The Dorian Mode – Making It Musical

This weeks lesson is the Dorian Mode – making it musical. We'll be discussing what the Dorian mode is, how to make Dorian chord progressions, and how to pull out the Dorian sound in your improvisation. All in pursuit of making you sound more musical with the Dorian mode. There are some things that would be really beneficial for you to understand already in order to get the most out of this lesson. Those are the major scale, intervals, Nashville numbers and how modes are constructed. If you are uncertain on any of these topics, let me know in the comments as i'm more than happy to make you a lesson that will cover them in detail.

The Dorian mode - making it musical - Decorative Thumbnail

The Dorian Mode

Lets recap the Dorian mode and what makes this mode unique. The Dorian mode is the second mode of the major scale. This means if you can take any major scale and emphasise the second note as home base you will get the Dorian mode. For example if you take the C major scale and start your scale from the second note which is D, you get D Dorian.

C MajorCDEFGAB
D DorianDEFGABC
Notes in the Major Scale

Currently it still looks a lot like the major scale but starting on the second note. In order see the differences between the two you need to look at the intervallic formula that describes the scale. Your ear forms relationships between the note being emphasised as home base and every other note in the scale. You hear these relationships as intervals.

For example in the C major scale, C is emphasised as home base, therefore you hear every note as being related to C. This produces a sequence of intervals the goes Root, Major 2nd, Major 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Major 6th, and Major 7th.

C MajorCDEFGAB
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMajor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMajor 7th
Intervals in the Major Scale

When you emphasise the second note of the major scale as home base this sequence of intervals changes because we are relating all the notes in the scale to the second note instead of the first. If you treat the second note of the C major scale as home base, you get D Dorian. The sequence of intervals produced when D is the root note is. Root, Major 2nd, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Major 6th, Minor 7th.

D DorianDEFGABC
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMinor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMinor 7th
Intervals in the Dorian Mode

Hopefully you can see that the major scale and Dorian mode share the same notes, but their intervallic formulae are different.

Major ScaleRootMajor 2ndMajor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMajor 7th
Dorian ModeRootMajor 2ndMinor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMinor 7th
Major Scale Intervals vs Dorian Mode Intervals

One of the important things about the Dorian mode is the minor third. The presence of the minor third gives the scale a minor tonality. This makes it a minor mode and we are therefore better comparing it to the natural minor scale.

The natural minor scale is also called the Aeolian mode, it shares the same notes as the major scale but you start on the 6th note. This produces a scale formula that goes Root, Major 2nd, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Minor 6th, Minor 7th.

A AeolianABCDEFG
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMinor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMinor 6thMinor 7th
Intervals in the Aeolian Mode

When you compare the Dorian mode to the natural minor scale it is easy to see that the Dorian mode is simply a natural minor scale with a major 6 . That is the only difference between the two scales.

Aeolian ModeRootMajor 2ndMinor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMinor 6thMinor 7th
Dorian ModeRootMajor 2ndMinor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMinor 7th
Aeolian Mode Intervals vs Dorian Mode Intervals

In my experience this is how most musicians end up conceptualising the Dorian mode, it is a minor scale with a major 6 . This conceptualisation is useful because it will allow you to use a lot of the tools you already have, for example the minor pentatonic scale.

There is still a problem though. If you play the C major scale, and then the D Dorian scale back to back you probably won’t hear any difference between the two.

How to sound Dorian

How can you hear the difference between these two scales, and any of the modes for that matter? It all comes down to how you emphasise home base. The mode you hear is a product of the harmony that is being implied. If you create a harmony that implies to the listener that C is home base, you will hear C major or C Ionian. But if you create a harmony that implies that D is home base you will hear the Dorian mode.

In my opinion the harmony is the most important thing what it comes to hearing the modes. All modes of a major scale share the same notes, the difference is the relative relationships between the notes. Harmony is like the colour of a canvas on which you paint. It could be red, purple, white or yellow. The colour of the canvas will influence the colours of the paints that you layer on top.

Do both blues look the same to you?

In music harmony is a product of the chords that you are playing on top of. The chords that you play over will influence the quality of the melody that you create .Therefore if you want to sound Dorian you need to make sure that you are playing over a Dorian harmony. That is, a harmony that implies that the second note of the key is home base.

