Replacing Major Chords With Minor: Modal Mixtures

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black & white guitarWe know that when music is in a key, there are seven chords that exist naturally in that key. All other chords you might use come under the general heading called altered chords.

If your song is in C major, the vast majority of the chords you’ll wind up using will come from the following list:

  • C (I)
  • Dm (ii)
  • Em (iii)
  • F (IV)
  • G (V)
  • Am (vi)
  • Bdim (vii-dim)

We get those chords by taking a C major scale and building chords above each note. As you can see, three of the chords, C, F and G, are major chords. Three of them, Dm, Em and Am, are minor. The chord built on the 7th note is diminished.

And that’s true, of course, no matter what major key you consider. For minor keys, you get a different list:

  • Cm (i)
  • Ddim (ii-dim)
  • Eb (III)
  • Fm (iv)
  • Gm (v) or G (V)
  • Ab (VI)
  • Bb (VII)

In minor keys, three of the chords, Cm, Fm and Gm, are minor. There are four major chords: Eb, Ab, Bb, and then G, which is often made to be major in songs that are truly in a minor key. That leaves the second chord, Ddim, as a diminished chord. (There are other possibilities, depending on the type of minor scale you build your chords on, but let’s leave it that way for now.)

There is a category of chords you may want to consider that does something really interesting: it mixes the two lists, allowing you to “borrow” chords that belong to the opposite list. Such chords are called borrowed chords, or modal mixture chords. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’ve been working out a song in C major, and you come up with the following progression: C  Am  F  C (I  vi  IV  I). The third chord in the progression, F, can be switched with its minor key equivalent, Fm. Your progression is now:  C  Am  Fm  C. It gives the progression a slightly different, almost melancholy sound.

You can also opt to keep the F, then follow it quickly with Fm before continuing on to C. Play the following progression with each chord being held for four beats, except play the F and Fm for two beats each, and you’ll see how this works: C  Am  F  Fm  C.

The Fm is called a modal mixture. Keep in mind that substituting F for Fm will only work if the melody note at that moment isn’t an A. That’s because to turn F into Fm requires you to turn the A from the F chord into an Ab. So modal mixtures will work as long as you make sure they’ll accommodate your melody note.

Here’s a few other progressions you might want to try. They all use modal mixtures, shown in bold.

Major Keys

  • C  F  Ddim  G  C
  • C  Am  Bb  F  C
  • C  Eb  F  G  Fm  Bb  C
  • C  F  Ddim  G  Ab  F  C
  • C  G  F  Eb  F  G  C

Minor Keys

  • Cm  Fm  G  Ab  Bb  Bdim  Cm
  • Cm  G  Dm  G  Ab  Fm  Cm
  • Cm  Eb  F  G  Ddim  G  Cm

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“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” Songwriting BundleWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.

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8 Comments

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  7. How important is the diminished chord in popular music? Obviously, in theory, and in most of your examples above, it has a place, but is it necessary? I’ve not seen many recent songs that use a diminished chord. Is there a replacement chord for the diminished?

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