Musicianship Resources

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Modal mixture

Modal mixture (also called modal borrowing) refers to the use of chords belonging to a parallel key—for example, a passage in F major incorporating one or more chords from F minor. Note that, like with the use of applied chords, this does not necessarily constitute modulation. Only a cadence can confirm a new key. Without a cadence in a new key, the non-diatonic chords are simply "borrowed."

Note that the use of the leading-tone in place of the subtonic, or a melodic-minor figure (sol–la–ti–do) in a minor key does not constitute modal mixture. Those are considered "native" to the minor mode.

Thoroughbass notation

A chord borrowed from the parallel major or minor will take the same thoroughbass figure as the "native" chord. However, it will require at least one chromatic alteration (flat, natural, sharp, or slash). Be careful to account for abbreviated figures: a 4/3 figure, for example, is short for 6/4/3. If the sixth above the bass is altered, that needs to be included in the figure (just like in a French augmented sixth chord, or a D2 chord in minor).

Functional bass notation

Chords borrowed from parallel keys are chromatically altered chords, and therefore their functional bass symbols should be enclosed in square brackets. For example, if an S4 chord in major is borrowed from the parallel minor (fa–le–do instead of fa–la–do), the functional bass symbol is [S4] not S4. If the bass note is not altered, this is the only change to the functional bass (but be sure to alter the thoroughbass figure as well).

If the bass note is chromatically altered, that must be reflected in the functional bass with a plus or minus before the numeral (as well as the square brackets). For example, if a passage in a major key incorporates a 5/3 chord over le (le–do–me instead of la–do–mi), the functional bass is [Tx–6].

Roman numeral notation

When the root of a borrowed chord belongs to the home key (e.g., using an E-minor chord instead of an E-major chord), the Roman numeral remains the same, since the Roman numeral simply represents the scale-degree of the chordal root. For example, if a piece in minor ends with a Picardy third (a major tonic triad), the Roman numeral is still I. (The thoroughbass will be altered to reflect the chromatic change.)

If the root is altered relative to the home key, use a flat or sharp in front of the Roman numeral to designate the alteration: flat to designate lowered (that is, a semitone below normal), sharp to designate raised (a semitone above normal). For example, a le–do–me chord in a major key is bVI. (Again, alter the thoroughbass as necessary.)