A short primer on the creation and use of the dorian modal scale.
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A discussion about modes can get very technical, so let’s look at a simple, immediately useful definition of modal scales. For our purposes, a scale is any sequence of notes that starts on one pitch, and uses every letter name in sequence as it moves higher. Major scales are a series of notes that follow each other using the letters of the alphabet, adjusted to follow a particular pattern of tones and semitones: T T st T T T st. So an F major scale starts on an F, and, conforming to the tone-semitone pattern, gives us this: F G A Bb C D E F. As you can see, the scale of F major uses a key signature of one flat: Bb.
So that’s the somewhat easy part. But what’s a modal scale?
A modal scale is a scale that uses a major scale’s key signature, but uses a different letter name as a starting point. We know that a scale that goes from F to F, using Bb instead of B natural, gives us an F major scale. But let’s say we played a scale that starts on G and ends on G the octave above it, but uses the key signature of F major: Bb. That would give us a scale that looks like this: G A Bb C D E F G.
That scale is the dorian scale, and it’s a type of modal scale. A dorian scale starts on the second note of a major scale. In the example I just described, G is the second note of F major. Any song that uses that scale, and centres on G as a harmonic and melodic goal, is said to be “in the dorian mode.”
Modes are transposable. If you’ve been told that a certain song is in C dorian, you can assume that the key signature is 2 flats, because C is the second note of Bb major, which uses 2 flats.
When you look at a dorian scale, you’ll see (and hear, of course) that it sounds quite like a minor scale because it starts with the notes of the minor scale. In G dorian, the first 3 notes are: G A Bb. It’s that 6th note — the E — that is the so-called “dorian note”, that note that identifies the scale as being dorian. The other mode that often gets confused with dorian is the Aeolian mode. In G aeolian, you’d hear an Eb instead of the E.
And it’s that note, E, that will make your chord progressions sound interestingly unique. Dorian chord progressions will often use a major IV-chord next to a minor I-chord. The
To create song melodies and chords in the dorian mode, you’ll first want a few chord examples that you can improvise melodies over. Try these short dorian-based chord progressions. Play them over and over, and improvise melodic shapes on the notes GABbCDEFG:
- Gm C Dm C :||
- Gm F Gm C :||
- Gm Dm F Gm :||
In your improvising, you’ll want the melodies to keep G as a kind of tonal focal point. Your melodies should keep coming back to the note G, an important part of making a melody sound dorian.
And as I mentioned, it’s that note E in the chord progressions (particularly as it appears in the chord C) that will give your chords a deliciously dorian quality.
As you use the note E in your melodies, try having it move “through” E, on its way up to F, or on its way down to D.
For some examples of music in the dorian mode, give these ones a listen:
- Eleanor Rigby (Lennon & McCartney). The melody is in E dorian (E F# G A B C# D E), though the chords avoid that major IV-chord.
- Evil Ways (Santana)
- Purple Haze (Jimi Hendrix)
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