A Minor Scale With A Bright Spot: The Dorian Mode

Scales are a powerful building block of understanding and making music. However, it’s not all just about major and minor.

Seven modes exist for your listening (and playing!) pleasure. They are found everywhere, from classical music and movie soundtracks to contemporary rock and folk music.

Let’s have a look at one of the most popular and versatile: the Dorian mode!

But first…

What’s A Mode?

Modes are scales that are derived from the major scales. There are seven: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Ionian in C major begins on C, and each subsequent scale starts on the next note of the C major scale as the one before it:

As you can see, each scale technically uses the same notes, but the tonic is shifted to a different note in each case!

Why Learn Modes?

Simply put, they will improve your playing, songwriting, and singing, regardless of what level you’re at as a musician.

Modes open up a world of music beyond just major and minor. Though modes can be divided into those two categories, each one has a distinct feel that is more complex than just being “happy” or “sad”. For example, while the classic Ionian scale’s upbeat and bright feel lends itself well to pop music, Lydian has more unusual intervals that makes it very suitable for jazz music. Hence, though the two modes are both major, they give music two completely different vibes.

You can probably see how this is valuable in songwriting; if you’re writing a sad song, you have multiple avenues you can explore within the realm of “sad”. You could go with the wistful, melancholy Aeolian, or experiment with the more gloomy, unsettling Locrian mode.

The Dorian Mode

As we learned above, a mode is derived by changing which note in the scale is used as the root note. Dorian is simply the mode that has D as its tonic in C major, and is therefore played D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D:

Like each mode, Dorian has a specific tone-semitone pattern that remains as the backbone of the scale, regardless of the key it’s played in. The pattern in Dorian is tone-semitone-tone-tone-tone-semitone-tone. The intervals that result from this pattern lend Dorian its minor quality.

Transposing Dorian Mode

Dorian mode does not have to start on D; you can make the root note any note, transposing the mode into whatever key you fancy.

There are two ways to transpose Dorian:

  1. Use the tone-semitone pattern previously mentioned to figure out the notes the scale should have, starting on any root note you want.
  2. Derive Dorian from a major scale. Dorian mode in any key will have the same accidentals as the major scale a whole tone below it!
    For example, B Dorian will have the same key signature (three sharps in this case) as A major.

Comparing Dorian to Other Scales and Modes

Dorian is a minor mode that differs from some of its modal cousins by only one note! Let’s see how it relates to two others that it has close ties to.

Dorian and the Natural Minor Scale

Dorian is similar to the Aeolian mode (natural minor), with the only difference being the major sixth found in the Dorian mode. This raised sixth degree lends a “bright spot” to the Dorian mode; this is often exploited in music.

Dorian and the Major Scale

Though Dorian is derived from the major scale (Ionian mode!) and uses the same notes in a given key, they have completely different moods. This occurs because the tonal center in Dorian is different than in Ionian, resulting in a different tone-semitone pattern, different intervals, and a different mood!

When and How Is Dorian Used?

Dorian is very versatile and can work with both major and minor keys. Traditionally, Dorian was commonly used in traditional Irish and other folk music.

Today, it is primarily found in jazz and blues, because its raised sixth degree gives a drive and brightness to the mode that works well with those styles. Elements of Dorian mode are also seen in pop, rock, and metal.

The Dorian mode works beautifully when layered with the pentatonic scale, and the two are frequently used together for a powerful effect.

You’ve almost certainly heard this mode in action before. Some well-known tunes that use it are:

  • “Wicked Game” – Chris Isaak
  • “Oye Como Va” – Santana
  • “Purple Haze” – Jimi Hendrix
  • “Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles
  • “Impressions” – John Coltrane

Practicing Dorian Mode

As with anything, it’s a good idea to start with the absolute basics – this is a little different from your typical major or minor scale, and really getting the feel of the mode may take a bit of time. Here’s a good step-by-step way to get comfortable with Dorian:

  1. Begin by practicing the scale itself, ascending and descending, getting comfortable with the tone-semitone pattern.
  2. Then, proceed to intervals and scale interval patterns. Pay attention to whether each interval is major or minor, and what mood it gives when played by itself.
  3. Experiment with building chords and triads built on the notes of Dorian mode. Use the raised sixth degree to add interest to the music!
  4. Try improvising in Dorian mode using a backing track! Play around with intervals, scale patterns, and major and minor chords.

Dorian Mode and Different Instruments

Dorian is used slightly differently depending on which instrument it’s being played on. For example, guitarists commonly use it as a stand-in for the minor pentatonic scale, as its raised sixth gives it a nice “bright spot”.

Dorian mode is commonly used by the bass guitar as part of the rhythm section.

On the piano, Dorian is more popular still; in fact, it is the most common minor scale found in jazz piano. It can be used alone, or overlapped with other scales.

It doesn’t stop there; this mode can also be found in violin, flute, saxophone, and other melodic instruments, especially those commonly used in jazz music.

Digging into Dorian

In today’s music, the Dorian mode is one of the most popular and useful seven-note scales. Its versatility lends it to a variety of music styles, and its characteristic raised sixth gives it an interesting major-minor ambiguity.
Try to listen for Dorian in popular music; you’re sure to find it in a variety of genres! As you hear more and more examples of it in use, your ear will get more and more reliable at recognising it straight off.

Use the tips in this article to start familiarizing yourself with Dorian, and check out our Ultimate Guide to the Dorian Mode for even more theory, playing exercises, and instrumental applications of this versatile mode!