateral)
  • It has a major third
  • And it contains the characteristic tone as its root!

The♭vii(min7) would also be a good choice.

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • But it contains the characteristic tone as its minor third degree

Note that♭vii(min7) (Dorian based chord) is the relative minor of II(maj7) (Lydian based chord).

Lydian modal cadential chord

The most cadential chord in Lydian modal harmony is the II triad (not the seventh chord)

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • It has a major third
  • And it contains the characteristic tone as its major third!

A special note here that it’s the II triad and not the seventh chord. Playing the dominant seventh chord, with its tritone interval, would bring us into the territory of a 4-5-1 tonal harmony chord progression and remove us from modal harmony.

The vii(min7) would also be a good choice.

  • It’s a half step away
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • But it contains the characteristic tone as its perfect fifth degree
Mixolydian modal cadential chord

The most cadential chord in Mixolydian modal harmony is the♭VII(maj7).

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • It has a major third
  • And it contains the characteristic tone (♭7) as its root!

The ii(min7) could also be a good choice, but

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • and It doesn’t contain the characteristic tone (♭7)

1 out of 3 isn’t a great score for the ii(min7). It’s not super cadential, but not terrible either.

Aeolian modal cadential chord

The most cadential chord in Aeolian modal harmony is the♭VII triad (once again, not the seventh chord).

  • It’s a whole step away (lateral)
  • It has a major third
  • However, it does not contain the most characteristic tone (♭6)

Note that the ♭VII 7 chord does contain Aeolian’s most characteristic tone, but it has a strong tendency of bringing us into tonal harmony, as the now dominant7 chord wants to resolve to its Major tonic, creating a vi-V-I tonal progression.

The ii(min7flat5) also takes us out of modal harmony and sends us to a tonal centre since it has a tritone between its root and diminished fifth.

One more thing to note is that Aeolian itself is the relative minor of a functional major tonic. And so care must be taken to repeatedly remind the listener that we are indeed playing modally.

Locrian modal cadential chord

Locrian isn’t ever really used as a modal tonic centre since it’s so unstable. It naturally wants to resolve to its lateral chords, which are based in Aeolian and Ionian (Natural Minor and Major keys, respectively).

Of course, you could force this to work, but it would be a tough go.

Just in case you might want to try this, the two modal cadential chords for Locrian would be:

1.♭vii(min7) but this would have a strong sense of being the tonic in a Minor Key.

2.♭II(maj7) but this would have a strong sense of being the tonic in a Mmajor Key.

Of course, this is all just for your information and not set in stone, if it sounds good, play it!


Diatonic Style Modal Chord Progressions

So we’ve discussed the strongest cadential chords for each of the diatonic modes. These chords make modal harmony strong in our music. However, two chords can get boring (who would have thought?). And so we can ease up the constraints of modal harmony a bit and still get away with a “modal sound.”

This may be a bit contradictory to my last points… but I believe it’s better to present strict rules and loosen them than it is to make loose rules and then tighten them 😉

Let’s revisit Tonal Harmony

So in tonal harmony, we basically have two keys: Major and Minor. We build chords with the notes of the Major Scale and assign them to start either on the first note of the scale as a Major Key (coinciding with Ionian) or the sixth note of the scale as a Minor Key (coinciding with Aeolian).

We build triads and seventh chords based on each scale degree and end up with a palette of chords to be used in Major or Minor Keys. Let’s look at them:

Major key chords

So in C Major, for a simple example, we have the following seventh chords:

  • I: Cmaj7
  • ii: Dmin7
  • iii: Emin7
  • IV: Fmaj7
  • V: G7
  • vi: Amin7
  • vii*: Bmin7♭5

This is the Ionian mode.

And as we discussed earlier, they each have their function is tonal harmony (tonic, pre-dominant, dominant).

Minor key chords

And in C Minor, for a contrasting example, we have the following seventh chords:

  • i: Cmin7
  • ii*: Dmin7♭5
  • ♭III: E♭maj7
  • iv: Fmin7
  • v: Gmin7
  • ♭VI: A♭maj7
  • ♭VII: B♭7

This is the Aeolian mode.

Here, the functions are a bit different. The v chord is not dominant and doesn’t particularly offer a great deal of tension. We sometimes will make alterations to this v chord in order to increase its tension (and resolution to the minor tonic chord).

