The Modal Approach. Part Four: The Progression

author: Colohue date: 11/30/2010 category: music theory
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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and anybody over the age of thirteen who does not fall under the aforementioned categories; welcome to the fourth part of the five part series: The Modal Approach. I am your host through the enticing, elegant and exhilarating modal world: Tom Colohue. Hello and, of course, welcome back. This time around, we're going completely modal. We're leaving all of that tonal stuff behind. Compared to what comes next, that was all as simple as mastering the word 'I', but it gave us the basis for all that comes afterwards. We've examined note stability, we recognise our modal notes and we already knew about the two most important pieces of theory here in the major scale and chord composition. Honestly, if you didn't know about all of this beforehand, you probably stopped reading at about part two, if not before. I feel that, at this point, you all know what you're doing. You're all ready for this. It's modal compositions time. This is where we go from suggestive play to in your face modal interplay. From a nip-slip to group fetish porn. That's the range of the change here. We're doing things properly from now on, which means that accidentals, from hereon in, will become deliciously intentional. It's important when it comes to modes to know what you want to get from them and where you want to end up with them. Chances are it's going to be right back in the major scale, but the details are important. Modal compositions require both forethought and dedication. Improvising a tonal or suggestive piece can be fairly easy. If you ever try to improvise something modal, you're likely to encounter problems. Let's take our time with this one people. It's the big one. After all, there's no rush.

The Modal Approach by Tom Colohue

Part Four: The Progression

Modal Progressions Right, so we start at the beginning. What makes a progression modal? The answer is simple: applicable use of the modal notes. We'll start with Mixolydian once again, since it only contains one interval of difference from the major scale.
A Major
A B C# D E F# G#
A Mixolydian
A B C# D E F# G
In order to establish our tonal centre, we have a piece in A major. The tonal centre here is quite easily recognisable as A. Let's build a basic A major progression to work from.
A    E    D    A
 
0    0    2    0
2    0    3    2
2    1    2    2
2    2    0    2
0    2    x    0
x    0    x    x
 
A    E    D    A
C#   G#   F#   C#
E    B    A    E
Here we have three of the most well known chords coming together to form one of the most well knock musical movements: the I - V - IV progression. It's a stable tonal progression, within the confines of the major scale, in order to establish our tonal centre. Now let's make it modal. First, I'm going to make each of the chords four notes instead of three, in order to widen our options, and so that it will offer a better chance to explain later. Then, we change the G# in the major scale to the G of the Mixolydian mode. Now, if these were still three note chords, only the E chord would be affected, and even then it would only drop to an Em chord. While this is, in effect, modal play, the affect would be small and largely unnoticeable.
A7   Em7  Dmaj7A7
 
3    0    2    3
2    3    2    2
2    0    2    2
2    0    0    2
0    2    x    0
x    0    x    x
 
A    E    D    A
C#   G    F#   C#
E    B    A    E
G    D    C#   G 
Now we've introduced the modal note of Mixolydian, and given it a chance to really present itself. What makes this progression unstable? Two things. 1. You now have a progression containing the exact same notes as D major. 2. Your root chord is now a dominant chord in order to illustrate the modal change while still holding the tonal centre. Modes are only truly effective when they are wrapped around a defined tonal centre. In this instance, that tonal centre is A. However, the longer you use this modal progression, the more it's going to want to resolve away from the mode and back towards the major scale intervals present. Those belong to D major. That said, if you play the progression, you can hear the change, can't you? It doesn't sound like the major scale anymore. It sounds new. It sounds different and, after a while, don't you just think it would sound perfect if you finished it on a nice D? Don't do that. Before you reach that point, go back to your A major progression and into safety and stability. Mixolydian has only one note of difference, and it's on a note that's quite commonly used. Let's look at Phrygian next.
A Phrygian
A Bb C D E F G A
The difference between A Phrygian and A major is quite enormous, isn't it? It would be a big jump to go from the A major progression we put together to a progression made from A Phrygian, but not to worry. This is where the minor scale can be our greatest friend. Phrygian has only one note of difference from A minor, that being it's modal note, the flat second. Let's make the same progression, but in A minor next.
Am   Em   Dm   Am
 
0    0    1    0
1    0    3    1
2    0    2    2
2    2    0    2
0    2    x    0
x    0    x    x
 
A    E    D    A
C    G    F    C
E    B    A    E
Simple enough, right? Wrong. This progression isn't going to give us the chances that we need in order to truly see that flat second in action, since B, the major second of A, is only present once. Let's change a chord so that we can show that modal change then.
Am   Em   C    A
 
0    0    0    0
1    0    1    1
2    0    0    2
2    2    2    2
0    2    3    0
x    0    x    x
 
A    E    C    A
C    G    E    C
E    B    G    E
There we go. While there's no B present in C right now, there will be when we convert then to four note chords. So let's make them modal, shall we?
Am7   Em7b5C7    Am7
 
0    0    0    0
1    3    1    1
0    0    0    0
2    2    2    2
0    1    1    0
x    0    x    x
 
