Dorian Mode: Everything You Need to Know About Dorian

Everything you need to know about Dorian

The Dorian Mode is the second mode of the Diatonic Major Scale. Let’s look and listen to it with a bit more detail.

The Dorian mode is often described as the white keys on the keyboard from D-D’. This gives us the following intervallic series:

w-h-w-w-w-h-w

*w=whole step // h=half step*

And the notation looks like this:

everything you need to know about dorian

That’s the notes D E F G A B C D’ with no alterations (sharps or flats).

However, since we base a mode’s scales degrees on the Major Scale, and the Dorian mode has a different intervallic series than the Major Scale, we alter the scale degrees, giving Dorian:

1        2     ♭3        4        5        6     ♭7

Another way to write the scale degrees are:

  • Root (as is always the case)
  • Major Second (2 semitones above the root)
  • Minor Third (3 semitones above the root)
  • Perfect Fourth (5 semitones above the root)
  • Perfect Fifth (7 semitones above the root)
  • Major Sixth (9 semitones above the root)
  • Minor Seventh (10 semitones above the root)
Let’s listen to the D Dorian mode against a droned D:
A quick clarification

If you happen to be coming from the article on the Ionian Mode, you may realize that the white keys from C-C’ (Ionian) are the same exact notes as the white keys from D-D’ (Dorian).

So what’s the deal? Well, Ionian and Dorian are both modes of the Major Scale. This means that, yes, they have the same notes. But their starting points (roots) are different. And this means a lot:

  • Their intervallic series is different (as shown above)
  • Their scale degrees are different (as shown above)
  • Their quality (minor/major/diminished/augmented) is different
  • Their inherent chords are different
  • Their functionality is different

So even though C Ionian and D Dorian are made up of exactly the same notes, they are different! This is the beginning of modal study, and I’d like to make this point during our discussion of the second mode of the Major Scale 🙂

The modal chords of the Dorian mode

The Dorian mode yields one triad and one tertian seventh chord:

  • Minor triad                       1    ♭3        5
  • Minor seventh chord    1    ♭3        5    ♭7

Other common chords include:

  • Sus2                                     1        2        5
  • Sus4                                     1        4        5
  • Min6                                    1    ♭3        5      6
  • Min6/9                                1    ♭3        5      6      9
  • Min7sus4                           1        4        5   ♭7

Along with all the extensions beyond the major seventh chord, notably:

  • Min9                                     1     ♭3        5    ♭7        9
  • Min11                                    1     ♭3        5    ♭7        11
  • Min13                                    1     ♭3        5    ♭7        13

Functionality

The Dorian Mode shows up quite a bit in the common ii-V-I or 2-5-1 chord progression in Jazz music. Much like the Ionian Mode works great over the Tonic/I/1 chord, the Dorian mode works great over the Supertonic/predominant/ii/2 chord.

It functions as the mode that best corresponds to the ii chord in major diatonic harmony!

The Dorian mode also has the Minor pentatonic scale within it. Adding in the major second and especially the major sixth turns our minor pentatonic into a Dorian mode.

The Dorian Brightness Quotient and Palindromic Nature of Dorian

Dorian is a palindromic scale! This means that its intervallic series is the same forwards as it is backward:

w-h-w-w-w-h-w

reversing these intervals yields:

w-h-w-w-w-h-w

W, therefore refer to Dorian as being “neutral” on the brightness/darkness spectrum of scales and modes. And can use it as a tool to relate modes to one another on this spectrum.

The idea of relating scales to Dorian to help determine brightness is covered in this article on The Dorian Brightness Quotient. Check it out for some weird theory talk 🙂

The Perfect Minor Chord

In their book entitled Modalogy, Jeff Brent and Schell Barkley make a point that stacking thirds in Dorian gives a type 1 perfect chord. A chord that stacks alternating minor/major thirds through 7 notes.

1    -m3- ♭3    -M3-    5   -m3-   ♭7    -M3-  9    -m3-    11   -M3-    13

A by-product of the perfect chord are interlocked perfect fifth pairs:

  • 1-5
  • ♭3-♭7
  • 5-9
  • ♭7-11
  • 9-13

We call this a “perfect minor chord” because:

  • It’s minor in quality (♭3 and♭7).
  • There’s no real dissonance in the chord.

Let me explain the no real dissonance part. We’ll take Dmin13 as our example for the type 1 perfect minor chord.

D-F-A-C-E’-G’-B’

So the unstable tritone interval is between F and B’. That’s 9 whole steps away, which decreases the tension effect. On top of that, the five other consonant notes help tremendously to nullify the slight trace of tension between F and B’.

The other type 1 perfect chord is made by stacking Lydian’s thirds.

Something to point out here is that Lydian is Dorian’s relative major, similarly to Ionian being Aeolian’s relative major.

Dorian’s Characteristic Tone

When looking for a mode’s characteristic tone(s) (the tone that give it its flavor and differentiates it from other modes), it’s a good idea to first look at the tritone intervals and half step intervals. It’s also very important to look at the quality of the third (is it minor or major?).

Relating a mode to either Ionian (Major Scale) or Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale) can help us to determine characteristic tones as well. The reasoning here is that these two scales are so common they’re almost expected. Altering them in any way peaks our attention and tell us we’re in a different mode.

The Major Scale’s modes each have two half step intervals and one tritone interval.

