In this first lesson from the Modal Harmony Workshop, we learn the relationship between diatonic chords, and how we can manipulate them to construct convincing modal chord progressions.
Watch the Video Lesson:
Welcome to the Modal Harmony Workshop. In this series we will take a look at how modal chord progressions are constructed, and learn a quick and effective system that will enable you to make up your own chord progressions, or even compose songs, using modal harmony. Approaching harmony from a modal perspective is a great way to get fresh and unusual sounds, but it’s also a very effective, modern way to understand what’s going on in more conventional music as well. That’s because modal harmony, if studied the right way, is a superset of traditional harmony.
But we don’t want to overcomplicate things with too much theory. Here at EMP we always try to be practical. So in this series we will immediately use everything we learn at every step, to make real music.
Scales VS Modes:
The first thing you need to understand before we go on, is the relationship between scales and modes. Many people think that these are just different terms for the same thing. And indeed, in some cases it’s ok to interchange the two terms, and you will be able to communicate what you mean using any of the two. But that’s not all there is to it. Understanding the distinction between these two terms will open up doors for greater freedom when putting together chord progressions, but also when improvising. I go into more detail about this in a lesson I made called "Scales VS Modes". In that lesson we look at the difference between scales and modes as it applies to improvisation and melodic construction. But that information pertains to what we will talk about here as well. It’s one of the most popular EMP lessons and it’s very useful, so don’t miss it!
What I will do in this lesson is to give you a quick application of this concept for constructing chord progressions: Let’s say I have what is usually called the C major scale. It’s a series of notes that can be used in any order, but we usually order them by pitch in order to study them, so it would look like this: C,D, E, F, G, A, B. But in real music you don’t always have to start on the C, and you can play these notes at any register, high or low. So this scale is really an infinite repeating series of these pitches that is only limited in range by your instrument. So on a standard 22-fret guitar, the lowest note is an E, and the highest on is a D.
What I want you to notice now is this: Every note of this scale can be turned into a chord, by adding to it more notes of the scale. I’m not going to go into the construction of chords right now because it’s not important for what we are learning now, but I’m just going to give you an example for reference, and we will discuss chord construction some other time. If I turn every one of these notes into 7th chords for example, I am adding 3 notes to each one, and I end up with these chords: Cmaj7, Dm7, Em7, Fma7, G7, Am, Bm7b5. And as we said with single notes, you can see this as an infinite series of chords. Since all these chords are using notes of the original scale exclusively, they are called DIATONIC CHORDS. That’s a good musical term to know. “Diatonic" means made up from notes of the scale, without any extra, foreign notes. You may have diatonic chords, diatonic arpeggios, and other diatonic structures as well.
But that’s all I’m going to say about that because now we want to get into practical application: You can choose any of these chords to be the tonic chord of a song. This means any of these can be the home base; The chord you return to most of the time, and the chord that feels as the basis of your progression. You can manipulate rhythm, and how much time you stay on every chord, to make any one of these sound as the modal root chord. This is very important to understand: Any diatonic chord can be the tonic in a piece of music. And depending on which one I make the tonic, that will determine the mode I’m using.
Let me give you a simple example to understand this. I will take 3 chords that are next to each other: Cmaj7, Dm7, and Em7. If I make Cmaj7 the tonic, then I can number them as I, II, III. Then I will construct a simple progression that emphasizes that C major chord:
You can hear this, along with improvisation over it, in the video above. So I started on the I chord, and then moved to the II and the III. I spent more time on that Cmaj7, and made everything sound like I’m returning to it as home base, and indeed, after you hear this progression for a while, your ear is convinced that it’s the main chord, and expects to hear it. This example was the Ionian mode, because that C is the modal root of Ionian. But we’ll go into detail on modal root notes in another lesson, so don’t worry about that too much.
But what if I made the Em the tonic? In this case the chords would be numbered VI, VII, and I. Let’s see an example of that (hear it in the video):
After you hear this one, you expect to hear the Em as home base. This was a Phrygian progression, because that E is the Phrygian Root Note.
So I used the same 3 chords, I improvised over them using the same scale, played the rhythm part in a very similar way, yet it sounded very different. That’s the beauty of understanding modal harmony. You can use material you already know in new and exciting ways, and finally start to understand why the songs you like sound so cool!
Of course, sometimes you may find songs that use extra chords, outside the scale, in addition to the diatonic chords. But that’s something we can talk about after you get this modal foundation established.
From what we already said, you can now see that every major scale has 7 chords that come out of it. By making any of the 7 chords the tonic, you get 7 different modes.
Transposing to all keys:
If you have a strong background in music theory, you can transpose what we did to any key by using sharps, and flats, and so on. But you don’t really need to know all that to get creative with this. That’s why I made a "Chord Progression Cheat Sheet” for you, that shows you the 7 available chords and modes in every key. You can use it to analyze any song and also to make up your own songs. If you are on the EMP Mailing list then you can find it in the Member Welcome Page along with all your other gifts. If you are not on the mailing list you’re missing out! I have a lot of free material for you and you can use this form to sign up, or just download any of my free lesson packages which gets you on the list automatically.
In coming lessons we will get into more detail, and practice constructing modal chord progressions using a practical step by step system. I will also show you how I composed the modal backing tracks in the EMP Backing track library, using this system.
These things can get confusing sometimes, so review this lesson as much as you need to. If you are interested to learn more about this, and take your harmony skills to the next level, you can get the complete Modal Harmony Workshop as a standalone course, or by getting the Practice Partner Subscription which gives you streaming access to all my premium courses, including the Modal Harmony Workshop.
Thanks for watching, and remember….
Enjoy your practice and be effective!