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Can You Spare a Chord or two or more, Please?: Borrowed Chords or Modal Interchange

Posted by admin | Posted in Harmonic Concepts | Posted on 18-04-2010

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I’m back!  And I need to borrow something….No worries, I’m referring to our little bag of harmonic tricks. I hope by now you have gone through the diatonic triads and 7ths of both the major and minor scales (all three variations). In this post, I’m going to show you how you can spice up your diatonic chords by applying a technique called modal interchange or borrowed chords.

Check out this song by James Morrison “You Give Me Something”:

Here is the sheet music:

You Give Me Something – James Morrison & Eg White

The very first two chords of the introduction point to the prevalent use of borrowed chords in this soulful song, i.e. Ab-Fmi6-C or bVI-IVmi6-I in the key of C major.

Modal interchange or borrowed chords is a harmonic device  where chords from the parallel scale of the existing scale or key is taken (or borrowed) and used in that key. A parallel scale is one that shares the same first note or tonic or root note, e.g. the parallel minor scale of C major is C minor — any one of the three, i.e. natural, melodic or harmonic. Technically, you can also borrow chords from the parallel modes* that has the same root note, e.g. C Dorian, C Lydian, etc. The most common though is from the minor scales.

Using modal interchange adds chromaticism or extra colors to your chords and chord progression because it veers away from just the seven diatonic chords of the current key.

Let’s go back to Mr. Morrison’s song. As mentioned, it starts off with a 3-bar intro of bVI-IVmi6-I. Both of these chords are from the parallel scale of C natural minor. It’s like replacing an ordinary diatonic VImi-IV-I progression, with IV-I being a classic Plagal or “Amen” cadence or phrase-ending chords.

The verse goes through a very diatonic progression of mainly triads, then moves the same way through the chorus and ends with the parallel minor cadence.

In the bridge section, the first half starts off with the following chords: Ebmaj7-Dmi7-G-Bb/F-F-C7-Ebmaj7-Bbmaj7 which works out to bIIImaj7-IImi7-V-bVII/5-IV-I7-bIIImaj7-bVIImaj7.

And what parallel scales are we seeing here? Ebmaj7 or bIIIma7 is either from C natural minor or C Dorian. C7, Bb/F and Bbmaj7 (I7, bVII/5 & bVIImaj7, respectively) are from the C Mixolydian mode, giving the song its bluesy character. Arguably, both the Bb structures could also come from the C Dorian mode. But I’m more inclined to go with the Mixolydian mode because of the bluesy nature of the section.

And there you have it! Just by borrowing chords from the parallel minor key and modes, Morrison has managed to make a simple song sound bluesy and soulful.

Let’s look at another example.  Just in case you think modal interchange equals the blues sound, listen to this old pop classic by Spandau Ballet, “True.”  I’ll spare you the cheesy-looking ’80s video and let you have an mp3 clip instead.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Here is the first page of the sheet music that contains the two main borrowed chords featured in the song:

On the third line, the first chord Fmaj9 or bVIImaj9 in the Key of G major; and the last line second chord Eb or bVI of the key. Later on in the song during the sax solo, the group vamps on Ebmaj7 and Abmaj7, which are bVImaj7 and bIImaj respectively.
So where do these borrowed chords come from? bVI definitely comes from the parallel G natural minor scale; bVIImaj9 is from the G Mixolydian* (the fifth mode of C major scale); and bIImaj7 from the G Phrygian* (the third mode of the Eb major scale).
As you can see, employing modal interchange to a composition does not equate adding a bluesy sound to the song. Generally, it just adds color that otherwise will not be there in an entirely diatonic song.
So all in all, we can see that the popular borrowed chords are the bVI and bVII, coming from the parallel natural minor scale and the parallel mixolydian mode, respectively.

[All video & music clips and music sheet used for educational purposes only.]

* The major modes are made up of notes from the major scale but are being repositioned or displaced to start on different degrees of the scale, e.g. playing the C major scale but starting and ending on the D note will give us the D Dorian mode; similarly, beginning and ending on G but playing notes from the C major scale will result in the G Mixolydian mode. I will cover the major modes in depth in another post.