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I am currently starting to understand the theory behind music and I'm trying to figure out the best approach to playing modes over chord progressions. I have to play a song where the bridge progression is A2, F#m11, E2 and then D.(That just repeats for a few measures.) What should be my process to break this down in the most efficient way? Only thing I've every done is play based off the key of the particular song. I want to break that mold and start looking at things in a different angle. I appreciate all your help!

  • In improvisation theory, everything is relative to the context. So could you give more details please, such as the track's title, with the exact timing where your bridge happens so we can have an idea ? – Guilhem Fry Jul 21 '17 at 12:39
  • Hello and welcome to the Music.SE site! You've done a really nice job in this question of asking about the process for reaching the answer, rather than simply asking for the answer to this particular example (which wouldn't be as useful to future readers). Thanks for sharing your question and using this site! – jdjazz Jul 21 '17 at 13:43
  • Thank you Jdjazz! I'm trying to understand the theory behind music so I can become a better guitar player! – Bstan28 Jul 21 '17 at 14:25
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Simpler Cases

For songs where all of the chords have a standard "diatonic" function and fit within the tonic, the process is pretty straightforward:

  1. Identify the tonic/tonal center (the parent scale for the whole song).
  2. Identify each chord's function (which degree the chord is of the parent scale).
  3. Identify the mode associated with each chord based on its function/degree.

For reference, here are the different modes and the chords that work with each mode:

chord families

For example, the top row (going across) shows the scale degrees for a tonic/tonal center of C major. Your progression (A2-F♯min-E2-D) sounds like it has A major as its tonic. So we can look to the third-from-bottom row with A in the first column.

The other chords from your progression are all part of the standard family of chords, and they all have standard diatonic functions:

A2      I     tonic          first degree
F♯m     vi    submediant     sixth degree
E2      V     dominant       fifth degree
D       IV    sub-dominant   fourth degree

So your progression (A2-F♯min-E2-D) is a I-vi-V-IV progression. We're not thrown off by the 2 in A2 or E2--we know that those are still major chords and thus fit in the standard family of chords.

Now that we've finished steps 1 and 2, we can move on to step 3 and recall/look up the mode associated with each scale degree:

enter image description here

So the modes we can use are:

  • A2: A Ionian
  • F♯min: F♯ Aeolian
  • E2: E Mixolydian
  • D: D Lydian

More Complex Cases

For more complex cases, the chords may not fit within the standard diatonic harmony/family of chords. In those cases, there will usually be several decent choices available to you for each chord. Here are some of the factors you can look at when deciding which mode to use:

  1. maximize shared tones with the tonic (the tonal center of the song)
  2. maximize shared tones with neighboring chords
  3. establish agreement with the melody

Criteria 1 and 2 both focus on shared tones. Shared tones are tones that are present in two different places. As an example of 1, let's imagine a progression in the tonal center of A major, and one of the chords that appears in the progression is B♭ Maj. We could use B♭ Ionian (which contains an E♭) or B♭ Mixolydian (which contains an E♮). Choosing the Mixolydian will increase the number of shared tones between the B♭ scale and the tonic, because the E♮ will be an extra shared tone.

As an example of 2, let's say your chord progression includes B Maj-F Maj. You might choose to use B Lydian (which contains an F) instead of B Ionian (which contains an E instead of F) because B Lydian will share the F with the F Maj chord and with any scale/mode you use over the F Maj chord.

As an example of 3, let's say you have a C Maj chord with an F♯ in the melody. You might choose to play C Lydian (which contains an F♯) instead of C Ionian (which contains an F), in order to have agreement with the melody.

  • Thank you so much for taking your time to explain this! I had a big smile on my face the whole time reading it because it actually makes sense! I plan on using these concepts and breaking down more chord progressions so I can become proficient at it! – Bstan28 Jul 21 '17 at 14:29
  • You're very welcome! – jdjazz Jul 21 '17 at 14:31
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Jdjazz has summed it up really well, and makes modes understandable. What you have to bear in mind, though, looking at it from a different perspective, is that each and every one of those modes - A Ionian, F# Aeolian,D Lydian and E Mixolydian - contain exactly the same set of notes as each other. You're not going to be using a different set for even one of those chords,all from the A major family.

You may consider using the tonic note from each mode as a base for your melody line, but while that is bound to work, and always sounds good, you won't want to start each new bar on the tonic for the mode for that bar.

So, hopefully to simplify things, all of the bars can use all of the notes from the key of the piece - A major. In order to keep things on track, though, the emphasised beats in each bar (normally 1 and 3 in 4/4) need referencing to 1,3 or 5 of the relevant chord. For instance, on the E2 bar, start that part of the melody on E, G# or B, and it kind of keeps the structure in shape - and as a bonus, the 1,3 and 5 of E Mixolydian are E, G# and B! As an extra bonus, all three are also part of the A major scale, where all this lives!

  • This hints at an interesting question which I might ask: "what's the value of modes when all of the chords are in the same key?" I'd be interested to hear your input on that. – jdjazz Jul 21 '17 at 20:56
  • I ask similar questions myself! But does it make sense where I'm coming from? So many players seem to get tied up learning all the modes - not a bad thing - but fail to realise that actually, playing in C Ionian, E Phrygian, G Mixolydian et al is all using the same notes. Maybe it's the correlation that's missing. I'm also a tad concerned about A2 and E2, not chords I'm familiar with. Asus2 and Esus2, or Aadd9 and Eadd9 I'm o.k.with... – Tim Jul 21 '17 at 21:05
  • One usage of modes is categorization. For example, if I transcribe a lick originally played in F7, I like thinking "this is a Mixolydian lick" (or equivalently "this sounds good over a dominant 7th chord"). This allows me to transpose to different keys and use the lick in different contexts besides the original song where I first heard it. – jdjazz Jul 21 '17 at 21:11
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To provide a more simple answer, I would suggest this approach.

Look at your base chords (without additional tensions)...

A: A - C# - E

F#m: F# - A - C#

E: E - G# - B

D: D - F# - A

This is actually just a simple progression in the key of A major...ergo, playing the A major scale over it will work and sound good (A Ionian). You can look to target chord tones in your playing as well. With the additional tensions, this is your chord progression (as provided)...

A: A - C# - E - B

F#m: F# - A - C# - B

E: E - G# - B - F#

D: D - F# - A

If you wish to play a different mode over each chord, play A Ionian over your A, play F# Aeolian over your F#m, play E Mixolydian over your E, and D Lydian over your D.

  • The question is asking how to figure out what modes to use. You've listed which modes to use in the last sentence without explaining how you figured out that those were the correct modes. Targeting chord tones is a modal approach. When we say "target the 1st, 3rd, and 5th" or "target the 3rd and 7th because those are the tones that define the chord," we're talking about degrees of the mode, not degrees of the parent scale. – jdjazz Jul 23 '17 at 19:47

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