How to Create Modal Chord Progressions to Use in Your Songs

MusicThe term “modal chord progression” may technically be a bit of a misnomer. But in common usage, a modal progression could best be described this way: a set of chords that points to a note other than the tonic (key) note. In other words, if you’re using what appear to be chords from the key of A major, but the progressions seem to be pointing to a different note as being the most significant one, you’re probably using modal progressions. Continue Reading..

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Here’s an example: a typical progression in A major might look like this:

Key: A MAJOR: A  D  E7  A

It starts and ends on A, and the chords in the middle reflect the fact that A major is the key. Now here’s a progression that seems to point to the note B as being the most important note, while still using chords from A major:

Mode: B DORIAN: Bm  A  Bm  D  F#m  E  A  Bm

An interesting aspect of modal progressions (and their charm) is that the tonally significant note (in this case, B) is not as strongly pointed to by the chord progression as straight-ahead major or minor keys. Here’s why: in the key of A major, an E7 has a G# in it that “points” to A as being tonally important. In the B Dorian progression above you might say that the sense of “key” is veiled somewhat, mainly by the fact that there is no semitone leading tone pointing to B.

For any given major key signature there are seven possible modes:

1) Ionian, starting on the first note (in other words, a basic major mode);
2) Dorian, starting on the 2nd note (minor sounding);
3) Phrygian, starting on the 3rd note (minor sounding);
4) Lydian, starting on the 4th note (major sounding);
5) Mixolydian, starting on the 5th note (major sounding);
6) Aeolian, starting on the 6th note (minor sounding);
7) Locrian, starting on the 7th note (diminished sounding… not easily usable);

There are many possible modal progressions, so here are some you might want to try:

C# Phrygian:  C#m  D  C#m  F#m  C#m  Bm  D  C#m
D Lydian:  D  E  D  E  D  F#m  C#m7  D
E Mixolydian:  E  Bm  A  Bm7  E
F# Aeolian:  F#m E  D  C#m  F#m

Modes from the locrian mode just don’t make a lot of sense, since it is based on a diminished chord (G# dim), and we don’t hear diminished chords as having any possibility for feeling like a key centre.

Those progressions are just some of many possibilities, so feel free to experiment. If you’ve devised some you’d like to share, just add a comment below.

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17 Comments

  1. tomslatter

     /  November 1, 2008

    Great post, Gary.

    I’m a heavy metal fan, so I’ll point out two common modal progressions:

    E Aeolian: Em C D Em (for examples see most Iron Maiden songs)

    E Phrygian: Em D F Em
    Or the chorus of Metallica’s Creeping Death, which combines the two:

    E Phrygian: Em, C D F Em C D, F G Em

    Reply
  2. Hi Gary, cool post. I have a way of looking at modes and the progressions attained from them (although they aren’t different progressions to diatonic progressions) and I’d like to know if it is a viable way of applying it.

    For some time now I have been stuck on modal sounds… how to get the best out of a progression which would make the melody/modal sound more pronounced. For example, sticking to I-IV-V progressions in this example, The Ionian would use C-F-G… So I would use C- F/C – G/C… This makes it harder to step out and use a C Lydian over this… that would just be horrible.

    Now to make a dorian progression using the same formula of I-IV-V starting on the root of the said mode… I would end up with Cm-F-Gm. Now the Dorian has a main note which seperates it from aeolian and phrygian, that being the maj6. To overkill my progression I could add that note to each of the chords… Cm6 – F – Gm9 for instance. This would make it dorian right?

    Seeing as these chord progressions don’t really have a resolve aside from the I or i from the root of the mode… that would be the point of a modal jam, correct?

    Another question: This formula of I-IV-V starting on the root of the mode can be applied to other chord progressions such as ii-V-I, vi-ii-V-I etc etc… correct?

    Using this formula to get a locrian sound works… most people know that the locrian wants to resolve a semitone up… but when you write your progression in the I-IV-V aspect… it can’t… it remains locrian.

    I just wanted to know if this was an acceptable way of viewing it and the application of it.

    Reply
  3. Troy

     /  July 20, 2010

    I read elsewhere a cool way into a two chord progression for a given mode. First you find the relative major scale with respect to your mode. As an example say you want a D Dorian mode. The relative major scale is C Ionian. The I-IV-V progression of C Ionian is C – F- G. Take the IV and V of this progression and play them over the root of your mode. In this case the Mode is D Dorian so the chord progression would be F/D – G/D. Of course an F chord with a D in the bass is the same note set as a Dmin7, and the G chord already has a D in it, thus your chord progression for D Dorian would be Dmin7- G.

    To recap, find the relative major scale of your mode. Play the IV -V chords of that relative major scale, each over the root of your mode. It leads to a two chord progression that can work well as the chord progression for your mode of choice.

