How to Use Modal Modulation

     Using this technique implies that you already know how each mode sounds and how to make chords that sound like the mode. If that isn’t the case, take a look at this post of how you can make “modal chords” – diatonic modes; and then return to this one so you can make the most out of it. The use of the modal modulation technique allows you to play with how each mode makes you feel in the form of a chord. In the middle of a chord progression, as borrowed chords; or in a new section of your music, for contrast; it will take your harmonies to a different level. So, moving on!

     Each mode has its characteristics which can be emphasized by a modal chord progression containing the intervals and pitch relationships that make that mode unique; or by a tonic chord of the respective mode containing such notes in its structure. As the name implies, a modal modulation means that we are shifting the modal center.

     We can either do this by staying in the same tonality, like modulating from F Lydian to D Dorian in the tonality of C major, or by shifting the key center and modulating from F lydian to C# Dorian in the tonality of C major and B major, respectively:

Modal modulation from F Lydian to D Dorian, from within the same tonality – C major

Modal modulation from F Lydian to C# Dorian, from different tonal center – B major

     However, the modulation processes are normally handled differently in modal harmony than in typical functional harmony.

     In this case, a modal modulation will make use of its unique interval structure as a stepping stone to propel the modulation to the next mode. The modal modulation itself can be thought as moving upward, in sharp direction, or downward, in flat direction.

     The whole idea behind this movement was already discussed previously – see darkest to brightest modes; but the sense of color exploration of the different modes can still be used as guidelines.

     As you may have noticed, when going from C Lydian to C Ionian, the F# returns to F natural and thus, no accidents are used; from C Ionian to C Mixolydian, a Bb is added; and from C Mixolydian to C Dorian, another flat is added and we get a Bb and an Eb; and we would continue adding flats until we would get to C Locrian, which is the darkest mode.

     Now, if you consider the circle of fifths and use it as means to figure out how many sharps or flats a given key center has, you will visually take notice of the upward or downward direction movement of key centers. Or in other words, if we are navigating in the circle of fifths towards the sharp or flat side.

In sum, when considering a modal modulation involving a shift in key center, we will need to:

  • decide if you wish to move towards the sharp or flat direction

Eventually, these will contribute to the perception of how dark or bright the modulation to the new modal center will sound – also see modulation and contrasts:

Each mode has its characteristics which can be emphasized by a modal chord progression. Find out how to unlock the secrets of modal modulation.

Modal modulation using the chord tones of C maj7 ( C – E – G and B), to explore the shown modal contrasts

     The example above uses a non-functional modal chord succession where the main focus is to create contrasts between the several chords that are being used as self-contained modal centers that are constantly shifting.

     As said, this technique can help you to level-up your harmony skills as it is a great way to create contrasts. Try to use in your compositions. This is a lot of fun experimenting with chord sounds!

     Happy composing!

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