An Example of a Functional and Modal Approach within a Chord Progression

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It's common to hear "If you're staying in Key there is really no reason to look at each Mode, or an individual scale for each chord...because all the chords are all in the main Key. Each Mode would basically be the same scale. So, just play in Key and you'll be good".

But it is also common to hear "play a different Mode, or chord scale, for each chord".

There are times when both of these are right and and when they could be considered wrong too. As musicians it's our job to know when these times are and what the best approach is to deal with them.

I'm going to take one progression and look at it both as playing in Keys (Functionally) and playing it Modally. And, I'll show you how understanding the difference is vital to "creating a sound" when you play.

Hopefully you will find this to be a very simple and effective approach to playing over chords and progressions, this progression specifically.

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A Modal Progression

"Just playing in Key" is a very simple approach when all the chords in your progression are in the same Key. But, if you get a chord in the progression that's not in Key, then you need to approach it from a different Key (functionally) or a different scale (Modally). These are times when understanding the Functional side of the Keys is handy, but also when you need to understand the Modal side of music.

In GENERAL these two ideas will take you a long way in understanding an effective approach:

1. When songs or progressions have many chords related to one Key, they are considered progressions or songs containing Functional characteristics.

2. When songs or progressions have chords that don't relate to a common Key, they are songs or progressions containing Modal characteristics..

In the perfect world these are two separate types of songs or progressions, but in the real world these both can happen in one song or progression. The concept of a song or progression having both Functional and Modal characteristics is at the heart of Modern Modal Music.

These types of mixes of Functional and Modal sounds create many of the Modal Progressions we have today. You can find these types of progressions in songs by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, John Mclaughlin, Gary Burton, Al Di Meola, and the list Modern Modal Pioneers goes on.

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Here's the progression you'll work with...

(6/8 time) ||: Em | Em | Cmaj7#11 | Cmaj7#11 | Bm11 | Bm11 | Am11 | Cm11 :||

Here is it with more generic chords...

(6/8 time) ||: Em | Em | Cmaj7 | Cmaj7 | Bm7 | Bm7 | Am7 | Cm7 :||

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Let's look at the Functional characteristics...and where it makes things simpler

There is no doubt that the first 4 chord names in this progression are in the Key of G Major, or better yet E Minor...but that last Cm11 (Cm7) chord clearly is not in the Key of E Minor.

In E Minor this results in a Im-bVI-Vm-IVm progression with a bVIm being used as the turnaround.

Instead of getting all wrapped up in "what scale for what chord?" look at it broader as "what chords are in what Key?"...

The first for chords (Em, Cmaj7, Bm7, Am7) are in the Key of E Minor, and Cm7 is not.

If you use the approach of "play a different Mode, or chord scale, for each chord" you would approach the first 4 chords like: Em = E Aeolian, Cmaj7#11 = C Lydian, Bm11 = B Phrygian, Am11 = A Dorian...

If you use the approach of "just think of them as all in the Key E Minor" you would use one scale for all of the first 4 chords...that scale would be the E Natural Minor scale.

So, for the first 4 chords just play in E Minor and target the notes by ear as the chords change in the progression, as in using one scale and "playing to the progression" using the notes in that scale.

If you "play to the progression" using this one scale (E Minor) you will imply all those other scales/mode names...find melodies...and it's just plain simpler. It's less to think about. It allows you to play more and and think less.

In this case E Minor/Aeolian also equals C Lydian, B Phrygian, and A Dorian. And since these are all in the same Key it's much simpler to deal with first 4 chords as...the Key of E Minor or the E Minor scale and nothing more.

This covers the first 4 chords but what about that last chord, the Cm11 (Cm7)??? Read on...

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Let's look at the Modal characteristics...and where it might be needed

What do we do about that last chord...the Cm11? Since it isn't in the Key we are playing in (E Minor), we NEED to change the Key, which in turn means changing the scale.

So, if you know:

a "m7" type chord could be the ii or the iii or the vi of a Key

or more specifically that a "m11" type chord could only be the ii or the vi of a Key

you'll have a few options to consider and be able to start narrowing them down. This means for Cm7 you could use C Dorian (from the Key of Bb), or C Phrygian (from the Key of Ab) or C Aeolian (from the Key of Eb).

But, if you are specifically playing over Cm11 (which we are) you only have two options, helping narrow things down:  C Dorian (from the Key of Bb) or C Aeolian (from the Key of Eb).

Personally, my choice is C Dorian. The C Dorian scale creates a nice little symmetric sound when stepping away from the Key of E Minor to Bb Major then back to E Minor again.

Now why call it C Dorian instead of Bb Major (Ionian)? Well, there is only one chord from the Key of Bb and it's Cm11. Sure you can call it Bb Major if you wish, and you wouldn't be wrong...but, the "tonality" and "tonic" for that one chord is C, so C is the "tonal-center", and the harmony is m11. So, in this case you can just as well call it C Dorian and be a little more direct than calling it Bb Major.

Having one chord and using one scale for it is a Modal concept.

So...even though Cm11 is just "standing alone" in the progression and not connected Diatonically to any other chord in the progression, the chord is still from SOME KEY...but there are no other chords to tell us what Key it's from....so...

try using all three of those scales C Dorian, C Phrygian, C Aeolian, or more directly C Dorian or C Aeolian....they'll ALL work VERY nicely. Because there's no other "out of a Key" chords to dictate which scale you should be using. Try them all, you'll see exactly what I mean.

Each one of them has their own special twist/sound as is moves from and back to E Natural Minor.

But again, I really prefer C Dorian since it sets up some symmetry with the Key of E Minor. See if you can find the symmetry between the notes closest between the two scales. This helps create half-step tension and resolution which will make things sound more musically than just playing random notes and licks.

Just try and play "in Key" over the 4 chords, then play "out of Key" for the last chord...but remember to jump back into playing "in Key" again at the beginning.

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Give it a try yourself...

(remember it's in 6/8)...

Here's a backing track of the progression for you to play over.


Chords    ||: Em | Em | Cmaj7#11 | Cmaj7#11 | Bm11 | Bm11 | Am11 | Cm11 :||

Scales:       E Minor ----------------------------------------------------C Dorian = Bb Major
                                                                                                             C Aeolian = Eb Major
                                                                                                             C Phrygian = Ab Major

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In Closing

If you can think of Keys, it allows you to see REAL changes...Key changes that is...and play over them a little easier.

I must say that while "thinking Keys" is simpler, thinking of each chord getting it's own scale is NOT a waste of time. This is a great "deep thinking" concept and practice.

When approaching it with "deep thinking", you can learn many interworkings of Keys, Progressions, Songs, Arpeggios, etc...and it can lead to it's own source of inspiration...

but you'll realize that it's easier to PLAY with the simple idea and INVESTIGATE with the more complex thinking.

Have fun!

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