Chords in the Dorian Mode

In order to make a Dorian chord progression you need to know what chords are created by the Dorian mode. In the same way that we worked out the formula for a dorian scale we can also work out it’s chords. Lets look at the chords in the major scale.

In the major scale each note can have a chord built on it. The pattern produced is major, minor, minor, major, major, minor, diminished. So we have C major, D minor, E minor, F major, G major, A minor and B diminished.

C MajorCDEFGAB
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMajor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMajor 7th
ChordMajorMinorMinorMajorMajorMinor Diminished
Chords in the Major Scale

We can number these chords based on the interval in the formula, this is the Nashville number system in action. This gives us a major I, minor ii, minor iii, major IV, major V, minor vi, and a diminished vii chord.

C MajorCDEFGAB
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMajor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMajor 7th
ChordMajorMinorMinorMajorMajorMinor Diminished
Nashville NumberIiiiiiIVVviviio
Nashville numbers in the Major Scale

We can extend these chords to become 7th chords, this allows us to easily spot the dominant chord in the key. The dominant chord will be useful for implying home base so we should make it easy to find. G major becomes G7, this is our dominant V chord, ready for when we need it later.

C MajorCDEFGAB
IntervalRootMajor 2ndMajor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thMajor 7th
ChordMajorMinorMinorMajorMajorMinor Diminished
Nashville NumberIiiiiiIVVviviio
7th ChordIMaj7iim7iiim7IMaj7V7vim7viio
7th chords in the Major Scale

Given that Dorian is a minor mode it is better to compare it’s chords to those in the Aeolian mode which is our natural minor scale. Starting on the 6th note of the major scale gives us the natural minor scale. The chords in our natural minor scale follow the same sequence, we just start from the 6th chord . The pattern becomes minor 7, half diminished, major 7, minor 7, minor 7 , major 7 , dominant 7. Anywhere there is a flat interval we make the Nashville number flat too. These are the chords that are created by the natural minor scale.

A AeolianABCDEFG
IntervalRootMajor 2ndminor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thminor 6thminor 7th
ChordminorDiminishedMajorminorminorMajorMajor
Nashville NumberiiiobIIIivvbVIbVII
7th Chordim7iiobIIIMaj7ivm7vm7bVMaj7bVII7
Chords in the Aeolian Mode

Starting on the second note of the major scale produces the Dorian mode. Therefore we should start our sequence of chords in the same place. This produces a pattern that goes minor 7, minor 7, major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, half diminished, and major 7.

D DorianDEFGABC
IntervalRootMajor 2ndminor 3rdPerfect 4thPerfect 5thMajor 6thminor 7th
ChordminorminorMajorMajorminorDiminishedMajor
Nashville NumberiiibIIIIVvviobVII
7th Chordim7iiobIIIMaj7IV7vm7viobVIIMaj7
Chords in the Dorian Mode

Now you can see the differences between the chords in the natural minor scale and the Dorian mode. There are a few of useful differences. Firstly our ii chord is no longer half diminished, it’s minor. Our IV chord is no longer minor, it’s a dominant 7th chord. And finally the flat 6th chord is no longer flat or major, it is now just half diminished. We have three chords that differ from the natural minor scale, and it’s these three chords that you can target to pull out the sound of the Dorian mode.

How to make a Dorian chord progression

The minor i chord

Lets start emphasising the Dorian mode in our chord progressions. To do this you have to imply that The minor i chord is home base The easiest way to do this is to sit on the minor i chord and never change.

In D Dorian the minor i chord is Dm or Dm7. I could play D Dorian over this chord and it would sound fine. However I could also play D natural minor over the top of this chord or D Phrygian because both scales have a minor i chord. It’s not going to sound wrong, it just means that the minor i chord alone does not strong imply the harmony we need. Sitting on a single chord vamp for a whole song is also not that interesting in my opinion so we probably should use some more chords.

Minor i vamp

Creating Cadences

To bring out the Dorian mode further you need to take your listener further from home base, to another chord in the mode, and then bring them back to home base again. You can do this by going to a chord that is unique to the Dorian mode and then cadencing you chord progression back to home base in this case Dm.

