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Thread: Modes & harmony

  1. #1
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    Feb 2017

    Modes & harmony

    I've been trying to understand how chord progressions and soloing interact to make harmonies of various modal flavours. I am also trying to confirm if simply changing the mode used by the soloist can change the modal flavour or if the progression and solo have to be designed to work in the same mode from the start.

    I used to think you could alter the modal feel of any chord progression by simply altering the mode being used by the accompanying soloist. Even if this were true, I wasn't sure how to work out the key and mode to then solo in. Using a mode to solo that matches the dominant chord in the progression is simple enough. But can the soloing mode alone be altered?

    I am now thinking that to alter the modal feel of a 2 instrument harmony you just can't only change the mode being used by the soloist (e.g. from C Ionian to C Dorian) as I previously thought. You must also change the chord that exhibits tonal persistence in the chord progression. You have to change the chord progression.

    Is this true or can you change the flavour of the overall 2 instrument harmony by leaving the chord progression unchanged and simply changing the mode used by the soloist and perhaps the note being used for tonal persistence by the soloist?

    For example, is it possible to make a chord progression in C Major containing C, Dm & Am with tonal persistence on the C Major chord sound anything but Ionian? Maybe using these chords, with C Major dominating, means it is an Ionian piece and that's it. Alternatively, can the soloist use C Dorian and by doing so alter the sound of the resulting harmony to a "Dorian" feel?

    Maybe to make such a piece of music sound Dorian in nature, one would have to change the chord progression so the Dm chord has tonal persistence in the progression AND then solo in D Dorian.

    Which of the above is correct? Any comments appreciated.
    Last edited by enuenu; 02-07-2017 at 10:03 AM.

  2. #2
    MMus, MA, PGCE JumpingJack's Avatar
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    Dec 2011
    Typically, chords belong to tonal music, that is, music in major or minor keys.

    Modality on the other hand is a melodic principle. It doesn't rely on chords in the same way.

    So if you have a chords of Dm-G-C for example, it's going to be heard in C major regardless of what else is going on.

    Modality and tonality are different concepts. If you're in D minor, then you're in D minor. You're not in some "Dorian mode".

  3. #3
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    Thanks, I'm slowly unlocking this puzzle.
    I just saw this;

    Chord Quality...........Mode
    Major, Major 7.............Ionian, Lydian
    Minor, Minor 7.............Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian
    Major, Dominant 7.......Mixolydian
    Diminished, Minor7b5...Locrian

    So if a backing chord progression was in C Major, then the only modes that should be used by the accompanying soloist would be C Ionian, G Mixolldian & F Lydian. If you wanted a Lydian feel, the soloist would use F as a home base note, i.e. solo in F Lydian. This is true even if tonal persistence of the accompanying chord progression centred on the C Major chord. Trying to solo in D Dorian, E Phrygian, A Aolian or B Locrian wouldn't work because these modes fit better with minor keys.

    If the backing chord progression was in the key of C minor, then D Dorian, E Phrygian, A Aeolian & B Locrian soloing would be the only modes that would work well. The home base note used in the solo would be either D, E, A or B and which chosen would depend on which modal feel is desired from the resulting harmony.

    In this case of a progression in C minor, using C as a base note in modal soloing (thus soloing in C Ionian aka C Major) would not work, theoretically speaking. However I have read that sometimes Major/minor mismatching in soloing works, particular when using Pentatonic scales in rock or pop (let's not add that extra layer of confusion now though).

    Another theoretically correct possibility is that the mode the soloist plays in could quickly switch with the chord changes. For example, if progression in C Major had a F Major chord in it that repeated for a couple of measures, at the time the F Major was being played the soloist could switch mode to F Ionian, B Lydian or G Mixolydian. However maintaining the same modality is preferred when switching mid solo like this so as to maintain the same modal feel.

