How to Harness the Dark and Bright Sounds of The Dorian Scale

Are you a songwriter struggling to match the mood of your lyrics with the sound of your melody?

Are you specifically looking for a way to incorporate a "hopeful longing" into your music?

If you're nodding your head, "Yes," then the Dorian Scale is something you need to learn about today!

Dorian Scale

I get it. The idea of learning a new scale can seem uninspiring and restrictive. But don’t sleep on this information! Music theory will not put your creativity in a box; in fact, it is the only way to break out of it!

You don’t need to get a degree in music theory or learn how to read sheet music to start harnessing the power of the Dorian Scale. You simply need to understand a couple of basic concepts. Then, you will be on your way to creating better melodies and harmonies for your songs quickly.

So let’s jump into the wonderful world of the Dorian Scale!

The topic of Music Theory is vast and complicated. It doesn’t have to be complicated and I’ve created a resource that goes through everything you need to know to be a competent musician, songwriter, and producer. I would highly recommend checking out that article as a primer to the rest of this article and other theory posts I have on this site. It’s titled “The Ultimate Guide on Music Theory for Musicians Who Dislike Theory.

Dorian Mode vs. Dorian Scale

Suppose you’ve heard of the Dorian Mode and or modal scales before. In that case, you might be asking yourself the question, “What’s the difference between the Dorian Mode and the Dorian Scale?

The quick answer is nothing.

Technically a mode isn’t a scale. However, for the sake of simplicity, we will refer to Dorian as both a mode and a scale in this article.

To be more straightforward, think of the mode as the progression of intervals (distance between notes) and the scale as the notes for a particular key.

What are Scales?

A musical scale is a series of notes that represent a particular key in music.

In western music, the most popular scale is the Major Scale, which consists of seven notes between octaves.

Most other scales are derived from the Major Scale, and it’s key to understanding the different types of scales found in most modern music.

Different types of scales will have different kinds of feelings and vibes associated with them.

Major scales typically invoke feelings of happiness. Whereas minor scales can evoke sorrowful and contemplative moods.

It’s essential to understand how specific scales and modes can affect the feelings of your music before you start writing.

For more in-depth information on the Major Scale, please check out my article here.

What Are Modes?

Modes are a diatonic scale derived from the Major Scale.

For example, if you are playing in the C Major Scale, you would change your tonic note to the fourth scale degree, which is F, to play a Lydian Mode.

If you continue playing the same notes in the C Major Scale, you are playing F Lydian Mode.

The F Lydian Mode and the C Major Scale share the same notes, but the intervals (distance between notes) have changed.

This change in the interval pattern is what gives a mode its unique color and vibe.

Please check out my article on music modes for a full overhead view of all the major scale modes here!

What is the Dorian Mode?

The Dorian Mode (also known as Doric Mode) is a seven-note scale. It is based on the second scale degree of the major scale and has a minor 3rd scale degree. This makes it a minor mode.

The Dorian Mode is popular in jazz music, funk music, blues, metal, and pop.

What Scale Degree Does the Dorian Mode Start On?

The second scale degree of the major scale.

For example, if you played the C Major scale, you would move the tonic (the first note) to D.

Then when you play the C Major scale starting from D, you would be playing the D Dorian mode.

The D Dorian Scale (C Major Relative Scale)

What are the Dorian Mode Intervals?

The interval changes are what give a mode its unique sonic color. The Dorian mode intervals compared to Major Scale intervals are:

IntervalC Major Scale NotesIntervalC Dorian Mode Notes
CC
Whole StepDWhole StepD
Whole StepEHalf StepEb
Half StepFWhole StepF
Whole StepGWhole StepG
Whole StepAWhole StepA
Whole StepBHalf StepBb
Half StepCWhole StepC

What is The Sonic Vibe of Dorian Mode?

When you play a mode, you are essentially “coloring” the major scale by re-arranging its interval sequence.

For songwriters, it’s easier to think of modes in terms of brightness and darkness.

When you flat notes in the Major Scale, you make it darker.

When you raise (Sharpen) notes in the Major Scale, you make it brighter.

