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This question is asked from the standpoint of popular music as it is today (2016). Let's confine the question to progressions that are 4 bars long, since that's the most generic pattern in pop music.

What would you say is the pattern for building progressions in modal or non-modal contexts. Are there rules for what chords you should start on? Are there rules for cadences in each of the modes?

I apologize if this question is all over the place, it's hard to distill into a single question, but if I had to it would be this: what are the rules for building phrases (4-bar) in terms of chord progressions for modes vs traditional major/minor keys?

  • I'm a bit confused by the bit about "...asked from the standpoint of popular music as it is today" - I would think that when it comes to real composing work going on today, few people will care whether they're writing modally, in major/minor, or something else. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '16 at 10:07
  • I know what you mean. I teach a music production course to high school kids in Toronto and I'm trying to break down the rules for creating chord progressions for them in a more generic way. As a composer myself, I don't think about these things. I've had a lot of experience and I know what I want when I'm creating a progression. The kids I teach have very little music theory background and there's simply not enough time in the courses to go too in-depth into it since they not only need to learn theory, but also arrangement, drumming, mixing and many other music production topics. – 02fentym Dec 23 '16 at 23:24
  • I think I would be tempted to teach a couple of different ways of making chord progressions that would at least give them some vocabulary as a starting point. I think the 4 bars long thing may make it a more complicated question, as 4-bar chord progressions can have a sense of stability from the repetition, rather than having 'harmonic' stability. I'd be tempted to say that one can make almost any 4 chords work in a repeating progression! – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 23 '16 at 23:32
  • You'd be surprised at some of the bad combinations they select haha. I just need to distill this into more simple rules for them. Yes, these rules will not be exhaustive, but I'm hoping to establish some rules that define the majority of pop music today. – 02fentym Dec 24 '16 at 0:03
  • Pop today pulls in influences from all sorts of styles and I don't think there's one set of simple rules that will cover the majority of pop. I think you could find, say, 4 or 5 types of chord progressions (each with simplifiable rules) that would cover the majority of pop though. – topo Reinstate Monica Dec 24 '16 at 0:13
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Every mode has some important tones unique to the mode If you take the three major modes Ionian, Lydian and Mixolydian, and the three minor modes Aeolian, Dorian and Phrygian as two groups, you could say that in the first major group Lydian and Mixolydian have their own unique tones differently from the Ionian. And the minor group has Dorian and Phrygian with their own unique tones differently from the Aeonian.

So the Lydian differs from the Ionian in having the #11. The other important tone is the major 3rd which gives it the major sound.

The Mixolydian differs from the Ionian because it has the b7. It's major 3rd also important because of the major sound.

Dorian has major sixth in contrast to the flatten sixth the aeolian has. That and the minor 3rd gives it the quality of dorian.

Phrygian has a b9 (minor second) That and the minor 3rd are the important tones. The minor third giving the minor quality also.

Now play with no more than two chords in each mode, the One chord being the tonic, and the other chord having the special tone within it. Examples:

Lydian: C / D / C / D

Mixolydian: C / Gm / C / Gm

Dorian: Cm / F / Cm / F

Phrygian: Cm / Db / Cm / Db

The Ionian mode is more difficult in the sense that it has more development as the tonal Major scale so to speak. Neverthelss I guess you can play with C / F As the 4th is the important tone (also with the major third and major seventh)

The Aeonian is generally refered to when playing the bVII chord instead of the V chord as the dominant chord. That means basically you can play: Cm / Bb
But also you can play Cm / Ab Because the b6 is the important tone besides the minor third.

Melodically you could hit the strong beats with that special note. The chords I wrote were chosen on purpose, because within them there is the special note each mode needs. You could replace that chord (the ones which go along the C chords) with their respective relative minor or relative major. And generally don't use dominant 7th or diminished because the strong tritone feeling will likely try to push you to a tonal center.

I give you these examples also:

Lydian: C / Bm7

Mixolydian: C / Bbmaj7

Dorian: Cm / Dm

Phrygian: Cm / Bbm7

Ionian: C / Dm7

Aeolian: Cm / Gm7 or Cm / Fm7

You see? Similar to the above ones, but replacing each chord (other than the C's) with their relative minor and major's. Modal music is like that. Simple few chords.

Now the real interesting stuff is when you do Modal Exchange, and that is basically mixing all the modes (and even the ones which come from the Harmonic and melodic minor scales -or even more which I will not explain that right now) with the same "tonic" or repose.

