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  • Modal Chord Theory

    Hey guys, I'm a lurker here. Modal chord theory, well first... modal theory. Every time I hear it explained, the obvious thing to do is say, For Doran, it's the C major scale but you start on D. While that is very informative, I sometimes think it muddies the water.

    The tonic of a C Dorian is C. Correct? Assuming that's true, the C Dorian below, the order then is, the I being C, the III being Eb, the VII being Bb, etc.? Yeah?



    Assuming this is true, and frankly every time it's explained to me it feels like people aren't coming out ans saying it, but they're implying it isn't true. But if it is... can we build chords on the I, IV, IV for example, and have a Dorian I, IV, V? Or a Dorian I, VII, IV, V? Etc? Just as with a C major scale... building up from 3rds?

    The I would be C, Eb, G, Bb. The IV chord would then be spelled F,A,C,E. The V wold be G, Bb, D, F?

    So Cm7, Fmaj7, Gm7? yes? And then we'd say this is in the key of C Dorian? And use the key sig a Bb?

    And then could we use any common chord progression built in the same manner of Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian? I know that "modal playing" tend to think in terms of no key. But scale instead. But I'm intrigued by this modal chord theory concept.

    Is this a common practice?
    __________
    Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
    Dad is great and all but he never could sing -
    Jesus

  • #2
    Yes what you described is common practice. Sometimes you have to include different chords then the I IV &V. For instance in phrygian, make sure the chords include the flat 2.-
    in rock n roll alliance with the mazi bee militia

    http://www.myspace.com/thecubists

    "music is fleeting; its reality is its moment of performance."
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    • #3
      It all sounds very fair to me, though I've never had any experience with this or training

      But from what I've learned informally, you are looking at it right.

      In fact, one of the things that is regularly mentioned is that in jazz scales and chords are interchangeable views of the same thing. So it seems perfectly logical to think of chords based on the Dorian scale.

      Whether it makes sense to refer to Dorian IV, I don't know ... will be interesting to hear about.

      What does a I IV V sound like in Dorian, if you make it? Is it what you'd expect, from what you know about the sound of the Dorian mode?




      GaJ
      Guitar Lesson Reviews

      Updated regularly!

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      • #4

        And then could we use any common chord progression built in the same manner of Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian? I know that "modal playing" tend to think in terms of no key. But scale instead. But I'm intrigued by this modal chord theory concept.
        The problem with building and using chords in the same way as you would in a major or minor key is that modes are tonally weaker than keys. Using I-IV-V may work with some, but - as cubistguitar suggests - it will often better to choose a different set; such as bII instead of V for phrygian, or bVII instead of V for mixolydian or dorian.
        The other problem is that the more chords you use, the more it will start to sound like the relative major key (so use lots of chords in C dorian, and it might sound like a sequence in Bb major).
        This is why, in early modal jazz, they tried to make it sound as different as possible from keys by only using one chord for a long time, and/or by building chords in 4ths and 2nds instead of 3rds, so their identity was more ambiguous, less reminiscent of functional chords in keys.

        In rock music, nobody cares about separating key sounds from modal sounds as carefully as that (and they're more relaxed about it in jazz now too).
        You sometimes get a rock song that you could describe as wholly in a mode and not a key, but it will probably use normal triadic chords, and it's much more common for songs to mix modal sounds with traditional key sounds. Eg, for a major key song to use the bVII from mixolydian; or for a mostly mixolydian tune to sometimes use the V from the major key.

        Quite often, the theoretical problem - or the confusion about terms - comes from trying to apply old concepts (sometimes even ancient ones) to music where they don't really fit. Rock music, eg, does sometimes resemble conventional tonal music, but just as often goes its own sweet way (following its own rules).
        IOW, there are certainly "common practices" in rock. But not many of them are interpretable using tonal theory (or modal theory); even if they are, it may not tell you anything useful about the music.
        Trying to use theoretical concepts to create music in the first place is also not a good idea. (Hence questions about what one "can" or "can't" do, which are nonsensical in a way. You "can" - and should - do anything you like, if it sounds good.) Use theoretical jargon to try to describe existing music, by all means - making sure you understand and define terms properly to start with. But don't use it to criticise music ("this tune is wrong because that chord doesn't belong in this key"), nor to justify a way of composing a piece of music; it's giving yourself a straitjacket to work in.
        Of course, to write music in a particular style or genre (especially a historical one), you need to know the rules of that genre, the sounds that define it. Theory is useful there. But in contemporary vernacular music (such as rock), you make the rules as you go; most of them are intuitive, if you've been immersed in the genre long enough. It doesn't really help to give everything a theoretical name, any more than knowing the names of the muscles in your legs helps you walk down the street.
        ...

