Why You Don’t Sound as Modal as You’d Like

Modes Guitar Neck

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Let’s Get Modal

Modes. They’re all some musicians talk about. Popular magazines run cover stories on them. There are tons of instructional materials by famous and not so famous players alike. Still, the concept seems to elude many guitarists. Not just beginners either; people at all levels. A question I often hear is “I’ve memorized all the modes. Now how do I apply them?”

The simple answer is, you can only apply them under the right conditions. The harmony will determine what your melodic lines sound like. Say you’re playing all the notes of A Dorian over a G major chord. No matter what you do, the chord will continually make your A Dorian notes sound like G major. A Dorian and G major share the exact same notes, just with a different “root” note. So you’ll only sound “A Dorian-y” if you’re playing over an A minor chord. This is one common mistake players make. Another is assuming you can force modal sounds into non modal music.

If you’ve read my last article (you should if you want to understand this one), you’ll remember we talked about tonal areas. All the concepts discussed previously refer to music that is tonal in nature.

This brings us to what we call modality. Up until now, we’ve been talking tonality. What’s the difference? Well, tonal music has Tonic – Dominant relationships. Something is tonal the minute you see some kind of V – I (or V – i, or viio– I, etc.) movement. Modal music doesn’t have this kind of relationship. A perfect example would be a ii7 – V7 cycling progression in F major. The chord progression is just a funky Gm7 and C7 repeated over and over again. The V7 chord, while dominant in quality, doesn’t resolve to a tonic chord like a I or a vi. This progression is considered modal.

Why does this matter? Aside from the obvious creative reasons (you can start writing modal stuff!) it explains why you haven’t been sounding modal up until now. If you have a one measure progression, repeating over and over like:

Bb6 – G7 – Cm7 – F7
I VI7 iim7 V7

You’re in extremely tonal territory. You can try thinking modally all you want over this progression, but it’ll still sound tonal because of the dominant – tonic relationships. In this case G7 acts as a dominant chord of Cm7, which acts as a pre-dominant to F7, which is the dominant of Bb6. Also, because the harmonic rhythm (number of chord changes in a given time frame) is so high, we don’t get much time to try and evoke the important notes in each mode. This makes it pretty much futile to try and think modally. As I said before, at this stage in the game, the harmony will always determine how you sound when you solo.

So if I just vamp on a Gm7, and you start playing G Dorian over top of it, we’re golden. There’s no dominant chord telling us where to go. Even if we add C7, it isn’t resolving typically. It helps the brain to think of the G note here as our new root. In this case – modally speaking – Gm7 is the im7 and C7 is IV7. This progression cycles over and over again. Modal music doesn’t really move – it sits. A lot of examples can be found in Jazz (So What? – Miles Davis) and Rock (Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World – Neil Young).

Modal progressions will typically use their characteristic notes as defining highlights. For example, if we compare A natural minor to A Dorian we have the following comparison

Minor A B C D E F G
Dorian A B C D E F# G

We can think of A Dorian as a minor scale with a raised 6th degree, or as A natural minor with an F# instead of an F. So when we have a progression that goes Am – Bm – D – Am, we have a few chords with an F# in it (Bm and D). This chord series now meets two criteria: it has no tonic-dominant relationships and it has a characteristic note of A Dorian sprinkled liberally throughout. That means this progression can be freely jammed over using the Dorian mode. Of course, we could try superimposing other modes over these chords, but it won’t sound as “normal”.

Our friend Neil Young has a nice descending progression that goes Em – D – C. If we call E the i, then D is the VII and C is the VI. These chords evoke the characteristics of E Aeolian mode – which incidentally is identical to the natural minor scale in every way. We’ve got a i, a flat VII and a flat VI all relative to the root note of E. The notes in all those chords:


Are all just reordered notes from E Aeolian:

E F# G A B C D

So all the characteristic notes are hit and there’s still no dominant – tonic movement. That’s a bingo.

Check it out yourself. Record the tonal progressions and record the modal progressions and play over top of them. Jam over a jazz tune like So What? (modal) and then over Autumn Leaves (tonal). You’ll immediately hear the difference between modality and tonality.

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Adam Pietrykowski

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