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Thread: Modes and Pitch Axis Theory - a little confused.

  1. #1
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    Modes and Pitch Axis Theory - a little confused.

    Hi all,

    First post and all that ;-)

    I've been playing guitar for some 20 years and have played in many bands of varying styles/genres and every couple of years I become as delighted with the instrument as when I first started. I find that this gives me a huge learning boost and makes me a better player.

    Recently, one of these boosts has hit me again and I decided to delve much heavier into music theory. I know about how chords are created, scales (mainly major and the minor scales) etc... I can read music (not sight read though) and guitar tab (obviously), but I'm reading a lot about modes (I knew about modes and how to create them but never really gave them much more thought) lately and am a bit stuck.

    For one thing, I'm reading about Modal Vamps, and assume it's a chord progression based on notes/chords of that mode/scale, but am not really sure.

    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G? If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice?

    As you can see, I'm a little confused, and the more I read about it, the more confused it seems to make me.

    All help would be appreciated, I've bought books and scoured the Internet (hence ending up here ;-) ), but it's just not getting any clearer for me.

    (It makes it worse that I accidentally broke my guitar on Sunday night, and have nothing else to practice with at the moment!)

  2. #2
    Registered User Malcolm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    ....I knew about modes and how to create them but never really gave them much more thought) lately and am a bit stuck.

    For one thing, I'm reading about Modal Vamps, and assume it's a chord progression based on notes/chords of that mode/scale, but am not really sure.
    OK why use a mode? IMHO the only reason to use a mode is for it's mood. The major scale gives an up beat attractive positive mood, if that is what you want just use the major scale for your melody notes and one of your favorite chord progressions. Doing that the tonal center will be major and accomplish what you want.

    Now if you want a sad, startled mood the natural minor scale will give you that so just use the natural minor scale and one of your favorite minor chord progressions that will accomplish what you want. But, if you want the attractive minor jazz sound- Dorian gives you that and pitch axis with the natural minor scale 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7 and then sharp b6 (making it 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7) will give you the Dorian mood - IF you have a modal vamp being played under that - that will 1) contain the b6 note on one of the chords and 2) use a modal vamp of the tonic and the characteristic note chord and nothing else. Why nothing else? The droning modal vamp will stick around long enough to let the modal mood develop. A I IV V basic chord progression will not sustain the mood as it is busy calling attention to the tonic tonal center.

    Playing modes is modal music and that is different than tonal music. http://www.riddleworks.com/modalharm3.html

    Enough for now - ask questions.

    Now on to your other question......
    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G? If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice? As you can see, I'm a little confused, and the more I read about it, the more confused it seems to make me.
    There are two ways to use modes. One is the relative way. This is keeping the notes the same and moving the key as you indicated the the E major to Phrygian example above. The other way is using pitch axis and staying in E but changing the notes. The confusion comes when asking questions on the Internet you probably get answers from both ways. That is very confusing.

    Relative modes is easy to teach thus is the way most learn about modes. I find relative easy to make and hard to use in an actual song. So I use the pitch axis method in my playing. Either one takes you to the same place, just by different roads. So yes it is personal choice. But, I must say again making the mode is only half the job, making the vamp that goes under the mode is the rest of the story - that story very seldom gets talked about.

    With pitch axis the major scale is your home base for the major modes, i.e....
    Ionian is the major scale. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 , 6, 7
    Lydian is the major scale with a sharped 4th. 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, 7
    Mixolydian is the major scale with a flatted 7. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, b7
    Want the Latin (I hear Mexican) sound of Mixolydian - take the major scale and flat the 7th.

    Aeolian is the natural minor scale. 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
    Dorian is the natural minor scale with a sharped b6. 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, 6, b7
    Phrygian is the natural minor scale with a flatted 2. 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7
    Locrian is the natural minor scale with a flatted 2 and 5. -- 1, b2, b3, 4, b5, b6, b7
    Want the exotic Spanish mood of Phrygian use the natural minor scale and flat the 2. Stay in the key you are already in ....... That is easy to use - IMHO. Remember it helps if you are doing this over a vamp. If you are doing this over a chord progression good luck - the chord progression is going to keep moving around from chord to chord and not allow the mood to develop.