One tritone interval could mean two tritone intervals. For example, B-F is a tritone and F-B is a tritone. Most of the time we’ll look for the [one] tritone interval in the Major Scale modes.

Dorian’s tritone is between its minor third and major sixth. And its half step intervals are between the major second/minor third and major sixth/minor seventh.

So, the minor third tell us that Dorian is minor in quality. And the major 6th differentiates it from our most common minor mode Aeolian (natural minor).

So Dorian’s most characteristic tone is its major sixth! I like to think of it as a natural minor with a raised sixth degree.

Dorian’s Modal Chord

Dorian’s modal chord could simply be formed by its root and tritone interval, creating a minor sixth chord:

1       ♭3        6

Dorian is the only mode of the Major Scale that has that chord built on its root. However, we could run into some ambiguity when comparing the minor sixth to modes from other parent scales (Harmonic Minor, Melodic Minor), so for the sake of that, let’s build another chord that is “more Dorian.”

An extension would be nice.

Like I mentioned earlier, the Dorian mode (like the Phrygian and Aeolian modes) yields a minor seventh chord. Dorian’s characteristic tone is its major sixth (thirteenth), which Phrygian and Aeolian do not contain. So we use this information to build a minor thirteenth chord to best suit Dorian:

1     ♭3        5    ♭7        13

When dealing with heptatonic modes, we can only truly get an absolutely “modal chord” when all seven of the notes are present within it (shout out to the type 1 perfect minor chord). But the min6 or min13 chords give us a strong sense of the mode Dorian!

Practicing Dorian and Modal Harmony

As with all modal practice, I prefer the pedal point method.

Pedal (drone a constant tone) the root of Dorian if you have a polyphonic instrument. And go through each of the scale degrees to hear the intervals they create against the root.

1       2   ♭3       4       5       6   ♭7

If you have a monophonic instrument, try alternating between the root and each scale degree, one-by-one, to get a sense of each distinct interval.

Once again, pay special attention to the characteristic tone (major sixth).

Next, try droning the “modal chord.” In Dorian’s case, the minor thirteenth chord. Of course, this is only possible on a monophonic instrument. Although, arpeggios could work on monophonic instruments.

Go through the same exercise of relating every scale degree to the chord and listen to how each one compares.

Next, cycle through intervals played on top of a droning root note. Do this with the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh intervals present in Dorian while comparing them against the root pedal point. Pay special attention to the half step intervals against the root and the tritone intervals against the root.

Finally, have some fun creating modal chords with any of the Dorian notes played with its root.

An example could be stacking fourths. Stacking fourths is a common way to express openness and modality. In Dorian’s case, a stacked fourth tetrad would be:

1       4    ♭7   ♭3′

Writing and Composing with Dorian

A quick note on tonal harmony vs. modal harmony

When composing with tonal harmony, we have “circular cadences.” Resolutions that often happen while moving around the circle of fifths (or fourths, depending on how you look at it).

For example, the iii-vi-ii-V-I chord progression in C Major would be:

  • Emin7
  • Amin7 (or A7 as a common alteration)
  • Dmin7
  • G7
  • Cmaj7

Those chords’ roots move circularly counter-clockwise through the circle of fifths.

This is tonal (functional) harmony.

Modal harmony has linear, or lateral cadential movement. Often times the best cadential chord is built on the second or seventh scale degree of the mode.

In modal harmony, we must take great care as to not seek out the dominant V chord, or to play too many chords other than the tonic. Doing so will result in our ears hearing tonal harmony, as it’s so commonly used in music.

We must reference the tonic chord very often to ensure that we are indeed in that specific mode!

In modal harmony, we don’t absolutely need to use all the notes in the mode, but it helps to further specify, unambiguously, which mode we’re in. For example, Dorian without its major sixth is the same as Aeolian without its minor sixth.

Dorian’s modal cadences

We want to look step-wise to find the most cadential chords. The more cadential chords are chords that:

  • are major in quality.
  • contain the characteristic note.
  • do not contain a tritone interval (making them sound dominant and tense)

Note that chords a third away from a modes root do not provide much tension and are often merely heard as “changes of color” (especially in tertian harmony).

Note also that chords a fourth/fifth away tend to lead us out of modal harmony and back toward the circular nature of tonal harmony.

So the most cadential chord in Dorian modal harmony is the♭VII(maj7) (Ionian chord).
  • It’s a whole step away (lateral movement)
  • It has a major third
  • And it contains the characteristic tone as its major seventh degree
The ii(min7) (Phrygian chord) would also be a good choice.
  • It’s a half step away (lateral movement)
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • But it contains the characteristic tone as its perfect fifth degree

A common choice, although perhaps a bit tonal, is the IV7 (Mixolydian chord) which is typically avoided in modal harmony, but in the case of Dorian, see and hear if you can get away with it. Honestly, to me it sounds like the first two chords of a 2-5-1, but perhaps that’s simply because I’m used to hearing 2-5-1’s!

Of course, this is all just for your information and not set in stone, if it sounds good, play it!

In Closing,

I invite you to write a song based on the Dorian mode. For more information, check out my article on writing and playing modally.

Chances are, even if you don’t know the mode, you’ve been using it plenty in writing and playing music.

Let me know what you come up with while writing with the Dorian mode! And if there’s anything else you’d like to add to the discussion of the Dorian mode, please leave a message in the comment section!

As always, thank you for reading and for your support,

-Art

[kkstarratings]