Creating Song Melodies and Chords in the Dorian Mode

A short primer on the creation and use of the dorian modal scale.


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GuitaristA 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:

  1. Gm  C  Dm  C  :||
  2. Gm  F  Gm  C  :||
  3. 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)


Written by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website.
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  1. Pingback: Use of Modes in music | Violet Night Music

  2. Para 5: “In G dorian, you’d hear an Eb instead of the E.”

    I’m sure that was just to make sure we were paying attention!

  3. It’s highly questionable that Eleanor Rigby is in dorian. I’d say it’s not. In any case, it’s a bad example.

    What happens is that the verse uses C# surrounded by D and B on two occasions. This is typical for E dorian, but those are about the only traces of dorian in the song. Shortly after the two C#’s, the melody uses C, reinforced by C major chord, giving the song a distinct aeolian sound. C major appears several times elsewhere in the song as well.

    In the chorus (“All the lonely people, where do they all come from”), the strings play the chromatic descent D-C#-C-B above an E minor pedal, giving Em7, Em6, Em-6, Em. Of these, Em6 would be “dorian”, but only as a “pass-through” chord, and in no way a sign of a dorian song. The part where this chord sequence appears is reminiscent of the part where the C# appears in the melody, chordwise. The melody version could then be analysed as a cut-down version or an anticipation of the chromatic descent in the chorus, not a sign of a dorian mode.

    I searched for the score on the web, but didn’t find any with a dorian key signature. All those which used the original key of E minor used one sharp only in the key signature.

    • Hello Hans-Christian:

      Thanks very much for writing. Concerning your last point, it shouldn’t surprise us that a dorian song would use a minor key signature. Pop music tends to simplify key signatures wherever possible, and using minor instead of dorian is very common.

      The reason I gave this melody as an example of dorian was because of the melody, and not so much the harmonic support underneath it. The opening of the melody is so clearly dorian that it serves as a good model for that mode, even taking into consideration the other non-dorian aspects of it.

      I tend to agree with you, however, that there are better examples of dorian, though I certainly wouldn’t call it a bad example.


      • Pretty sure that Eleanor Rigby uses a modal interchange from E dorian in the verse melody to an aeolian or natural minor when the chord changes to the C, a chord not found in E dorian. While it’s very common to have modal interchange between minor modes, it’s not a great example of a modal chord progression. Better examples: Moondance, Oye Como Va, Scarborough fair, Surfing with the Alien.

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