The Harmonic Minor Scale acts as a handy substitute for the Natural Minor key, allowing the v (minor seventh chord) to be substituted for a V7 (dominant seventh chord). This creates more tension and resolution between the V and the tonic!

So these above chords are built using only the notes of Ionian or Aeolian (speaking in modal terms). Let’s apply these tertian chords to each of the diatonic modes. We’ll see how they stack up and what chord progressions we can get for each of the modes:

Chords built on Ionian‘s scale degrees

It’s difficult to distinguish between major key tonal harmony and Ionian modal harmony. Perhaps staying away from circular cadences could make the sound more modal. Or maybe just sticking to lateral movement is the best bet for a modal sound. Either way, these are the chords of Ionian.

Ionian chord progressions

There’s a fine line between Ionian modal harmony and Major tonal harmony, so here are some Ionian chord progressions that err on the side of modality and lateral movement:

  • I – ii – I – ii
  • I – vii* – I – ii
  • I – ii – vii* – I
Chords built on Dorian‘s scale degrees

Here’s where things start to get a bit more interesting.

So we know from our analysis of modal cadences that the ♭VII(maj7) and the ii(min7) work well as cadential chords in Dorian modal harmony. But let’s take a look at our possible circular movements and see how they apply to Dorian.

The v chord in Dorian

The v chord in Dorian has a minor quality rather than a dominant quality. And so there isn’t much tension and movement between v-i (not nearly as much as Ionian/Major’s V-I).

I use this chord progression in the solo section of Climbing With Escher. The chords are most simply thought of as A Dorian (i) and E Aeolian (v). But I’m thinking Dorian the entire time I’m soloing.

Shameless self-promotion time:

The IV7 chord in Dorian

The dominant seventh chord falls on Dorian’s fourth scale degree. There’s a common tonal chord progression in jazz that goes (relative to Major):

  • ii (Dorian) pre-dominant
  • V7 (Mixolydian) dominant
  • I (Ionian) tonic

But if we never go to I in the above example, we may be able to get away with a modal Dorian sound:

  • i (Dorian) modal centre
  • IV7 (Mixolydian) “cadential” chord

Going back and forth between i and IV here never really gives us a resolution and sounds a bit tense. When using the IV7 in Dorian, be careful not to follow it up with the ♭VII (Ionian chord), which would make it sound like a tonal 2-5-1!

Dorian chord progressions

As long as we pay special attention to the i chord and avoid the use of functional harmony, we should be able to achieve a Dorian sound with the chords stated above. I’ll share some examples here:

  • i – ii – i – ♭VII
  • i – ii – ♭VII – i
  • i – IV7 – i – IV7

These examples are simply those that sound good to me. Try using a variety of the available chords to build Dorian chord progressions. Just pay special attention to play the i chord often!

And when building melodies over these Dorian chord progressions, pay special attention to the root and the major sixth (Dorian’s characteristic tone).

Chords built on Phrygian‘s scale degrees

The v* chord in Phrygian

Phrygian is interesting since its v* chord is quite unstable and wants to resolve.

Typically (in tonal harmony) the half-diminished chord wants to resolve up a half-step to the tonic chord (vii*-I). But in Phrygian, we may be able to get away with a modal v*-i.

A cool little side note about tonal harmony is that the vii* (half-diminished) is a substitute chord for the V7 (dominant). And the iii chord is a substitute for the I chord. If we combine these substitutions, V7-I could be substituted for vii*-iii, which is v*-i in reference to Phrygian!

The iv chord in Phrygian

The iv chord in Phrygian is minor in quality and doesn’t provide much tension or movement. I think it’s safe to use, but boring.

Phrygian chord progressions

Phrygian’s characteristic tone is its ♭2 and so the ♭II is a very strong cadential chord. With that being said, here are some Phrygian chord progressions I like:

  • i – ♭II – i – ♭II
  • i – ♭vii – ♭II – i
  • i – v* – ♭II – i

As always, pay special attention to play the i chord often!

And when building melodies over these Phrygian chord progressions, pay special attention to the root and the minor second (Phrygian’s characteristic tone).

Chords built on Lydian‘s scale degrees

Lydian is my favourite diatonic mode, but I rarely use the iv* or V chord if I’m really trying to convey a Lydian sound.