The Dorian Scale is unique for songwriting because it has a flattened third scale degree, a major sixth scale degree, and a minor seventh. This gives the Dorian scale an added darkness and an added brightness.

The Dorian Scale can be described as ethereal, intriguing, dark, but hopeful.

As you begin to experiment with the Dorian Scale, you quickly realize the variety of moods you can create with it.

Dorian Mode vs. Natural Minor Scale

The Natural Minor Scale is also derived from the Major Scale. This scale is also known as the Aeolian Mode.

The Aeolian Mode starts on the sixth scale degree of a major key and shares the same interval changes as the Dorian Mode except for the raised sixth.

This major sixth is the “featured color” of the Dorian Mode and makes it a slightly brighter and open-sounding scale compared to Aeolian. 

The sixth scale degree in the Aeolian Mode is a half-step up from the stable sounding fifth scale degree (also known as the dominant); the Aeolian has an unsettling sound. This is because the sixth scale degree naturally wants to resolve to the fifth scale degree.

However, because the Dorian Scale raises this sixth scale degree, it relieves this tension created in Aeolian. It gives a more open and stable sound to the melody.

The first three chords are Aeolian. The second three chords are Dorian. Listen to how Dorian “lifts” more and feels more optimistic than Aeolian.

For a more in-depth breakdown of Aeolian and the other Minor Modes, please reference my article “Aeolian Scale vs. The Minor Scales | How to Leverage These Sad and Beautiful Sounds.”

How Do You Play the Dorian Mode?

Now that we’ve gained a theoretical understanding of Dorian Mode let’s look at how we can start integrating it into our playing.

The Chords of the Dorian Mode

Understanding what chords make up the Dorian Mode helps you use this mode in your songwriting. It’s one thing to hear the scale itself, but when you play the chords and listen to how the harmonies interact with one another, that’s when Dorian really takes shape.

The basic chords of Dorian are:

Chord NumeralChord Type (Triad)
iMinor
iiMinor
IIIMajor
IVMajor
VMinor
viºDiminished
VIIMajor
The Dorian Chords in Order

Guitar

Here is a graph of all the Minor CAGED position scales in G Dorian.

Minor CAGED Position 1
Minor CAGED Position 2
Minor CAGED Position 3
Minor CAGED Position 4
Minor CAGED Position 5

Using Dorian Mode for Songwriting

You can use the Dorian Mode to bring intrigue and interest into your songwriting melodies and chord progressions.

It’s important to know that you don’t have to stay in a Dorian Scale for the entire song. Instead, you can simply add it in when it makes sense for the emotion of your music.

Here are some simple tips to get you experimenting with the Dorian Modes color signature.

Chord Progressions for Dorian Flavor

These two main chord progressions are used in modern music that brings out the classic Dorian Scale sound signature.

Minor I to Major IV Chord Progression

The Major IV chord incorporates the majoer sixth in the note stack (harmony). Take a listen to how it really lifts the Minor I into a more hopeful/cheery mood.

Listen to the uplifting nature of these two chords together. This is in C Dorian.

Minor I to Minor II Chord Progression

The Minor II Chord also incorporates the major sixth in the note stack (harmony). This chord sequence brings out the darkness of the Dorian Mode more than the Minor 1 to the Major IV chord sequence.

However, you could add the Major IV chord after the Minor II to give that “climbing out of darkness” feeling.

The first pass is the i to ii chords. The second pass includes the IV. Listen for the lift of tone.

The Mixolydian Seventh

The Mixolydian Scale is a music mode based on the fifth scale degree of the major scale. In addition, it has a flattened seventh scale degree which creates a more open and less tense leading tone.

This flattened/minor seventh interval pattern is also present in the Dorian Scale. We call it the Mixolydian seventh because this interval change isn’t as strong a sonic characteristic of the Dorian Mode like it is for Mixolydian.

However, this whole-step jump gives the same open, non-tense leading tone into the tonic chord.

Knowing and using this interval sequence can bring a very open feeling to your chord progression and melodies.

This is what makes the Dorian Scale such an effective songwriting tool. It has the darkness or a minor scale and the openness/brightness of a major scale.

Harnessing its powers will make your music much more engaging.

