Modal Music Made Easy

Hi there. My name is Leandro Oliveira and I’m a guitarist and composer from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’ve always been a huge fan of learning the ins and outs of music theory, and now I’m going to share the stuff I’ve picked up through the years with you! So, hold on tight and we’ll see where this takes us…

Modal Music Made Easy (kind of…) – Part I

One of the things that I find myself constantly researching and experimenting with is the modal music. The sounds and moods evoked by each of the different modes are fascinating. But if you are anything like me, you probably wondered exactly how to make use of them. Truth of the matter is that there are an infinite number of ways they can be used. Some are so natural most people don’t even notice they are using modes. Some of them are very deliberate. We’ll be looking at both kinds of uses, but I will focus mostly on the deliberate kind. I’m assuming, of course, that you know about the modes of the major scale, at least. If you don’t, there are a million places on the net where you can find this information.

If you’ve ever looked at a fake book, or any jazz chart, you have probably encountered chords with all sorts of weird extensions such as a #4 (or #11), b9, #9, sus4, sus b9, etc. If you stop to analyze where these extensions are coming from, you’ll find that they have come from modes of the major scale. A major7#4 chord comes from the Lydian mode. Asus b9 chord comes from the Phrygian mode. A dominant 7th chord (just called a 7) comes from the Mixolydian mode. 7 chords are very common, since they are used extensively in blues and rock music. Half diminished chords come from the Locrian mode. A minor 7th chord comes from the Aeolian mode, which is just a regular minor scale.

So, you may be asking yourself how the heck any of this helps you use the modes… Be patient, young one. We’ll get there!

Now, I wish I could tell you that you can learn the fingerings for all the different modes and then just wail away, and all of a sudden your song would “sound modal.” Unfortunately, you can’t. Ultimately, it isn’t about what you play, so much as it is about what you are playing OVER. If this still doesn’t make any sense, I’ll give you an example:

Here’s a chord progression… Am G

This progression is in the key of Am, or A Aeolian, if you prefer. A minor is the 6th mode of the C major scale. The other scales (modes) that come out of C major are D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian , G Mixolydian, and B Locrian. These are all the C major scale, but starting at a different note. They all sound very different if you just run up and down the scale, without any rhythm section behind it. However, if you try to play them against our Am, G progression, you’ll find that they all sound quite similar. How could they not? You are playing the same notes over and over again! So, as you can see, it isn’t about what scale you play.

Let’s change something here. Instead of the Am chord at the beginning of that progression, try playing an Am6(9), then play a Gmaj7, and an F# half-diminished. Now, instead of playing an Am, play an A Dorian. Now it sounds different, doesn’t it? The quality of your chords are still the same (minor and major), but the extras you added to them made your progression Dorian. How? You added notes to these chords that made them specific to the Dorian mode, rather than the Aeolian mode. A Dorian consists of root, 2nd (or 9th), minor 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and minor 7th. The A Aeolian consists of root, 2nd, minor 3rd, 4th, 5th, b6th (or #5th), and minor 7th. The only difference between the two is that one has a 6th and the other one has a b6th. By adding a 6th to the chord, you are making it specifically Dorian.

This was a very long and complicated way to tell you that if you want to write a modal song, or a modal section of a song, one of the things you can do is use modal chords to build your harmony. Here is an example from one of my songs, “West 29th.” I wanted the solo section to alternate between E Aeolian (minor) and E Lydian. So, the chords I chose for that section were Em11(b13) and Emaj7(#11). Em11(b13) has an 11th and a b6th, which are specific–in this case–to the Aeolian mode. The Emaj7(#11) has a major 7th and a #11th, which are specific to the Lydian mode.

If there are only 7 modes to the major scale, and each one has a chord that is directly related to it, doesn’t that limit the amount of chords I can use to build my harmonies? No. You can always add more extensions to the chords to make them interesting. As long as you have those notes that make it specific to the mode you want to use, you are covered. Besides, there is at least one other wonderful thing you can do.

During the 60s, jazz musicians were all trying to discover different sounds to use in their songs. They were all experimenting with modes, but I guess some of them felt limited by the things I just spent ages explaining above. So, musicians started building their chords in different ways. As you know, chords are built out of stacked thirds. What some musicians started doing was building their chords by stacking 4ths instead. What this does is blur the quality of the chords. Since the third determines if a chord is major or minor, you end up with a set of chords that are neither. If you build a triad out of 4ths, you’ll get a chord that’s made out of a root, a 4th, and a 7th. If a chord isn’t major or minor, you can play either type of scale over it! Building your chords out of 4ths opens a world of possibilities to your playing.

All of this stuff I’ve been talking about can be applied to any song that has chords. What about the songs that are riff-based? Can you still use power chords and make modal music? The answer is YES! We’ll talk about this the next time.

Now go grab your guitar and start “making things modal!”