    Ask questions.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 12-21-2010 at 06:53 PM.

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    Wow! Thank you for the very fast reply!

    I'm just going to digest that and I'll almost certainly be back to ask more questions ;-)

    Thank you.

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    Registered User JonR's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Hi all,

    First post and all that ;-)

    I've been playing guitar for some 20 years and have played in many bands of varying styles/genres and every couple of years I become as delighted with the instrument as when I first started. I find that this gives me a huge learning boost and makes me a better player.

    Recently, one of these boosts has hit me again and I decided to delve much heavier into music theory. I know about how chords are created, scales (mainly major and the minor scales) etc... I can read music (not sight read though) and guitar tab (obviously), but I'm reading a lot about modes (I knew about modes and how to create them but never really gave them much more thought) lately and am a bit stuck.

    For one thing, I'm reading about Modal Vamps, and assume it's a chord progression based on notes/chords of that mode/scale, but am not really sure.
    More or less, yes. Usually restricted to the key chord, and one other.
    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G?
    You wouldn't (or shouldn't) be using a phrygian scale in the key of E major.
    There is one phrygian scale that uses the same notes (and will therefore sound OK), and that's G# phrygian. But because the key is E major, that's what it will sound like: E major, aka E ionian.
    "G# phrygian" is just one pattern of the same notes. E is the keynote, so calling it "G# phrygian" makes no sense.
    If you use any other phrygian scale, it will have at least one wrong note.
    Eg, E phrygian = E F G A B C D
    E major = E F# G# A B C# D#
    E phrygian, therefore, contains 4 wrong notes - more wrong ones than right ones!
    Even if you only have one E major chord (ie it's not a progression at all), you'll still have one wrong note: G instead of G#.
    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice?
    See above. I think you're misunderstanding the whole modal concept.

    1. A major key means just ONE mode: Ionian mode of the keynote. Major key = Ionian mode, basically.
    It's make no sense to "apply" any other mode in that key. It would be like playing in the wrong key.

    2. If you want to play in E phrygian mode, choose an Em chord, and play the C major scale over it, using E as your keynote (ending note and maybe starting note too). It doesn't matter what pattern of those notes you choose.
    BTW, although you're using the C major scale, you are not "in C" - you are "in E phrygian", because E is the tonal centre or keynote.

    IOW, it's the keynote and chord progression that govern the mode. You just have to identify that and go along with it. You can't change the mode of a piece of music by playing a different scale. (Well, almost never. Blues is an exception.)

    If you have just one chord, then there's a little more freedom. Three modes will fit any triad chord.
    Major triad = ionian, mixolydian or lydian
    Minor triad = dorian, aeolian or phrygian

    Remember this is for a one-chord vamp. It doesn't apply to individual chords in a chord progression. They should normally all share the same scale. Eg a chord progression in E major means the E major scale covers all of them because that's the scale they're all harmonised from in the first place.

    These are basic ground rules, guidelines. In fact, in practice, songs often include notes or chords outside the main key. But the scale(s) are still governed by the chords. It's a matter of identifying the material used by the song (melody, riffs, chords) and using that as solo material. You don't actually have to consider modal concepts at all.
    Last edited by JonR; 12-21-2010 at 06:40 PM.

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    OK why use a mode? IMHO the only reason to use a mode is for it's mood.
    Indeed! That's exactly what I'm after - Usually I go to my little recording studio, pick up the bass, or turn on the keyboard (long before I touch a guitar) and just see what comes to mind - sometimes the song is upbeat, sometimes sad. I'd like to be in a position to think "I think I'll go and write a piece of music that's a bit spooky, or happy, or etc..." and know where to start, for instance, I'd think I'd like it to be spooky, so I'd start with a minor progression and then improvise using Dorian. I've obviously simplified it for the example, but you (hopefully) catch my drift.

