V. Chromaticism

Modal Mixture

Brian Jarvis

Key Takeaways

  • Modal mixture involves borrowing notes from the parallel key.
  • Mixture is more common in major keys (borrowing from the parallel minor).
  • Mixture changes the quality of a chord, but not its function.
  • Mixture can be used in melodies, one or more chords, extended tonicizations, and modulations.
  • Chords with lowered roots use a flat sign in front of the Roman numeral (e.g., ♭VI).

Chapter Playlist

Modal mixture (or borrowing) is the harmonic technique of mixing the notes from the parallel major and natural-minor modes (e.g., C major and C minor). This results in changing the chord qualities and/or melodic “color” to achieve expressive effects not available in the main scale itself. In the majority of cases, this occurs in major-key pieces where notes from the parallel minor are borrowed; most of this chapter reflects that norm. Examples 1 and 2 provide a brief review of parallel minor scales and their associated solfège and scale degrees. Notice the three differences between the scales: mi/me [latex](\hat3/\downarrow\hat3)[/latex], la/le [latex](\hat6/\downarrow\hat6)[/latex], and ti/te [latex](\hat7/\downarrow\hat7)[/latex].

Example 1. Comparison of parallel major and minor scales and their solfège.

Example 2. Comparison of parallel major and minor scales and their scale degrees.

Melody and Harmony

While these changes may only be reflected in a single melodic line to add color to a specific moment, quite often they have a pronounced harmonic effect. By borrowing notes from the parallel scale, the chord qualities change, as shown in Examples 3 and 4:

Example 3. Comparison of parallel major and minor chord qualities.

Example 4. Comparison of parallel major and minor Roman numerals.

Common Progressions

Chords with le [latex](\downarrow\hat6)[/latex] only: iio6, ii∅7, and iv

As you might expect, not all of these modal mixture possibilities show up with equal frequency. Cadential predominant chords are common targets, and the chords in Example 5 below appear with some frequency in cadential progressions, each of which only borrows le [latex](\downarrow\hat6)[/latex] from the parallel minor key.

Example 5. Common predominant mixture chords: iio6, ii∅7, and iv.

Altering Chord Roots

Borrowing me [latex](\downarrow\hat3)[/latex] and te [latex](\downarrow\hat7)[/latex] is also common. These scale degrees generate the chords ♭VI, ♭III, and ♭VII (Example 6). Notice that when the root of the chord is changed from its original position in the scale, an accidental is placed in front of the Roman numeral to signify this change. In this context, these accidentals do not literally indicate “flat” or “sharp,” but rather that the root is lowered (♭) or raised (♯) by a half step from how it usually appears in the scale.

Example 6. Modal mixture possibilities involving altered roots.


Try it!

Construct the chord according to the given Roman numeral. Pay careful attention to chord quality.

Tonic and Dominant

Using modal mixture with tonic and dominant chords is also possible (see Example 7). Changing from I to i is a common technique, but V to v is not as common. When v occurs in a major key, it is more likely to indicate an extended tonicization or modulatory passage instead of a single instance of modal mixture.

Example 7. Modal mixture with tonic and dominant.

Using Modal Mixture

Using modal mixture is as simple as lowering a few notes, but it is most common for chords to be fully borrowed from the minor scale, not just partially. For example, only using le [latex](\downarrow\hat6)[/latex] when a chord also uses mi [latex](\hat3)[/latex] is uncommon. It is also common that once modal mixture enters, it stays until the harmony moves on to another harmonic category. So, if there are two predominant chords and the first one uses modal mixture, the second chord very likely to include it as well (as in Example 8). The modal mixture is likely to stop once the predominant area has moved on to the dominant harmonic category, but not always.

Example 8. Comparison of a diatonic progression and the same progression with modal mixture in the predominant area.

Picardy Third

The one common use of modal mixture in minor keys is called a picardy third, in which a minor-key piece or movement ends with a major tonic chord (Example 9). The origin of the name “picardy” is unknown; the technique was quite common in the 16th and 17th centuries but faded in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Example 9. Harmonic progression ending with a picardy third.

Large-Scale Modal Mixture

While modal mixture may only involve a brief melodic change or one or more chords, it is also used in extended tonicizations and can be used to facilitate a modulation to a distantly related key. Example 10 shows a modulation between two distantly related keys (B♭ major and D♭ major) using a chromatic pivot chord to smooth out what could be a rather abrupt modulation. The subdominant chord uses le [latex](\downarrow\hat6)[/latex]instead of the diatonic la [latex](\hat6)[/latex], which makes the chord sound like iv in the first key but ii in the second key.

Example 10. A progression that uses modal mixture to modulate to a distantly related key.

Musical Examples

Example 11 shows a simple harmonic progression that borrows [latex]\downarrow\hat6[/latex] from the parallel minor key, which produces modal mixture. Notice the change in quality from [latex]\mathrm{ii^4_3}[/latex] to [latex]\mathrm{ii^\text{ø}{^4_3}}[/latex].

Example 11. Camille Saint-Saëns, Samson et Dalila, Act II, “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” (excerpt begins at 1:36). Note that the B𝄫 is borrowed from the parallel minor key, creating modal mixture.

Example 12 is a more extensive usage of modal mixture. Modal mixture is introduced at the third system and continues until the conclusion of the phrase at the bottom of the page. This results in a modulation from E major to its parallel minor, E minor. Notice in particular the dramatic effect of starting a phrase in a major key and ending in a minor key with the same tonic.

Example 12. Alfredo Catalani, La Wally, Act I, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” (excerpt starts at 0:50). Larger-scale modal mixture starting in measure 14.

  1. Modal Mixture Assignment (.pdf, .docx). Includes spelling, figured bass realization, 4-part voice-leading with Roman numerals, and analysis of musical excerpt. Access audio.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

OPEN MUSIC THEORY Copyright © 2023 by Brian Jarvis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book