Lesson 19: Modal Harmony - Dorian Mode

NOTE: Some of the material for this lesson was "lifted" straight from Alex Ulanowsky's Harmony 4 book for Berklee College of Music students. I denote these blatant acts of plagiarism with an asterisk.


Lesson Contents:

The Lesson:

Let's get right to the heart of the matter... let's harmonize an E Dorian scale and see what we get:

The key of E Dorian

Looks suspiciously like the chords for the key of D major, BUT, there is a difference. In this case, the Em triad is the "one" chord, not the "two" chord. This logic yields the following harmonic analysis:

i-   ii-   bIII   IV   v-   vi°   bVII

And we know we can extend these triads to give us the following 7th chords:

i-7   ii-7   bIIImaj.7   IV7   v-7   vi-7(b5)   bVIImaj.7  

As my friend Wendell asked me once, as I was trying to explain this stuff to him, "So, how do we apply this stuff to our playing?" Let's see if I can explain...

It works like this. We've got 4 minor modes relative to the major scale. They are:

  1. Dorian
  2. Phrygian
  3. Aeolian
  4. Locrian

We also have 2 major modes relative to the major scale. They are:

  1. Lydian
  2. Mixolydian

Of these 6 modes, Aeolian is considered to be the most familiar next to Ionian (or the Major Scale). It's almost treated like a parent scale. Locrian is not used in modal music, so we don't really concern ourselves with it in this discussion. Of the remaining modes, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian and Mixolydian are considered to be "less familiar" modes from a "traditional" perspective. Why do I tell you this?

"The modal quality of each less familiar mode (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian) is determined by a characteristic note - the one note in the scale which makes it different from natural minor in the case of a minor mode (Dorian or Phrygian) or different from Ionian in the case of a major mode (Lydian or Mixolydian)."  *

Let's look at the difference between Dorian and Aeolian...

What we see is that they only differ by one note. Dorian has a "raised 6th", that is, the 6th note of the scale is a major 6th above the root while Aeolian has a "flat six", or minor 6th, for its sixth scale degree. Check it out:

R 2 b3 4 5 b6 6 b7 R
E Dorian: E F# G A B C# D E
E Aeolian: E F# G A B C D E

C# is the raised 6th in the key of E Dorian and is the characteristic note. (I'm getting to the application part very soon. I still have to lay some groundwork, so, bear with me. We'll get there.)

Now here's a real important idea: Chords which contain the characteristic note are called characteristic chords. "Unlike standard minor key harmony, modal harmony does not use 'subdominant' and 'dominant' sound categories."* Instead, modal music uses the familiar "tonic" sound category but we also add an additional "non-tonic" sound category.

So, we only have two sound categories when analyzing modal music:

  1. tonic - always the "one" chord
  2. non-tonic - all other chords in the mode/key

This kind of sound categorization conveys and reinforces the concept that modal music is music where only one chord is being played, the "one" chord, for a long period of time. "Long" being a relative term in the previous sentence. How long? Long enough to establish the mode. It could be 4 bars of music. It could be 400.

NOTE: Read the previous lesson if these "sound category" terms are unfamiliar to you.

"In modal harmony the 'one' chord is the 'tonic' while the other chords are considered 'non-tonic.' Characteristic chords establish the modal flavor, and a resolution from a characteristic chord to the "one" chord is called a modal cadence." *


What the hell does all this mean?

In short, some of the chords diatonic to a mode will sound great in a modal context, while some of them will not. In fact, the avoid progressions will pull you out of the mode and back into the relative major key.

The following diagram tries to summarize what you need to know about Dorian mode and how to apply it to your playing and compositions:

All you need to know about Dorian mode...

Check out the characteristic chord progressions section above. These are vamps that you can play to establish Dorian mode. Pure and simple. The avoid chords are just that. Stay away from them if you want to sound modal. And of course, stay away from the avoid progressions. As I said before, these will pull you out of Dorian mode and back into the relative major key which is something you want to completely avoid.

These concepts apply to all of the modes. We're just staring with Dorian because we have to start somewhere.

A Breakdown of E Dorian...

Triad Harmonic
Chord? (Y/N)
Chord? (Y/N)
Em i- "one minor" tonic no no
F#m ii- "two minor" non-tonic yes no
G bIII "flat three major" non-tonic no no
A IV "four major" non-tonic yes no
Bm v- "five minor" non-tonic no no
C#° vi° "six diminished" non-tonic no yes
D bVII "flat seven major" non-tonic sort of, yes no

Why is "flat seven major", a D major chord, considered a characteristic chord?