The strongest way to imply this is to cadence with a dominant chord. This is why we extended our chords to includes the 7th earlier. In D Dorian the dominant chord is G, this can also be played as G7 for extra dominant spice. Playing a chord progression that goes Dm7 to G7 to Dm7 sounds distinctly Dorian because the dominant IV chord is unique to the Dorian. This sound always reminds me of Carlos Santana!

im7 to IV7 vamp

Another way to produce the same effect is to move between the minor i chord and the minor ii chord. This is another Santana esque chord progression that that strongly implies the Dorian sound.

im7 to im7 vamp

This is the easiest way to start producing Dorian harmony, emphasise the chords that make the Dorian mode unique, this is the movement between the minor I, minor ii chord, and the dominant IV chord.

Taking it further

This can be quite limiting, it makes it hard to play chords that are shared between the modes. If you use a C major chord in your D Dorian progression the listener might start to perceive C as home base because they are not used to the sound of the Dorian mode. The way to circumvent this is to make sure the note that you are using as home base present in every chord you play.

For example if you are in D Dorian you could make sure that every chord you play contains the note D, so that the sense of D as home base is never lost. This is the trick I was using in the chord progression below. It is in A Dorian and every chord contains the note A.

Chord extensions vamp

Obviously this takes some figuring out so if would like to learn some chord voicings to emphasise the Dorian sound check out the lesson pack below.

Soloing

The minor pentatonic scale

Now we have our harmony, we have our chords that emphasises the Dorian mode. Lets talk about soloing. You might think you need to learn a bunch of new scale shapes, however this isn’t true. The first thing that you want to think about is that this is a minor mode and it therefore has minor tonality. You probably already know a scale that works well over a dorian chord progression. That is everybody favourite, the minor pentatonic scale.

Minor pentatonic scale diagram

The minor pentatonic scale contains five of the seven notes from the Dorian mode. It has the root, minor 3rd , perfect 4th, perfect 5th , and minor 7th. Therefore you can use the minor pentatonic licks and shapes you already know to improvise over a Dorian progression This is how you should start, if if you have never improvised with Dorian before, start with minor pentatonic vocabulary you already know.

Dorian solo using the minor pentatonic scale

Adding the 6th and 9th

The minor pentatonic scale does not heavily imply a Dorian tonality, but it’s certainly there because of the harmony we are playing over. To sound more Dorian you need add the two notes that are unique to the Dorian mode. These are the major 2nd, also called the 9th, and the major 6th.

These two notes can be added to the minor pentatonic scale to create the full dorian mode. Check out the scale diagrams below to see how the minor pentatonic scale, and the dorian mode, look side by side. The 6ths and 9ths are represented with the green triangles, notice how they fill in the gaps in the minor pentatonic scale.

Minor pentatonic scale diagram
Dorian Scale Diagram

As before you should continue to use your minor pentatonic phrases but try modifying them with the Dorian notes we have just added. For me ending on the 6th is a really good way of implying the Dorian tonality, it is the key note that emphasises the difference between the minor scale and the Dorian scale, and is therefore a strong choice to end phrases on if you want to sound particularly Dorian. Check out the lesson pack for some examples of minor pentatonic licks that have been modified with the 6th and 9th.

Dorian Solo

You can expand the other minor pentatonic scale shapes in the same way to cover the whole fretboard, I use the CAGED system to map out these shapes. It’s simply the case of playing your five pentatonic shapes and filling in the gaps to turn it into the dorian scale. Scale diagrams for all the shapes are in the lesson pack.

Final thoughts

All the general ideas you should use for phrasing when improvising also apply here. These are concepts like motifs, call and response, leaving space, articulations. These ideas will help you ensure that what you are playing doesn’t sound too scalar.

If you need some tips on phrasing check out my post on phrasing here. Beyond that, if you want to be more Dorian focus on the 6th and the 9th of the scale. If that becomes too dissonant, or you feel you are getting lost you can always fall back on the minor pentatonic phrases you already know.

Have a go at making your own Dorian chord progressions and improvising over them with the minor pentatonic and Dorian scales. If you would like a backing track to use for this, and more detailed examples of exercises you can use to practice these ideas, check out the lesson pack below.

Good luck unleashing your inner Carlos Santana! If you have any questions about the subjects with discussed, leave a comment below.

Lesson Pack

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