The iv* chord in Lydian

There’s an argument to be made for the♯iv*-I Lydian progression. The ♯4 is Lydian’s characteristic tone, after all, and so using it as a root to another chord in a modal progression makes sense.

However, personally, I find the ♯iv* wants to resolve upward too much to use it my music. That being said, try it out!

Lydian’s V chord and the Plagal Cadence

The V-I progression in Lydian is simply a backward IV-I in major tonal harmony. This IV-I is called a “Plagal Cadence.” And although it doesn’t suggest as much tonality as a dominant-tonic “perfect cadence,” it bears mentioning. For that reason, I’d avoid it if I’m trying to write a strong Lydian modal harmony.

Lydian chord progressions

Here are some Lydian chord progressions I like:

  • I – vii – I -vii
  • I – II – vii – I
  • I – I -♯iv* – vii

As always, pay special attention to play the I chord often!

And when building melodies over these Lydian chord progressions, pay special attention to the root and the augmented fourth (Lydian’s characteristic tone).

Chords built on Mixolydian‘s scale degrees

Mixolydian is a tricky mode to create modal chord progressions in since it plays such a critical role in tonal harmony as the V7 chord. For that reason, I try to stay away from circular movement in Mixolydian and stick to the lateral movement mentioned earlier.

Mixolydian chord progressions

Here are some Mixolydian chord progressions I like:

  • I -♭VII – ii – I
  • I -ii -♭VII – I
  • I – ii – I -♭VII

As always, pay special attention to play the I chord often!

And when building melodies over these Mixolydian chord progressions, pay special attention to the root and the minor seventh (Mixolydian’s characteristic tone).

Chords built on Aeolian‘s scale degrees

It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between minor key tonal harmony and Aeolian modal harmony. However, in tonal harmony it’s common to alter the v chord, turning it into a V7 chord in order to have a stronger V7-i resolution.

Let’s look into the circular movement in Aeolian and see how we can use the chords in modal context.

The iv chord in Aeolian

i-iv gives us two stable minor chords a perfect fourth away from one another. As long as there’s an emphasis on where the Aeolian i chord is, this chord progression should be fine!

The v chord in Aeolian

Once again, we have two stable minor chords, only this time a perfect fifth apart from one another. As long as there’s an emphasis on where the Aeolian i chord is, this chord progression should be fine, too!

That being said, combining the iv and v could turn our once modal sound into a minor key 1-4-5. This is something to be aware of when trying to “write in Aeolian” rather than “write in minor.”

Aeolian chord progressions

Here are some Aeolian chord progressions I like:

  • i – ♭VII – i – ♭VII
  • i – iv – i – iv
  • i – v – i – v

As always, pay special attention to play the i chord often!

And when building melodies over these Aeolian chord progressions, pay special attention to the root and the minor sixth (Aeolian’s characteristic tone).

Chords built on Locrian‘s scale degrees

I’ll restate here that Locrian is rarely ever used as a modal centre. But just for fun let’s analyze its chords and build some chord progressions based on it.

Locrian’s ♭V chord

Locrian’s unstable nature is apparent when going from i*-♭V. It’s as if we’re resolving out of Locrian modality and heading toward Lydian.

Locrian’s iv chord

I actually kind of like these two chords together. They sound unstable, as if they both want to go somewhere else, but together they fit well to my ears.

Locrian chord progressions

Here are some Locrian chord progression (I don’t know if these have ever been used by anyone):

  • i* – iv – i* – iv
  • i* – ♭II – i* – ♭II
  • i* – ♭vii – i* – ♭vii

Non-tertian harmony

The above chords are built using tertian harmony (the stacking of thirds). Let’s now look at a common technique for building modal chord progression: non-tertian harmony!

Modal harmony was once described to me as being “ambiguous and lacking direction.” My mentor’s reasoning was that there’s no strong movement toward a tonic and a lack of dominant chords (and other functional chords for that matter). We kind of sit in one spot and only move slightly, harmonically speaking, to come right back to our modal “home.”

To add to this ambiguity, let’s take a step out of tertian harmony.

Quartal Harmony

The most common type of non-tertian harmony is quartal harmony. Quartal harmony means that the chords are built by stacking fourths or fifths (fourth’s inversion) instead of the typical thirds.

