Borrowed Chords Or Modal Interchange: What Are They?

Published: 23rd April 2010
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If you listen carefully to James Morrison's soulful song, "You Give Me Something," you will quickly realize the use of a harmonic device called modal interchange or borrowed chords that gives the song its distinct sound. In fact, the very first two chords of the introduction point to the prevalent use of borrowed chords in the 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 have 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.

If we go back to Mr. Morrison's song, you will hear a 3-bar intro of bVI-IVmi6-I, as mentioned. 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 (the fifth mode of F major scale), giving the song its bluesy character. Arguably, both the Bb structures could also come from the C Dorian mode (the second mode of Bb major scale). But I'm more inclined to go with the Mixolydian mode because of the bluesy nature of the section. And there you have it, a beautiful soulful song with the simple addition of borrowed chords to the main key.

Let's look at another example. Just in case you think modal interchange equals the blues sound, take a listen to the old pop classic by Spandau Ballet, "True." The song is in the Key of G major and features two main borrowed chords, i.e. Fmaj9 or bVIImaj9 ; and 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.

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