The Muse's Muse  
Muses MailMuses Newsmuse chatsongwriting resource home
Mirko's Musings
Pretend You're Happy When You're Sad:
Modal Borrowing (or, how to give your progressions life by borrowing chords from other keys).
By Mirko Ruckels
1999 Mirko Ruckels. All Rights Reserved. Used By Permission

The very mention of the word 'mode' often causes songwriters to break into a rash and start hyperventilating. It's a term which can be confusing to musicians, especially if they don't even understand the concept of 'diatonic.' Modes have been around for a long time- since the early days of the Roman catholic church, when western music was still in it's infancy. Instead of boring you with a 50 page listing of all their names and favorite pets, I'll try to give some simple examples which you can use in writing songs, which is what we do, right?

Step 1- mixed emotions

Well, doing something as simple as playing a D chord, and following it by a dminor chord is a modal borrowing. It can be very effective, as it 'borrows' emotions from another scale or harmonic system. So, if you're in a 'happy' major key, you can borrow some chords of the 'sad' minor scale for a moment, to give your progression depth and 'experience' (just like a real person- no one is constantly happy). Going from Dmaj to dmin is the most obvious modal borrowing. It's an effective and often used change (the first two chords of "I'm not in love"-10cc, or almost any Haydn symphony) change, but let's look beyond that and at some of the possibilities modal borrowing offers.

Step 2- getting the ingredients

If we get all the diatonic chords available to us in the key of C maj, we have the following-

C d e F G a b
I ii iii IV V vi vii*

Go on, play through them on your guitar, or whatever instrument you write with.

The upper case roman numerals are major chords, and the lower case ones are minor chords. These seven chords form the harmonized C major scale, or more simply, all the chords that form the key of C. (the vii* is a diminished chord. notes- b,d, f.)

Now, if we are going to do modal borrowing, we need somewhere to 'borrow' from. The key of c minor is perfect. It's the parallel minor to C maj. It looks a bit different-

c d Eb f G Ab bb
i ii* III iv V VI vii

Ok, play through it. (if you don't know the chords, go and buy one of those 2 dollar chord charts) remember- the lower case chords are minor except the ii* chord is diminished in minor.

Now let's do some modal mixing- Let's start our song with a simple progression

C a F G
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Remember to make the lower case chords minor... go on, play through it- this is a simple diatonic progression. See how the G chord is the V of C? That's the strongest relationship you can get- dominant to tonic. The chords before it are subdominant (read my "Morning, Noon and Night" article if you want to understand more about that).

Ok, we haven't actually done any modal mixing yet...let's try it now. Let's take a chord from the c minor, and drop it into the major progression.

C a Ab G
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

This is interesting. Now the progression starts to get a character of its own. We've taken the VI of the minor, which is an Ab, and inserted in after the amin chord, which gives a nice voice-leading effect (a-Ab-G).

This is basically the essence of modal borrowing. Technically, the change from Ab to G is a reinforcement of the dominant chord (G), which makes it even more effective. If we add the note F# to the Ab chord, we have an augmented sixth chord (sounds like a dominant seventh), which was used heaps by composers during the classical period. The augmented sixth resolves perfectly onto the root note of the G chord. You can hear this chord progression in Mozart's K.544 symphony in gm after the first theme- you can also hear it in heaps of pop songs (the last three chords of please, please me by the Beatles do this exact change). If you're confused, all I'm saying is that the change from Ab to G is very effective when you are about to go to C.

let's try another change-

C Eb Ab F
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4

Interesting- the Eb is the III in the minor- so it's like you're fooling the ear by starting in major, and the playing a minor progression. The Ab goes well to the F, because it's a minor third apart and it mimics the minor third between the first two chords.

Step 3- Getting fancy

So far, we've restricted ourselves to simple modal borrowing- the type that you may have already been using by ear, but now we're going to use some other keys, and borrow some of their chords.

For example, you can use a modal change in order to modulate into a different key.

C a A A7 D
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1
(voila! you're in the key of D now- D=I, e=ii,f#=iii,G=IV etc.)

Essentially, we changed the amin to an A major, by borrowing the V of D (A- just go up alphabetically from D...D,E,F,G,A-there it is, it's the fifth one) and then doing a V-I onto D. This is also known as a pivot chord progression. You use these to modulate into new keys smoothly. Basically they're chords that sound good in both keys- the key you were in, and the key you're going to. The reason I went from A to A7 before going to D was to allow the seventh (the G note) to fall to the F# note, which is the third of the D. This is called voice leading. (Don't worry if you don't understand this stuff yet- I'll explain everything later ;)

This stuff is getting into modulation- which I will write another article on shortly. E-mail me if you have any questions. You can use all these ideas in the melody too. You can do some wonderful melodies using modal writing. Listen to a Schumann or Richard Strauss lied if you want to hear some effective modal borrowing in melodies. This idea leads straight onto voice leading, secondary dominants and modulation, so if you want some more ideas, read some more of my articles!

Happy hunting.


Help For Newcomers
Help for Newcomers
Helpful Resources
Helpful Resources
Regular Columnists
Music Reviews
Services Offered
About the  Muse's Muse
About Muse's Muse
Subscribe to The Muse's News, free monthly newsletter for songwriters
with exclusive articles, copyright & publishing advice, music, website & book reviews, contest & market information, a chance to win prizes & more!

Join today!

Created & Maintained
by Jodi Krangle


1995 - 2016, The Muse's Muse Songwriting Resource. All rights reserved.

Read The Muse's Muse Privacy Statement