The Modal Approach. Part Four: The Progression

Tom Colohue's "The Modal Approach". Part 3 of 5. The real beauty of modal interplay is about to be laid bare.

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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.

41 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    AxeHappy
    K!!LsWiTcH wrote: without actually saying how they're wrong and how to change their thinking
    I'm pretty sure I explained why. Changing your thinking is up to you.
    krypticguitar87
    countrychris01 wrote: Exactly, but Tom trashed my article for saying the same thing. The notes are the same, your just resolving to the chord tones of the chord your playing over. Essentially... D major scale D E F# G A B C# D A mixolydian A B C# D E F# G A So why Tom, is this wrong in my lesson, but correct in yours?
    his doesn't say, "switch to this mode to solo over this chord" which is what almost every single wrong artilce says, which you slammed for being wrong.... in your lesson there is no difference between soloing in key ending on chord tones, and playing with modes.... or at least that is how you explained it to me when I asked, and I restated it just to make sure that you ment it....
    dogmax
    Great article Tom. I guess the reason that some people are bashing you, is because they don't understand it. It causes frustration. To be fair, modes are pretty hard to understand and it requires that you know a good bunch of theory before learning them. To those having a hard time learning this, try reading the articles again. This is a good article to me, because it made me learn something. Thanks.
    Guitarmaster94
    Great article, Tom. If you published a book on your understanding of modes I wouldn't hesitate to buy it. It really seems like you know what you're talking about and if you think you can elaborate on this topic in a book, I would fully encourage it. Ciao for now.
    e-bowie
    Sad that you waste so much time on fiction stories when you have a talent for teaching
    hildesaw
    I think ZeG's lesson on modal progressions is quite a bit easier to grasp, especially if you're new to the subject matter. Still a solid series of lessons Tom.
    K!!LsWiTcH
    how come i feel like everyone who responds to someone who they say is incorrect responds by saying you know nothing about modes your wrong, if you knew anything you wouldnt be wrong
    stokcton
    i think these articles are amazing ive only been playing guitar for half a year and now i can make music like Dream Theater. Well kinda, im getting there
    Dumpster510
    Good article, but it doesn't matter how many times you repeat yourself, modes are scales. Period. Go look up the definition of a scale. Guess what, modes fit that description! Furthermore, it's irrelevant what you call them. You harp WAY too much on semantics.
    jamisonsalamand
    These articles are great, but I still am not understanding why playing DEFGABC couldn't be called a Dorian scale, and why you can't be playing in the key of B Mixolydian(or something like that) in the first place.
    JPedrosa
    The A mixolydian progression to me is clearly screaming D major. In fact when I play A mixolydian over it it feels exactly like playing D major even if I target the right notes for mixolydian. Seems to me that you´ve failed in providing progressions that actually allow for us to hear the sound and individual characterisitcs of a particular mode. And although you´ve provided some good information (that can also be found in "every other mode explanation on the web") in the end this article is All about semantics and bashing the derivative way of thinking about modes which in certain practical applications is far more useful than parallel thinking (both are extremely important anyway).
    951
    @-Mantra- that's the whole point for the forth note changing them to 7ths so the mode stands out.
    -Mantra-
    So lets 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
    Is it still modal when you replace the Am7 with Am?
    Pudel
    I just wonder, why the **** you made me wait three articles for the explanation what "modal playing" is, and then gave me an explenation, that would fit in one parenthesis ("the difference lays in progressions, but we'll get to this later"). It would save me lot of frustration and wondering, and i wouldn't be furious about it right now. Great article for novices. But you should try to work out a way of saving frustration of people who know something. And the "we'll get to it later" statement signals that you're aware of the question, and... you know Nice series, though!
    krypticguitar87
    Dumpster510 wrote: Good article, but it doesn't matter how many times you repeat yourself, modes are scales. Period. Go look up the definition of a scale. Guess what, modes fit that description! Furthermore, it's irrelevant what you call them. You harp WAY too much on semantics.
    I think his reasoning is to keep new commers awayfrom playing the normal way you would in a scale.... playing normal progressions from each mode resolves to the root of a major or minor scale, if a noob thinks of it as something different they are less likely to try to use a typical chord progression like I IV V.... since the application of mnotes in C lydian is totally different than the aplication of notes in G major or C major....
    iaceu
    krypticguitar87 wrote: I think his reasoning is to keep new commers awayfrom playing the normal way you would in a scale.... playing normal progressions from each mode resolves to the root of a major or minor scale, if a noob thinks of it as something different they are less likely to try to use a typical chord progression like I IV V.... since the application of mnotes in C lydian is totally different than the aplication of notes in G major or C major....