    Reply
  4. Lex

     /  October 8, 2010

    do modal progressions always have to start on the I chord ?

    ex, an A Aeolian chord progression in the key of C :
    Am7 / G / F / C
    (I / bVII / bVI / bIII)

    what does happen if I play instead :
    F / G / Am7 / Am7
    (bVI / bVII / I / I)

    is the Am still fonctionning as the root of an A Aeolian ?
    or am I playing in another mode ?
    thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Lex:

      Keys (or modal areas) require two things to affirm a key: 1) the list of chords used; and 2) the arrangement of those chords to hopefully focus on one as being a “tonic”.

      The chords you list come from A Aeolian, and the fact that your progression starts on a chord other than the I-chord of A Aeolian does not weaken the mode. For example, both of the following progressions are strongly pointing to C major:

      C F G Dm G C
      Dm C/E F G C

      Even though the second one doesn’t start on C, it becomes very obvious where the progression is heading.

      Hope that helps,
      -Gary

      Reply
  5. Lex

     /  October 8, 2010

    Thanks for the answer, Gary.

    So you mean Dm C/E F G C is a Ionian progression (Key of C) because C is fonctionning as the root.

    If I’d play Dm C F G Dm instead, it would be Dorian, right?

    Reply
    • Yes. Both progressions you mention use the same chords, but the 2nd one returns to D. It would be an even stronger example of Dorian if it included an Am moving to Dm, but your example still sounds Dorian.

      Gary

      Reply
  6. Peter

     /  October 8, 2010

    Hi Gary, I was just wondering if my query above (from feb 5) was a reasonable way of looking at it? Is there fault in it or is it like not gonna work at all to be a proper modal thing?

    Looking forward to your reply

    Reply
  7. Alexis

     /  November 26, 2010

    Hey Gary

    I have recently been spinning Kiss From a Rose lately. Captivating tune. However, the intro (and its recap appears to be a refrain of sorts) really catch my attention. The chord progression, and the melody (especially on the strong beats), seem to point me into Dorian territory. I only had AP music theory for a year, a year or so ago, and we didn’t go over modes because our teacher said that it wasn’t going to be part of the final exam (not the one he assigns). I’m not the most musically inclined person, nor do I have great ears, but I tried figuring out what’s going on.

    To me, it seems to go like this:

    Gm -> F -> G then repeat

    And then the song seems to centralize in G major for the remainder of the song (but not the refrain parts). However, I’m not entirely sure because I think I am hearing an Eb major in the verses, and I am unsure of its function. I know artists, like the Beatles, have used out of key chords (the bridge in “No Reply” [key of C, but progression is C -> E -> A -> Dm -> F -> C then repeat] seems to do some weird secondary dominant false resolution stuff, and just about everything on “Strawberry Fields Forever” is coo-coo). But the fact that Seal chose to not use the Dorian of G major, and basically use a parallel harmonic root (the G) throws me off. Also, the inclusion of G major in the G Dorian-esque intro/refrain(s) perplexes me.

    Any help, Gary?

    Reply
  8. Alexis

     /  November 26, 2010

    Addendum:

    Spinning the song some more, this time the unplugged version. I think the Eb serves the function of a borrowed chord to the parallel minor of C, in an almost bluesy sense. However, I don’t think at all is C centralized in the song as the start or end of a section or phrase (but I think it does briefly somewhere after verse 2) and mainly relies opening and concluding on G. So if it was in C, would that mean it is centralizing on a G Mixolydian, and G Dorian for the intro/refrain(s)?

    Reply
  9. Brian

     /  February 1, 2011

    I know this blog is kind of old now but I thought I’d throw this out there.

    I’m still working on applying modes…a good example of a two chord progression in G Dorian would be Evil Ways by Santana. It’s a Gm7-C progression with the Ionian mode I-chord being F. Santana uses modes quite extensively and they make for good mode study.

    Reply
  10. Ian Bray

     /  August 27, 2012

    Wish I’d found you sooner, I’ve searched the web for years looking for a site like this.
    Modes have always baffled me! You have improved my understanding slightly…I think!
    If the chord progression begins and ends with m2, for instance, it’s Dorian?

    Reply
    • Hi Ian – Yes, in a sense you’re right. If a progression looks like it’s starting on a minor chord built on the 2nd degree of the key signature’s major scale (sorry for that wordiness!), then yes, it’s dorian. For dorian, what you want to be listening for is the sound of the major-IV chord.

      Gary

      Reply
      • Ian Bray

         /  August 28, 2012

        Thanks for your reply Gary, and as suggested I picked up the guitar. Key of A, starting in Bm but listening for the IV. The Bm is four semitones down from D, four up is F…aha, instintively fall onto Bflat, back to F then Gm then C9. You might recognise it, I did immediately. Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”. The IV is well represented throughout apart from in the F chord but that shares the A note with the IV. Is this an example of Dorian?

      • For the life of me Ian I can’t understand what you’re talking about. First of all Bm is 2 semitones down from D and the same up to F. “aha, instintively fall onto Bflat” what is this?

  11. Matt Leisyter

     /  November 1, 2013

    Bm is irrelevant, But the note B is three semitones down from D, there is one half step (or one semitone) between B and C and two half steps (or two semitones) Between C and D, there for they are 3 semitones or 1 and a half steps appart. As for your “instintively” I do not believe it is actually a word at all.

    Reply

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