Modal Modulation Examples in Rock and Metal

By MLNobre

Modal Modulation is not a concept restricted to Rock and Metal but since the electric guitar was my first love, I’m biased.

As a developer of a software that helps you explore Modal Modulation, I want to show you this cool approach to music with four examples within the genres of Progressive Metal and Instrumental Rock.

The four tracks I’ve chosen are:

  • Lydian Dominant Improv – Rick Graham
  • A Change of Seasons – Dream Theater
  • Not of This Earth – Joe Satriani
  • Always With Me, Always With You – Joe Satriani

Do you have any other suggestions? Leave them in the comment section!

Lydian Dominant Improv – Rick Graham

This Lydian Dominant improvisation by Rick Graham is a big reference to me. Even though it wasn’t how I was introduced to Modal Modulation, it was definitely part of the things that inspired me to create SLModes a few years later.

A closer look will reveal that this improvisation is not exclusively happening in the Lydian Dominant mode. If that was the case, this would be considered a modal improvisation. But it’s not. Instead, it is a case of a modal modulation improvisation.

So, in other words, the background keeps changing between two different modes belonging to different keys.

  1. E Aeolian mode, with an ornamented variation of an E minor chord serving as harmony
  2. C Lydian Dominant mode with an ornamented variation of a C7 chord serving as harmony

With ear intuition, a basic understanding of scales and a bit of playing around with the guitar fretboard, it was revealed that one of the modes was the easy-to-identify E Aeolian.

For the second mode, using the same method – and already knowing that the next mode had to be Lydian Dominant, because of the title of the video – I inputted the notes I knew were being used to solo over the mode (those notes were D C A# A G F#) and within two or three clicks, I discovered that it could not be anything other than the C Lydian Dominant mode.

Using SLModes, it would have been possible to reach the theory driving the Lydian Dominant Improv by Rick Graham by setting it up like this:

A Change of Seasons – Dream Theater

A Change of Seasons is a monumental 23-min track by the great Prog Gods, Dream Theater.

At the 17:31 mark, John Petrucci plays a guitar solo that immediately grabs the attention of the Modal Modulation fan.

By looking at the guitar tabs – the guitars chords, bass, lead guitar and synth notes used – it’s not very hard to discover which modes were used:

  • B Aeolian mode, with an B minor chord serving as harmony
  • G Dorian mode with a G minor chord serving as harmony

Using SLModes, the same awesome dual chord progression could have easily been achieved by setting it up like this:

Both examples covered until now followed a similar approach. Next we explore the concept of Pitch Axis Theory.

Not Of This Earth – Joe Satriani

Not of This Earth is the first track of the first album by Joe Satriani and he starts his professional career by going all-in, using something that later became known to be as Pitch Axis Theory.

Pitch Axis Theory is still Modal Modulation. However, it has the peculiarity of keeping the same root note across all modes.

In this track, he uses a chord progression consisting of four chords which keep changing the key of the song, while retaining a common root note (E). You know the root note is E because that’s what the rhythm guitar and bass play throughout the whole track.

To analyze which chords are being used, we need to either use our ears or grab a guitar tab floating around the web. It’s easier and faster to grab the guitar tab.

The process is simple: we have to annotate the notes used in each chord, and then complement those notes with the ones played by the lead guitar over them.

Popular software like Guitar Pro may provide more intuitive features to do this (such as the Scale Finder), but SLModes – even though it wasn’t exactly designed to do this specifically – allows you to discover a mode/scale by inputting some or all of its notes as well. It just takes one of two extra steps, take a look:

Analysing the first chord of Not of This Earth + the notes used to solo over it, I was able to discover that the first mode used was E Lydian.

Repeating the process for all other chords, we discover the complete chord progression used in Not of This Earth:

  • E Lydian mode, with an ornamented variation of an E maj7 chord serving as harmony;
  • E Aeolian mode with an ornamented variation of an E min7 chord serving as harmony;
  • Again, the E Lydian mode, with an ornamented variation of an E maj7 chord serving as harmony;
  • E Mixolydian mode, with an ornamented variation of an E7 chord serving as harmony.

So, in SLModes the first modal modulation would be achieved by using the setup shown below. Here, Satriani jumped to a Mode which is very far away from the original key, with only 3 notes in common. You could indeed say that this transition sounds like not of this Earth 🙂

The second modal modulation would be achieved by this setup, going from E Lydian to E Mixolydian. With 5 notes in common, the transition sounds more familiar to our ears.

An interesting question remains: how would this track sound if Satriani had chosen different modes to jump to? The possibilities are vast, with different modal universes waiting to be discovered. If this kind of stuff electrify your mind, SLModes is for you. But keep reading — there’s something extra cool ahead.

Always With Me, Always With You – Joe Satriani

With Joe Satriani being know as the musician who popularized Pitch Axis Theory, it is not a surprise that he’s being included twice in this list. However the reasons are different now.

His track Always With Me, Always With You also used the Pitch Axis Theory, but in a slightly different way: instead of using this concept at the level of the chord progressions, he’s using it at the level of the composition itself.

The music starts with the following chords (or some ornamented variation of them):

  • B / B / E maj7 / F# sus4

This chord progression has no modal modulation in it – it’s a good old progression within the key of B Major.

However, later in the track (more specifically at the 01:05 mark), he changes the whole key of the song from B Major to B Minor, and starts to play a chord progression that predictably falls within the B minor key:

  • Bm / Bm / Em / F#7 sus4

This means something extraordinary. It means that you no longer have to see SLModes as a tool restricted to modal modulations at the level of chord changes. It can also be used at the broader level of sectional key changes.

Now, you can look at a B Ionian to B Aeolian modulation and use it either as a literal change from a B maj chord to a B min chord, or you can create a regular chord progression that fits within the B Ionian mode and then later in the song change it into a regular chord progression that fits within the B Aeolian mode, exactly like Joe Satriani did in Always With Me, Always With You.

Doesn’t this sound really exiting? Of course you could explore this all on your own, but SLModes allows you to hear instantaneously how each modes sound next to each other, which just by itself is a huge help in deciding which modes to choose.

If you’re as excited about the modes, Modal Modulation and Pitch Axis Theory as I am, I’m sure you’ll love the software. It’s really fun!

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