What comprises the Dorian Mode? Many chapters have been written over the years explaining what melodic and harmonic practices have been used to establish the Dorian mode. I wish in this article to offer my own insights into what I have observed in practice and heard in musical sound, the factors that best help formulate the essence of the Dorian mode.
The Dorian mode is actually a minor scale built on the second scale degree of its relative major scale, which is found a whole tone below. The scale is compromised of eight tones including the octave, beginning on the note D ascending to the octave D, utilizing the notes of the parent C major scale.
Normally the D minor scale is thought of as the relative minor of F major, since they share the same key signature with each having one flat – Bb. In this case however, we have a raised sixth degree – B natural occurring naturally because of the relationship with C major. We also keep the lowered seventh degree which occurs naturally, as we wish to retain the pure Dorian mode flavor.
This brings us to the two most important tones of the Dorian mode which give it its particular modal sound, namely the sixth and seventh tones. These tones must be kept pure and even stressed, or used prominently throughout the musical piece to establish the color of the Dorian mode. I might add that the objective in writing or playing in the Dorian modal framework is to keep the mode as pure as possible by not introducing any foreign tones, and sounding the D quite often. This is further enhanced by utilizing tonal relationships unique to the Dorian mode as in D,C,B,G,A. and G,F,E,C,D.
The Dorian mode is found most frequently when working with minor seventh chords, especially in progressions of II7 – V7 – I in a major key. Here the II7 in C major would be Dm7 with its’ scale of D,E,F,G,A,B,C,D. The distribution of whole and half steps in this mode, give the scale its distinctive flavor. Particularly noticeable is the whole step between 7 & 8, and 1/2 steps between 2 & 3, and 6 & 7. To point out these intervals of the Dorian mode, should be the intent if we wish to establish this particular sound.
The following examples use melodic fragments using these intervals to help establish the sound of the Dm7 chord in C major. ( ex.1 – A,B,C,D,B,G,A ) ( ex.2 C,B,G,A,F,E,C,D) Other examples – ( ex.3 – D,E,F,G,E,C,D ) ( ex.4 – D,E,F,G,A,C,B,G,A,F,E,G,F,D,E,C,D ) ( ex.5 – D,F,A,C,B,G,A ) As in all specific genre of music, there are certain tones, intervals, triads, chord progressions, etc., that we use and even stress, while many others of these categories we avoid. I would like to mention that the basic fundamental sound of the Dorian mode is that of a pure minor scale with the sixth scale degree raised ascending and descending. The triads are major or minor except for a diminished triad when built on the 6th note B, in this scale. As the note “D” is the tonic, the tonic triad is D,F,A which is D minor.
The flavor and color of the mode is most apparent when the B natural is heard melodically moving to the “A”, as in a G triad 2nd inversion moving to a D minor triad in root position. Another colorful motion is a triad built on the seventh degree “C” moving the tonic triad D minor ( C major to D minor ). Any progression which shows off these particular tones ( B to A, C to D ) in their respective movements will have helped to retain and even embellish the unique sound of the Dorian mode.
As in Leon Dallins’ excellent book “Twentieth Century Techniques”, we need to establish a different set of priorities for the Dorian mode triads. Tonic or the ( I ) one chord is our home key chord but surrounding it will not be the traditional ( V ) five chord. Instead we will substitute the VII chord for the V, and use it as well as the IV chord as our primary triads ( I – IV – VII ), or ( I – VII – IV ).
Melodic considerations should point out the B natural to A, and C to D step-wise motions to help establish the Dorian sound. Surrounding a note by its neighboring tones is also a good practice to establish tonality C,E,D – B,G,A -G,E,F.