Composing With Modal Arpeggios


Lately, I have been thinking a lot about modes, modal composition, and modal arpeggios. Studying modes and modal composition has been fulfilling and inspiring in my musical journey. And I'd like to share a concept I've been using in my music. What I call modal arpeggios!


What Is A Modal Arpeggio?

Let's break it down:

  • Modal means belonging to a mode (a subset of a scale).
  • Arpeggio means playing a series of ascending or descending notes that make up a chord (rather than playing all the notes of the chord simultaneously)

Therefore a modal arpeggio is a series of ascending or descending notes that are a part of a mode or scale. And more importantly, they are arpeggios that include the characteristic tones of the modes they represent!

Many modes will share scale degrees. But there will always be at least one scale degree that is different from a mode's closest relatives. These scale degrees are often referred to as characteristic tones, and they're important to consider including in modal arpeggios.

For the sake of keeping this article short and unlittered with numbers, we will only discuss the modes of the major scale. But the thought process will be the same with any mode we can think of arpeggiating!

Before we move on, here are the scale degrees of each of the Major Scale's modes:

Modal Arpeggios

How To Think Of Modal Arpeggios

A good way to start thinking modally is to ask “how can I make this arpeggio uniquely [insert mode name]?”

Of course, to make an arpeggio unique to a mode, we'd have to use all the notes of the mode, which isn't often ideal. So even though the question stated above is a great starting point, it's not always practical.

After we have the modal scale degrees in our heads, we can ask “what notes can I remove and still have this arpeggio sound like [insert mode name]?” This is where the characteristic tones come into play.


Building A Base For Modal Arpeggios

I like to start building modal arpeggios by first looking at the triads and seventh chords that a mode creates. Often times a triad plus a characteristic note is all we need to create a modal arpeggio. So let's look at the triads and seventh chords found in the Major Scale's modes:

Modes of the Major Scale

I should mention that it's important to look at tertian chords first (chords built by stacks thirds) since they are the most common in western music and provide a harmonically strong base for modal playing.

So a triad (or seventh chord) provides a strong harmonic base for an arpeggio but doesn't necessarily have character. For example, the major triad is found in 3 of the 7 Major Scale modes. And so an arpeggiated major triad won't really sound modal unless everything around it sounds modal. This is where we find the differences in characteristic tones.


Building Modal Arpeggios

Let's start building from our darkest mode Locrian to our brightest mode Lydian (looking only at the 7 modes of the major scale).

*As an aside, I will include other scales that our “ideal” modal arpeggios fit into. These other scales will be modes from the Major, Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor, Harmonic Major, and Double Harmonic Major scales.*

Without further ado… Let's build some modal arpeggios!

Locrian Modal Arpeggios

The Locrian mode is the only mode that has a diminished triad, so we could arpeggiate 1 ♭3 ♭5 and call it a day. Arpeggiating 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭7 puts us further into a Locrian modal arpeggio.

Note that a 1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭7 (half-diminished) arpeggio also fits the bill for a modal arpeggio in the following modes:

  • Aeolian Diminished (6th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Altered Scale aka Super Locrian (7th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Dorian Diminished (2nd mode of the Harmonic Major Scale)
  • Locrian ♮6 (2nd mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale)
  • Lydian ♯2 ♯6 (2nd mode of the Double Harmonic Major Scale)

This half-diminished arpeggio fits in numerous modes, including the Locrian mode (7th mode of the major scale). And so we can call it a modal arpeggio in Locrian!

Here is a Locrian arpeggio (1 ♭3 ♭5 ♭7) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Locrian, check out my article Locrian Mode: Everything You Need To Know About Locrian.

Phrygian Modal Arpeggios

The Phrygian mode yields a minor triad and a minor seventh chord (1 ♭3 5 ♭7). Many other modes yield the same results, so let's take a look at what Phrygian's characteristic tone could be.

Keeping with the major scale, we see that Phrygian is different from Locrian by a raised 5th scale degree and different from Aeolian by a flatted 2nd scale degree.