Examples:

Modal exchange from Ionian to Dorian (or simply Dorian): Cmaj7 / Ebmaj7(#11)

Phrygian exchange: Cmaj7 / Dbmaj7(#11)

Lydian: Cmaj7 / D7

Mixolydian: Cmaj7 / Gm7

Aeolian: Cmaj7 / Abmaj7

You need to give these meaning, All the Cmaj7 should sound like your tonic, and all the others should sound like a modal modulation. I say this because it is very easy specially with Lydian that if you come back to C, then it starts to sound like you are simply in C Lydian. But it should not be. You have to stablish first your C chord as your Iº of major scale, then present the D7 and maybe you can modulate to the parent scale (Gmaj7) But the momento you change your scale from C Ionian to Lydian (when D7 is presented) that is where the modal exchange comes into play. The others are easier to understand if you are coming and going with those chords. But note this is more intended as a one way road. That is way I explained this last a bit further.

  • Thanks for the response. Can you clarify one thing: are you saying that a phrase needs to have the "special" note in it to be identified as that particular mode? Are the chords you listed the most valid chords or just examples? For example, Lydian needs to have the #4 in one of the chords (other than the tonic) to be considered Lydian? Let's say we're in F Lydian, I would see Gmajor (the II chord) as being more valid than the iv dim chord (B dim) partially because dim chords can be strange chords to use sometimes depending on the context. – 02fentym Dec 23 '16 at 23:21
  • Yes, the special notes need to be played. Melodically you could hit the strong beats with that special note. The chords I wrote were chosen on purpose, because within them there is the special note each mode needs. You could replace that chord (the ones which go along the C chords) with their respective relative minor or relative major. Yes, when playing Lydian make sure you focus on that #4 (& also its +3rd) within the chords, but also in the melody. And generally don't use dominant 7th or diminished because the strong tritone feeling will likely try to push you to a tonal center. – Agustín Caniglia Dec 24 '16 at 22:52
  • What I mean with the replacement of the chords, I give you these examples also: Lydian: C / Bm7 Mixolydian: C / Bbmaj7 Dorian: Cm / Dm Phrygian: Cm / Bbm7 Ionian: C / Dm7 Aeolian: Cm / Gm7 or Cm / Fm7 You see? Similar to the answer I first gave you, but replacing each chord (other than the C's) with their relative minor and major's. – Agustín Caniglia Dec 24 '16 at 23:03
  • Yeah cool. You're basically talking about forming modal cadences because those are some of the chords responsible for that functionality. For C lydian you can use Bm or D; C mix you can use Dm or Bb, etc. So just like Ionian or major you have to kinda establish the key and that's what a modal cadence does. Is that how you see it or are you referring to something else? – 02fentym Dec 25 '16 at 2:11
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    watch out with mixoldyian. You can play C with Gm, or Bb (not Dm). Dm can be played but wont alone give you the mixolydian feeilng. Modal music is like that. Simple few chords. Now the real interesting stuff is when you do Modal interchange (at least this is how I translate it for spanish, maybe in English is called something else, like modal modulation maybe) And that is just mixing every mode, where your tonic stays the same. You have to understand that C (in all those examples) sounds like resolution. It is NOT just palying with some of the chords of the mayor or minor scales. – Agustín Caniglia Dec 25 '16 at 3:38
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A Pure Modal Chord progression/section has 3 prerequisites:

1) The start chord must be anything other than a Tonic of the Key or I.

For example in C major a modal progression can begin with any chord that doesnt have C in its name. e.g. if the progressions starts with C, C Maj7, C Ma9 c6 etc. it ISNT modal. In A Harmonic Minor, any Am chord would also be not modal.

2) The progression must resolve to the same chord as the start.
3) All the chords and melody notes must be from the Mode.

For example 1 billion rock songs in the Aeolian Mode (Key Of C Major):

Am (vi) | G (V) | F (IV) | G (V) | Am

As long as the Melody notes are from CDEFGAB this qualifies. You would play C major over these chords.

Good examples: Scarboro Fair, God Rest Ye Merry Gentelmen.

But this is difficult, so writers "cheat" by using a dominant from another key to get the resolution they want.

Ex.

Am (vi) | G (V) | F (IV) | E7 | Am

E7 is in the key of A Harmonic Minor, Not C Major, so while the first 3 bars are Modal, the end is not.

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    Those examples appear to be in minor key rather than aeolian mode. For example, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen is often arranged as a song in E minor with B7–Em cadences (harmonic minor). A modal piece like So What would make for a better example. Also, I think some of the terminogy here is incorrect – when discussing a song in D Dorian, I would not refer to C major as the ”tonic” – that is only a tonic when you are in C major or C minor with Picardy third. – Bradd Szonye Dec 23 '16 at 9:01

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