    So based on my workings in the previous paragraphs, if a rhythm guitarist was playing a chord progression in C Major that contained the chords C Major, F Major and D minor and a Lydian feel from the resulting harmony with a soloist was desired, the accompanying soloist could mostly improvise in F Lydian (to match the fact the key is C Major) and switch to B Lydian during the measures during which the F Major chord was being played. This would add some variation to the improvisation while maintaining a Lydian feel to the resulting harmony. This would work even if the tonal persistence of the chord progression was centred on the C Major chord.

    The alternative solution to the scenario in the previous paragraph is to solo in C Lydian generally and for some variety quickly switch to F Lydian while the F Major chord is being played. Which approach is theoretically correct?

    Are the rest of my examples theoretically correct?

    Please exscuse me if my questions are repetitive or don't make sense. Every reply helps me get a step closer. I also realise the ear is the final arbiter and rules are made to be broken. In fact apart from using a few little shapes I know, I soloed and created progressions by ear for years. However at the moment I'm trying to learn the theoretical classical rules. I'm approaching the subject from a mathematical angle.
    Last edited by enuenu; 02-08-2017 at 06:21 PM.

  4. #4
    oh how i love to see posts like this. i feel like music theory is taboo, when someone asks simple questions like these. all we can learn from music theory is a stupid how to avoid parallel fifths and octaves, this is the core of music books.
    that being said, i am pretty much confused at these simple questions, i come from an identical background and thinking that you mentioned.
    so i'll give a shot in this topic, with the disclaimer that i'm blindly guessing, more like brainstorming:

    i believe a sense making solo isnt an ornamentation of a chord progression, but an ornamentation of an implicit/imbeded chord/harmony progression that makes sense without being accompanied by chords (so i never think in terms of the soloist as an accompaniament, rather the other way around). so the solo has to make harmonic sense and stand on it's own.
    now, i believe that the sum of solo + chords is the "truth" that is heard by the listener. meaning anyone of the 2 can become the harmonic center, although the accompaniament having lower tones has a definite advantage of taking over.
    but if on top of a Cmajor chord i insist on a A-tone, personally i believe i moved the root to A, Amin7 to be more precise. i feel the relative minor always steals the root position.
    so on top of a Cmajor chord progression, i can solo in Cmajor (ionian) - harmony. I can present/insist on C-tone as the center, and i could also insist on E, but it would not have a phrygian feel because there's a C playing in the accompaniament which steals the root position. same for the G (not mixolydian), no matter how i insist on these tones, if the harmony(chord tones) of the solo is in Cmajor, indicate C as the root of the harmony.
    another option would be to play the solo from a more real phygian/mixolydian perspective, meaning that when i present the harmonic tonic/center, i surround E (phygian) with it's 5 (B) which makes it the harmony of E, and avoid C (especially on beats-important metric positions). respectively in the case of G, surround it with D to make it trully the harmony of G (mixolydan).
    ^these 2 options E / G harmonies unfortunately are children of the C harmony, E/G harmony on top of a Cmajor harmony would result in C being the root. but if you think of the solo from the perspective of one of these harmonies, then when you want to create a 5(-4-3)-2-1 (shenkerian) harmonic plan/skeleton in the solo, you will present a D (in the case of G harmony, the 5th of G), or an E (the 5th from the E harmony perspective), both interesting perspectives because the accompaniament is in C. (that's an answer of why some melodies start on/present the 7th of the chord, or the 9th. >it's not the 7th/9th, it's the perspective of the E harmony/G harmony starting on the 5th. this way the solo makes harmonic sense, it's not just a silly decoration of a harmony playing below). there's also a 3-2-1 skeleton which generates B in the case of G harmony.
    finally there's also the case of harmonies (from the solo perspective) that are not children of the accompaniament harmony, but the parent. like F (F + C = the harmony of F). so if you solo in F lydian, the accompaniament harmony becomes a slave, which only supplies the F harmony with a 7th and the 9th (E, and G tones from the chord C-E-G). (of course there's also the rest of the harmonic progression which you have to modify -in the solo- in order to give the melody that you create the desired harmonic sense (if you end the progression in Gmajor for example, then you don't take the melody "home" at the end of the progression) ).
    like i said i believe the relative minor will also steal the root position, so making a solo in Aminor (on top of the progression in Cmajor), persents the same issues like in the F (lydian) case.
    i'm not sure if it makes sense to present a solo in D (dorian), i'm confused of what the sum of these 2 harmonies(Dminor+Cmajor) will return. also the case of a B locrian i'm not sure of the outcome.
    i should stick around you, (you say you want to understand music from a "mathematical" perspective), i'd love to clarify things too.
    Last edited by James Shaormer; 02-09-2017 at 05:47 AM.