Quartal harmony helps us to get away from the “regular chords” of tonal music, adding a sense of ambiguity. Building chords in this fashion doesn’t necessarily make us “modal” as much as it takes the listener out of “normal harmony.”

And so sticking with our example of D Dorian, we can build quartal chords like:

D G C F (stacking fourths on the root D Dorian)

D A E B (stacking fifths on the root D Dorian)

Notice how much more open they sound.

And an example of quartal harmony on a cadential chord could be:

E A D G (stacking fourths on the ii of D Dorian)

E B F C (stacking fifths on the ii of D Dorian)

Notice how, they too, have an open sound.

Try going back and forth between these chords on your own instrument and hear the “modal ambiguity.”


A cool aside about the Major Scale is that it is built around the circle of fifths without skipping any notes. This yields two interesting modes when talking about quartal harmony:

The Lydian mode (brightest diatonic mode) can be sounded by stacking 6 fifths above the root:
F-C-G-D-A-E-B

The Locrian mode (darkest diatonic mode) can be sounded by stacking 6 fourths above the root:
B-E-A-D-G-C-F

More on brightness/darkness here!

And by the same token,

The Ionian mode can be sounded by stacking 5 fifths above the root:
C-G-D-A-E-B (omitting the fourth “F”)

The Phrygian mode can be sounding by stacking fourths above the root:
E-A-D-G-C-F (omitting the fifth “B”)

Notice that we’re not strictly stacking perfect fifths or perfect fourths here. We’re stacking fourths and fifths within the mode. Although most of the fourths and fifths in the Major Scale happen to be perfect, the tritone interval will show up from time to time (B-F or F-B in the case of D Dorian).

Secundal Harmony

Not as commonly used as quartal harmony, secundal harmony can be used to good effect when really striving for interesting chords. Secundal harmony means that the chords are built by stacking seconds or sevenths (second’s inversion) instead of the typical thirds.

Secundal harmony can sound very closed (stacking seconds) or very open (stacking sevenths).

Try secundal harmony out for yourself and hear how it fits with your modal music!


Another aside that bears mentioning is that stacking sixths is considered tertian harmony (although it will naturally sound more open) since the sixth is the inversion of the third!

A step beyond the chords
  • Try building melodies out of these quartal or secundal intervals.
  • Try harmonizing these melodies with quartal or secundal intervals (I’d say that quartal is a better idea here).
  • Experiment, experiment, experiment!

The Droning Root/Pedal Point

Pedal points were invaluable in my learning of the modes. If there’s a “most important modal tip” I can give you, it’s the use of a pedal point on a mode’s root.

What is a pedal point? It is either a sustained note or a regularly played note. In the case of learning the modes, the pedal point is typically the root of the mode in question.

Why is this useful? Well, especially when learning to hear the differences in the modes, it is important to have the root note to reference against. We even refer to the scale degrees of any given scale as their intervals to the root.

A note by itself is like a single point in one dimension. Sure it is there, but without another point to relate to, it is somewhat meaningless in music.

Having the root of a mode as a pedal point will allow the listener to better associate the quality to the mode and to find out what modes make them feel which way. We should consciously relate each scale degree of a mode as an interval to its mode’s root.

As an example, try playing the C Major Scale with a pedal point of C. Play the scale one note at a time with C as a pedal point. This is the Ionian mode and it sounds “very major.”

Now play the same notes, but have an A as your pedal point. Notice how the quality changes to minor? This is the Aeolian Mode, which sounds minor!

In the above example, the same scale is being played, but the pedal point gives us a strong sense of our modal root, and therefore a strong sense of what mode we are playing in.

As I mentioned before, a note by itself does not really give us a feeling. It is the relationship between notes that make music. Without a pedal point, we lose that strong sense of “home” in modal music. Root movement may result in tonal harmony rather than modal harmony.

Droning Chords?

Modal music can also be described as having a very slow harmonic movement, where one chord can last 4, 8, 16 bars or more. Or even as having static harmony, as we mentioned earlier.

Once again, this is to instill the mode into the listener’s ear.

One thing I like to do is to keep a root note droning and change voicings above it. We can refer to all these voicing as “modal chords,” but there will be some interest and movement above the root! This is easier done on piano than, say, guitar. But gives a good idea of what mode we happen to be in.

