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Lydian chord progressions

Probably more than 99% of the songs are written by using the regular major (Ionian) or minor (aeolian) modes. But you can create different moods with your music by using different modes, and your song will be more unique if you utilize these scales.

What is a mode?

When we are talking about modes, we are talking about the same set of notes, but with different tonal centers. For example, the “regular” C major scale (the Ionian mode) is C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The tonal center here is the note C.

We use the same set of notes for each other modes, but their tonal center is a different note. The tonal center of the Lydian mode is the note F, so the Lydian mode is F, G, A, B, C, D, E.

In the case of modes, I always recommend comparing each other using the same tonal center. For example, we will compare the C Lydian mode with the C Ionian. This way it will be much easier to understand everything because usually everyone is very comfortable with the regular Ionian mode, especially in the key of C major.

So the regular C major (Ionian) scale is: C, D, E, F, G, A, B

And the C Lydian scale is: C, D, E, F#, G, A, B

As you can see, there is only one note difference between the two modes, the notes F and F#. This is why the Lydian is very close to the regular major scale, however, the Lydian mode sounds a little bit brighter. In fact, it is the brightest mode of all.

How to write chord progressions based on Lydian

I get this question many times but the thing is, there is no such thing as “Lydian chord progression”. Because the chord progression itself doesn’t determine the mode! It’s the chord progression AND the melody together. Sometimes it’s ONLY the melody!

Just think about it for a moment. You are using the same set of chords as you would use for an Ionian song. Many people think that if you start the chord progression with the IV (like F major chord) and end the chord progression with the IV, then it’s a Lydian chord progression. No, it’s not.

There is some confusion around this topic, that’s why I would like to make this thing clear here.

However, there is a CHORD that creates a Lydian sound, and that is if we add a #11 chord tone to a tonic I. chord. For example, in the key of C major, we can use these chords for a Lydian sound:

Cadd#11 C – E – G – F#
Cmaj7(#11) C – E – G – B – F#
C7(#11) C – E – G – Bb – F#
Lydian chords

The easiest way to figure out how we can use the Lydian mode in practice is by writing down songs to see how they used it successfully. And also, before you try to figure out how to write a song in Lydian mode, it’s always a good idea to play these songs on your instrument so your ear gets used to how it sounds, and what works in this mode.

Let’s see a few songs for example, and then we will see what can we learn from those examples.

The first example is the song “When We Dance” by Sting. First, let’s listen to the song:

You can immediately hear the distinctive sound of the Lydian mode in the verse, which makes this song unique.

Here are the chords he is using in the song. (This is not the actual chord progression, but only the chords he is using in the song.)

verse:

C – Am

chorus:

G – C/E – F – C

As you can see, the chord progression doesn’t give us any clue that this song is in Lydian mode. He doesn’t use a D major chord or a Bm chord in the song, and actually, the chorus is just a regular Ionian mode, both the chords and the melody. But the MELODY makes the verse Lydian.

(By the way, Sting is using the Rhythm Code in this song.)

He sings the note F# on a C major chord, which makes the Lydian sound in the verse.

Also, notice that the verse is C Lydian, but the chorus is C Ionian! – so we already learned one songwriting technique only by writing down ONE song.

Let’s see another song, it’s “Man On The Moon” by R.E.M. Listen to the song, at least until the first chorus, before reading further:

The chords in the verse are:

C – D

pre-chorus:

Am – G – D

chorus:

G – Am – C – D

Again, if we only look at the chord progression, this could be a regular Ionian mode in the key of G major. So what makes this song sound Lydian? It’s the shape of the melody in the verse. Usually, melodies end on the tonal center. And in this song, the melody ends on the note C on a C major chord at the end of the lines in the verse. This makes us feel like that it’s in Lydian mode.

Actually, the verse is in C Lydian mode (at least that’s how it sounds) and the chorus is in G Ionian. Which is practically the same.

So this is a very different usage of the Lydian mode than in the previous example.

Why Fleetwood Mac’s “Dream” is NOT in Lydian mode

There is huge confusion about the Lydian mode in songwriting. Many people think that if the chord progression of a song starts with the chords F and G (for example, in the key of C major) then it’s in Lydian mode.

No, it’s not.

The Lydian mode has a certain, distinctive sound. You don’t even need to analyze the song. If you are familiar with the Lydian scale, you can hear it if it’s in Lydian mode or not just by listening to the song.

Just because a song starts with the chord F, and also using the chord G, it doesn’t mean that the tonal center is F, therefore the song is in Lydian mode. Surprise – surprise, a song can start with chords other than the “tonic” or the tonal center.

I saw other websites stated that the song “Dream” by Fleetwood Mac is in Lydian mode. Listen to the song:

The chords are F and G in the whole song, and the melody is using the notes of the C major key. But does it sound like a Lydian mode? No, it doesn’t.

So why is that?

It’s because of the melody. The verse melody starts with the note A, and ends with the note A. So the verse sounds like Aeolian mode. And the chorus ends on the note C, so it sounds like Ionian.

There is another reason why we don’t hear the distinctive Lydian sound. The melody in this song is mostly using the pentatonic scale: A – C – D – E – G. The typical Lydian sound is when there is a #IV on a “tonic” I. chord. In this case, it would be a B note in the melody on the chord F. Although, there is a note B in the melody in this song, but it’s not on the chord F, it’s on the chord G.

Just because the chords are using only the IV and the V chords, it doesn’t make the song Lydian. It’s just a song using the chords IV and V…

There is another song like this. The song “Friends” by Justin Bieber. Listen to the song:

This song also contains only the IV and the V (Ab and Bb) in Eb major. Does it sound like Lydian? I don’t think so. Maybe the pre-chorus, where the melody note is a D on an Ab chord. But the chorus melody ends on the note Eb, which suggests that Eb is the tonal center.

Another example is the song “Fuck You” by Cee Loo Green. Listen to the song here:

The chords are: C – D – F

Does this song sound like it’s in Lydian mode? No, it doesn’t. Why? Because the melody is using the pentatonic scale. So even though the chord progression of this song would suggest that there is a F# note in the key of C major, it still doesn’t make the song into a Lydian song.

In Summary

Here is what we have learned about writing songs in Lydian mode.

1. The chord progression itself doesn’t determine the mode of the song. It’s the chord progression AND the melody. Just because a chord progression starts with the IV and V of the major key (like the chords F and G in the key of C major), it doesn’t necessarily mean that the song is in Lydian mode.

2. However, you can create a Lydian sound by using the note F# on the tonic I. chord. (f.e. When We Dance by Sting)

3. One technique is to use a C Lydian mode in the verse (with the #11 chord) and a C Ionian mode in the chorus. (This creates a contrast between the parts, which is essential in songwriting.)

4. Another technique if one part of the song (for example, the verse) is in C Lydian, but the chorus is in G Ionian. They are practically the same, but in this case, the shape of the melody makes it feel like that the verse is in Lydian. You can make it feel like a Lydian mode if you end the chord progression with the C major chord and also end the melody with the note C.

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About the Author

Producer, songwriter of the band Barrio Latino Hungría. Author of the Songwriting Essentials.