    Yes, I'd say that's right on. I've been studying all of this for about a month now, and I read the previous article that was argued over in these comments. Since then, I've been confused, because I've found exactly what you've said to be true. If I just move to a different scale, such as the D major scale, my improvising wants to resolve to D every time, and I find myself confused and accidentally switching keys. As such, I've started noting more carefully where the root note is for my progressions and working around those, but that limits playing within the boxes. I also want to get away from just using boxes and get a firm understanding of how everything works so I can really work with it. This series has helped explain things in a very helpful way. The biggest confusion I've had so far is the concept of starting on another note to get a mode. That never made sense to me, because it seemed too simple. It might be true that A mixolydian happens to be the same as D major starting on A, but it doesn't help me to think of the two that way. I find it better to start A mixolydian on A and know which notes are part of it. Once I get that, of course, I'll be able to play those same notes in different areas, and one of those areas would be in a D major box, but I think that's just a happy (but confusing) coincidence, no? That said, countrychris01, your article was helpful as well, as it simplifies things. But my brain doesn't work like that, unfortunately, and I need all the background information and "semantics" as Dumpster510 put it. Personal preference, and no offense meant to you. But to answer your question,
    countrychris01 wrote: So why Tom, is this wrong in my lesson, but correct in yours?
    I'd say that's it, at least for me. Your statement is not false, but for me it oversimplifies the issue and left me confused. Maybe I'm a dolt.
    Rock'n'Roller
    I do have a query about modes I'd like to know how an accidental relates to a modal composition, whether it's the same as the relationship between a tonal piece and an accidental or what Interesting article nevertheless, especially about "Vamp" chords
    ZoSo_bc89
    I feel like my previous question was misunderstood. I'm talking specifically about the first progression Tom made, which used the first, fourth and fifth scale degrees of the mixolydian mode, which COULD be considered the fifth, first, and second degree of the D major scale, respectively. Since the chords he used correspond to those in diatonic theory, how has he shown anything significant that can't be explained by diatonic theory?
    countrychris01
    Exactly, but Tom trashed my article for saying the same thing. The notes are the same, your just resolving to the chord tones of the chord your playing over. Essentially... D major scale D E F# G A B C# D A mixolydian A B C# D E F# G A So why Tom, is this wrong in my lesson, but correct in yours?
    countrychris01
    And Tom, you also dont need to change the chord for A phyrygian...Am7b9 would work just fine to set up the tonality of the Phrygian scale..
    AxeHappy
    It was wrong in yours(I assume I haven't actually read your article but you just said it so I'm going with what you said) because the specific note names don't matter. They aren't what make notes (or chords or anything in music actually) but rather the interval relationships and what note sounds like HOME! D Major is D major because D sounds like Home and G and A are the 4 and 5 chords, etc. A Mixolydian has a much different feeling. The way most people present modes (and again you may well have presented them properly) they act like they don't sound any different and you just "Take this scale and start it on this note!" Which is bullocks. Modes are all about chord progressions because that is what determines the sound. The position used on the fretboard is essentially meaningless. I'll often us the "E Phrygian 12 fret position" to solo over A minor because the notes are the same. I'm not playing E Phrygain though as the chord progression and whatnot set it up as A minor. Modes are not positions on a fretboard and they are not just, "This scale starting on a different note". If they were there would be no reason for them to exist.
    countrychris01
    So tell me, oh great Tom Colohue...whats you've shown as an A mixolydian progression, is any different from D major? same diatonic chords, except your starting and finishing on the fifth mode in the progression? Why wasnt harmonic analysis taught, by this time, these guys should be realising that all these chord are still diatonic...how is this any different from tonal music?
    JohnnyApplecore
    nicksixsix wrote: "He is well recognised by numerous critics and analysts for his integrative descriptive work and his cynical textual mannerisms" doubt it. who? this guy is such a wankoff, and I'm pretty sure he can barely even play guitar. now wait 3 seconds for my comment to get deleted by captain wankoff and his wank pals for being too offensive or some shit
    Music theory applies to more than just guitars.
    nicksixsix
    "He is well recognised by numerous critics and analysts for his integrative descriptive work and his cynical textual mannerisms" doubt it. who? this guy is such a wankoff, and I'm pretty sure he can barely even play guitar. now wait 3 seconds for my comment to get deleted by captain wankoff and his wank pals for being too offensive or some shit
    Flibo
    There's a mistake in one of the diagrams. The Am chord is marked as A. Thanks for the article!
    Keth
    nicksixsix : "He is well recognised by numerous critics and analysts for his integrative descriptive work and his cynical textual mannerisms" doubt it. who? this guy is such a wankoff, and I'm pretty sure he can barely even play guitar. now wait 3 seconds for my comment to get deleted by captain wankoff and his wank pals for being too offensive or some shit
    It doesn't matter if he can play guitar or not, he's discussing music theory. Also, you're attacking/judging the writer, instead of what was written, Ad Hominem, you should look it up.
    countrychris01
    Where did i refer to positions? I presented this information in a similar manner, in regards to where to use modes and which chords they apply too, but Tom promptly told me i was wrong, then i see the same information rehashed here. Yes Axehappy, your spot on..I presented them as different scales, and the the chord they work over in relation to a diatonic chord scale(the same way berklee teaches this stuff). I was more being sarcastic to the author, who very quickly dismissed my method then taught his own, more obscure version of the same method.
