Composition: Add Variety To Your Chord Progressions Part II – Mapping Functions To Modes



The the previous post Composition: Add Variety To Your Chord Progressions Part I   we looked at how the seven chords in a major key fall into three categories or Functions (Tonic, Sub-Dominant, Dominant). And we explored how any chords in a given Function are interchangeable with each other exemplifying the concept of Chord Substitution.

This post assumes you understand the concepts in the previous post sited above.

So as a next step:  In this post we will take a look at how to do the same thing using different modes. In addition, we will examine different ways of using modes to expand your harmonic palette.

If you aren’t familiar with the musical modes we will go over the basics and I’ll give you a few links at the end of this post to excellent articles on the web that go into further detail.

Modes are pretty easy to understand in a basic sense but as you start working with them and begin incorporating them into your compositional process they open a very complex set of options that instantly provide you with a wide variety choices. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes it can be crippling. On the simple side you probably already know two modes:

Ionian which is the same as the major scale.

Aeolian which is the same as the natural minor scale.

In the simplest light (which is always the best light) modes are just scales. Any scale or mode is just a pattern or sequence of whole steps and half steps.

The seven modes are:

  • Ionian – WWHWWWH.
  • Dorian – WHWWWHW.
  • Phrygian – HWWWHWW.
  • Lydian – WWWHWWH.
  • Mixolydian – WWHWWHW.
  • Aeolian – WHWWHWW.
  • Locrian – HWWHWWW.

A Major Scale/Ionian Mode follows this step pattern/sequence:

C Major Scale – C, D, E, F, G, A, B,

C – Whole – D – Whole – E – Half – F – Whole – G – Whole – A – Whole – B – Half – C

If you play that step/interval sequence starting on any note (C, D, F#, Bb, etc…) you will be playing a Major Scale/Ionian Mode.

Modes are just scales that follow a different pattern/sequence of Whole Steps and Half Steps.

There are two primary ways to think about modes:

The first way is to look at the following graphic showing how the different modes can be thought of as a Major Scale step/interval pattern/sequence and just start and stop on different notes.




So you can think of the Dorian Mode as a C Major Scale from D to D, the Lydian Mode as a C Major Scale from F to F, and so on …

The second way is to relate a mode to a Major/Ionian or Natural Minor/Aeolian scale and call out the altered raised or lowered notes.

Dorian – Minor Scale with a raised 6th

Phrygian – Minor Scale with a lowered 2nd

Lydian – Major Scale with a raised 4th

Mixolydian – Major Scale with a lowered 7th

Locrian – Minor Scale with a lowered 2nd, and lowered 5th

OK so you get the idea of modes.  They are just scales, patterns of whole steps and half steps. Just as the chords of a Major Key are based on the degrees of the Major Scale the chords of a mode are based on the degrees of the mode.

The chords in the key of C major/Ionian Mode are:

C or I = Tonic

Dm or ii = Supertonic

Em or iii = Mediant

F or IV = Subdominant

G or V = Dominant

Am or vi = Submediant

B(dim) or vii(dim) = Based on the Leading Tone

If you do the same thing using a particular mode you will notice that the chord qualities of the different chords based on the degrees of the scale are different.  This sets up a whole different harmonic sound. Chord changes based on these chords sound very different than the same chord changes based on the chord qualities related to the Major or Minor Scale.

Let’s take the Dorian Mode as opposed to the Natural Minor/Aeolian Mode as an example and explore what we get:

The D Dorian Mode is a C scale from D to D (first way to think of it) and it is a D Natural Minor scale with a raised 6th degree of the scale (the second way to think of it).

Let’s see what that looks like for the chords of D Dorian as opposed to D Minor:

D    E    F    G   A   B(natural instead of flat)   C

D chord -i- is minor – 7th is dominant

E chord –ii- is minor instead of diminished – 7th is dominant

F chord -III- is major – 7th is Major

G chord -IV- is major instead of minor – 7th is dominant

A chord -v- is minor – 7th is dominant

B chord –vi(dim) is diminished instead of major – 7th is dominant instead of major

C chord –VII- is major – 7th is major instead of dominant

So as you can see that is a really different set of chord qualities. A very typical vamp in D Minor Dm7 to Gm7 back and forth is very different if you make the vamp Dorian. You get Dm7 to G7 (dominant 7 not minor dominant 7) a real different sound.

I’ll let you take it from here.  Try taking a chord progression in a minor key then change the chords to relate to Dorian or Phrygian and see what you get. It’s a lot of fun.

So from a practical perspective you can approach incorporating this into your compositional process in many ways. You can keep a tune or a section of a tune straight in a mode or you can just take any phrase or part of a tune and imply a mode. We all actually already do that all the time. For me, my musical harmonic language doesn’t use diminished chords very much. So when I’m in a minor key – say D minor –  the –ii- chord is almost always a minor  Em7 or Em9. I rarely make the chord diminished – E(dim) –  which would be strictly in the minor key. Em7 is borrowed from the Dorian Mode even when I might immediately go to Gm7 which is Minor Mode.

Play around with this and explore the different tonalities that are in each of these modes and add that knowledge to your harmonic bag of tricks.

As always thanks for reading this blog. Come back for future posts. Also if you like the post please take the time to “like” it and leave a comment to let me know what you think.

And let’s all go out there and make some music.

For more detailed information on modes check out the following articles on the web:


Art’s Music Table

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Future Blog Topics:

Recording: Complementary EQ

Recording: Art’s Music Table Rig Rundown – Why I Chose The Equipment I Use

Composition: Add Variety To Your Chord Progressions Part III – Using Approaching Chords

Composition: Add Variety To Your Chord Progressions Part IV – Chords as a Sonority – Stepping Away From Functional Harmony





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