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There are some well-intentioned folks who will tell you that to play over the chords C-FG, first you play C Ionian, and then you play F Lydian, then G Mixolydian. I say lighten up—just play in C Major over the whole progression. It’s an “audio illusion,” if you will, since each of the modes mentioned are actually the same notes as the C major scale anyway. The context is the most important thing in determining what key or mode we’re in. As I like to say, “Same tie, different shirt,” meaning any one melody over different chord progressions will sound pleasing … or not, just as a tie that looks great one day will clash with the “wrong” shirt on another.
There is a time for thinking modally if the music calls for it. A quick and easy example of distinguishing one mode from another can be heard by listening to a major key versus a minor key. You can tell if a song is in A minor rather than C major by listening to it. There is a characteristic quality to the minor sound once the tonal center has shifted to A, even though all of the notes in the scales C major and A minor are the same. We have just distinguished the sound of the Ionian mode from the Aeolian mode. In fact, each of the modes of the major scale has a characteristic sound.
To identify a mode in theory, you can think in either of two ways: “derivative” or “parallel.” An example of parallel thinking would be relating C Lydian to C Major and comparing the two (they have all the same notes except C Lydian has F# instead of F natural). Derivative thinking relates the mode back to its parent key, figuring, for example, “C Lydian is the fourth of what major key?” (G). Let’s think derivatively for now and see if we can identify the characteristic sound of these modes that we keep recognizing by ear.
The seventh and fourth tones of any major scale will play a strong role in the sound of each of the modes derived from that scale. The Lydian mode’s most recognized quality is the #11. Let’s think about the C major scale. The seventh degree is B. Now think F Lydian, which is the fourth degree of C major. There’s that B natural, now functioning as the #11 of F Lydian.
This month’s assignment is to play in E Lydian. There’s no need to panic when you do the figuring and discover that the parent key is B Major. We’re going to look at some fun chords that are diatonic to B Major, but also take advantage of our open E strings, rooting it to our new tonal center of E. We’ll also bring out the characteristic sound of the mode, which in our example will be A#. Remember, think “seven” of B to land on A#, and you’ll get the #11 sound against the E.
Study and play the progression in Fig. 1. Record yourself playing the example and then go wild playing B major scales all over the neck. Just as you do not need to start and end a major scale on its root, you do not need to start and end any of the modes on their root—the context of the chords will make everything work. Let your ears guide you through the process.
Jane Miller is a guitarist, composer, and arranger with roots in both jazz and folk. In addition to leading her own jazz instrumental quartet, she is in a working chamber jazz trio with saxophonist Cercie Miller and bassist David Clark. The Jane Miller Group has released three CDs on Jane’s label, Pink Bubble Records. Jane joined the Guitar Department faculty at Berklee College of Music in 1994.