The Modes and Harmony

I once asked a music professor of mine how to harmonize a phrase in the Lydian mode. He said "I don't know". Actually, I found out later that he did know of some ways, but what he meant was that there were no standardized methods to harmonizing modal melodies. Why is that? Simple; the modes predate diatonic harmony. In he days when the modes had reached the zenith of their use, the entire Major/Minor diatonic system had yet to be concieved. harmony at the time consisted of very consonant intervals such as the octave and 5th. this "harmony" was called organum. Organun originally (abouth the beginning of the 10th century) began as the practice of doubling a line either an octave or a fifth above. Later organum evolved into "free organum" in which contrary lines were often added, still with the practice of employing he octave and the fifth almost exclusively.

The modes through out their 11 cenury dominance as the musical system of Europe were never employed in a setting even remotely resmbling chord progressions as we understand them today. The "harmony" of organum was, as said, no harmony at all; it was far more decorative than functional. Organum was a step in the right direction, but it lacked the tension/release aspect of true harmony. As we have already seen, the arrival of our diatonic system heralded the end of the modes. however, in modern (meaning over the last 250 years) useage, modes were often mixed with chord progressions.

This is the point where the classification of modes illustrated in chart 3 reveals it's true usefulness. In most modern useage, modes are simply different flavors of the parent scale from which they were derived. In other word, they were used interchangeably with the parent scale of their same gender. This is why I made the assertion that the system illustrated in chart 1 is a very counter intuitive and actually unmusical way of understanding modes.

Composers have been clever in devising customized cadences and progressions for modes. However, in typical useage, they are used, as I said, as flavoring. Altered chords (covered extensively in a future series of articles) are very useful in harmonizing modes.

In a jazz context, and, quite frankly the context in which I came to understand modes, modes are used over chords in a progression and chosen to reflect a particular chords qualities. Going back to the D minor example, in the progression Dm-G7-C (ii-V7-I in C), one very cliched way to employ the modes would be to simply play scalar runs over each chord, changing to the mode which is originated from the same scale degree as the chord.

Another way to hear the modes over a progression is to structure a melody (or solo) in such a way that the characteristic tone of each mode is heard in relation to the chord it is sounding with. For example, holding a B note over both chords Dm and G7 would really bring out the Dorian of the D minor while blending nicely into the G7. If the melody involved movement from B to F, say repeatedly as in an ostinato figure, while sounding over the D Minor, the B sings dorian to our ears while he F lends into the harmony. As the harmony progresses to the G7, the same B blends, like before, but the F sings Mixolydian to us, also fullfilling its function as the 7 of the dominant 7th chord.

The Lydain mode has a great feature in that the sharp 4 gives a natural half step melodic resolution to the tonic degree. This is great for phrases in the tonic that may be cadencing on the dominant. This would occur when setting up the next phrase in dominant harmony or modulating to the dominant key. The mode naturally highlights the fifth scale degree, while retaining the leading tone 7th degree in order to allow cadence on the tonic.

As mentioned above, the Phrygian mode is quite Spanish sounding, especially the Phrygian Dominant variant of the scale. Play and record the following progression: E-F-G-F-E. Try and articulate the chords in a latin sounding rhythm, in a fast tempo, strummed with a good degree of force. Record yourself palying lines in the E Phrygian Dominant over the chords..... Sounds like something Quintin Terrantino would use in a movie scene set out west..


We have seen a glimpse into the origin and evolution of modes. As I said from th beginning, my history, while accurate, is very incomplete. I just wanted to add some historical relavence to the topic. Ultimately, it is up to each composer/soloist/musician to decide in what ways he would like to understand and use modes. In a rock or metal context they can be extremely useful as these two categories of music are very static harminically. Indeed, soloing over 16 bars of what amounts to an E power chord (perhaps embellished with some movemnt to other power chord) can get quite old, real quick. Modes offer a variety in tonal vocabulary in idioms where such variety is inherently absent. in that way, modern rock players are actually employing modes in a way not unlike their ancient brethren of the church.

Another thing, all musical structures, including but not limited to scales and arpeggios, may be treated modally with varying degrees of effectiveness. Again, experimentation is the key. Long ago when i was learning to play Satriani did an article in one of the guitar magazines entitled "Modal Arpeggios in which he took a mode and arranged it in thirds to produce 13th chord arpeggios. It is this kind of experimentation and "out of the box thinking" that leads to true originality in one's playing/ writing.

For me, thinking in terms of modes, scales, keys, etc.... is not how I work anymore. I tend to think semi pandiatonically (it's all one key to me!!). However, modes do tend to emerge in my playing and writing when either A) I am actually striving for a feel that a particular mode is associated with or B) I hear a passage in my head that just happens to be modal in nature. I am actually about to write an article detailing my approach to theortical musical thinking. Basically, although I have studied music all my adult life and am quite well versed in many aspects of the art, I do not conciously apply what you might term "traditional theory" when I write. The concepts of traditional theory are wonderful, but the memorizing of terms and formulae often turn our art into too much of a an exercise in pedantic academia. The upcoming article of which I speak will be aimed at bringing highly eveolved musical concepts to the minds of those who have no interest in "traditional theory". I can already tell you that htat article will be uite a bit longer than this one and will likely need to be broken up into a series of articles.

On any article I write, I am open to differing opinions, corrections, etc.... However, I simply ask that you ake the time to consult a reputable source before beginning a pointless argument or flame war. I do invite debate and critcsim when it is constructive and well meaning. I do occasionally typo and I do not always take the time to read up on what I write or even proof read before I post so there are times when perhaps a detail is lost or recalled less than accurately.

Until next time.