In this article we will tackle another mode, breaking down the Dorian scale and the feeling it invokes. People often struggle with modes and scales, but soon you will be much more comfortable in their use. Just try not to get too excited, as this is the Dorian mode, let's get serious, somber, and maybe a little sad.
What is the Dorian scale?
Modes are simply the same notes of the major scale, but in a different order. A normal major scale in the key of C is:
C D E F G A B C
Depending on where we start in that scale will determine our mode, as seen in this chart here. Now that may seem strange because they are the same notes, but the feeling a song has can be shaped based on the mode.
- Ionian - C
- Dorian - D
- Phrygian - E
- Lydian - F
- Mixolydian - G
- Aeolian - A
- Locrian - B
Play the normal C major (Ionian) scale and then play D Dorian with these notes:
D E F G A B C D
Notice when played in that order we no longer have a lifting vibe, it is much more foreboding. And therefore, your scales and modes are so important. A guitarist who refuses to study theory will not be able to take simple concepts and turn them into real melodies and songs.
The second scale degree is known as the supertonic and starting the major scale there leads to the Dorian mode.
Or you can use the formula: whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole.
Memorizing that formula isn't necessary, but worth noting that it is symmetrical and balanced. Moving up or down gives you the same intervals which means Dorian is not the best mode for change or excitement.
If you use the formula mentioned above a Dorian scale will be:
C Dorian Scale Intervals:
So, the easiest way to find other Dorian scales is to simply flat the 3rd and 7th of any keys major scale.
We mentioned in the beginning about the seriousness and sadness of the Dorian mode, but it also can have a bit of a lift. That major 6 in the scale keeps it from being too slow and sad. If you use a minor 6th, you will be in Aeolian mode.
Dorian Scale Guitar Patterns
Here below you find some of the most common scale patterns for playing the Dorian scale.
For more diagrams, check my complete ebook Scales Over Chords.
Dorian Scale guitar pattern with root on the 4th string
Find more scale diagrams across all the fretboard in the ebook Scales Over Chords | Learn How To Play The Right Scales Over Any Chord
Dorian Scale guitar pattern with root on the 5th string
Dorian Scale guitar pattern with root on the 6th string
Note Names in Dorian Scales For Any Key
Here below you find a table with the note names for the Dorian scales in any key. Try to build the scale by yourself and check if you've done right:
Common chords and progressions used in the Dorian mode.
That formula above will help give us an idea of what chords this mode uses. Right away you can see the flat 3rd and flat 7th degree, so we know to expect minor chords. This also makes it a potentially great scale to play over minor keys.
In D Dorian mode the most obvious chord will be a minor triad (1-b3-5) or Dm.
Extended chords like m9, m11, and m13 work as well, but may often be lowered or raised for tension.
The main chords used in Dorian progressions start simple like i-IV or i-VII; and then can add in ii, III, and v chords.
The IV major is really the big giveaway of the Dorian scale, in Aeolian minor mode we use a iv minor. Dorian is really a great scale to riff on in rock, so it is quite common with guitar players.
In Roman Numbers Notation, the chords in a Dorian Scale are:
i – ii – III – IV – v – vi(dim) – VII
When playing the III and VII scale degree it is also normal to see maj7's and the vi can often be diminished. But don't be surprised if you see different chords for the vi degree.
One of the best songs to show the Dorian mode is "Oye Como Va", the entire song switches between the i7 and VII7. An example where a v is mixed in with the i-IV is "Thriller".
The song "Scarborough Fair" was a traditional folk song long before Simon and Garfunkel sang it, and a great example to show for Dorian chords. It starts on an A minor (i), moves to a G (VII), and then uses the C major (III). If you look at the notes of the A Dorian scale, they all fit perfectly.
"Breathe" is another heavy Dorian mode user with a III and VII, both in maj7 forms. The main riff moves between the i and IV7. And despite being in the minor and sometimes sad, the scale also works fine in a driving dance groove like "Stayin' Alive". With its progression being i-VII and a IV for the pre-chorus, the song says to the listener: "I am groovy and serious about it!"
Triad Chords from the C Dorian Scale
|C min||D min||Eb maj||F maj||G min||A dim||Bb maj|
4 Notes Chords from the C Dorian Scale
|C m7||D m7||Eb maj7||F 7||G m7||A m7/b5||Bb maj7|
More Notable Dorian Examples
The Miles Davis "So What" was particularly written for Dorian mode (in two different keys); his solo sounding great, yet very simple. And the m7sus4 chord he uses is sometimes named after this song. Just like the E7#9 is called the Hendrix chord after he used it in the Dorian "Purple Haze" (which is a i-III-IV, using E7#9 instead of Em).
"Eleanor Rigby" is in E Dorian, but the song makes use of a minor 6th, which is Aeolian mode. At one point the C is #, at other times it is natural. "Fixing a Hole" is another suitable example as the verse is F Dorian. It is normal to see pop music bend the rules on its modes.
The Santana song "Evil Ways" is another i-IV, that band used Dorian a lot. "Althea" uses a i-VII-IV-VII in the verse with the occasional ii thrown in. "Mad World" is a i-III-bVII-IV and Pink Floyd uses those same chords in "Another Brick in the Wall".
Lots of funk songs like "Use Me" also use a i-IV. And "Good Times" uses the i-IV but with m7, IVsus4, and even a IV6. These extensions help give this overused chord progression some extra funkiness. "Mary Jane" is i-VII but using a im7 and VIImaj7.
And if you want to be a video game composer you better love the Dorian mode, as it is quite common. Thanks to that serious tone, but with a slight drive and lift, it sounds great as a soundtrack. A few game examples are "Sonic Egg Rocket Zone", "Shovel Knight", "Halo", and lots of tunes from Zelda!
Dorian Guitar Scales: Conclusions
You really don't have to look hard to find the Dorian mode, you will just usually see it in pieces and parts of songs.
Most people who write and sing the popular tunes we love rarely know music theory and they often make happy accidents. But if you take this rudimentary training on the Dorian scale and apply it to some new melodies and chord progressions, you are going to create some great music.