Dorian Mode on Guitar: All you Need to Know

Published Categorized as Scales

Progressing as a guitarist, it can be easy at first to feel like the musical modes are something out of reach, something that as beginners we simply can’t understand or overcome. What if I were, however, to tell you that they rely on much the same mathematical logic that much of western classical thought and musical theory is founded upon?

This is indeed the case, and one of the many reasons to learn the modes. Another is their unique ability to relate to one another, and their power to trigger certain emotions across a whole spectrum of people, no matter their cultural difference (making modes perfect for tone painting or improvising to evoke a specific feeling in composition). Where we think of scales as ordered sequences of notes that can feel rigid in their ability to express, the modes are permutations of these same scales that each offer forth their own unique flavour.

The Ionian Mode, for example, is the major scale, pure and simple. The Dorian mode, by contrast, is one of the first permutations of this root mode. It is the chosen major scale with two of its intervals diminished (flattened), where the Ionian has no flats whatsoever. In this way, it is often appreciated a lot more than some other permutations of the major scale, and is thus worth absorbing today.

Table of Contents

What Even is a Mode?

Many often confuse modes for scales and vice versa, and while they are theoretically very similar if not the same, it is when you get down to it that you realise that they are in fact very different, and that the former is wholly indebted to the latter. A mode, instead of being a scale in its own right, is, instead, a permutation of a scale.

More often than not, the modes are worked out in relation to the major scale, this is really where all western classical notions of harmony and what sounds right to our ears comes from after all. The Ionian mode is, in fact, this very same major scale. So, if we were to say that something is in D Ionian, we would be saying that it simply uses the D major scale throughout, without any variation.

Each mode is a separate permutation of this foundational scale. The Lydian mode, for example, is the next stage in this process of metamorphosis. Almost exactly the same as the Ionian bar one interval, the sharpened (augmented) 4th, it is easy to see how this mode has metamorphosed from one stage to the next. All of the modes are like this, all the way from our home scale Ionian, all the way to the Locrian.

Some modes lend themselves better to certain tonalities and harmonic centres. The Lydian and the Ionian are by their very nature rather major tonalities, whereas the Dorian, for example, is inherently minor, owing to the minor 3rd and minor 7th at play in conjunction with the perfect 4th and perfect 5th, all ingredients for your average everyday minor triad.

Why Learn the Modes?

While I would be the first to rush to the support of the idea that all music and musical theory and thought should be democratised, the modes are somewhat of an exception, and each individual fan, learner, scholar, or otherwise avid enthusiast of the guitar can choose for themselves whether they wish to pursue this line of thought.

What really sets the modes apart from the scales is the way that each offers, within the parameters of a tonal centre, specific harmonic, melodic, and tonal properties. These very properties are often what are called upon when people seek a specific mode from their toolbox. The Lydian mode, for example, has oft been noted for its more mystical, airy, and magical qualities, which have found apposite use in film soundtracks and even in the suggestive compositional harmonic and melodic writing of more adept film composers.

This is not just some intangible, ethereal aspect of music either. Despite music being so abstract an art form, there are certain scientific and theoretical reasons why these modes make us feel a certain way when they are used in certain contexts, and in this way they have become vital tools of suggestion and evocation in the realms of composition and improvisation.

This Lydian mode, for all its airy mysticism, can’t escape the very reason for its being such a magical sounding mode; some of its mystical aspects are lost in this explanation of the illusion, so to speak, but it is hoped that also one can appreciate anew the magic of what is created from so few elements. In the inherent tension between the sharpened (augmented) 4th and the perfect 5th in the Lydian mode, there is something unexplainable that seems to evoke within a large majority of us feelings of unease. But it is an unease more potent as a tool of magic and deception than it is an exercise in the heightening of intensity.

What is the Dorian Mode?

The modern Dorian mode, the one that many are referring to when talking about the Dorian mode in general, is a strictly diatonic scale, eschewing any dissonances, able as it is to be played on just the white keys of the piano, D to D. It’s also sorted as one of the bass modes. It might be helpful to think of the Dorian mode a scale with a minor third and a minor seventh, alongside a major second and sixth, and a perfect fourth and fifth.

Notated out in this way, in the key of D, it can be viewed thus:

IntervalIiiiiiIVVvivii
Note of the ScaleDEFGABC
Formula12b3456b7

In this way it can be considered an excerpt of a major scale played from the pitch a whole tone above the major scale’s tonic , so in effect a major scale played from its second scale degree up to its second degree again, the D in relation to the tonic C, for example. The resulting scale is, however, minor in quality, because, as the D becomes the new tonal centre, the F a minor third above the D becomes the new mediant, or third degree. Thus, when a triad is built upon the tonic, it is a minor triad. This ought to be obvious for any of the more learned readers here, the presence of a minor third, a perfect 5th, and a minor 7th simultaneously tending to indicate a minor triad.

