Modal Harmony

     In this post we will be looking at how modal harmony works and how you can use it in context, using different chord formations and chord extensions. By the end of the post, you will have a good idea of how you can make modal chord successions.

     In this type of harmony, chords don’t really have a function and because of that they don’t need to resolve to any other chord. However, there is still a modal center so we can’t say that it is atonal.

     As an example, if you are using the Lydian mode in C major, you should be using an F major chord in conjunction with the C major scale starting in F – the modal center:

A melody over an F maj7 chord – sounding like F Lydian

It wouldn’t make sense using a Dm chord and still trying to sound like Lydian and the reason why is because the Dm pulls our attention to a different center – in this case D, from the C major tonality. You would end up sounding like the Dorian mode, that is a minor mode, of the same minor quality as the chord you are using:

The same melody over a Dm7 chord – sounding like D Dorian

     If chords are not built to sound ambiguous, they usually pull our attention to a tonic or the root of the used chord while influencing the quality of the musical context as a standalone entity.

     In modal harmony, there is still a delicate balance to be maintained so that at some point it doesn’t start to sound like functional harmony. Some of the things you should pay attention to and common ways to keep you grounded on a specific mode are:

  • Avoid using dominant chords to establish the modal center – i.e. using A7 (a secondary dominant chord) to go to Dm (in Dorian mode); over the risk of pulling attention to Dm tonality:

Dorian mode supported by A7 – a secondary dominant

The same melody supported by an Em chord

  • It is frequent to use pedal notes as the root note in the chords bass note to help maintaining reference to that mode – i.e. D Mixolydian
  • Using repetitive melodic patterns associated to that mode – i.e. a melodic ostinato in E Phrygian:

Only the melodic ostinato

Ostinato with supporting chords

  • using chords built in fourths help you break the tonal anticipation because of their vague and ambiguous nature and thus less predictable

The same but with with clearly defined Am and F triads

  • Using a repetitive modal cadence that continuously emphasizes the modal center
  • modal chord successions are not too busy – over the risk of pointing towards the relative major key; and instead help you to create simple contrasts between the modal center and another tonal/modal color

Modal contrast between B Locrian and Bb Lydian

     More often than not, you will be warned to avoid the diatonic tritone that could be present in each mode under the risk of pulling you to the relative major key. But if you look at the F Lydian mode, you will find that what distinguishes this mode is the fact that it has an augmented fourth in it between F and B. If you were to avoid the diatonic tritone altogether, you wouldn’t see chords like the F∆ add#11 that can be used to provide the Lydian color.

     Another example that uses the diatonic tritone is when we try to convey the Dorian mode color by using a Dm7 add13 or a Dm7 add11 chords:

     Although the added 13th chord had the tritone in it you don’t get the feeling that it “wants” to go anywhere. As said, part of the diatonic tritone interval issue can be solved by voicing the chord in fourths, as shown in the example above. Chords built in thirds come with too much functional information so, if you don’t want your chord successions to sound like chord progressions, you need to explore modes in a way that the focal point is the melody and instead using harmony more like tone colors that help you to ground the modal context you are trying to create.

     In modal harmony, we are playing with the tone colors of specific modes and for that effect, the used chord extensions typically include the notes that make that particular mode stand apart from its minor or major scale counterpart – see modes. Although the distinction between functional and modal harmony has been established, it is up to you to choose when to use one or another or even a mix of both, according to the musical context and message that you are trying to convey.

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