Composing in Mixolydian Mode

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Cover Photo by Emilio Garcia

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the ScoreThe full video and text lesson on the Mixolydian Mode can be found here.

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Think of the Mixolydian mode as the soundtrack to your chillest day. It’s got that relaxed confidence, a touch of bluesy coolness, and a hint of something unexpected, all rolled into one. (Photo by Jeremy Bishop)

What is Mixolydian Mode?

Mixolydian mode, a musical scale that injects a dose of sophistication and swagger across genres.

Think of Mixolydian as a chilled cousin of the major scale. They share all the same notes, but the Mixolydian has a lowered 7th degree. This seemingly minor tweak unlocks a whole new world of sound.

The Mixolydian Sound

The lowered 7th degree in Mixolydian gives it a unique character. It’s neither major nor minor, offering a blend of both. This characteristic sound can be described as:

  • Cool and relaxed
  • Slightly bluesy
  • Bold and confident
  • Mode Structure: 1 2 3 4 5 6 ♭7 (Fig. D-1 & D-2)
  • Character Note: ♭7th Degree
  • Fifth Mode of Major Scale

Mixolydian is another versatile major mode, boasting a bright and open sound. It’s derived by playing a major scale starting from the 5th degree. For this reason, we call it the “fifth mode” of a major scale. 
The “shortcut” approach for creating Mixolydian is to play a major scale with a lowered (“flat”) seventh degree. For instance, in Fig. D-1, C Mixolydian is simply a C major scale where the seventh note has been lowered to B♭. This flat seventh evokes a somewhat bluesy quality that works well in many modern pop and rock subgenres.

Mixolydian Mode
Mixolydian
Diatonic Chords of Mixolydian Mode
Diatonic Chords of Mixolydian Mode

In the following example, we used E Mixolydian to write a short, upbeat piece.

Mixolydian Composition Example

Analysis

This is a short, synth-driven piece based on recurring patterns. Generally, the harmony moves between E major (Ⅰ), D major (♭Ⅶ), and A major (Ⅳ) chords. Of these chords, D major (♭Ⅶ, and “cadence chord”) is built on the characteristic lowered seventh degree of E Mixolydian. Let us delve into the specific components to see how they fit together.

The Keyboard plays a series of syncopated chords, outlining a four-bar chord progression. The chord pattern of mm. 1-4 repeats in mm. 5-8. In addition, the rhythm pattern repeats (notice three chords in m. 4 and m. 8). Meanwhile, Synth Pluck plays an arpeggio pattern of continuous eighth notes throughout, creating a background layer to help support the harmony.

The Synth Bell plays a melody that is rhythmically connected to the keyboard chords. In m. 2 and m. 4, Synth Bell focuses on the note “D” (❶), which reinforces the harmony and accentuates the ♭7 color of Mixolydian.

In the first few measures, the absence of a strong bass allows the Synth Pluck arpeggios to create a floating sensation. At the end of m. 3, the bass sneaks in on high notes. Then it descends in m. 5 to a rhythmic pedal tone on E (the tonic). Although A Major and E Mixolydian share the same collection of notes, it is easy to hear “E” as the tonic in this case. The insistent “E” bass notes (❷) and the supporting E major chords help us frame what we hear as E Mixolydian.

Music Examples

This iconic track from Kind of Blue perfectly exemplifies the bluesy side of Mixolydian.
Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” is a rock and roll classic, fueled by its driving energy and iconic guitar riff. But what gives the song its signature sound? The answer lies in the use of the D Mixolydian mode (but could also be said to be in D Dorian.)


Toro y Moi‘s “Déjà Vu” is a captivating example of a song written in the A Mixolydian mode. This choice of mode contributes to the song’s unique harmonic character, creating a blend of major tonality with a slightly bluesy edge. Let’s break down the harmonic structure of each section:

[INTRO]: The intro sets the stage with a progression alternating between the I7 chord and the IV chord, firmly establishing the A Mixolydian feel. The progression can be notated as I7 (A7) <-> IV (D).

[VERSE]: The verse section features a ii- IV | I7 progression, which moves from B minor to D major, then to A7.

[CHORUS]: In the chorus, the harmony shifts to B7sus4 (which can also be seen as A/B) followed by D major, creating a rich and dynamic sound. This progression is notated as B7sus4 (or A/B) | D.

Each section of “Déjà Vu” showcases the versatility of the A Mixolydian mode, highlighting how its unique scale can be used to craft melodies that are both fresh and familiar.

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.