It can be helpful to think of this modern permutation of the Dorian mode as equivalent to the natural minor scale (otherwise known as the Aeolian mode), though with the major difference being the presence of a major sixth in the former. If you are more familiar with the melodic minor scale, then it might also be helpful to note that the Dorian mode is equivalent to this very scale in its ascending form, noting also the inclusion of a minor seventh of course.

What Exactly Does This Mean for the Guitar?

Being simply a fretboard of similar-looking notes, approaching and attempting to understand note placement, intervals, and everything in between can seem rather daunting. However, I might argue that this is precisely to your advantage, with the right outlook. This very sameness across the fretboard means that almost any shape can be easily transposed next to anywhere else; once you have learnt the shape or progression of a mode or scale in one area, you can quite simply map this out almost anywhere else on the guitar (granted there are enough frets of course)!

All four of these versions of the Dorian mode have their root note on the C of each subsequent string, moving one octave as they go – see if you can complete a whole tour of the fretboard, up and down, octave to octave, staying in the same key of this same mode!

It is in applying your own intuition to the learning that it will better and more concretely root itself in your mind and studies, and eventually in your fingers and muscle memory too. Therefore, I encourage you to pick a key, any will do and perhaps even picking a random one would be more useful. From this key, use the shapes detailed above and transpose them so that they correspond.

If you find yourself struggling initially, I recommend recording yourself playing the mode, either by video or audio, and see if you can intelligently assess yourself where you are going wrong, thus training your ear and your mind. Good practise anyhow would be to play along to a drone and/or metronome, to best ensure that you are playing in key and in time respectively. So, whether you are struggling or whether you are comfortable with the exercise, it would be fruitful for you to engage with one and/or the other.

Transposability

While it makes sense to learn the Dorian mode in its simplest formulation, with the root note on D (to E to F to G to A to B to C), especially since the root tonic chord of the mode is D minor, it isn’t as though the Locrian mode can’t be moved to every single other note.

Starting with this basis on the D, it might be helpful to choose another root note and move the whole shape along in its various permutations, beginning on the separate root notes on each of the strings.

The easiest logical way to do this is also the longest, to simply look at the notes, and move every single one of them up by the amount necessary to reach the new tonic. For example, if you’re starting on D and want to play the F Dorian mode, then you need to move every note up by a minor 3rd. Take the E and move to an G, the F to a Gb, the G to an Bb. Keep going until you’re in the new correct place.

Here we have some shapes for the Dorian mode which exceed the bounds of just one octave. Here, these shapes, beginning on the root note, travel two whole octaves up the Dorian mode in pitch. Since the root note is so transposable and since the whole fretboard looks essentially the same, this shape is easily transposed, though it would be very useful to learn just what makes this mode tick in the first place. This would save a lot of time, energy and fuss, and enable you to react to the needs of a performance in the moment without any need to hold back or delay the creative process.

The Dorian Formula

There is another way to transpose on the fly without using such a cumbersome method as above which will no doubt excel your playing and technique. You will, however, need to learn the formula to the Dorian mode.

You will find this very formula below, with the formulas of the Ionian mode and the Locrian mode for comparison:

IntervalIiiiiiIVVvivii
Ionian Mode (steps from previous interval)HalfWholeWholeHalfWholeWholeWhole
Dorian Mode (steps from previous interval)WholeWholeHalfWholeWholeWholeHalf
Locrian Mode (steps from previous interval)WholeHalfWholeWholeHalfWholeWhole

Now you can theoretically use the Dorian mode anywhere you wish, simply taking the individual root note of your favoured key at a given time and following the formula to work out each and every note, without needing to refer clumsily to a prescribed shape on the fretboard.

Finding the Ab Dorian, for example, will involve starting with the root note (Ab) then moving up two frets (Bb), then up one fret (B), followed by another jump of two frets (Db), then up two more frets (Eb), then another two frets (F), before one final ascension of one fret (Gb), before one last push of a two frets to reach again, cyclically, the tonic root in question (Ab).

Thus, the Dorian mode can be thought of as a symmetric scale, since the pattern of whole and half steps is the same ascending or descending. In this way you can find the Dorian mode anywhere you so wish across the fretboard, so long as there are enough frets of course! Apply this same logic to any note you may need to use, and you have a basic understanding of how to form the Dorian mode anywhere you want, and can start to use it in melodies, whether in your own compositions or in improvisations on the music of other people.

