A lydian chord progression has a quirky, eccentric way of grabbing attention.
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The lydian modal scale sounds like a major scale with the 4th note raised by a semitone. So the scale of C lydian uses the notes C-D-E-F#-G-A-B-C [LISTEN]. It has a quirky offbeat sound, and melodies constructed using the lydian scale will sound a bit eccentric, as if it’s purposely missing every time it goes for that 4th note of the scale.
As with all modes, you can create chord progressions that are based on the notes of the lydian scale, and just like the melodies, the progressions can sound pleasantly strange. Chords built on the second note of the scale will be major, and that’s the telltale sound of a lydian progression.
So you’re hearing the effects of using the lydian mode when you hear the progression A B (both major chords), as you hear at the start of the first verse of Burton Cumming’s 1978 song “Rhapsody.” But in that case, Cummings uses the major II-chord as a sound effect rather than part of a fully lydian progression: the progression then slips easily into basic A major chords.
And that gets to the problem with lydian progressions. Let’s say you’re trying to write a song in C lydian. As soon as you play the I-chord and follow it with a major II-chord (C moving to D), you feel tempted to follow the D with a G chord, and now your music just sounds like G major, not C lydian. In order for a progression in C lydian to truly sound lydian, the C needs to remain as a kind of “tonic,” the focal point of all the progressions. (I say “kind of tonic” because the term “tonic” really does belong in a discussion about major/minor music, not modes.)
Here are some progressions you can try that might help achieve that. To varying degrees, they keep the C chord in its sights, and allow you to make best use of the odd little twist that occurs on the major II:
- C Am D Em Am D C [LISTEN]
- C D/G C D G F#dim7 G Gmaj7/B C [LISTEN]
- C F#dim7 Bm Em Cmaj9 D G/D C [LISTEN]
- C Em Am F#dim Em D C G C [LISTEN]
- C D/C G/B C Am Bm/F# C/G G C [LISTEN]
It’s not very easy to make lydian work for an entire song, because it takes a lot of effort to make C sound like the tonal focus. As you can hear, it often sounds as though a lydian progression is simply ending on the IV-chord (G, in this case).
Sometimes, the best use of lydian is to allow the major II-chord to operate as a kind of sound effect. So try that: create diatonic progressions (ones that sit strongly in a key) in C major, and then try turning any Dm chords to D, and see if you like the effect.
Written by Gary Ewer. Follow on Twitter.
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