The interval created between the♭2nd and 5th is a tritone. A very important interval in the major scale, since there's really only one tritone interval per octave in the major scale. The tritone inversion is also a tritone between the same two notes. Furthermore, one of the notes in the tritone is always the characteristic tone of a given mode of the major scale.

Since the perfect 5th scale degree is found in all but one mode of the major scale, we will say that the♭2nd is Phrygian's characteristic tone. So a great example of a 4-note modal arpeggio in Phrygian is made of 1 ♭2 ♭3  5.  A great 5-note modal arpeggio in Phrygian is made of 1 ♭2 ♭3  5 ♭7.

Once again, any notes from within the Phrygian mode can make up a Phrygian arpeggio. But the above scale degrees offer arpeggios that are more characteristic of the mode. Remember to think chord tones (first, third, fifth, seventh) and characteristic tones!

Note that this 4-note 1 ♭2 ♭3  5 arpeggio is also in the following modes:

  • Dorian♭2 (2nd mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Phrygian♭4  (3rd mode of the Harmonic Major Scale)
  • Ultraphrygian (3rd mode of the Double Harmonic Major Scale)

Here is a Phrygian arpeggio (1 ♭2 ♭3  5) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Phrygian, check out my article Phrygian Mode: Everything You Need to Know About Phrygian.

Aeolian Modal Arpeggios

The Aeolian mode, like the Phrygian mode, yields a minor triad and minor seventh chord. It's different from Phrygian by its ♮2nd and different from Dorian by its ♭6. Surprise surprise! The 2 and ♭6 create a tritone interval!

The Aeolian mode is a bit ambiguous since it sits between two other modes that each have a minor triad and minor seventh chord (Phrygian and Dorian). So the best way to really play modally with Aeolian is to use both notes in the tritone interval.

This yields and 5-note arpeggio of 1   2 ♭3   5 ♭6
and a 6-note arpeggio of  1   2 ♭3   5 ♭6 ♭7.

Note that this 5-note 1   2 ♭3   5 ♭6  arpeggio is also in the following modes:

  • Aeolian ♮7 (1st mode of the Harmonic Minor mode)
  • Hungarian Minor (4th mode of the Double Harmonic Major mode)

Here is an Aeolian arpeggio (1  2♭3  5♭6) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Aeolian, check out my article Aeolian Mode: Everything You Need To Know About Aeolian.

Dorian Modal Arpeggios

The Dorian mode is the last mode we'll look at in this article that yields a minor triad and minor seventh chord. The characteristic tone is its ♮6 vs the Phrygian and Aeolian ♭6.

A great example of a Dorian modal arpeggio is made of 1 ♭3   5   6.

Note that this 4-note 1 ♭3   5   6 arpeggio is also in the following modes:

  • Ionian ♭3 (1st mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Dorian♭2 (2nd mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Dorian ♯4 (4th mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale)
  • Lydian Minor (4th mode of the Harmonic Major Scale)

Here is a Dorian arpeggio (1 ♭3  5  6) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Dorian, check out my article Dorian Mode: Everything You Need to Know About Dorian.

Mixolydian Modal Arpeggios

The Mixolydian mode yields a major triad and is the only mode of the major scale that yields a dominant seventh chord. Its tritone interval is found between the 3rd and ♭7 scale degrees.

The ideal 4-note Mixolydian modal arpeggio is made simply of its chord tones! 1  3  5 ♭7.

Note that this 4-note 1  3  5 ♭7 arpeggio is also in the following modes:

  • Lydian Dominant (4th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Mixolydian ♭6 (5th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Phrygian Dominant (5th mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale)
  • Mixolydian ♭9 (5th mode of the Harmonic Major Scale)

Here is a Mixolydian arpeggio (1  3  5♭7) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Mixolydian, check out my article The Mixolydian Mode: Everything You Need To Know!

Ionian Modal Arpeggios

The Ionian mode yields a major triad and a major seventh chord. It's different than Mixolydian by its major 7th rather than a minor 7th, and different than Lydian by its perfect 4th rather than an augmented 4th.