    To another point, just to see if I understand it from your post:

    Pitch Axis is changing the mode/key to the chord being played behind and relative is staying in the key that the progression is in?

    I've seen lots and lots of books/websites with scale patterns for each scale or mode, I can play all of them and have memorised a few of the patterns, but of course, if I want Dorian mode, and the progression is in C, then I'd simply play around D and move my position (say starting at the 8th fret on E, but treating the 10th as the starting point). Does this give a Dorian mode, but simply in a different *pattern* to the ones I have seen in books etc...?

    Is that a valid approach do you think? I know the fretboard pretty well when it comes to the major scales and scale patterns, so to move about is not a big problem, to change the pattern would pose me a challenge. Is it best to learn these patterns instead?

    Once thing that confuses me is that they all give the same pattern for the same mode. Surely, so long as the notes are correct it doesn't matter does it?

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    See above. I think you're misunderstanding the whole modal concept.
    I think so too ;-)

    I'm getting even more confused as to the point of modes now.

    Back to basics: Is a mode simply a way of playing in the same key but with a different tonal centre?

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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    I think so too ;-)

    I'm getting even more confused as to the point of modes now.
    I think modes are usually a waste of time, By the time you understand how to use them you could have taught yourself how to play 12 bars of the melody by ear. It's a matter of what you want to involve yourself with; patterns and improvising or playing the song's tune.

    Playing pentatonic scales over the chords and developing your melody notes from the notes of the pentatonic I find much easier and as effective, of course IMHO. http://www.ibreathemusic.com/article/90 At the end of each lesson is a button to take you to the rest of the story be sure and go there.

    Back to basics: Is a mode simply a way of playing in the same key but with a different tonal centre?
    A mode is "A mode of the scale" Or just another way of playing the scale. We could debate that for days.

    If you play C, D, E, F, G, A, B the tonal center is going to be C.
    If you play G, A, B, C, D, E, F what is the tonal center? It's going to sound a lot like C major as those are the notes of the C major scale. Now if you put some chords under that you can change the sound, for example play those notes over the Am, Dm, Em chords and you are going to sound like the Am scale or the relative minor of C.

    My recommendation is to put modes on the back burner and see what pentatonic scales can do for you.
    Last edited by Malcolm; 12-21-2010 at 07:33 PM.

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    To be honest, I've been playing for some time and have no trouble improvising over pretty much anything.
    I was looking to improve my theory knowledge and modes have always fascinated me, because I've never studied them.
    I thought it was time ;-)

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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    To be honest, I've been playing for some time and have no trouble improvising over pretty much anything.
    I was looking to improve my theory knowledge and modes have always fascinated me, because I've never studied them.
    I thought it was time ;-)
    If you have no trouble improvising at the moment, then I wouldn't worry about modes. Just remember that people like Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Louis Armstrong - any jazz musician before 1959 - had never heard of modes. Neither had 60s rock players like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend. They did OK. (The only rock band of the 60s that definitely knew about modes were the Doors - and then it was mainly Ray Manzarek. I suspect Zappa also knew.)
    At least, if you do want to study them - I wouldn't want to stifle curiosity of course! - try to see how the concepts align with what you know already. You may find that some of what you already do has a modal name. (Or you may not )

    The place to begin when studying modern modal usage is Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" album, specifically the tracks "So What" (dorian), "All Blues" (largely mixolydian, with dorian and minor key deviations) and "Flamenco Sketches" (five different modes). His previous "Milestones" track too (flips between aeolian and dorian).
    In rock, you could look at the Doors "Light My Fire", which has an A dorian solo section. (The rest of the song is not modal.)
    Or Santana's "Oye Como Va", which is entirely A dorian.

