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I’m studying the concept of modal mixture and there’s one thing that I immediately got curious about.

Supposedly, the majority of POP music (rock, hip hop, r&b, country, etc) is a mixture of Major and Minor Keys. But Mixolydian and Lydian are the first introduction of a flat and a sharp. Using C Ionian as the “root mode”, C Mixolydian adds Bb and Lydian adds F# (aren’t these also technically the F Major and G Major keys?) Adding on one more flat/sharp, you get C Dorian (which is also Bb Major?) And then, there is no corresponding mode for D Major? After all of these we finally get to Aeolian with 3 flats which is Eb Major.

So technically, if a song is “in C Major (Ionian) & C Minor (Aeolian)” through the use of say Bb and Ab chords, isn’t it also “in Mixolydian and Dorian”? Wouldn’t that also make Mixolydian, Lydian, and Dorian “more consonant” than Aeolian if it’s exactly the same concept as modulating around the circle of fifths?

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    Lecifer - I need to remind you that you need to focus on 1 question in a question post, not multiples! And for @AndyBonner - please remember comments are not the place to post answers.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Oct 19, 2023 at 12:11

4 Answers 4

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"Modal mixture" is not the presence of multiple modes within a piece. The term refers to borrowing harmonic elements from the parallel major or minor of the predominant key.

For example, the current key is C major, but an F minor chord appears: say, in a harmonic progression C F Fm C. The presence of the F minor harmony is often explained by considering it as "borrowed" from the key of C minor.

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  • Well now I am a bit confused. As explained in this video youtube.com/watch?v=r0rawEpjAcA, his perspective is that maybe we should just consider a song “in the key of C” if it has e.g, 2 chords from C Ionian and 2 from C Aeolian. That’s why I thought “modal mixture” didn’t just mean “borrowed chords” but rather, that the song is a mixture of modes. And based on the hook theory statistics of the most popular modes Ionian and Aeolian are the most used. His example of this is the song “Are you gonna be my girl” by Jet. It has 2 chords from A Ionian and 2 from A Aeolian in an
    – Lecifer
    Oct 18, 2023 at 16:27
  • (cont.) “almost 50/50 ratio”. It has A Major and D Major from the Ionian key and G Major and C Major from the Aeolian Key. He also uses Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix as an example and many more that mix in some of the other modes.
    – Lecifer
    Oct 18, 2023 at 16:29
  • @Lecifer In my 19th-century theory course they used the term "modal ambiguity" for some passages in Brahms where it was hard to say whether it was minor or major. But while it's definitely possible to find examples, I don't think this characterizes "the majority of pop music"; the majority is plain old major or minor, with a significant minority of Mixolydian. Oct 18, 2023 at 17:44
  • @Lecifer "Modal mixture" is a term of art with a specific meaning, which is explained very clearly at the very beginning of the video. Can you be more specific about where in the video you found something different?
    – Aaron
    Oct 18, 2023 at 18:07
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    @lecifer but we don’t compose in modes for most music, most pop/jazz etc has a root in functional harmony and modes can be generally be seen as either a helper for which scale to play on which degree, or borrowed as you have been seeing. Of course some songs change key frequently and this can make for a lot of possible loaned modes! Of course there is music like modal jazz but even this tends to have either simple, slow steps between unrelated modes, or it follows a broadly recognisable diatonic chord progression with key changes and more exotic modes borrowed.
    – OwenM
    Oct 18, 2023 at 19:42
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I tend to think of "modal mixture" in the following manner. In any key, one can play any chord if it sounds good. There are some chords that are used much more commonly than others. For example, in the key of C major, the subdominant chord is F major; sometimes an F minor chord can sound particularly appropriate. If this F minor chord is used similarly to an F major chord, it's called (inappropriately as mentioned in other answers) a "modal mixture." A chord that's diatonic to the minor mode on the same tonic (a chord from C minor used in C major) is the "mixture." One could also use a major chord in a minor key for example. "Besame Mucho" has a pattern i-iv-V-i (with a few non-chord tones) followed by I-iv-V-i; the use of the major tonic gives a bit of "color." The I or i both act as the tonic in these phrases.

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The 'modal mixture' description is fairly inaccurate! Yes, in a lot of songs, there's 'borrowing' - using notes/chords from the relevant major/minor keys with the same tonic. As in using notes/chords from Cm whilst in the C major key. Very common. And theory does its best to explain the phenomenon with the term parallel keys.

Take that a little further, and we find modes cropping up, in the same sort of way. So, a piece in C major may have notes/chords found in C Mixolydian, or C Dorian, for example. All the theory is trying to do is explain, best it can, where these extras come from, and why.

My take to my students is slightly different: any note, in any key - as long as you know what you're doing, and it sounds good...

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If a piece is 'in' C major, along with the chords made from the notes of the C major scale you can mix in those made from C minor, and label them as 'modal mixture'. The most frequent 'borrowing' is probably iv, in C major that's the F minor chord. It also provides an excuse for bVII, the B♭ major chord, which can be hard to explain in functional harmonic theory.

'Modal mixture' is a subset of a wider musical principle: 'Chromatic chords are OK'. Try to free yourself from the idea that diatonic notes/chords are 'correct' and anything else needs a special excuse. Real music managed this hundreds of years ago!

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  • "The most frequent 'borrowing' is probably vi, in C major that's the F minor chord" -- You mean iv ?
    – Michel
    Oct 20, 2023 at 8:57
  • Yes. Thanks. Feel free to directly edit any obvious slip-ups like this in my posts!
    – Laurence
    Oct 20, 2023 at 19:40

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