Combining the pedal point and diatonic style chords

As we discussed in an earlier section of the article, for each mode, we have different chord qualities that are built on each scale degree. What if we replaced the root of these chords with the root of the mode as a pedal point?

It’s best to illustrate this with an example. I’ll use everyone’s favourite, D Dorian!

To refresh, here are the diatonic tertian chords in reference to Dorian:

So in D Dorian, let’s play through:

  • i: Dmin7 (D F A C)
  • ii: Emin7 (E G B D)
  • III: Fmaj7 (F A C E)
  • IV: G7 (G B D F)
  • v: Amin7 (A C E G)
  • vi*: Bmin7♭5 (B D F A)
  • VII: Cmaj7 (C E G B)

Now let’s replace the roots of these individual chords with the root of the mode to help solidify our position in that mode:

  • i: Dmin7 (D F A C)
  • ii/i: G/D (D G B D)
  • III/i: Amin/D (D A C E)
  • IV/i: Bdim/D (D B D F)
  • v/i: C/D (D C E G)
  • vi*/i: Dmin (D D F A)
  • VII/i: Emin/D (D E G B)

The above chords are arguably “more Dorian” since the root is present as the bass note in each one of them!


The Characteristic Tone

A heptatonic mode (or a mode made of any number of notes for that matter) is unique. Alter one note, just one scale degree, and it’s no longer the same mode.

For example, change Aeolian‘s minor sixth to a major sixth and we end up with Dorian.

With that in mind, every note would be characteristic of a mode.

But there’s usually one or two special characteristic notes we can lean on in modal harmony. Especially when distinguishing the diatonic modes from one another (modes of the major scale).

The root of any given mode is ultimately the most important note. We need to constantly remind ourselves and the listeners that it is indeed the “1” or “home” in modal harmony.

However, the characteristic tone and its relationship (intervalwith the root really distinguish one mode from a similar mode.

When playing and writing modally, it’s often okay to include the “avoid notes” we encounter with tonal harmony. This is especially true if we’re not using tertian harmony (quartal harmony, secundal harmony, etc.). In fact, oftentimes it’s the avoid note that ends up being a mode’s characteristic tone!

Some good guidelines for finding a mode’s characteristic tone(s) are the following:
  • Identify the notes involved in the tritone interval(s) within the mode
  • Identify the notes involved in half-step intervals within the mode
  • The third defines major/minor quality but is not usually characteristic
  • Sometimes it’s the “avoid note” that is a mode’s characteristic tone

Avoid notes are usually avoided due to dissonances within a mode’s “characteristic chord.” Special care should be taken to avoid these notes in tonal harmony to help improve melodic strength over chord changes. However in modal harmony, these notes are often the most characteristic tones!

And when in doubt of the above guidelines:
  • Compare major modes (have a major third) to the Ionian mode and identify what notes are different
  • Compare minor modes (having a minor third) to the Aeolian mode and identify what notes are different
And when in doubt with non-diatonic modes:
  • Compare the non-diatonic mode to the diatonic mode it most resembles (our naming convention will help you with this)

Remember that the root of a given mode is ultimately the most important but the characteristic tone(s) give the mode its… well… character!

Try experimenting with the intermittent droning of the characteristic tone as well as the root. I’d recommend that the characteristic tone be higher in pitch as to avoid confusion about which note is the actual root.

Characteristic tones of some heptatonic scales

From the Major Scale:
  • Ionian: perfect fourth (differentiates from Lydian)
  • Dorian: major sixth (differentiates from Aeolian)
  • Phrygian: minor second (differentiates from Aeolian)
  • Lydian: augmented fourth (differentiates from Ionian)
  • Mixolydian: minor seventh (differentiates from Ionian)
  • Aeolian: minor sixth (differentiates from Dorian)
  • Locrian: diminished fifth (differentiates from Phrygian)

As for the non-diatonic modes, as mentioned above, we’ll compare them to diatonic modes (from the Major Scale). By comparing non-diatonic modes to the modes of the major scale, we can determine which notes are different and therefore which notes are “characteristic.”

It’s as if to say, for example, “okay we’re in Lydian, but wait.. that note doesn’t belong in Lydian! I hear that we’re indeed in another mode.”

