The Art of Modal Harmony

Modal harmony, a concept that reshaped jazz in the mid-20th century, offers musicians a distinct approach to composition and improvisation. Unlike traditional tonal harmony, which is driven by chord functions and resolutions, modal harmony emphasizes melody and employs chords more as atmospheric backdrops. This blog post delves into the essence of modal harmony, its characteristics, and its transformative effect on jazz, using insights from various music theory resources.

The Core of Modal Harmony:

Modal harmony liberates composers from the constraints of functional harmony, focusing instead on the color and mood created by modes. In modal compositions, chords do not follow the predictable paths of tension and resolution found in tonal music. Instead, the modal center, or “tonic,” serves as a gravitational point, around which the melody and harmony revolve, maintaining a cohesive musical environment without the traditional harmonic movement.

Examples in Jazz:

So What” by Miles Davis, “Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock, and “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock (click for pdfs of sheet music) exemplify modal harmony in action. These compositions are characterized by minimal chord changes and a pre-conceived mode, such as Dorian for “So What,” which shapes the entire piece’s atmosphere and color.

Quartal Harmony and Voicings:

A hallmark of modal jazz is its use of quartal harmony, or chords built on fourths rather than thirds. This approach produces a sound that’s ambiguous and modern, leaving the root of the chord open to interpretation. For instance, a Dm Dorian chord can be voiced with any portion of the sequence D-G-C-F-B-E-A-D, creating a texture that’s rich yet devoid of the functional implications of triadic harmony. This method of voicing, extensively used by Bill Evans on “So What,” provides a unique harmonic color distinct to modal jazz.

Maintaining Modal Integrity:

To preserve the modal character and prevent the music from reverting to a tonal center, modal jazz compositions often employ a drone or pedal note that reinforces the root. This technique, along with the inclusion of the mode’s characteristic pitch in as many chords as possible, ensures the mode’s identity is clearly communicated. For example, in Mixolydian mode, the characteristic pitch is the flattened seventh, which differentiates it from the major scale.

Challenges and Considerations:

While modal harmony opens up new realms of creativity, it also presents challenges, such as avoiding the diatonic tritone in voicings, which could inadvertently suggest a shift to a tonal center. Successful modal composition and improvisation thus require a delicate balance, ensuring the modal center is continually emphasized without resorting to the functional tendencies of tonal harmony.


Modal harmony represents a paradigm shift in jazz, offering a framework where melody reigns supreme, and harmonic progression serves more as a coloristic tool than a structural necessity. By exploring modes and employing techniques like quartal harmony, jazz musicians can craft compositions that are at once grounded in tradition and boldly innovative. The examples of “So What,” “Cantaloupe Island,” and “Maiden Voyage” not only serve as foundational studies for aspiring jazz musicians but also as enduring reminders of the genre’s expansive potential.

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