Dorian mode

Recall that we defined scale as:
a group of notes within an octave (and any octaves of those notes) usually played one at a time.

We can describe (define) a scale in any of these ways:
- by letters (representing specific pitches)
- by numbers (representing specific intervals)
- by step pattern (describing intervals from note to note)

So for example the major scale (ionian mode) can be described/ defined as/by: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (in the key of C), 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, and W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2.

We define a minor scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,b3,5.
(In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct a minor chord off the root note)

What is a mode? (of a scale)
- I will have a lesson on modes next time, but for now...

Let us define a mode as a scale within a family of scales that are related by their step patterns. We can derive the modes of a scale by moving the first step of a step pattern to the end, and repeating until we return to the first scale we started with.

As a practical example we will derive the modes of the major scale (major scale = WW1/2WWW1/2). We remember that we sometimes call the major scale the ionian mode (or ionian scale), and we sometimes call the minor scale the aeolian mode.

WW1/2WWW1/2 = Ionian
W1/2WWW1/2W = Dorian
1/2WWW1/2WW = Phrygian
WWW1/2WW1/2 = Lydian
WW1/2WW1/2W = Mixolydian
W1/2WW1/2WW = Aeolian
1/2WW1/2WWW = Locrian

So we note that the dorian mode is the 2nd mode of the major scale, and that its step pattern is W1/2WWW1/2W.

Another way to explain modes (more commonly seen) is to rotate through the pitches to derive modes.

In the key of C:
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C = C-Ionian
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = D-Dorian
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = E-Phrygian
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = F-Lydian
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = G-Mixolydian
A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A = A-Aeolian
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = B-Locrian

So we note that the dorian mode is the 2nd mode of the major scale. We also note that the pitches (letters) are the same, so the modes share the same key (and key signature).

From either dorian = W1/2WWWW1/2, or D-Dorian = D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D we can find the intervals (from the root note) to be 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7.

Looking at the numbers, we can deduce that the dorian mode is a minor scale (not THE minor scale everyone talks about - that would be the aeolian mode, but a minor scale none-the-less). that is, it contains the notes 1,b3,5.

We also note that it is very similar to THE minor scale. The aeolian mode (THE minor scale) has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7; and the dorian mode has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7. So we could view the dorian mode/scale as an aeolian scale with a major sixth ( a major sixth in place of a minor sixth). We can use this idea as a stepping stone to learning the scale. If you already know the aeolian scale (THE minor scale), then you could play those patterns , replacing the b6 with the 6. This idea of thinking of one scale as being another scale with altered notes (e.g. ionianb7, lydianb7, etc.) or with missing notes (e.g. pentatonic major, etc.) occurs from time to time, and may give some perspective/context/comfort in learning new scales.

Recall that the pentatonic minor scale is made of the notes 1,b3,4,5,b7. we could use the pent. min. scale to substitute for both the dorian mode (1,2,b3,4,5,6,b7), and the aeolian mode (1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7). It's a possibility, but we will lose some of the flavor (which is probably why we're using dorian in the first place).

So lets look at some patterns (moveable shapes) with which we can play the dorian scale.


dorian mode "E-shape" (root note on the 6th string)


dorian mode "D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)


dorian mode "C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)


dorian mode "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)


dorian mode "G-shape" (root note on the 6th string)


We recall, that we can derive chords by harmonizing scales. We've previously harmonized the major scale in thirds to get triads, and seventh chords (see August 19th's, and august 16th's lessons)

We found for the major scale (ionian mode) The following triads:
and 7th chords:

Recalling from above that the dorian mode contains the same notes (pitches) as the ionian mode, it also contains the same chords (starting with the 2nd chord of the ionain mode). So we have the following triads for the dorian modes:
and the following 7th chords:

We can create "dorian" progressions. Doing so will give us a framework to analyze songs, and find good opportunities to employ the dorian mode. it's also good practice for songwriting, etc.