The names of the modes will give us a good idea of what the characteristic tone(s) will be. One characteristic tone will come from the base diatonic mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phyrgian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian), and the perhaps more important characteristic tone will come from the alteration(s).

A Quick primer on naming alterations to modes:
  • 2 and 6 (9 and 13) can be called flat or sharp (♭ or ♯)
  • 4 (11) can be called sharp (♯)
  • 7 can be called double flat (♭♭)
  • Minor means there’s a minor third alteration (♭3)
  • Super means there’s a diminished fourth alt. (♭4)
  • Diminished means there’s a diminished fifth alt. (♭5)
  • Augmented means there’s an augmented fifth alt. (♯5)
  • Dominant means there’s either a major third of minor seventh alt. (3 or ♭7)
From the Melodic Minor Scale:
  • Ionian Minor: minor third (differentiates from Ionian)
  • Dorian ♭2: minor second (differentiates from Dorian)
  • Lydian Augmented: augmented fifth (differentiates from Lydian)
  • Lydian Dominant: minor seventh (differentiates from Lydian)
  • Mixolydian ♭6: minor sixth (differentiates from Mixolydian)
  • Aeolian Diminished: diminished fifth (differentiates from Aeolian)
  • Superlocrian: diminished fourth (differentiates from Locrian)
From the Harmonic Minor Scale:
  • Aeolian ♮7: major seventh (differentiates from Aeolian)
  • Locrian ♮6: major sixth (differentiates from Locrian)
  • Ionian Augmented: augmented fifth (differentiates from Ionian)
  • Dorian ♯4: augmented fourth (differentiates from Dorian)
  • Phrygian Dominant: major third (differentiates from Phrygian)
  • Lydian ♯9: sharp second (differentiates from Lydian)
  • Superlocrian♭♭7: diminished fourth and double flat seventh (differentiates from Locrian)
From the Harmonic Major Scale
  • Ionian ♭6: minor sixth (differentiates from Ionian)
  • Dorian Diminished: diminished fifth (differentiates from Dorian)
  • Superphrygian: diminished fourth (differentiates from Phrygian)
  • Lydian Minor: minor third (differentiates from Lydian)
  • Mixolydian ♭2: minor second (differentiates from Mixolydian)
  • Lydian Augmented♯9: sharp second and augmented fifth (differentiates from Lydian)
  • Locrian♭♭7: double flat seventh (differentiates from Locrian)

The above is an interesting theoretical exercise. Of course, these modes are not used all that often. I listed the modes of my 4 favourite heptatonic scales more so to illustrate characteristic tones and the importance of distinguishing between modes.

That being said, I challenge you to write modal music sticking to these lesser known modes! 🙂

More on the Non-Diatonic Heptatonic Modes

In the above section, we touched on the modes from the Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor, and Harmonic Major scales. These lesser utilized scales can really create an interesting sound when we use them modally.

The plan of action should be the same with these modes. Pay special attention to the roots and characteristic tones and stick only to the notes of the given mode!

For your information, here are the modes and chords of each of the 3 common non-diatonic heptatonic scales:

The modes of the Melodic Minor Scale are as follows:

Chords of the Melodic Minor

Let’s look at the tertian seventh chords of the C Melodic Minor Scale

Chords of the Melodic Minor Scale

For more information on the specifics of the Melodic Minor scale, check out my article Chords of the Melodic Minor Scale. 🙂

The modes of the Harmonic Minor Scale are as follows:

Let’s now look at the tertian seventh chords of the C Harmonic Minor Scale

Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale

For more information on the specifics of the Harmonic Minor scale, check out my article Chords of the Harmonic Minor Scale.

Here are the modes of the Harmonic Major Scale:

Chords of the Harmonic Major Scale

Let’s now look at the tertian seventh chords of the C Harmonic Major Scale:

Chords of the Harmonic Major Scale

For more information on the specifics of the Harmonic Major scale, check out my article Chords of the Harmonic Major Scale.

 


Some Compositions

An article on modal harmony wouldn’t be complete without the mention of Miles Davis’ “So What.” But let’s look at a few other examples of modal compositions!

Songs in Ionian

Ionian is a tough one to give examples of because it’s almost synonymous with “Major Key.”

