Progression: Music Theory 105 – Modes, Modality, and Chord Substitutions

- Posted October 2nd, 2017 by

Hey dudes and dudettes,

Tuberz here with my fifth (can you believe it’s already been that long?) installment in my series of articles centered around the understanding and application of music theory. Last month we covered chord voicings and counterpoint in an attempt to make our progressions sound smoother. As I stated last time, this stuff is starting to get pretty bonkers difficult if you don’t have prior theory knowledge, so I strongly recommend you go back and read my previous articles. This article is going to cover the use of the seven traditional modes in a harmonic context, along with the idea of modal mixture and chord substitutions which will help you add some spice to your chord progressions.

Let’s jam.

ah yes spicy music i love me some coriander on my music


Modes are very cool, but often approached in an incorrect manner. Most people envision modes by thinking of a C Major Scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) and then moving it to start on a new note (F, G, A, B, C, D, E, F). Yes. This is a mode (this particular one is Lydian), but this doesn’t actually explain what *makes* it a mode, or why that distinction is important.

Let me break this down for you. Modes (in a modern context) are inflections upon our traditional major or minor scale through characterising notes that set them apart from the other modes. These can be classed as major, or minor modes. For example: C Major is C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. but C Lydian is C, D, E, F#, G, A, B, C. We would call this a #4, which is the characterising interval of Lydian. Regardless of what major scale you play on the root of your choosing, Lydian with ALWAYS sharpen the fourth interval. This creates a unique flair that creates tension in the fourth interval (as C to F# is a tritone), but allows it to easily rise to the fifth interval (F# -> G). Below, I’ll list the most common modes with a few comments about them and their characteristics.

Ionian: Major Scale. The Ionian Mode is the major scale. Fantastic! You’ve already learned one of the seven main modes. Congratulations.

Aeolian: Natural Minor Scale. The Aeolian Mode is the natural minor scale… so essentially you only have five main modes to learn. Awesome!

Lydian: Major Scale + #4. The raised fourth creates a brighter tonality, as it seems to want to resolve upwards to the fifth.

Mixolydian: Major Scale + ♭7. The flattened seventh creates a somewhat bluesy vibe where the music doesn’t actually want to resolve back to the tonic too strongly. Good for harmonically ambiguous music.

Dorian: Minor scale + #6. The raised sixth of the Dorian Mode gives a somewhat ethereal quality to the harmony. Used in tunes like ‘Drunken Sailor‘ and ‘Scarborough Fair‘. It’s fair to say that this mode is pretty badass.

Phrygian: Minor Scale + ♭2. The flattened second can give a very spicy sound harmonically, as it’s also known as the Spanish Gypsy Scale. The flattened second can sound really cool as a flat 9.

Locrian: Minor Scale + ♭2 ♭5. Yeah. Flattened fifth? That’s gotta sound crunchy. The tritone that this mode is built on already gives you an idea of the sonority associated with it. It has a far more diminished nature, and a very discortant tonality.

Why is this important?

Using these modes can add spice or flair to your music, giving it a different tinge. I liken it to using spices in a dish. It can make your dish sweeter… or more sour… perhaps even bitter. It all comes down to how you want to approach it, and what harmonic relationships you want to stand out the most. This not only effects our music on a melodic level, but a harmonic level as our chords will all be adjusted by the new interval. Let’s look at Mixolydian (♭7) so you can get a better idea for what I mean.

C Mixolydian: C, D, E, F, G, A, B♭, C.

Sooooo this changes our chords from:
I: C, E, G
ii: D, F, A
iii: E, G, B
IV: F, A, C
V: G, B, D
vi: A, C, E
vii°: B, D, F

I: C, E, G
ii: D, F, A
iii°: E, G, B♭
IV: F, A, C
v: G, B♭, D
vi: A, C, E
♭VII: B♭, D, F  (You could just call it VII, but I’m calling it ♭VII in order to relate it harmonically back to C Major)

Our iii became diminished, our V became minor (reallllly big honestly), and our vii° became a flattened major! Those last two chords are common staples in chord progressions! The entire structural harmony of C has been shifted into something far less stable and grounded on C (as we don’t have a strong dominant chord anymore, both dominant chords [V, and vii°] have been changed). The next question you’re asking is probably… how can I use this?

The part where I tell you how you can actually use this

I’m legitimately impressed that I’m able to express so many theory concepts with this good of a banger 

I’m going to teach you a process called chord substitution, or modal mixture. It’s easier than it sounds and can create some incredibly spicy chord progressions that seemingly sound otherworldly, or you just can’t put your finger on why it’s so dang funky. I’ll do two examples. One with Mixolydian, and one with Lydian (#4). The cool thing is that Reformat the Planet is in G Major (with an F#) so Mixolydian literally flattens that to an F natural. G Mixolydian is G, A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Easy right? Reformat the Planet only uses the chords I, IV, vi, and V in the verse section. Mixolydian only effects one of these chords, so you can spice this progression up by substituting that chord for the new one. In this case, V becomes minor, so we have a D minor instead of a D major.

It doesn’t *always* sound spicy (in particular that last bar, where the F# REALLY characterises the melody, but the other D minor chord creates a moment of tension, and then release. It’s quite exciting.

Now let’s look at the next example of G Lydian. Lydian’s characterising note is the #4. G Lydian would therefore be G, A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G. This makes our chords for this mode:
I: G, B, D
II: A, C#, E
iii: B, D, F#
iv°: C# E, G
V: D, F#, A
vi: E, G, B
vii: F#, A, C#

So, with Lydian we have a major change on chord IV, but not really anything else. It actually fulfils another function as a C# diminished chord but I’ll get more into that later.

More diminished chords!! Diminished_Chords ++

As a bit of fun, I decided to throw in my favourites of these two examples of modal mixture and roll with it. This is what I created.

Take note that I also use this as an opportunity to mess with the harmonic rhythm! (How quickly the chords change [ie. the fourth and seventh bar]). In the seventh bar, the baseline moves upwards in a halfstep wise motion, going C -> C# -> D. This creates a really logical movement into the dominant chord, which will then proceed back to the tonic quite pleasantly. The D minor moving to the G major in second inversion covers the next thing I want to talk about in my next article, but more on that in a second. Stay tuned!

Thanks for sticking around for another round of ‘musical-nerdisms’. I hope you learned something, and I would love to see how you implement modality into your writing. Definitely flick me some examples of your work as I always love hearing it! As always, if there’s something that you need clarification on, or just want to see covered in this series make sure to reach out! I’m more than happy to teach you guys what you want to know. Next article will be going over the idea of secondary dominants, and their function towards chord progressions. Look forward to that one!



Dig this article? Then consider supporting us on Patreon!