Creating Contrasts for Music Expression – Using Modal Mixture, Modal Interchange and More

     In this post I will be showing you the compositional elements and process behind the making of a song for the next Follow No One concept album. So, what you will be hearing here are snippets of songs that are yet to be released, as a way of sharing with you the materials I’m working with in each song. Regardless of the genre, hopefully you will understand how you can use these concepts in your own songs.

     There is always so much going on in each music and to be concise I will be choosing specific music theory concepts to share with you. Some of the examples are from a high paced song and to avoid it from becoming tiresome, I focused on creating contrasts between sections to keep the listeners engaged and added some breathers to alleviate the rhythmic tension. Also, since I decided to maintain the same tonal centre throughout the song, harmonic contrasts also had to be created, as we will see further ahead.

Contrasts in Tempo Perception:

     Creating contrasts is paramount for music expressiveness and this can be achieved by manipulating musical elements such as structure or form, tempo, harmony or loudness. This way, you may be able to lead or mislead a listener to a specific direction of the musical composition by setting up expectations that are rewarded, violated, or suspended. The fluctuations or variations that occur through the use of contrasts, contribute to the perception of expressiveness in music by the creation of patterns of tension and release.

     The most striking effect that you will notice in these examples is the difference in pace that occurs between sections. The three main moments of the song are the verses that feel more restrained and tense and then transitions to the chorus that feels more open and spaced in comparison. One of the things that contributes greatly for this effect is the place where the snare is hitting. Notice how the snare drum goes from playing in the 2nd and 4th beat of each bar (in the verses) to playing the 3rd beat of each bar in the chorus:

Verses transition to Chorus section

     This is a way of allowing the song to breathe without having to change the actual tempo of the track, just by spacing the snare hits.

     The other section that differs from the rest of the song is the bridge where the song breathes even more with the snare hitting the first beat of the 2nd and 4th bar:

Chorus transition to Bridge Section

Bridge transition to Solo Section

Modal Mixture and Modal Interchange:

     Now we have come to the part where the contrasts are mainly harmonic. On a macro perspective of the song as a whole, every section is rooted in D. To come up with harmonic variations I chose to use a modal interchange and modal mixture technique approach to avoid being harmonically repetitive and provide some sense of freshness and novelty while maintaining the same pitch centre.

Modal Interchange:

     Regarding modal interchange, this is a technique that consists in temporarily borrowing chords from a parallel tonality or mode that shares the same root, as a way of adding color and variety through the use of altered chords, without abandoning the established key.

     Although the most commonly used borrowed chords originate from the major and/or minor parallel modes, including the respective harmonic and melodic minor as well as symmetrical scales sharing the same root, there is no reason to limit yourself to these since the premise is that modal interchange can occur with any mode that shares the same root – i.e. E Dorian and E major:

     Even though borrowing chords introduces chromatic tones in a given key center, they are brief enough not to imply modulation so that the sense of tonic is not lost. Despite their use may be considered as transitory modulations, this is different from using secondary dominant chords, for instance.

     In the context of the music track, I used modal interchange in the verses, where I use a chord progression that belongs to Dm and then borrow the Eb major chord from D Phrygian:

Verses with the chords – Dm – Bb/F – Gm – Eb

     The next example is from the chorus where I borrow the G major chord from D Dorian, while the rest of the chord progression still sits on Dm, in the first round. The second round of the chorus is almost identical with the difference of borrowing the Eb major chord from D Phrygian:

Chorus with the chord progressionDm – G/B – Bb – Am | Dm – G/B – Bb – Eb

     The bridge is also in Dm and it borrows the Eb major chord from D Phrygian but this time it uses an A major chord borrowed from the 5th degree of the Dm harmonic scale, although in this context it can also be seen as a chromatic mediant harmonic movement to Cm that then resolves to Dm. Here is how it sounds. Mind you that I’m using chord inversions:

Bridge with the following chord progressionDm – Eb – A – Cm

Modal Mixture

     As for the use of modal mixture, this technique is used to explore contrasts between different modes that share the same tonic root of a given chord. It can be used more freely if the chord over which this technique is used is ambiguous enough to allow the implication of several modes throughout a given musical passage. That said, the chord quality will determine which modes or scales can be used over it.

     For instance, if you consider a Cmaj7 chord you can use the C Ionian or the C Lydian mode. Whereas if you choose an C5 chord, the possibilities increase immensely because there is no third in this chord so you can use both major and minor modes on top of it. As long as the interval structure of the modes or scales coincide with the ones on the chord formation, those will be good candidates to use in a modal mixture context:

Going through C Phrygian to C minor harmonic and C lydian every two bars over a C5 chord

And back to the music track, modal mixture can be heard on the intro section and as transition from the chorus to the second verses. The following example will show you an example of a guitar riff using materials from the symmetric scale of D half-whole Diminished scale and D Aeolian:

Modal Mixture in Intro – D Diminished H-W and D Aeolian:


     As always, there are many other things going on but I will have to leave it at that for the sake of brevity and avoid having too much to take in. The use of contrasts in music are not restricted to what I’ve shown here. Try to experiment with other musical elements and composition techniques and incorporate those in your newest music.

     Happy composing!

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