Joe Satriani: Always With Me, Always With You

However, I believe Joe Satriani’s “Always With Me, Always With You” is a good example of the Ionian mode (B Ionian to be exact):

Notice at 2:29, Joe makes good use of repeating the root note (B) in the tapping lick, making sure we know that’s the modal centre.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Ode To Joy

Ode To Joy by Beethoven is another good example, I think. Even though the famous line starts on the third note, it clearly ends on the modal “home.” Ode To Joy makes good use of the “avoid/characteristic note.”

Songs in Dorian

Miles Davis: So What

So What is a famous modal jazz tune in D Dorian (and E♭ Dorian in the B section). It’s also a great example of two concepts we’ve discussed earlier:

  • Quartal harmony: The famous two chords are based on quartal harmony. They are (E A D G) followed by (D G C F). Right there we have all the notes of D Dorian with an emphasis on the root of the second chord!
  • Lateral cadential movement: The modal centre is the D Dorian chord and the cadential chord is the E Phrygian chord. Notice that the phrase starts and ends on D and the accent is on the E.

Simon & Garfunkel: Scarborough Fair

Scarborough Fair is another well-known example of the Dorian mode. This song shows the technique of using the pedal point. The modal root (E) is droned for much of the chord progression!

The chord changes and root movement don’t give a particularly functional sound either, which is great! The III (would be Lydian) chord can be heard as a change in colour and the VII gives us lateral movement.

Songs in Phrygian

Megadeth: Symphony Of Destruction

The intro/verse riff in Symphony of Destruction is a go-to explanation of Phrygian. The riff emphasizes the root, ♭2 and ♭3 and since power chords are used, the 5, ♭6 and ♭7 are also emphasized. In between the changes, the bass guitar keeps playing the root.

A more common mode is Phrygian Dominant (having a major third rather than a minor third). It is the fifth mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale.

Songs in Lydian

Joe Satriani: Flying In A Blue Dream

Satriani is great at implementing the modes tastefully into his music. Flying in a Blue Dream is a perfect example of that and a great example of the Lydian mode (C Lydian to be exact).

The main riff pedals the root note in the bass, establishing the modal centre. And various Lydian voicings are played over top. Joe makes good use of the ♯4 in the melody line, which is Lydian’s characteristic note!

 

Songs in Mixolydian

The Beatles: Norwegian Wood

I’d say that this is a good example of a Mixolydian piece that doesn’t have an overbearing dominant quality about it.

This piece is in E Mixolydian, and sounds major but with a D (♭7) rather than a D♯.

Songs in Aeolian

Avenged Sevenfold: Unholy Confessions

I love this example of the Aeolian mode (D Aeolian to be precise). The opening riff has an Aeolian melody line played against an offbeat bass note (starting on the modal root). The second part of the riff has that Aeolian melody harmonized in thirds up the mode. When I first heard this song as a teenager, I was instantly hooked!

Songs in Locrian

Metallica: Enter Sandman

Perhaps the most famous riff in Locrian is Enter Sandman by Metallica (E Locrian). The intro riff up until the power chord riff of G5-E5-F♯5-E5-F♯5-G5-F5♯-E5) is essentially Locrian (there’s a perfect fifth in the E5  power chord, which isn’t in Locrian, but other than that..) Locrian modality it tough to pull off and I could argue against myself that the riff is chromatic in nature versus Locrian (but I won’t go there). Here’s Enter Sandman!


Further Reading

For more information on modes and modal harmony, I’d recommend the following books:

Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization by George Russell

This classic book, published in 1953, influenced Miles Davis, John Coltrane (and many more musicians) at the forefront of the Modal Jazz movement. It’s worth checking out especially if you’re into Modal Jazz!

Modalogy by Jeff Brent and Schell Barkley

This book looks at the familiar modes in many new angles. It really opened up my mind to different approaches and thoughts on modes and their use in music.

There are plenty of books out there that explain what the modes are, but I believe the two above resources to be the best at explaining the inner workings and practical application of the modes.

If you have a book you really benefitted from in regards to modal study, please link to it in the comments below 🙂


In Closing,

Wow, you’re still with me! This was a lot of information to go through. I hope this article has provided some insight into playing and writing with modal harmony. I wish you the best with your modal study and musical successes!

As always, thanks for reading and for your support,

-Art

[kkstarratings]