We see above the following chords for dorian:
in triads: i-ii-bIII-IV-v-vio-bVII
in 7th chords: i7-ii7-bIIImaj7-IV7-v7--vi7b5-bVIImaj7
(in 9th chords: i9-ii7b9-bIIImaj9-IV9-v7-vi7b9b5-bVIImaj9)
(in 11th chords: i11-ii11b9-bIIImaj9#11-IV11-v11-vi11b9b5-bVIImaj11)
(in 13th chords: i13-ii11b13b9-bIIImaj13#11-IV13-v11b13-vi11b13b9b5-bVIImaj13)
I've not covered the extensions in parenthesis yet, but I've listed them for those who would find such info useful.

So we could take any of the chords in the above paragraph and create a dorian progression out of it. We really should include some type of I chord (i, i7, i7sus4, i9, etc.) and it should be the predominant chord in our progression, with a feeling of resolution when we come back to it.

Take a minute to compare and contrast the chords from the aeolian, and dorian modes.
Aeolian = i-iio-bIII-iv-v-bVI-bVII
Dorian = i-ii-bIII-IV-v-vio-bVII

They share the following chords (triads) in common: i,bIII,v,bVII.
Creating a progression using only these chords would be slightly ambiguous, and could be interpreted as either Aeolian or Dorian. In fact, such a progression would be a good one to record (or have a friend play) and solo over to uderstand the subtle differences between Aeolian and Dorian (try switching from i-Aeolian to i-Dorian and back, etc. over such a progression and see what different moods are created).

If on the other hand, you want to create a progression that has a more dorian character, you should include at least one of the other 3 chords (ii,IV,vio) not found in aeolian.

Where/when does one usually decide to use dorian?
- some would use it over the ii7 chord in the major scale/key context (play ii-dorian over ii7)
- many jazz players use dorian over any/every m7 chord that pops up (ex. play C-dorian over Cm7, etc.)
- over several chords that fit within a dorian context (see above chords for dorian). ex. over Dm-G-C (i-IV-bVII) you could play D-dorian.
- over a related modal progression, use the relative dorian scale (ex. over an ionian progression i.e. I-ii-iii-IV, play the ii-dorian)

As easy as it would be to think of dorian in a key context (i.e. that it's the major scale with emphasis on a different note). I would make a plea that you take the time to get to know the dorian scale for its own sake.

Likewise there are times when you want to use aeolian or dorian. Make sure you become familiar with the subtleties between the two. It takes time to breed familiarity with any scale/chord/rhythm/progression/effect/genre.

We can increase our familiarity by singing every note as we practice our scales/soloing. In previous lessons on scales i've given some basic pointers on starting to solo. Those things transfer here too. Just replace the scale in question with the dorian scale (see lessons from May 24th, june 7th, july 5th, and august 2nd). Here are two more using Dorian:

1.) (1-4-b3)-(2-5-4)-(b3-6-5)-(4-b7-6)-(5-8-b7)-(6-9-8)

2.) (1-b7-4)-(2-1-5)-(b3-2-6)-(4-b3-b7)-(5-4-1)

Just an aside...

many (most) jazz songs can be broken down harmonically as being composed of progressions from the circle of 5ths, typically: ii7-V7, ii7-V7-Imaj7, (also ii7b5-v7-i, iii7-vi7-ii7-V7-Imaj7,etc.) The most basic progression used, reused, disguised, etc. is ii7-V7, which can be seen as a Dorian progression (i7-IV7), an Ionian progression (ii7-V7-Imaj7), or a melodic minor progression (ii7-V7). When deciding what to improvise over such progressions, the first thought should be to play what's in your head.

Nice ideal. How do you get there? the jazz adage is "fake it till you make it". When deciding what to do when you don't know what to do, it may be helpful to understand the relationships between harmonic structures (chords, progressions, etc.) and melodic structures (scales, , etc.)

To give just a thought (within the jazz context), it could prove useful to take every two consecutive chords that follows the pattern m7 chord to dom7 chord a perfect 4th higher as being a ii7-V7 progression in some key (with which you could solo over in ii-Dorian). This should give you an option to "fake" with for 80% of what you find in jazz. This is an oversimplification but you have to start somewhere. if you're into jazz, you should pick up a copy of "the real book" ( or "the new real book") and listen to as much jazz as you can.

More on jazz and other genres coming up at an appropriate time.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Previous lesson - Modes of the major Scale, pt.3

Last updated January 1, 2003
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