    Mixolydian is an extremely common sound in rock, and you probably already know many mixolydian tunes - essentially it's just "major key with b7". You know an E major song with a D chord in it (and no B)? That's E mixolydian.
    Not many songs are pure mixolydian, but many are largely mixolydian.

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    Ha - of course, and thanks for the song suggestions, I'll do just that, thank you.

    You could of course, counter the list of guitarists that don't know 'modes' with a list that do: Satriani, Vai, Van Halen, Malmsteen, Murray, Blackmore etc... to name but a few ;-)

    ...and to be honest, their style of music is more my kind of music, but I've been unable to emulate (not copy, anyone can do that) them effectively.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Ha - of course, and thanks for the song suggestions, I'll do just that, thank you.

    You could of course, counter the list of guitarists that don't know 'modes' with a list that do: Satriani, Vai, Van Halen, Malmsteen, Murray, Blackmore etc... to name but a few ;-)

    ...and to be honest, their style of music is more my kind of music, but I've been unable to emulate (not copy, anyone can do that) them effectively.
    You should pick a tune of theirs you particularly like and transcribe it. Use tab by all means, but make sure you get everything (tab is often incomplete) - chords, bass and melody, more important than solos.
    Then analyse according to key or mode - see which explanations fit best.
    Eg, Satriani's "Flying in a Blue Dream" is a classic exercise in lydian mode - you can tell that from the opening chord riff more than from the lead part. And when it changes chord it goes to another lydian chord, not to another chord harmonised from the same scale. This is what modal music (in jazz and jazz rock anyway) tends to do.

    Ie, a simple distinction between the two kinds of music is:

    Key-based or functional harmony: one tonal centre, with a lot of chords mostly harmonised from the same scale. Chords are tertian (built in 3rds). Chords from outside the key will be used to make smoother transitions between chords in the key. There wilbe a sense of forward momentum through the changes, in that most chords will feel lke they are "leading" to the next one (ending on the tonic).

    Modal harmony: One tonal centre per chord. Chord changes are much less frequent, and when they do change they are likely to go to a chord with a different scale. Chords (in modal jazz if not in modal rock) are likely to be more quartal (built in 4ths) than tertian. The harmony is static, in that long periods may be spent on one chord, or one mode. There is no sense of "leading" from chord to chord.
    Generally this music has a more meditative or drone/groove-based feel than functional harmony, which tends to cycle around familiar sets of changes.

    Before 1959, all jazz (and most popular music) was written in functional harmony. Since 1959, jazz has combined both kinds, often in the same tune. Blues has strong modal elements, naturally, and rock has adopted its own modal practices largely from blues (with some inspiration from Indian music in the late 60s). Contemporary rock mixes both, although pop and mainstream rock is still largely functional.

    Classic examples from the Beatles songs:
    Functional: Penny Lane, Hey Jude, Let It Be, All My Loving, Yesterday
    Modal: Tomorrow Never Knows, Within You Without You, Dear Prudence, Blue Jay Way
    Many of their songs combined both kinds of harmony, typically with a modal verse (usually mixolydian) and a key-based chorus. Hard Days Night is one example, Norwegian Wood another. (Lennon and Harrison were particularly fond of modal sounds, exp mixolydian. McCartney had practically no interest in them; he's an old-fashioned key man to the core.)

    The point here is that modes are still something that is written into the song, not something you apply when improvising, to "change the mood".
    Eg, "Flying in a Blue Dream" is a lydian tune. If you try to apply (say) phrygian over it, you're missing the point (as well as playing wrong notes!).
    Likewise with Miles's "So What", which is dorian. You might be able to fit a phrygian mode over the main m7 chord, but then you're not playing "So What" any more.
    Changing the mood of a song is of course possible, but you don't do it by changing the modes - you do it by playing it slower or faster, or quieter or louder, etc. Change the modes and you've changed the song's content itself, re-written it; it's not the same song any more.
    Last edited by JonR; 12-22-2010 at 10:56 AM.

