Ionian and Dorian Chord Progressions

In lesson 2 of the Modal Harmony Workshop, we begin our exploration of Modal Chord progressions with two modes: Ionian and Dorian.

(Missed Lesson 1? Watch it HERE)

Watch the Video Lesson:

    Welcome to lesson 2 of the Modal Harmony Workshop. The first thing I want to tell you is to go through these lessons, but pay the most attention to the practical parts. I will be sharing some theory along the way because that's unavoidable, but if you hear terms that you never heard before, or find something that you don't understand, don't worry about it. That's perfectly normal because different aspects of modal harmony are so intermingled, that you need to go forward with the practical application, and see these things in action for yourself, before you can come back and fully understand the theoretical explanation. 

    In the next few lessons we will  go through all the 7 possible chords that appear in modal music, and see the relationship between them, and how to use them to create progressions in all 7 modes. 


Chord Qualities:

    There are a few possible variations for each one of these chords. For example the chord built on the D Dorian root note could potentially be a Dm, a Dm7, A Dm9, a Dm6, a Dmadd9 and so on. But studying these potential chord qualities is not our focus right now. We will have the opportunity to discuss them at a later time. So for now we will use a 7th chord as our standard chord structure. I will also give you a suggested fingering for each one, although you can experiment with variations on your own. 


    Let's start with the two chords that are based on Ionian and Dorian. And since we are basing everything on the C major scale, avoiding sharps and flats, those would be C Ionian and D Dorian. If you want to transpose what we learn to other keys, you can do that be looking at the “Modal Chord Cheat Sheet” (mailing list members can get in the Welcome page) .

   First of all look at the fingerings for Cmaj7 and Dm7, which are the resulting chords if you build a 7th chord on Ionian and Dorian. They are both rooted on string 5, and I'm using these common voicings for them. If you know more chord shapes for these kinds of chords feel free to use them later, but for now use these ones so that we’re all on the same page:

Cmaj7 chord - Ionian
C Ionian - Cmaj7 chord suggested voicing
Dm7 chord - Dorian
D Dorian - Dm7 chord suggested voicing


    The first thing we need to notice is the distance between them, which is two frets. You should remember this. Ionian to Dorian is 2 frets. With this information you can transpose progressions made with these chords to other keys, which is a useful skill if you happen to be in a situation where you don’t have access to your cheat sheet. For example if you want to make an Eb Ionian progression, your available chords would be Ebmaj7 and Fm7, instead of Cmaj7 and Dm7.

    So let’s go straight into practical application. Your first assignment is to create at least one chord progression with these two chords using C Ionian as the tonic. Obviously you can't do much with just two chords, and your progressions may sound kind of artificial, but don't worry about that. As we add more chords in the following lessons, your options will expand, and you will begin to see how thousands of songs you have heard are made of these chords. The most important thing is that you use your ears to make sure that the Cmaj7 sounds like the tonic. It’s helpful to number these chords, and the most common way of doing that is by using Roman Numerals. So in the case of Ionian we have the Imaj7 chord, and the IIm7 chord. I suggest that you make a 4 bar progression in 4/4 because for most people that’s the easiest kind of progression to follow. You can use any style of strumming pattern you like.

    Then find a way to record your progression. You can use a looper pedal, recording software on a computer, or even your phone. But do record it because afterwards the next step is to improvise over it. The reason I’m having you improvise over it is that when you hear this progression along with a variety of melodic material, your ears get a much more realistic picture of how it would work in real music. You just plainly understand it better.



If you know your scales and modes, or if you studied SFS Modes or SFS Pentatonics with me, then you have many options for improvising over this. But so that we are all on the same page again, you can use this fingering here to improvise over all the chord progressions we are going to be creating. This same fingering shape will work over all of them, but it will sound as a different mode every time, according to the harmonic context:



    I explain this concept in detail in the “Scales VS Modes” video, so watch that if you have any questions about this. Even if you have never played this fingering before, you can just look at the shape and play, because right now we are not working on your soloing skills. We just want to make a point. In your course materials you will find this shape, marked with the root note for each mode. It’s a good idea to land on that root note a lot, because that will give you a better sense of the sound of the mode and the tonic chord.

In the video you can watch an example of a C Ionian progression using our 2 chords, and some improvisation over it.


    The next step is to do the same for D Dorian. The chords are the same, but you make the Dm7 sound like the tonic. So now the Dm7 is the Im7 chord, and Cmaj7 is the bVIImaj7 chord. The reason I’m calling this a bVIImaj7 and not just VIImaj7 is something we will discuss in the next lesson, so don’t worry about it right now. Also remember to use the same fingering to solo over your progression, but emphasize the Dorian root note in your improvisation this time. In the video there is an example for this one as well. Watch that, and then you can go ahead and experiment with the material we covered in this lesson on your own. You can start by just playing the example progressions ‘m giving you, and then make up your own. They are all probably going to be very similar anyway, because we have only 2 chords to play with. But you can try different rhythms and strumming patterns, and so on. Once you feel you got the hang of it, I will see you in lesson 3.

Example progressions:

C Ionian example progression
C Ionian example progression
D Dorian example progression
D Dorian example progression


    Thanks for watching, and remember….

    Enjoy your practice and be effective!


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