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        • #5
          Wow. Totally awesome - thorough, and makes perfect sense all the way. Thanks JonR.

          And thanks for the question Lee.

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          • #6
            Fantastic helpful post, JonS (as usual).


            Trying to use theoretical concepts to create music in the first place is also not a good idea.


            Can I just suggest that there is a use for a theoretical framework to create music: where it inspires composition (instead of straightjacket it).

            For example, if you ask yourself "what happens if I do chord sequences constructed by treating Dorian as a 'key'" this might lead you to a musical sound that you would not have found any other way.

            GaJ
            Guitar Lesson Reviews

            Updated regularly!

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            • #7

              Trying to use theoretical concepts to create music in the first place is also not a good idea. (Hence questions about what one "can" or "can't" do, which are nonsensical in a way. You "can" - and should - do anything you like, if it sounds good.) Use theoretical jargon to try to describe existing music, by all means - making sure you understand and define terms properly to start with. But don't use it to criticise music ("this tune is wrong because that chord doesn't belong in this key"), nor to justify a way of composing a piece of music; it's giving yourself a straitjacket to work in.
              Of course, to write music in a particular style or genre (especially a historical one), you need to know the rules of that genre, the sounds that define it. Theory is useful there. But in contemporary vernacular music (such as rock), you make the rules as you go; most of them are intuitive, if you've been immersed in the genre long enough. It doesn't really help to give everything a theoretical name, any more than knowing the names of the muscles in your legs helps you walk down the street.


              Here is another troublesome statement. There are plenty of ideas one can gain from theory. Theory isn't a rulebook for what you can and can't do it. It's more of a guidebook for what will sound good and the reasoning for why it will. More-so, there is a historical record for the guide. Pieces throughout centuries used those same concepts in practice before they were written down. Why shouldn't you draw inspiration form them? It's the written equivalent to studying to a genre and learning aurally, except that it's all spelled out for you.

              There are numerous theoretical concepts, which I would never have come about on my own without advanced theory knowledge because they are rarely seen in practice. Go read Persechettis 20th century harmony and tell me that there are no theoretical ideas to borrow form. I steal a new one every time I open that book

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              • #8

                There are numerous theoretical concepts, which I would never have come about on my own without advanced theory knowledge because they are rarely seen in practice. Go read Persechettis 20th century harmony and tell me that there are no theoretical ideas to borrow form. I steal a new one every time I open that book
                Sure. There are more musical concepts in this world than we can ever encounter, let alone master.

                I'm only disputing the use of conventional theory as a means of understanding vernacular music such as rock, folk and blues. Not even all of jazz is accessible to conventional theory. (And "jazz theory" is a hotly debated area, changing all the time, because the music does.)
                I'm not saying one shouldn't use theory to inspire new ideas, even (or especially) in music which doesn't normally feature such ideas.

                My sentence "Trying to use theoretical concepts to create music in the first place is also not a good idea" therefore needs qualification! It's not a good idea on its own. (Unless -as I did go on to say - you're composing within a tightly defined historical genre.) It is a good idea if it gets you out of a rut or a hole, and adds something fresh. But the creation of music is an aural process. However much you get from theory, you should only accept what your ears tell you is OK, and reject what they tell you is not (even when the book says it's OK).

                A lot of the time, in fact most of the time - and this is what was at the back of my mind - we have a limited knowledge of theory (few people know it all, and most know only the basics, if anything). We accept what it tells us, but get tempted into thinking that the basics are all there is, or can always be applied. We learn the rules of major keys - of scale harmonization - and then get baffled by minor keys, or borrowed chords. And yet we hear nothing wrong when we listen to the music.
                IOW, in our heads we know all the theory already - in that we know when something sounds right and when it doesn't. It's like being able to understand a spoken langauge without being able to read or write it. Even non-musician listeners know what's right and wrong, if they are familiar with a genre. What we don't know are the names that theorists have given all those sounds. John Lennon and George Harrison could compose confidently in mixolydian mode without knowing the name for it, or having read any book about it. (And probably without having heard any medieval modes of course - just distilling it out of blues and folk.)
                Once you start learning the names, once you start seeing rules written down, the very fact of seeing them in a book - let alone being taught them by a qualified person - gives them an apparently unassailable authority. (Of course this is not the fault of the theory, but a prejudice of the reader.) If you have this (very common) attitude, you then start looking back at the music you know, and getting confused, when you weren't before. Is the music "wrong"? Or is the book "wrong"? Hey look, rock music "breaks all the rules" - naturally, because it's like rebellious, man! Cool!
                No - rock music has other rules; you're just applying the wrong ones. You're looking at a cat and expecting it to bark (and be trainable) like a dog. "Hey look at this cool dog, it barks in a funny kind of "miaow" way..."
                ...