Real World Musical Examples of the Dorian Mode

In contrast to a mode like the Locrian, for example, the Dorian mode is far more commonly used throughout the annals of western music, whether classical and popular, traditional and modern. Many artists and composers, in fact, use the mode without even realising, so related as it is to several other scales, including the melodic minor scale and the natural minor scale.

The Dorian mode can be found anywhere from the medieval right up to the present day, in all manner of forms, formats, styles, genres, scenarios, contexts and scenarios. This was particularly popular in Gregorian chants, ever present throughout the medieval period in certain areas of the west. Since this is a slightly complex tonal centre, it can often mislead the average listener into feeling like a song is minor. It is a minor mode, but it is a little bit more complicated than that.

The chord sequence i – III – VII – IV is sometimes used in pop songs, where the harmonic rhythm leads the listener to think of it as a minor song. In the final chord of the sequence, however, the third is a major sixth above the tonic, as in the Dorian mode, and thus is as an example of how these tonal centres, more complex than they initially seem, can mislead listeners in an interesting and somewhat psychedelic way.

This is a worldwide scale in fact, as there is a corresponding scale in the realm of Hindustani classical music, called the Kafi, more specifically a raga, corresponding to Kharaharapriya in Carnatic Music. Kafi has a direct lineage with the folk music of India. Folk music in Tappa, Hori, Dadra, Kirtan and Bhajans from different parts of India have been composed in this raga. In this way, the sound of this mode can also be seen as inhabiting a certain space beyond words and music, in sound itself, as two typically opposed cultures have come to some sort of the same musical conclusion.

‘So What’ by Miles Davis

Perhaps it would be best to start with a jazz composition from a jazz album so ubiquitous it is as though it has always been. This is not just a jazz composition, however, but a modal jazz tune from an era of Davis’ dedicated to this very still and patient style of jazz, a modal jazz that made use of musical modes, often modulating among them to accompany the chords instead of relying on one tonal centre used across the piece.

Being the first track on Davis’ seminal 1959 album Kind of Blue, it is one of the best known examples of modal jazz, set in the Dorian mode and consisting of 16 bars of D Dorian, followed by eight bars of E♭ Dorian and another eight of D Dorian. These sections alternation in an AABA structure that put it in the thirty-two-bar format of American popular song of the period, cycling round and round until the musicians see fit to end the tune after enough improvising has been done.

The piano and bass introduction for the piece was written by Gil Evans, Davis’ frequent collaborator and musical director around this period, for Bill Evans and Paul Chambers on Kind of Blue. An orchestrated version by Gil Evans of this introduction is later to be found on a television broadcast given by Miles’ first quintet and the Gil Evans Orchestra; the orchestra gave the introduction, after which the quintet played the rest of the tune.

The use of the double bass to play the main theme makes the piece unusual, accentuating the radical nature of using such modal tonal centres in popular jazz music.

While the track is taken at a very moderate tempo on Kind of Blue, it is played at an extremely fast tempo on later live recordings by the quintet, such as Four & More.

The distinctive voicing employed by Bill Evans for the chords that interject the head – from the bottom up, three notes at intervals of a perfect fourth followed by a major third, very much in alignment with the Dorian mode – has been given the name ‘So What Chord’ by certain musical theorists. The very same key and tonal structure is used to devastating effect on the John Coltrane composition ‘Impressions’, himself a member of the band which originally recorded ‘So What’, and which he recorded live many, many times, and was in fact a staple of his live sets for a considerable length of time in the early 60s.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ by The Beatles

This is another of those songs that, in the circles of those interested in these sorts of things, is a real favorite and is oft used in such discussions of popular musical examples of the Dorian mode, so what would this list be without including such a classic example.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ continued the transformation of the Beatles from a mainly rock and roll and pop oriented band to a more experimental, band with far more stakes in the studio than in live performance and being able to reproduce their various studio experiments before audiences, who were often screaming too loud to hear anyway. With a double string quartet arrangement by George Martin and lyrics providing a narrative on loneliness, it broke sharply with popular music conventions, both musically and lyrically.

The song is a prominent example of mode mixture, specifically between the Aeolian mode, also known as natural minor, and the Dorian mode. Set in E minor, the song is based on the chord progression Em – C, typical of the Aeolian mode and utilising the notes b3, b6, and b7 from this scale.

