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The Dorian Mode – What It Is and How It Works

For each major scale, there are seven “Modes.” Each mode is a different variation on the scale and has its own peculiarities in how it represents the scale. Some are noticeably positive and happy-sounding, others sad and more negative. There are three major and four minor modes. So, let’s take a look at one of the minor variations, The Dorian Mode…


What is a Mode?

What is a Mode

There are seven modal scales based on the Major scale. They are often called the “Greek” modes because of their Greek names. They are all Diatonic, and each has its own pattern or formula from which it is constructed.

When you construct any of the seven, they are differentiated by the start note. Each has its own starting note, even though they are in a Major scale.

Examples of Modes

If you play the notes of the C Major scale but commence in ‘A,’ you would be playing in the Aeolian mode. Do the same but start on ‘F,’ and you are in Lydian mode.

Seven notes in the major scale give us seven “mode options,” depending on your first note. The Dorian mode starts on ‘D.’

The Development of the Dorian Mode

The Greeks divided themselves into four, what we would call ethnic groups. One of these was the Dorians. They were influential people. If you have read the epic poem attributed to Homer, “The Odyssey,” they were mentioned living on the island of Crete.

The development covered three distinct periods in our history. The original Dorian mode was used by the Greeks in various ways. By the time of the Medieval period, this had been altered to accommodate the requirements of the time. As we move towards modern times, the Dorian mode became a strictly Diatonic scale.

In Today’s Musical World

It is easier to understand than it was. On your piano, play all of the notes from the C Major scale. But instead of starting on C, as you would normally do, commence on D. Thus, you are playing all the white notes starting on D. That is a Dorian scale as shown below:

The pattern that we use to create a basic major scale is- T –T –S –T –T –T –S. Where T is a whole tone and S a semitone. Constructing the Dorian scale, we use a different formula or pattern.

The pattern for the Dorian Mode is- T –S –T –T –T –S –T.

An interesting modal key to work with

You will know that some keys and their modes can be sad and some happy. You don’t often get a situation in music where a sad key can have happier or brighter moments, but this happens with the Dorian mode.

As we arrived in the modern music era, it became quite widely used in a variety of genres. But how can it be that The Dorian mode can create different emotions? It is in the way it is constructed, which is one of the reasons that makes it so interesting to look at.

The Way It Works

The Way It Works

The degrees within the Dorian scale set it apart. Because the third note is flattened or lowered by a semitone, it becomes a minor mode. It also has a flattened 7th note.

Dorian is one of the minor modes which means that the 3rd note of the scale is lowered by a half step or semitone. It also has a flattened 7th note, as we said, making it a Minor seventh. There is also a major second and major sixth with a perfect fourth and fifth.

Combine them, and you get quite a dark and often sad feel to the music. That is until you hit the major sixth. Suddenly you get a brightness that you were not expecting. It could be described as hope amongst the forlorn feeling generated by the other notes?

Provides Inspiration

This combination has inspired composers over the generations. “Scarborough Fair,” a traditional English song popular in the North, was composed around the 13th century. No, it wasn’t a Paul Simon composition. That is written in Dorian Mode.

Beethoven used this Dorian structure in part in his “Missa Solemnis.” We come more into the modern-day, and on “Abraxas,” by Santana, we have “Oye Como Va.” Likewise, there are other famous songs that use the Dorian mode.

Jazz was not averse to what it could offer either. Miles Davis employed its structure on “Milestones” and “So What,” two great Jazz classics. The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” has its Dorian moments even though the chord progression is another mode, Aeolian. But it uses the brightness of the major sixth to counteract the somber feel of the rest of the song.

Want to Learn More About Music Theory?

Our experts can help with that. Check out our guides on What Are Accidentals In MusicThe Tenor ClefA Guide To The Chromatic ScaleWhat Is Theme And Variation In MusicA Quick Guide To Species CounterpointWhat is Harmony in Music, and What Are Dynamics In Music for more useful information.

You may also want to upgrade your instrument. Have a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Digital Grand Piano, the Best Digital Piano With Weighted Keys, the Best Cheap Keyboard Piano, the Best Alto Saxophones, the Best Tenor Saxophones, the Best Cremona Violins, and the Best Electric Cellos you can buy in 2023.

The Dorian Mode – Final Thoughts

There is an important thing that the Dorian mode brings to the music. It is the brightness and hope in the sound that other Minor modes do not have.

If you want to investigate further, some good study guides available are The Complete Book of ScalesScales and Chords in all the Major and Minor Keys, and Modalogy: Scales, Modes & Chords.

Until next time, let your music play.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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