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    Firstly, thank you.

    Also, thank you for listing some songs (again) for me to listen to for the modes. I think this will be really helpful, especially the Beatles ones, as I pretty much have everything they ever recorded, whilst some of the others may take some searching down (and I'll have to wait until after Christmas to get to the shops - I'm not facing that until I have to ;-) )

    So, just to get it out of my head and down somewhere, say I was playing to the song "Purple Rain" in Bb. Being of a solomn kind of nature, I would probably simply choose Gm to improvise a solo.
    To get a somewhat Spanish sound to the solo (although why someone would want to is beyond me!), I couldn't simply play in D Major to get a Phyrigian sounding melody, or could I?

    I realise that I'm simplifying it a lot, but if playing in a different mode doesn't (at a base level - I'm assuming that the reason the modes are named as they are is because of different Greek regions/tribes making different sounding music and are described as such, in much the same way a teacher might say: 'major keys sound happy, minor keys sound sad') give a 'type of sound' i.e. Phyrigian=Spanish, Lydian=Jazzy etc... then I'm *really* struggling to find the point of them ;-)

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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    So, just to get it out of my head and down somewhere, say I was playing to the song "Purple Rain" in Bb. Being of a solomn kind of nature, I would probably simply choose Gm to improvise a solo.
    To get a somewhat Spanish sound to the solo (although why someone would want to is beyond me!), I couldn't simply play in D Major to get a Phyrigian sounding melody, or could I?
    You're under that misapprehension I referred to above. The "mood" of a song cannot be changed by using different scales. You use the scales the song is written in.

    The one exception is blues (major key blues). In a blues in (say) A major, you could play using A "major blues" scale (same notes as F# blues scale), or the mixolydian mode of each chord - for a "brighter" effect. Or if you wanted it "darker" you'd use normal "A blues scale" (minor pent plus b5).
    It works in blues, because pitch variability is part of the blues language.

    When it comes to a song like Purple Rain, this has a particular chord sequence in the key of Bb major, as follows:

    |Bb - - - |Gm - - - |F - - - |Eb - - - |
    |Bb - - - |Gm - - - |F7 - - - |F7 - |Bb_____ |

    |Eb - - - |Eb - - - |Bb - - - |Gm - - - |
    |F - - - |F - - - |F7 - - - |F7 - |Bb_____|

    It's a "functional" sequence, not a modal one. If there is a mode, it's Bb Ionian.

    G minor pent would certainly fit all the chords - with the exception of F/F7, where you'd probably have to omit and/or bend a note or two.
    But it would sound exactly the same if you were to play Bb major pentatonic - it's the same notes, and it's the chords that dictate the mode.
    Eg, on the Eb chord, whether you play G minor or Bb major pent, the modal sound that will emerge is Eb lydian. There's nothing you can do about that.
    (Bb major/G minor pent is the scale Prince mostly uses for his solo.)
    G minor pent will only sound like G minor on the Gm chord. On Bb, it will sound like a Bb major pent scale (which is as it should be).

    If you mean the full G minor scale, that's the same notes as Bb major (Ionian) which is the key/mode of the piece overall. Thinking "G minor" won't make it minor! (If you treat G as your root note, that will just sound lke the 6th of Bb major, or the 3rd of Eb, etc. That's fine, but it's not a "G minor" sound - except on the Gm chord itself of course.)

    You could try using Bb minor pent (or Bb blues scale) which would certainly darken it - turn it into a blues basically. You would have to judge whether that's the effect you want. (IMO it doesn't sound right for this song.)
    A smaller step in that direction would be to use Bb mixoydian (Eb major scale) over all of it. You can use any mode (pattern) of that scale, it makes no difference.

    This is, in fact, a good example of a song which really repays attention to the chord tones, soloing off the chord tones. That's what you hear Prince doing. And I'll bet it's exactly how Satriani, Vai, or any of those other guys would approach it.

