Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
Coming up with the list of chords that work in a particular key is relatively easy: simply build triads (3-note chords) above each note of a key’s scale. Of those seven chords, you’ll find that you use I and V the most, with ii, vi and IV next-most common. But if you’re limiting yourself to just those chords, you’re missing out on opportunities to add to your palette of chord colours. Try modal mixture chords.
A modal mixture is also known as a “borrowed chord,” because such a chord is usually found in the opposite mode used by your song. For example, if your song is in C major, a chord based on the fourth note would be F major. But it creates an interesting colour to use the form of the F chord that is normally found in C minor: Fm.
Play these two progressions, to compare:
- C F G7 C
- C Fm G C
The Fm chord adds variety to the progression, and certainly adds a touch of melancholy nature to the song.
Gary Ewer’s songwriting e-books will solve your songwriting frustrations. Click here to read more. You’ll be downloading the e-books moments from now!
There is no particular theory involved here to explain why you might want to use Fm instead of F. It’s simply creative license. Borrowing from the opposite mode expands your chord choices, and can spice up an otherwise ordinary progression.
You’ll find by experimenting that some modal mixtures work better than others, so give the following progressions a try and see what you think:
- C Ddim G Am
- C F Ab Bb C
- C Gm F Ddim C
- C Eb F C
Modal mixtures work the other way as well: it’s possible to be in a minor key, and throw in chords that you’d only expect to find in the parallel major (those it’s a bit trickier to get them to work):
Cm F Cm G7 Cm
Cm G Dm G Cm
Modal mixtures have a very distinctive sound, and depending on context can come under the heading of a musical “effect.” So for that reason, you’ll want to be careful how you use them. I find that using that minor-iv chord too much can start to sound a little bit corny, so as always, listen to their effect carefully before using them.