Composing with Modes: Dorian
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Wondering what the Dorian mode is or how to use it when composing?
You’ve come to the right place, my friend.
Now, the modes can be and get confusing to understand. I do my very best in explaining the details in this article, but I also have an article going over the basics of what modes are and their make up that you can read here, or a podcast on the topic you can find here.
With that, let’s get into the mode of this article: Dorian!
Dorian is the second mode in the order of modes. Some of the words I’d use to describe it as are:
minor but optimistic
possibly some mystery
rainy day, but a cozy one
slightly sad, but resolute
The video above is an example of the D Dorian Scale. Here’s a visual of what it looks like on a keyboard and notated:
This scale is mostly minor, very similar to the natural minor scale, but one difference in being the 6th scale degree is natural instead of flat. This small difference may seem insignificant, but it opens up a completely new world in terms of emotion and sound.
BUILDING THE SCALE
There are three methods in which you can use to construct a Dorian scale.
1. The first method is to follow a pattern of half and whole steps. Dorian’s pattern is (W = whole step & H = half step):
W H W W W H W
If we start on the note D, for example, we can use these whole and half steps to make a Dorian scale. watch a video of the process:
Here’s another construction example, but starting on the note G:
Remembering this pattern of whole and half steps can be very useful in understanding the relationship between the notes. You can build the scale starting on any note on an instrument!
2. The second method to constructing a Dorian scale works if you are already familiar with your natural minor scales. Starting on any note, play the natural minor scale, but simply keep the sixth scale degree natural instead of flat. Here’s a video with some examples of minor and dorian scales starting on different keys:
This can definitely be used as a shortcut!
3. The third method of construction is to pick any major key, then play that major scale but start on the second degree of the scale. Wow that sentence was even confusing to write out. I’ll use the key of C to better explain my point.
C major consists of no sharps or flats. It’s a very straight forward key. But, if you play a C major scale, starting it on the second degree (which would be D), you would find yourself a Dorian scale.
Here’s an example of C major, then the C major scale starting on D, along with a few more examples in different keys:
In every major key, if you start on the second scale degree, you will always play a Dorian scale. That's the beauty of the modes- each mode, which is how we get the order of them, begins on a different scale degree of a major key.
Now that you have some options of how to construct or find this scale, let’s talk about music.
SONGS WRITTEN IN DORIAN MODE
There is quite a diverse use of this mode in different kinds of music, which is so helpful when trying to get a feel for what it sounds like.
1. The first piece- one you might be familiar with- is Scarborough Fair. We're not sure who wrote the melody and lyrics as it's an English folk song from the medieval times, but artists like Simon & Garfunkel have helped popularize the tune.
2. This next piece is also a folksong, and Irish folksong called Drunken Sailor. I'm positive that you're familiar with this one as well! The first published account we have of this piece is from 1839, but who knows how long it's been around:
We know that this mode is good for folksongs!
These next ones were written and recorded by popular artists.
3. Wicked Game by Chris Isaak, released in 1989:
4. So What by Miles Davis (a famous jazz musician in the 20th century) released in 1959:
5. Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles released in 1966:
6. And Billy Jean by Michael Jackson, released in 1982:
Those are just some more popular examples of music written in the Dorian mode, with that natural 6 giving it its unique sound. Listening to this music will help you understand the feeling, emotion, and relationship between the notes, which will help you with your own writing.
The best way to get better at this concept is to practice, practice, practice!
There is a pdf down below that has all of the Dorian scales written in every key signature, then with just accidentals (these correspond to either constructing the Dorian scale starting on the second scale degree of a major key, or by simply using the whole and half step pattern).
Hopefully this has helped you better understand what the Dorian mode is and it’s use in composing!
The last step for you is to compose something of your own. Pick a key, play the Dorian scale out, and compose away.