A    E    C    A
C    G    E    C
E    Bb   G    E
G    D    Bb   G
How's that for volatile? Not only does this Phrygian progression contain no Bb in the root chord, but it also contains a dominant chord and a m7b5; two of the most dissonant and difficult chords to work with. However, it is modal and, even though it contains all of the notes of F major, as long as your tonal centre holds, you will hear that modal taint. Due to the chords present though, let's not spend too long away from A minor, shall we? Looking at Locrian is a bad idea. You have the basics, so Locrian would be a good one to work out yourself. It's best to know that it's a very difficult one to work with though. Modal Interplay Once you've mastered the art of putting together your modal positions, then all of this modes as patterns' stuff that people are throwing around start to become useful, but only as useful as the box shape of the major scale is in solos for the major scale. It won't help your phrasing and it won't help your understanding of any theory other than that of the modal sort, but it's going to give you a hint for where on the neck is a decent place to start when you're relatively inexperienced. If you take the suggestive play and note stability lessons from last time, then you can effectively solo over modal progressions, but just as long as you realise that the tonal centre must be upheld, even when you're in a bit of a tenuous position. For example, if we're back in A Mixolydian, we can do a little lick that starts on A, and on the fourth chord (A7) you can end on that G. Since it is still the leading tone, it will still lead nicely back to the root, and thus strengthen the tonal centre as much as possible. Poor note choice, focussing on a D for example, could also hasten the resolution to D major rather than back to A. Since A is the fifth in D, your chosen tonal centre is a difficult one to play, making Mixolydian stronger for the progression than the solo that comes over it. One of the strongest modes when it comes to soloing over a modal progression is actually Dorian, since the note that the progression and solo would want to resolve to would be the leading tone for the modal play. This also serves as another example of why Locrian is a difficult mode to play with. Since the intervals point to a major scale that would be the leading tone of the modal play, the mode itself pulls much stronger towards the unwanted resolution. B Locrian wants to be C major. Teamwork In Modes The potential for modal interplay also opens up options in a band or layered recording scenario for multiple instruments, or the same in repeated recordings. For example, the more obvious trick here would be to have a rhythmic guitarist supplying a modal progression, while a lead guitarist would solo over it, with great knowledge of the material and phrasing in the play. The amount of planning is likely why many bands or artists choose to avoid this route. A less obvious option is to involve the bassist. For example, having a bass line that features the modal note rather than a lead guitarist gives a more subtle strengthening of the core tonal centre, since the lower frequencies ultimately serve as the musical foundation on which the work itself is built. Another path might be to use the bass line as a pedal tone, holding the tonal centre while the guitar explores different modal options. If you're familiar with counterpoint, you have the option of forgoing the typical rhythm / lead connection and just both doing something fancy with modes, but, once again, it requires planning. For a bass line to act as a pedal tone, the bassist has to be willing to cede any and all attention to the guitarists. With rhythm and lead, the lead guitarist will always receive the credit for the unique sound and style that emerges as a result of modes, even when then rhythm guitarist has done more of the planning and, ultimately, might well have chosen the notes. The Vamp With modes, you will often hear about chord vamps'. This, put simply, is a repetitive progression, usually of no more than two chords, designed to create the modal sound while still holding tightly to the tonal centre. Often, the first chord would be to establish the tonal centre, while the second would be the modal one, giving an option to other band members of going slightly beyond suggestive play and into the realm of modes. An example of this, plucked from the examples higher up, would be the following simple and repetitive vamp progression:
Am7   Em7b5
 
0    0    
1    3    
0    0    
2    2    
0    1    
x    0    
 
A    E    
C    G    
E    Bb   
G    D    
While it is inherently limiting when it comes to sound, style and options, it does supply a safe pathway into modes, however basic and uninventive it might be. The vamp could offer you a fall back, or a safe retreat into a simplified route that everybody is familiar with. If nothing else, it is safer to have a chord vamp than to linger too long in a modal setting. Once your tonal centre changes, after all, you're no longer playing modally. Modes In Action This is the part where it's up to you. If you're a musician, then chances are that you have a musical instrument. This stuff is useless if you don't do experiments yourself, so I want you to do just that with modal progressions. Consider how you might be able to incorporate Lydian using the information provided, or Dorian. Try and find a safe vamp for Locrian perhaps, and see what your options are from there. Have fun with it. These articles are only short, and I'd love to include much more in them, but I have neither the time nor the imagination to think up hundreds of examples to concrete the facts into your minds. I have confidence that the facts are there, so explore what you know and find the path that suits you best. There's only one article to come after this, exploring a question that might well have popped up in your minds, reading this. What if you want your tonal centre to change? What if you want to resolve to a different place? What if you want to play modally in one sense and then choose another mode for your next trip to the modal pathways? All of this will be answered in the final, and most complex section of The Modal Approach. Thankfully, I think by now you have everything you need to work through that with an absolute breeze. You see? It's not so hard after all, once all of the miscommunication has been stripped away. Pull the flesh away and the bones are still of use, even when they really don't seem to be. We've built a brand new body on those bones, and it's a beautiful one. Thank you for reading, and I look forward to seeing you for the wrap up this time next week. Take care. Tom Colohue Tom Colohue is a writer from Blackpool, England. Though he specialises in Fiction, he also writes music theory articles, and new media articles based primarily on the internet. On occasion, these also intermingle. He is well recognised by numerous critics and analysts for his integrative descriptive work and his cynical textual mannerisms. For more information, Tom Colohue keeps a Facebook Fan Page, which contains updates from new articles and his personal blog, Mental Streaming. This page can be found via this link.
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