Modes Part IV

Applying modes to chords and chord progressions


A parallel approach to chords and chord progressions is probably the best place to start, although, in the long run, this approach is more applicable to jazz and country-style playing than it is to rock or blues-style playing. Players of jazz and country tend to take things one chord at a time, utilizing different scales for each chord in a chord progression. Rock and blues players, on the other hand, tend to utilize one scale that fits the entire chord progression.

Be that as it may, it is important to have a thorough understanding of which chord types can be constructed from each of the modes.



Mode Triad 7th 9th* 11th* 13th*
Ionian Maj Maj7 Maj9 Maj11 Maj13
Dorian min min7 min9 min11 min13
Phrygian min min7 min7(b9) min11(b9) min11(b9b13)
Lydian Maj Maj7 Maj9 Maj7(#11) Maj13(#11)
Mixolydian Maj 7 9 11 13
Aeolian min min7 min9 min11 min11(b13)
Locrian dim min7(b5) min7(b5b9) min11(b5b9) min11(b5b9b13)

* 9th, 11th and 13th chords are covered in the Extended, Altered and Other Types of Chords Lesson. (not posted yet)


Knowing which chord types can be constructed from each mode will help you to apply the modes in an actual playing situation. Let's say for instance that you encounter a Bmin7 chord. According to the chord chart, three different modes can be associated with a min7 chord, Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian. This means that for Bmin7, you could play the B Dorian mode, the B Phrygian mode, the B Aeolian mode, or any combination of the three possibilities.

There is an entire universe of harmonic and melodic possibilities waiting to be discovered within the modes of the major scale. This chart is only a place to start.



A great majority of the popular songs that you are likely to encounter have been written around modal chord progressions. In order to understand this modal structure, we have to take a look at the chord scale.

Just like modes, the secret to using the chord scale is which chord you resolve the progression to. (which chord the progression seems to come to rest on)

Below is a set of progressions using only the chords of the chord scale. Each progression, in turn, resolves to a different chord from the chord scale.


I - IV - V - I

ii - iii - IV - I - ii

iii - ii - vi - IV - iii

IV - vi -V - iii - IV

V - IV - I - V

vi - V - IV - V - vi


You will, undoubtedly, notice that I have failed to include the vii chord in any of these progressions. The vii chord is a difficult chord to use, and practically impossible to resolve a chord progression to. But that doesn't mean that you should just forget about diminished chords. Have a listen to the intro to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze, and you will hear a very effective use of the diminished sound.

So, what does this chord scale stuff have to do with modes?

It's really quite simple. All you have to do is match the appropriate mode to the chord that the progression resolves to and you have it made in the shade. Just remember:


chord number = mode number


If the progression resolves to the I chord, the best mode to use is Ionian from the same root as the I chord.

For example, a I - IV - V - I progression starting with C would be:


CMaj - FMaj - GMaj - CMaj


The progression resolves to I, and the I chord is CMaj. Therefore, the best mode would be C Ionian.

If we do the same thing with a iii - ii - vi - IV - iii progression starting with C, we get:


Cmin - Bbmin - Fmin - DbMaj - Cmin


The progression resolves to iii, and the iii chord is Cmin. So the best mode to use is C Phrygian.

The hardest part of all this is to identify the chord of resolution as belonging to the chord scale. This is why you have to know the order of the chord types and how they are arranged via whole-step and half-step.

Let's say, for example, that you encounter a repeating pattern of CMaj - BbMaj - CMaj and are expected to solo over those chords. By virtue of repetition, it's a good bet that CMaj is the chord of resolution. The only thing left is to figure out which scale to use.

Chord scale:


I   ii   iii   IV   V   vi   vii   VIII
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h  
Maj   min   min   Maj   Maj   min   dim   Maj


There's only one place within the chord scale that has consecutive major chords, and those two chords just happen to be a whole step apart. So, the CMaj is V, and the BbMaj is IV. Since the CMaj is home base, and it's functioning as V, the best scale choice is C Mixolydian. (V chord = 5th mode)

But, if we change the CMaj to Cmin, an interesting thing happens.



Cmin - BbMaj - Cmin


Chord scale:


I   ii   iii   IV   V   vi   vii   VIII
  w   w   h   w   w   w   h  
Maj   min   min   Maj   Maj   min   dim   Maj


Now we have a progression that could fit into two places within our chord scale:


ii - I - ii or vi - V - vi


That means that you could use either C Dorian (2nd mode), C Aeolian (6th mode) or both! The choice is your's, but you would do well to consider which combination sounds most appropriate for the situation. You might find that the bass player or the piano player are using the Dorian mode for fills and/or chord extensions underneath your solo. If you play the Aeolian mode over the top of this, the results might not be quite what you expected. You've got to use your ears!



Sooner than later, you're going to run into a progression that doesn't quite fit our chord scale. There are many variations on, and extensions to this basic structure that have developed over time, but that is beyond the scope of this lesson. The best thing that you can do is to pick up some books on chords and chord progressions. There is a wealth of information available on this subject.

Below, are two MIDI files that are built around the concepts of derivative and parallel:

The Derivative file starts with C Ionian, then cycles through D Dorian, E Phrygian, F Lydian, G Mixolydian, A Aeolian and ends with B Locrian.

The Parallel file also starts with C Ionian but then cycles through C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Lydian, C Mixolydian, C Aeolian, and, finally, C Locrian.


I've tried to make each modal shift as distinct as possible, so that there is no confusion as to when to change modes. It's up to you to make sure that you have the modes learned well enough that you are not fumbling around for the correct notes.

Listen to each file all the way through first and familiarize yourself with the modal shifts. (you'll hear them!) Then, practice soloing over each progression: