Crafting Modal Chord Progressions

What You'll Need For This Exercise...

For this exercise, all you’ll need is to read on and review this material until you feel comfortable that you understand the following concepts:

  1. Where modal chord progressions come from
  2. How and why the I-IV-V (1-4-5) is a good place to start
  3. How to play the 5 scale shapes in the correct key to match modal chord progressions.

How to Complete This Exercise...

Where Do Modal Chord Progressions Come From?

Modal chord progressions come from typical diatonic keys.  Let’s look at the key of G major which contains the following notes: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. Each of these notes is the root of a mode:

  • G is the “Ionian” root
  • A is the “Dorian” root
  • B is the “Phrygian” root
  • C is the “Lydian” root
  • D is the “Mixolydian” root
  • E is the “Aeolian” root
  • F# is the “Locrian” root

The 7 unique notes in our key produce the following diatonic chords: G, Am, Bm, C, D7, Em, F# half-diminished.  When we use G (and a G major chord) as the tonal center of our chord progression, then we produce an”Ionian” chord progression.  When we use A as the tonal center of our chord progression, then we produce a “Dorian” chord progression.  Here are some modal chord progression examples:

  • A Dorian: Am – C – D7 – Em
  • G Ionian: G – C – D7 – C
  • E Aeolian: Em – D7 – C – D7
How/Why the I-IV-V (1-4-5) is Where to Start…

In many popular music styles, the 1, 4 and 5 chords are used to create a harmonic foundation.  This works in major and minor keys and these 3 chords have musical relationships that create a rich, musical foundation for a broad variety of melodies.  Here are the I, 4 and 5 in a few different keys:

  • In the key of A: 1=A, 4=D, 5=E
  • In the key of G: 1=G, 4=C, 5=D
  • In the key of E: 1=E, 4=A, 5=B

These work in major and minor keys and if we use these formulas as our standard for assembling modal chord progressions, then we’ll get musical chord progressions most of the time.  Try it yourself by following these steps:

  1. Review the notes and chords in the key of G major (outlined above)
  2. Find the A, D and E chords in the key of G major (which happen to be Am, D7 and Em).
  3. Now, use these chords as the foundation for your chord progression.  What you’ve done is create a basic, but effective “A Dorian” chord progression.
How to Improvise Modally (with Scales)

Since the examples above all came from the key of G major, we will find that the G major scale patterns (especially the 5 7-tone scales from G major) will all sound wonderful against ANY modal chord progression that we create from the notes/chords of G major.  So, we can play the 5 G major patterns over A Dorian, E Aeolian or G Ionian – it will always “work” :). Give it a try!