The perfect fourth in Ionian is actually referred to as an “avoid note” since it creates a dissonant minor ninth interval with the major third. Since the tritone in Ionian happens between the 4th and the 7th, and the 7th is what differentiates the Ionian from Mixolydian, we build our best Ionian modal arpeggio using the 1  3  5  7. The arpeggio is simply made by the chord tones of the major scale (Ionian mode)!

Note that this 4-note 1  3  5  7 arpeggio is also in the following modes:

  • Lydian (4th mode of the Major Scale)
  • Lydian ♯9 (6th mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale)
  • Ionian ♭6 (1st mode of the Harmonic Major Scale)
  • Double Harmonic Major Scale
  • Lydian ♯2 ♯6 (2nd mode of the Double Harmonic Major Scale)

Here is an Ionian arpeggio (1  3  5  7) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Ionian, check out my article Ionian Mode: Everything You Need to Know About Ionian.

Lydian Modal Arpeggios

The Lydian mode also yields both a major triad and a major seventh chord. The difference between Lydian and Ionian is that Lydian has a ♯4 instead of Ionian's ♮4. This ♯4 is the characteristic tone of Lydian and creates a tritone interval with the 1.

The “Lydian modal arpeggio” is what really got me into thinking about arpeggiating modes. The modal arpeggio I see best fit for Lydian is made up of its triad and characteristic note: 1   3 ♯4   5.

Note that this 4-note 1  3 ♯4  5 arpeggio is also in the following modes:

  • Lydian Dominant (4th mode of the Melodic Minor Scale)
  • Lydian ♯9 (6th mode of the Harmonic Minor Scale)
  • Lydian ♯2 ♯6 (2nd mode of the Double Harmonic Major Scale)

Here is a Lydian arpeggio (1   3 ♯4  5) across 4 octaves based on C:

To learn more about Lydian, check out my article Lydian Mode: Everything You Need to Know About Lydian.


Recap

When building a modal arpeggio, target the notes that give the mode its character. Find these notes by determining:

  • The root.
  • The quality of the triad and seventh chord built on the mode.
  • The characteristic tone in the tritone interval.

Experiment with different combinations of notes that don't include all the chord and characteristic tones and hear what you come up with. When a modal context is established, any notes of the scale in question will yield a “modal sound.”

Remember that the examples I gave above are in a vacuum and are simply what I think best represent the modes using 4 or 5 notes!


Using These Modal Arpeggios When Composing

And I'm finally getting around to the headline!

Now that we have a solid grasp on what constitutes a modal arpeggio, we can dive into using them in composition.

The first idea that comes to mind when composing with modal arpeggios is to establish a modal centre or key. Establish the “1” and arpeggiate modal notes on top of it to give a sense of what mode or key the song will be in.

Listen to an example of this device in my song “Get Some Sleep,” where I use a G Lydian arpeggio to establish the tonality of the song immediately:

Further, into the song, I use modal arpeggios as the main melodic line of the song. I alternate between the G Lydian arpeggio (1   3 ♯4  5) over 3 octaves and an E Dorian arpeggio (1  5  6♭7) over 3 octaves. Notice that the E Dorian arpeggio in this song is not the “ideal” modal arpeggio I gave to Dorian earlier (1♭3  5  6), but it still fits within the confines of Dorian.

Try also using modal arpeggios as auxiliary elements in your production. Nice light harps or plucky synths playing modal arpeggios panned hard right and left or mixed faintly in a song can help solidify a modal sound and help push a modal lead line further. Tiny elements add up quickly!

During modal interchange (staying on a common bass note, but changing the mode) try ascending to the change with one modal arpeggio and descending with an arpeggio within the new mode.

Use a multi-octave modal arpeggio to bridge the gap between a low-register lead line and an upper register lead line. This is an effective way for guitarists to smoothly transition to an upper octave and it has the added bonus of sounding badass! A favourite book of mine called This Is Your Brain On Music states that listeners crave novelty within familiarity. Surprise them with a beautiful arpeggio and then give them the same lead line in a new octave with new sonic character!


Conclusion

There are plenty of other uses for modal arpeggios. The ones listed above are some that I personally use in my compositions. Please let me know if you find a cool way of implementing modal arpeggios into your writing and compositions!

As always, thanks for reading and for your support!

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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