    If you wanted a more "solemn" mood - and the song is pretty solemn as it is, IMO - your only options are to play it maybe quieter, to solo in a lower register, and maybe with a lot of reverb. (A low clean guitar with a ton of reverb is a nice solemn sound, IMO.)
    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    I realise that I'm simplifying it a lot, but if playing in a different mode doesn't (at a base level - I'm assuming that the reason the modes are named as they are is because of different Greek regions/tribes making different sounding music and are described as such, in much the same way a teacher might say: 'major keys sound happy, minor keys sound sad') give a 'type of sound' i.e. Phyrigian=Spanish, Lydian=Jazzy etc... then I'm *really* struggling to find the point of them ;-)
    Your idea of the sounds is basically right (oversimplified but right enough). But the point of them is in composition - or jamming on a single chord - not in improvisation on existing music.
    Existing music has its modes written into it, and you work with whatever they are.

    So if you want something in (say) phrygian mood, you find a tune written in phrygian mode, or you make one yourself. (It's not hard.)

    I don't know a lot of songs in phrygian (AFAIK there are a few in metal) - the only one I do know is Pink Floyd's "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbTUCdIiRjE
    - this is mainly in E phrygian, although it moves up to A phrygian and back.
    (I've seen some metal songs described as phrygian but they tend to just have phrygian elements rather than being totally phrygian. I'd like to know of more, if you or anyone know any.)
    Phrygian mode is distinguished by its bII step (F over an Em in this case).
    If a song doesn't already have a b2 in the scale (it it has a major 2), then you playing one is going to sound like a wrong note. Simple as that.
    If there is no 2nd degree in the scale at all (eg if it's in a minor pentatonic) then you may be able to impose a b2 step. Worth a try anyhow. But these kinds of tune are rare.

    Remember there are many creative things you can do to alter the mood of an existing composition - but none of them involve changing the mode(s) its written in.
    Last edited by JonR; 12-22-2010 at 02:34 PM.

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    Thank you so very much.

    I think I'm starting to understand at last!

    I'm not sure why I picked that song (I heard it on the radio a few days ago and remembered that I actually quite like it!), but to simply have a song that I recognise (and the key I recognised as it was playing - I worked very hard at being able to do that some years ago), it makes it easier for my mind to take in what you are talking about.

    I'm going to have a listen to the other songs you mention when I get home.

    Thank you for your patience and very easy to understand explaination.

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    Quote Originally Posted by dogberry View Post
    Hi all,

    Secondly, if I were playing against a song in the key of E Major but I was playing/improvising using a Phrygian scale, would/could I simply be playing in G? If the progression moved from E to A for example, should I then start playing A Phrygian or could I stay in E Phrygian for the whole progression or is that simply personal choice?
    I don't have a whole lot of time to type an answer, but I'll try my best.

    When you are talking about diatonic modes (Ionian, etc.) you are talking about tones that establish the key. Within that key you have a tonal center and you have different kinds of chords - tonic chords, etc. Taken together, the tones you play in an improvisation or the chords you play are harmonically meaningful mostly in terms of the way they progress from one to the next. In other words, there must be a sequence of chords in that key in order to establish the meaning.

    You can modulate keys, and that is fine, but in order to establish the "meaning" that "Western ears" expect, you must eventually establish the tonality of a single key.


    A chord takes most of its harmonic meaning from the surrounding chords. Your use of a scale (mode, whatever) for improvisation can give as little or as much harmonic context as you want.

    So, you can improvise in any key/mode you want, but you must eventually establisha tonality and to do that, you have to stick with one key for at least two or three chords.


    All help would be appreciated, I've bought books and scoured the Internet (hence ending up here ;-) ), but it's just not getting any clearer for me.
    The only book I know which not only explains these things, but has you do a lot of exercises so that you can really learn it and hear it, is "Understanding and Iimplementing Harmony on the Piano." But it's not just for piano, as a guitarist you will benefit from it.

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