Modal Mixture Chords: Subtle Harmonic Shadings

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If you’re looking for a way to make your chord progressions come alive a bit, you’re probably thinking about some basic chord substitutions. For example, IV-chords (i.e., Bb in the key of F major, for example) can often be substituted with ii-chords (Gm). In most cases, chord substitutions will be chords that use a different chord root. (In our example, G instead of Bb). And so it can take a bit of calculating in order to get these substitutions to work properly. But another kind of chord allows you to keep the same chord root: modal mixture chords.

As you know, we create chords that fit in a key by writing out the scale of the key of the song, then building triads above those notes. That same procedure works for both major and minor scales.

If your song is in F major, you’ll have seven chords that naturally occur in that key. And now for the neat part. Even though you’re song is in F major, you can borrow chords from the ones created atop an F minor scale. These chords are called modal mixtures, or “borrowed” chords.

One particularly popular choice is borrowing the minor IV-chord. This would give you Bbm, rather than Bb.

And the positive effect that comes from using a minor IV-chord in a major key is that you’ve been able to create a subtle harmonic shading while keeping the same root as the original chord:

F  Bb  C  F  becomes:  F  Bbm  C  F

Modal mixture chords are very easy to use, because the root of the chord stays the same, and you simply borrow the version that occurs in the opposite mode.

Here are some chord progressions you can try that use modal mixture chords (in italics):

F  Bb  Gdim C  F

F  Ab Bb  C  Db  Eb F

F  Eb  Ab C  F

F  Bb Cm F

Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website
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One Comment

  1. I love this technique so much I find it hard not to do.

    I even wrote a song recently that started in C# minor then moved to the relative – E major and then borrowed chords from E minor. THEN (as E minor is relative to G major) it borrowed chords from G minor. Later on it had a key changes F major and repeated the same borrowing there.

    The song’s called The Morning After The Day You Saved The World if you’d like a listen

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