C Dorian. The Chords are i IV III VII. Listen to how open and bright the chord progression is even though it’s considered “minor.”

Using Aeolian Mode and Dorian Mode Together

Alternating between the Aeolian Mode (Natural Minor Scale) and the Dorian Mode is a trick that some of the best songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Lana Del Rey, and REM have used.

As stated earlier, the Aeolian Mode sixth scale degree is flattened. It sits one half-step above the dominant fifth and fills melodies with tension and uneasiness.

You can exploit this in your writing to keep your melodies sad and dark. But if you want to bring a sense of hope and lift your listener out of this darkness, you can raise the sixth and play in Dorian.

Dorian Mode and the Pentatonic Scale

The Pentatonic scale is a five-note scale. There are both major pentatonic scales and minor pentatonic scales. Since the Dorian Mode is a minor mode, we will look at how to incorporate the “Dorian Color” into a minor pentatonic scale.

Pentatonic scales leave out the fourth scale degree and the seventh scale degree relative to its Major Scale.

For example, in C Major, the notes would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The Pentatonic Scale for C Major would remove the F and B notes.

To play a minor pentatonic scale, you would begin on the sixth scale degree of the major scale.

If you want to incorporate the vibe of Dorian Mode into your pentatonic scale, then try adding the Dorian modes major sixth into your note sequence. If you’re going to keep the pentatonic pure (only five notes), remove one of the other notes.

The interesting thing about adding Dorian into the minor pentatonic scale is that it sounds more bright and funky.

The following images are of the CAGED Pentatonic Scale in G Minor. We are adding in the raised sixth note in green which is the “Dorian Sound.” However, remember to sub out one other note to keep it pure pentatonic. The way these graphs are laid out is technically Hexatonic (six-note scales).

Minor Pentatonic CAGED Position 1
Minor Pentatonic CAGED Position 2
Minor Pentatonic CAGED Position 3
Minor Pentatonic CAGED Position 4
Minor Pentatonic CAGED Position 5
A Dorian Pentatonics Scale. Listen to how it adds a bit of funk to the sound.

The Notes of the Dorian Scale

Disclaimer: I will be combining enharmonic scales (same notes/different names) and leaving out any modes which have double sharps or double flats in them (it’s not practical for this lesson).

ModeNotesRelative Major
C Dorian ModeC D Eb F G A Bb CBb Major
C#/Db Dorian Mode
(Enharmonic Scales)
C# D# E F# G# A# B C#
Db Eb Fb Gb Ab Bb Cb Db
B Major for C# Dorian
Cb Major for Db Dorian
D Dorian ModeD E F G A B C DC Major
D#/Eb Dorian Mode
(Enharmonic Scales)
D# E# F# G# A# B# C# D#
Eb F Gb Ab Bb C Db Eb
C# Major for D# Dorian
Db Major for Eb Dorian
E Dorian ModeE F# G A B C# D ED Major
F Dorian ModeF G Ab Bb C D Eb FEb Major
F# Dorian ModeF# G# A B C# D# E F#E Major
G Dorian ModeG A Bb C D E F GF Major
G#/Ab Dorian Mode
(Enharmonic Scales)
G# A# B C# D# E# F# G#
Ab Bb Cb Db Eb F Gb Ab
F# Major for G# Dorian
Gb Major for Ab Dorian
A Dorian ModeA B C D E F# G A BG Major
Bb Dorian ModeBb C Db Eb F G Ab BbAb Major
B Dorian ModeB C# D E F# G# A BA Major

Songs that Use the Dorian Mode

Alright, it’s time to kick back and put on a pair of your favorite headphones and listen to how the pros use the Dorian Mode for their songs.

the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby”

Lana Del Rey “Blue Jeans”

Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall”

Daft Punk “Get Lucky”

What To Do Next?

Dorian mode is excellent for musicians who want to write music that has both dark and bright qualities.

Because Dorian straddles the minor and major scales, the Dorian mode creates intriguing melodies and harmonies for your songwriting.

If you are inspired by the sound the Dorian Scale creates but are still struggling to finish your masterpiece, I’ve made just the resource for you. It’s called “How to Write a Song in 5 Simple Step” for you to check out.

Thanks for reading!

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