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                • #9
                  WOW!!!!!! Awesome stuff guys. Really.

                  I've been wanting to explore writing pop tunes with a little twist. The sort of thing that tweaks your ear just enough to make it interesting but not obtrusive. And it seemed to me the concept of creating a chord progression built from chords on the mode... might be interesting and possibly very useful. Of course I had this thought yesterday at work with no instrument available.

                  So when I went home I started fooling with (pardon the "incorrect" terms) a I, IV, V built on a C Dorian. Cm7, Fmaj7, Gm7. What do you know? It has a very cool sound and was just begging me to write a melody to it. I'm keen to try different modes and find what works and doesn't a far as chord progressions go. This bit below from c + t in b is particularly interesting...

                  The next problem is that we DO build chords in a mode in the same exact way that we do in a major key. However, we don't use those chords the same way. You typically want to avoid root movement of a fourth/fifth and you want to avoid chords that contain a tritone. Cadences are based around strong modal characteristic chords, and the root of the mode

                  C Dorian could be notated as: i-, ii-, bIII, IV, v, vidim, bVII for triads and i-7, ii-7, bIIImaj7, IV7, v-7, vi-7(b5), bVIImaj7



                  Thank you both JonR and c + t in b for very thourough and very readable explanations!
                  __________
                  Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
                  Dad is great and all but he never could sing -
                  Jesus

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                  • #10
                    Usually things "sound good" simply because they're familiar.


                    I don't think that's necessarily true. Things "sound good" for very concrete physical and scientific reasons. I'm not suggesting rules here, but an octave, a 5th, a 4th, a flatted 7th, they all have a very specific mathematical relationship based on the overtone series. I look at music theory, something you obviously know a hell of a lot more than I, but I look at it as a road map to what occurs naturally. There are reasons why something sounds good. The math.

                    It's in the playing with the tension away from and the resolution back to that naturally occurring consonance that things gets interesting and there are no rules. How we play with nature is the interesting bit.
                    __________
                    Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
                    Dad is great and all but he never could sing -
                    Jesus

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                    • #11
                      It could also be notated as Im IIm III IV Vm VIdim VII, if we take the scale degrees for granted...



                      I like this for thinking about chords off the Dorian ^^^ based on my new and minimal understand of everything in the above posts. What "Im IIm III IV Vm VIdim VII" allows me to do is see the layout and apply what I know about Aeolian/Minor chord theory. As a jumping off point to use trial and error for finding what works ad what doesn't.

                      __________
                      Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
                      Dad is great and all but he never could sing -
                      Jesus

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                      • #12
                        Yes what you described is common practice. Sometimes you have to include different chords then the I IV &V. For instance in phrygian, make sure the chords include the flat 2.-


                        I had to think about this. So... C Phrygian:



                        I = Cm7

                        IV = Fm7

                        V = Gm7(b5) (the b5 of the G chord being the Db)

                        Yeah?
                        __________
                        Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
                        Dad is great and all but he never could sing -
                        Jesus

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                        • #13
                          As for the key sig for C dorian, 2 flats would be logical (because it specifies the notes A Bb C D Eb F G, in no particular order). However, most people seeing a 2-flat key sig will assume it means either Bb major or G minor. They'll play the music right, of course, but may be confused to see so much emphasis on a Cm chord (and maybe no Bb or Gm).
                          So for C dorian mode, you might more often see a 3-flat key sig - indicating C minor - with naturals used for all the As. It's fussier, but should be less confusing for most readers.


                          Wow... I was in a boring meeting at work when I finially understood your point of the 3 flats and the added A natural. So we can digest at a glance its similatrity to Cm. It makes sense now. Seriously great informantion here. My head is spinning with it. In a good way.
                          __________
                          Ain't no sacrilege to call Elvis king
                          Dad is great and all but he never could sing -
                          Jesus

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                          • #14
                            I had to think about this. So... C Phrygian:



                            I = Cm7

                            IV = Fm7

                            V = Gm7(b5) (the b5 of the G chord being the Db)

                            Yeah?
                            Correct. But as we said, if you're going to work in C phrygian, you might like to try a Db chord (bII) to resolve to Cm, rather than Gm7b5.
                            (IMO, both work, but Db-Cm is a classic phrygian cadence.)
                            ...

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                            • #15
                              For Modal stuff don't get hung up on the I-IV-V stuff. Sure it's there but for the most part it creates really soft/limp cadences with not much tension or release. In the end the only reason we have V-I progression of any kind is for tension and release.

                              Even Modal pieces dip into straight Major and Minor diatonic leading tone ideas. Without it there's not much tension so it never goes anywhere to actually give things a strong resolution.
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