Alabama 3

Writing a Song that Moves From Dorian Mode to Major Key

As you likely know, it’s not unusual for songwriters to create songs where the verse is in a minor key or mode (often aeolian mode), and then switch to a major key (usually the relative major) for the chorus.

A classic example is Carol King’s “You’ve Got a Friend“, the verse of which is in the key of F minor, then changing key to the relative major key of Ab major. The term “relative major” is a theoretical one: it refers to the fact that F minor and Ab major are “related”, by virtue of the fact that they use the same key signature — 4 flats, in this case.

So if you’re interested in writing songs that do this — that move from a minor verse to a major chorus — it helps to know some common minor keys and their relative major partners:

Major keys and relative minors

I want to talk in this post about the dorian mode, which is a minor-sounding mode, and a nice alternative to the minor key or aeolian mode. To know the sound I’m talking about, play a C major scale, but start on D and end on D. You get a scale that sounds minor:


If you’re not sure you know what is meant by these various terms minor, modal, dorian, aeolian, etc., give this article a quick look before going further: “Dorian Mode, Aeolian Mode, Minor Key… What’s the Difference?

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Creating Chord Progressions in the Dorian Mode

The 7 chords that naturally occur in D dorian are:

Dm  Em  F  G  Am  Bdim  C

The chord that makes a minor progression sound dorian is the IV-chord — the G chord in D dorian. So dorian progressions will often use that chord as a way of distinguishing itself from Aeolian. For example, the following progression is in the Aeolian mode: Dm  Gm  Dm  Am. To make it sound Dorian, change the Gm to G: Dm  G  Dm  Am.

Here are some Dorian progressions you can play with and adapt for your songs:

  1. Dm  G  Dm  C  Dm…
  2. Dm  C  Am  G  Dm…
  3. Dm  F  Am  G  Dm…
  4. Dm  Am  Dm  G  Dm…

Moving from Dorian to Major (Verse to Chorus)

As I mentioned, it’s a common songwriting technique to move from a minor-sounding verse to a major sounding chorus. So it works nicely to modulate from a Dorian mode verse to a major key chorus, and there are several ways to do it.

First, it helps to have a chart similar to the one above, that shows the dorian modes and their major key counterparts:

Dorian keys and relative majors

So for example, to create the minor-to-major sound that I’m suggesting, you’ll want to write a verse to be in, let’s say, C dorian, which means that you’ll move to a chorus that’s in Bb major, as you see in the chart.

One of the best ways to make this move is to make the end of your verse progression look more like Bb major than C dorian. Here’s an example:


Cm  F  Cm  F  Cm  F  Cm  F | Gm  Dm  Eb  Cm  Gm  Dm  Eb  F


Bb  Eb  Gm  F  Bb  Eb  Gm  F…

As you can hear, the F chord in the verse is what gives the progression its distinctive dorian sound. In a minor key, or in the aeolian mode, we’d expect to hear Gm, not G.

As the verse progression comes to an end, you hear the progression — with the Dm-Eb-F sequence — make a turn toward Bb major, and that brightens the mood of the music considerably. It makes the chorus progression in Bb major a strong and welcome change.

Examples of Dorian Mode Songs

Woke Up This Morning“, by Jake Black and Rob Spragg (Alabama 3), the song made famous as the theme song for the HBO hit series “The Sopranos”, is a great song to start with, because it features mainly just two chords: Fm and Bb. You get to clearly hear the importance of that major IV-chord in defining the dorian sound.

Mad World“, by Roland Orzabal, performed by Tears for Fears and others.

Smoke On the Water“, by Deep Purple.

Gary EwerWritten by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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