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Modal chords!

Now this is a term that crops up quite often on internet forums and even printed publications. I’ve even seen tables constructed in Microsoft Excel correlating chords to modes. Modes are cool and their use as a basis for melodies will provide exciting possibilities particularly if the desire is to evoke a “folky” or archaic flavour.

But modal chords? Bah! Gimme a break. I’d like to know what difference there is between chords which are diatonic to the scale of the Dorian mode on D with those diatonic to the C Major scale. Etcetera. Many of my songs are modal in character ““ but in each case that’s because the scale upon which the melody is based has a root and intervals which coincide with a particular mode. It has nothing to do with the harmony or chords used apart from their being diatonic to the scale.

One caveat:; I’ve read about the use of certain modes being used by jazz players as a basis for improvising over certain chords, but this is in context of the chromatic tensions inherent in this music ““ it’s not an attempt to claim that certain chords are modal per se.

Triads are built upon major scales. Again – and in contrast – modes are melodic; their names corresponding to the roots around which melodies gravitate.

“Modal chords”? Oxymoron.

5 thoughts on “Modal chords!

  1. Absolutely correct! Modes are inherently melodic, although (at least as far as my middling Irish background will tell me )there are often progressions that are associated with Modal tunes, there’s the whole Dorian minor2 to tonic thing, and well, that’s all I can think of, but there must be more, eh? Also I think a lot of the “modal chords” are just root and fifth open sounding chords, so as not to infer a definite scale, so as to not compete with the *melody*, which is indeed modal.

    This website looks like it’s got some solid stuff as far as the theory goes, but I can’t say I agree with his opening paragraph about rock players picking one scale and sticking with it, at least these days.

    Cool Thought, thanks!

  2. sorry, the website didn’t get in, lemme try again

  3. HI, Nathan!

    Yes, that’s an interesting site. However, I think players for whom these chords are new may understand them (wrongly) to be “modal chords”. Also, I disagree with the writer with respect to his claim that “it is important to have a thorough understanding of which chord types can be constructed from each of the modes”. If a player has an understanding of major and minor scales and how chords (triads) are constructed from them, and that qualifications (11, b9 et al) are modifications to them, then that is sufficient. The introduction of modal scales is, to my mind, artificial and redundant.


  4. Dave,
    Your point is well taken, that players just beginning to look into expanding their chord vocabulary might think them “modal chords”. I’m not sure about the whole constructing chords from modal scales thing. It seems to me that knowing which chord types can be constructed from which modal scales would be a useful thing, because you can then reverse it, and apply those scales overtop of their respective chords. You’re absolutely correct in saying that an understanding of basic chord construction and qualification is essential and a prerequisite to any further exploration. I think as well that you’d be right in saying that calling a chord a modal chord just because it can be constructed from the tones in it’s respective scale is misleading and oftentimes unnecessary. However, I think it’s handy to know when trying to fit a harmonic structure to a modal melody (such as in accompanying an Irish fiddle tune, to return to my original example) which chords could/would be appropriate, and which would absolutely not to maintain the integrity of the mode. Damn, I sound like a bloody theory professor. Would that any of this were actual knowledge instead of guesstimation and random extrapolation. Nice job on the CD, by the way. I like Red John especially. Is that an alternate tuning with that drone on the bottom?


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  5. Nathan,

    I think we are of the same mind in this. From my own viewpoint and recognising that the chords diatonic to Dorian on d, Phrygian on e, Lydian on f, Mixolydian no g, etc. are the same chords that are diatonic to C major, I wonder what the advantage is ““ to me. On the other hand, if a player wishes to immerse herself in (eg) the Locrian mode and harmonize melodies built from it, then associating chords with modes might be shortcut to that end.

    Right now I\’m struggling to get minor harmonies, chord voicings and “œwandering” between tonalities under my fingers – so the purely diatonic and, frankly, archaic world of modes is far indeed from my sensibilities. Whole-tone harmony, anyone? Chromaticism and tension interests me much more than the more resolved and serene world of purely diatonic and, particularly, folk styles.

    Red John? Comes from my Modal Period, ha, ha! It\’s in “œdropped-D” with a capo on 2 – there\’s a tab somewhere on my site if you\’re interested. I was in the middle of arranging Scottish reels for the guitar at the time and some of that feeling seeped through – dammit!


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