The verse melody is written in Dorian mode, a minor scale with the natural sixth degree. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ opens with a C major vocal harmony (Aah, look at all …’), before shifting to E minor (on ‘lonely people’), an apposite example of tone painting, to use musical harmony’s inherent leanings and sociological effects on listeners to more effectively emphasise the content of the words. The Aeolian C natural note returns later in the verse on the word ‘dre-eam’ (C – B) as the C chord resolves to the tonic Em, giving an urgency to the melody’s mood.

The Dorian mode appears with the C# note (its 6th interval in the Em scale) at the beginning of the phrase ‘in the church’. The chorus beginning ‘All the lonely people’ involves the viola in a chromatic descent to the 5th; from the 7th (D natural on ‘All the lonely peo-‘) to the 6th (C♯ on ‘-ple’) to a b6 (C on ‘they’) to the 5th interval (B on ‘from’). In this way, the harmony is being toyed with in ways which seek to further the content of the song.

‘Get Lucky’ by Daft Punk

Who could forget this classic, the sound of the summer every single summer from the beginning of time til the very end, the international chart topping cross over hit single extravaganza that seemed to pop up just about everywhere upon first release, and even still makes appearances in whichever high end retailed you seem to be shopping in.

Daft Punk first met American guitarist Nile Rodgers at a listening party in New York City for the duo’s 1997 debut album Homework, and became friends soon afterwards. However, Rodgers noted that a series of near misses and scheduling conflicts had delayed their chance of collaborating over the years, though the duo eventually invited him to the Random Access Memories sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York City, bringing it all back home to where they met.

American singer Pharrell Williams was interested in working with Daft Punk from the get go, first hearing about the Random Access Memories project from Daft Punk themselves ‘at one of Madonna’s parties; and offered his services for a collaboration. The duo and Williams later met in Paris, where he shared some of his own material; Williams explained that he had been inspired by Rodgers without knowing that Daft Punk had coincidentally been recording with him. Williams subsequently noted about the recording process that the duo adopted a perfectionist approach when recording the vocals for ‘Get Lucky’, as he was asked to perform several takes and multiple instances of specific phrases.

The song is composed in the key of F♯ minor, in the B Dorian mode and follows the chord progression of Bm7 – D – F♯m7 – E, throughout with no variation. The song runs at common time with a tempo of 116 BPM, in 4/4. Most of the time it sounds as though the song is played in the minor mode of A Aeolian (a form of A minor), and appears as the third of the four chords on the line ‘We’re up all night for good fun’. The first chord of the progression is not played in A minor, but D minor. The song returns to it each time the line ‘I’m up all night to get some’ plays.

‘Rapper’s Delight’ by The Sugarhill Gang

Hip hop songs do not come more ubiquitous and more ground breaking than this one, which just so happens to be one of the first hip hop songs in existence, credited as it is with bringing hip hop to a larger commercial audience.

In late 1978, Debbie Harry suggested that Chic’s Nile Rodgers join her and Chris Stein at a hip hop event, which at the time was a communal space taken over by teenagers with boombox stereos playing various pieces of music that performers would break dance to, Though this was not his first rodeo, for Rodgers had experienced this kind of event for the first time himself at a high school in the Bronx.

On September 20 and 21, 1979, Blondie and Chic were playing concerts with The Clash in New York at The Palladium. When Chic started playing ‘Good Times’, rapper Fab Five Freddy and the members of the Sugarhill Gang (‘Big Bank Hank’ Jackson, ‘Wonder Mike’ Wright, and ‘Master Gee’ O’Brien), jumped up on stage and started freestyling with the band. A few weeks later, Rodgers was on the dance floor of New York club Leviticus and heard the DJ play a song which opened with Bernard Edwards’s bass line from Chic’s ‘Good Times’.

Rodgers approached the DJ who said he was playing a record he had just bought that day in Harlem. The song turned out to be an early version of ‘Rapper’s Delight’, which also included a scratched version of the song’s string section. Rodgers and Edwards immediately threatened legal action over copyright, which resulted in a settlement and their being credited as co-writers, a beginning to the tense relationship between hip hop sampling and legal tender. Rodgers admitted that he was originally upset with the song, but later declared it to be ‘one of his favorite songs of all time’ and his favorite of all the tracks that sampled Chic. He also stated that ‘as innovative and important as ‘Good Times’ was, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ was just as much, if not more so.’

The song is often written in E minor with a persistent C♯ accidental, but is actually played in E Dorian, a symbolic representation of sampling’s persistent and repeated misunderstanding in the popular cultural pantheon, not to mention another occurrence of the Dorian mode being mistaken for another.

