Even if you don’t have a strong background in music theory, you likely know that some chords just sound right together, while others don’t. For example, in the following chord progression, it’s hard to make any kind of sense out of the F#m chord; it just sounds odd… too odd for most common genres, you might say:
C Am F#m Dm G C
The F#m chord doesn’t belong to the key that the other chords belong to: C major. But it is possible to use chords that don’t belong to your key, and have those chords sound OK to our ears. Check out this progression, for example. The Eb chord doesn’t belong to C major, and yet we quite happily accept it:
C Eb F G C
So why does that chord work so well? It’s because it’s in a category of chords called “borrowed chords,” or “modal mixtures.” In this context, we use the words “mode” to mean whether a key is major or minor… in the “major mode”, or in the “minor mode.”
It’s possible to mix modes up a bit, and “borrow” a chord from a minor key and use it in a progression from the major key of the same letter name. In other words, you can use a C major progression, but substitute one of the chords from the key of C minor.
So in that progression, the Eb chord is borrowed from the key of C minor (where it naturally exists), and so our musical minds can make easy sense of it.
How to Borrow Chords
If you find that the only time you use modal mixture chords is by random chance, here’s a way to improve your odds at finding a progression you like.
- Create a major key chord progression that only uses the chords from that key. If you need help with this (i.e., if you don’t know which chords belong with which key, here’s a chart you can use (opens in a new browser tab or window). Example progression: C Am F G C.
- Create a minor key version of the same progression. Using that same chart from Step 1 above, look down bit and you’ll see the chords for the key of C minor. You’d wind up with this: Cm Ab Fm G Cm. (I changed the Gm to G, because a G chord works to put the progression more solidly in C minor. See an explanation here.
- Switch a major key chord choice for a minor key equivalent. For example, you might switch the F chord (the 3rd one in your first progression) for Fm, and it gives you this: C Am Fm G C. That Fm chord is a modal mixture, or borrowed chord.
There are several other possibilities, of course… you could switch the final C chord, make it minor, and that might be the start of a change of key (modulation):
C Am F G Cm7 F Bb
Modal mixtures can add life to an otherwise ordinary progression. And that makes them very powerful in today’s pop songwriting, because you can start with a simple progression that you know works, and then, with only one or two modifications, you can come up with something that sounds substantially different, but still every bit as strong as the original progression.
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