    ExOblivione
    Stop being butthurt, your articles were a load of bollocks. I read them and saw the same misinformation he spent a whole article seeking to dispel. You spoke nothing of changing the progressions and went the "This position over that" route that confuses so many people. Good job Tom, these articles are great.
    Ericholterman
    Anyone found a nice lick for that mixolydic progression yet? Would have been nice if the author had gave us one, so we could get more into the sound. Just playing the chords in guitar pro for example doesn't really give you much. Trying to write a nice lick from A to G as we speak.
    Reagar
    I didn't really understand where the big leap mentioned in the article was. Essentially what he's saying is that if the song is in A mixolydian, which is A major with a flattened 7th, the chords that include the 7th will have said 7th flattened. E major becomes E minor. Seems pretty simple to me. And it's different to D major because A is the "tonic"[quote]speeddemon93 wrote: SilverSpurs616 wrote: I for one am glad that Tom is taking the time to clear up the mess left behind from the recent "modal plague" of incorrect articles on the subject. I'll admit that this article confused me a little, but that's simply my own lack of understanding. Great article Tom My thoughts exactly! One of the things I'm not sure about: Can a song be both modal and tonal? Obviously not at the same time. Some things that were said like "lets not spend too long away from A minor" makes it sound like you would play both tonally and modally in the same song. Perhaps like a tonal chorus, and modal verses? Is this correct, or am I misunderstanding something still? Distinct segments of the song could be modal or tonal, but you can't have them together cause they are mutually exclusive.
    speeddemon93
    SilverSpurs616 wrote: I for one am glad that Tom is taking the time to clear up the mess left behind from the recent "modal plague" of incorrect articles on the subject. I'll admit that this article confused me a little, but that's simply my own lack of understanding. Great article Tom
    My thoughts exactly! One of the things I'm not sure about: Can a song be both modal and tonal? Obviously not at the same time. Some things that were said like "lets not spend too long away from A minor" makes it sound like you would play both tonally and modally in the same song. Perhaps like a tonal chorus, and modal verses? Is this correct, or am I misunderstanding something still?
    Geldin
    ZoSo_bc89 wrote: so Tom takes a progression in A Major then "makes it modal" by flattening the G# to fit the mixolydian scale.
    Yes, that's showing the difference between the mixolydian scale and the major scale. That difference is the modal note, in the case of A mixolydian is the G (minor seventh).
    So... how is this any different than taking the D Major scale then moving it up to the A?
    Big difference. When most people see "move Dmaj up to the A, they immediately think to the over propogated and wholly wrong method of "use this position over Dmaj, use this one over Amin, etc. This article teaches how to form modal progressions, which are key to differentiating between modal and tonal playing.
    It seems to me that they are effectively the same.So why is the former the "correct" way of thinking about modes and the latter incorrect? After all the time Tom spent ripping on how modes are not simply major scales starting on a different scale degree, it seems like he's just taken (fix'd) the long way of saying just that.
    Great. They are based on the (incorrect) assumption that modes are just scales with different starting notes. They aren't. If you understood modes at all, you would immediately understand the difference between the two.
    Am I the only one who feels that are one in the same or am I missing something?
    No, not at all. A lot of people fail to understand the concept of modal playing the first time. Consequently, most of those people take the easy (and wrong, [mostly wrong])path, thinking that modes are no more complicated than "major scale starting on a different note".
    SilverSpurs616
    I for one am glad that Tom is taking the time to clear up the mess left behind from the recent "modal plague" of incorrect articles on the subject. I'll admit that this article confused me a little, but that's simply my own lack of understanding. Great article Tom
    Zeppelin Addict
    countrychris01 wrote: Exactly, but Tom trashed my article for saying the same thing. The notes are the same, your just resolving to the chord tones of the chord your playing over. Essentially... D major scale D E F# G A B C# D A mixolydian A B C# D E F# G A So why Tom, is this wrong in my lesson, but correct in yours?
    you didnt explain it properly or in a way that someone could learn from. you didnt expand upon the difference between how 1 is tonal and 1 is moda and what makes A mixolydian modal rather than just the D major scale starting on A. nice job tom, looking forward to #5
    ZoSo_bc89
    so Tom takes a progression in A Major then "makes it modal" by flattening the G# to fit the mixolydian scale. So... how is this any different than taking the D Major scale then moving it up to the A? It seems to me that they are effectively the same. So why is the former the "correct" way of thinking about modes and the latter incorrect? After all the time Tom spent ripping on how modes are not simply major scales starting on a different scale degree, it seems like he's just tkaen the long way of saying just that. Am I the only one who feels that are one in the same or am I missing something?
    dashroom
    thanks heaps for these articles man, halfway through this i had a big 'OHHHHH' moment where it all came together for me so thanks