‘Riders on the Storm’ by The Doors

What better to round off this list of popular hits which feature prominently the Dorian mode than this classic by 60s rock group The Doors, named after the psychedelic masterpiece The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. Much like the song’s attitude to genre itself, its use of harmonic and tonal centres is equally evasive.

In turn the song has been classified as psychedelic rock, jazz rock, and art rock, as well as being believed by some to be a precursor of gothic music. According to guitarist Robby Krieger and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, it was inspired by the country song ‘(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend’, written by Stan Jones and popularized by Vaughn Monroe. The lyrics were written and brought to rehearsal by Morrison, of which a portion of it refers to a hitchhiker killer. The track is notated in the key of E Minor, though the main keyboard riff descends throughout the pitches of Dorian Mode scale, and features a progression of i – IV – i7 – IV, a common journey through the tonal centres of the Dorian mode.

The song was recorded at the Doors Workshop in December 1970 with the assistance of longtime collaborator and engineer Bruce Botnick, who famously took the reins after their previous producer Paul A. Rothchild walked out on the sessions for the L.A. Woman album from which the song comes. Morrison recorded his main vocals and then whispered the lyrics over them to create an echo effect. It was, in fact, the last song recorded by all four members of the Doors, as well as the last song recorded by Morrison to be released in his lifetime, so in this way the whispered vocals almost feel as though he is singing with a version of himself from beyond the grave.

Final Tones

So, there you have it, a comprehensive exploration of the Dorian mode and its relative impact throughout the annals of western popular music which, I hope, has been of some use to you in assessing the situation yourself. Many of these bands and artists will have composed this songs without consciously thinking to use these modes, so there is not necessarily a need to learn the modes, for they will appear in your compositions or improvisations no matter what.

But the modes can be a vital tool for composition and improvisation, for colouring and adding detail to certain things in a way that can easily evoke specific feelings and emotions in the listener. Think on it.

FAQs Dorian Mode

What is the Dorian mode in music?

The modern Dorian mode, the one that many are referring to when talking about the Dorian mode in general, is a strictly diatonic scale, eschewing any dissonances, able as it is to be played on just the white keys of the piano, D to D. It might be helpful to think of the Dorian mode a scale with a minor third and a minor seventh, alongside a major second and sixth, and a perfect fourth and fifth. In this way it can be considered an excerpt of a major scale played from the pitch a whole tone above the major scale’s tonic, so in effect a major scale played from its second scale degree up to its second degree again, the D in relation to the tonic C, for example. The resulting scale is, however, minor in quality, because, as the D becomes the new tonal centre, the F a minor third above the D becomes the new mediant, or third degree. Thus, when a triad is built upon the tonic, it is a minor triad. This ought to be obvious, the presence of a minor third, a perfect 5th, and a minor 7th simultaneously tending to indicate a minor triad.

Is D Dorian the same as C major?

Not quite. D Dorian is derived from the C major Ionian mode certainly, and in this way can be seen as directly related. It is often, in fact, thought of as a permutation of this tonal centre, and is fruitful to think along these lines when considering modes. Many often confuse modes for scales and vice versa, and while they are theoretically very similar if not the same, it is when you go down to it that you realise that they are in fact very different, and that the former is wholly indebted to the latter. A mode, instead of being a scale in its own right, is, instead, a permutation of a scale. More often than not, the modes are worked out in relation to the major scale, this is really where all western classical notions of harmony and what sounds right to our ears comes from after all. The Ionian mode is, in fact, this very same major scale. So, if we were to say that something is in D Ionian, we would be saying that it simply uses the D major scale throughout, without any variation.

Why is it called Dorian mode?

The Dorian mode is named after the Dorian Greeks, one of the four major ethnic groups into which the Hellenes of Classical Greece divided themselves, along with the Aeolians, the Achaeans and the Ionians. The Dorian mode in music was attributed to Doric societies and was associated by classical writers with martial qualities, qualities that they themselves manifested in their ways of life. Originally used to designate one of the traditional harmoniai of Greek theory, the name was appropriated (along with the six others) by the 2nd century theorist Ptolemy to designate his seven tonoi, or transposition keys.

By Nate Pallesen

Nate is just your average (above average) guitar player. He's no Joe Satriani, Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page - wait this site is about acoustic guitars (sorry) He's no Django Reinhardt, Chet Atkins, or Michael Hedges, wait? who!? He's no Robert Johnson, Eric Clapton or Ben Harper - more familiar? Anyway you get the point :-)

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