  5. #5
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    Thanks so much for your extensive and thoughtful replies James & Jumping Jack. I will read them carefully over & over and experiment with their content.

    The deeper I dig the more I find there are so many ways to apply music "theory". I thought there may be some immutable laws of western music that a classical purist would always apply. I believed I was dealing with a set of logical rules, a well developed algorithm if you like.

    However the mathematical patterns behind music theory are so complex that things are never as cut and dried as I thought they may be. The algorithm is incredibly complex. The terminology is also complex, so someone like me who uses the terminology incorrrectly ends up misleading the people trying to assist them. For example I used the terms accompanying and accompaniment simply to refer to "the other person in the duo", it seems I used these terms in a bit of a ham fisted way.

    Thus I thought it best to use very specific yet basic examples of compositions that define two people playing together in order to demonstrate my current understanding of basic western music theory. Then the aim was to have experts critique the examples and say, for example, "Your first example complies with the laws of western music theory. Your second example is fundamentally flawed for reason X." Then I can reverse engineer the examples and critiques to develop a number of logical rules I can use for composition. The hope is the rules I develop in this way will align with what I call modern western music theory.

    I will experiment with my "solutions" to this Sudoku-like puzzle and see what sounds good to my ear. Perhaps I may apply logic "incorrectly", seeking out what I am seeing as logical patterns, and come up with an interesting and pleasing harmony. My algorithm may be flawed. There's that ham fisted use of terminology again. When I say "harmony", I am simply referring to the resulting sound when two instruments playing simultaneously are not playing the same thing.

    Another analogy would be a question in an IQ test such as, "Which of these 4 objects is the odd one out?" Sometimes it is obvious, however sometimes you may be marked wrong even though you have a logical explanation as to why there is an alternative solution that doesn't fit with what the person posing the question had in mind. I think music is more like this than the Sudoku example, where your answer is either right or wrong with no wiggle room for alternate answers. I thought classical western music theory was like Sudoku. I'm finding the solutions are not this clear cut.

    I find it a fascinating subject and I will continue my learning journey. Thanks to you all 
    Last edited by enuenu; 02-09-2017 at 10:02 AM.

  6. #6
    music has a constant series of pitches that the ear must group in order to give sense to. sometimes harmonic group borders are crossing and unclear. if you design a musical example that is clear cut, don't expect it to have a complex beauty. this is a front-end language that needs to specify in full detail the complexity of the music being generated.
    composers are like magicians, constantly trying to create mystery/confusion/tension and to hide the answer for as long as they possibly can. some music hides the harmonic center -C in Cmajor for example - and substitutes it with its extensions like E or G, never ever revealing the answer -C. or in the rhythm language they are pushing the resolution ever to the last possible metric place. snares were trying to be sneaky and hit the beat3 in a 4/4 beat, then they got sneakier hitting beat 2 & 4, nowadays they are pushing to hit the last 8th in the measure trying to take you by surprise (in rihanna-work for example).
    i got a bit messy in my reply but i always thought of forums as forums where people publicly join and share ideas, not private confession booths, or personal counseling cabinets. hope that makes sense.
    Last edited by James Shaormer; 02-09-2017 at 10:16 AM.

  7. #7
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    Thanks again James. I realise there are no hard & fast rules where composition is concerned. I'm just in a position where I want to learn the basic traditional rules, then start to play with bending and breaking them.

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