Because when it's played as a major seven chord, Dmaj.7 (r=D, 3=F#, 5=A, 7=C#), it contains the characteristic note, the C#. So when we play it as a straight triad, as a D major, our ears hear it as functioning in the same way as if we had played a Dmaj.7 instead.


7th Chord Harmonic
Chord? (Y/N)
Chord? (Y/N)
E-7 i-7 "one minor seven" tonic no no
F#-7 ii-7 "two minor seven" non-tonic yes no
Gmaj.7 bIII maj.7 "flat three major seven" non-tonic no no
A7 IV7 "four seven" non-tonic yes no
B-7 v-7 "five minor seven" non-tonic no no
C#-7(b5) vi-7(b5) "six minor seven flat five" non-tonic no yes
Dmaj.7 bVII maj.7 "flat seven major seven" non-tonic yes no


"Vamps" or Characteristic
Chord Progressions
in E Dorian
ii- to i- F#m to Em
IV7 to i- A7 to Em
bVII to i- D to Em
bVIImaj.7 to i- Dmaj.7 to Em


Avoid Chord
in E Dorian
i-7 to IV7 to bVIImaj.7 E-7 to A7 to Dmaj.7
IV7 to bVIImaj.7 A7 to Dmaj.7

It should be pretty obvious that the avoid progressions are the "two five one" chords of the relative major key. Don't play them in a modal context.


Famous Examples Illustrating Dorian Mode...

If you're anything like me then you like Pink Floyd's music. Did you know they are famous for jamming in Dorian mode? It's true. Consider Dark Side of the Moon, perhaps their most famous album. It has the following Dorian jams:

  • On "Breathe" ==> E Dorian ==> ||: Em  A7 :|| ==> ||: i-  IV7 :||
  • On "The Great Gig in the Sky" ==> G Dorian ==> ||: Gm  C7 :|| ==> ||: i-  IV7 :||
  • On "Any Color You Like" ==> D Dorian ==> ||: Dm  G7 :|| ==> ||: i-  IV7 :||

See a pattern? These are all Dorian vamps/progressions in 3 different keys. In each case, we're moving back and forth between "one minor" and "four seven". This is probably the most common characteristic vamp (chord progression) for Dorian mode.


This IV7 to i- progression is also referred to by Frank Zappa as the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression on an album called Shut Up and Play Your Guitar.

(I highly recommend the album. All the tunes are modal, by the way.)

Frank is poking fun at Carlos because most Santana tunes almost always have this modal progression in them, so it's not so "secret", and hence, yet another example illustrating Zappa's great sense of humor. Carlos can't get away from Dorian mode and why should he? It sounds cool and is so much fun to play.

And of course you can play a minor pentatonic scale of the same root in a Dorian context. For example, if you're in (the key) of E Dorian (yes it's a key ==> "mode" and "key" mean the same basic thing), an E minor pentatonic scale fits perfectly. In fact, E minor pentatonic is a subset of E Dorian.

R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7 R
E Dorian: E F# G A B C# D E
E Pentatonic: E G A B D E

As you can see, E minor pentatonic is E Dorian without the 2nd and 6th scale degrees.

Final example:

The Doors' "Light My Fire" contains a Dorian vamp during the long extended solos section of the song.

A Dorian ==> ||: A-7  B-7 :|| ==> ||: i-7  ii-7 :||

Again, in this example, the modal vamp repeats over and over and is what creates the modal sound (or harmonic basis or foundation) for the mode which is suited for long improvisations.

Keep in mind: Modal music is really music using only one chord and staying in one key. Modal progressions just help create some variation and movement in the form of a modal cadence. The characteristic chords act as supporting chords, always contain the mode's characteristic note and resolve back to the main chord, the "one".

Remember: Modal music is music that is essentially jamming on a single chord or tonality (mode). Classical Indian music is modal, for instance.

What's great about modal playing is that players don't have to think about changing keys. They stay in a single key or scale. This frees them up to really focus on the groove of the music and the sound of the intervals of each scale degree in the mode. This kind of playing enables the musician to be less conceptual or cerebral. One can just play their instrument and be in the moment and play with the energy and vibe of the music.

Or as Frank Zappa put it... shut up and play your guitar. In a way, this is a very simple and direct way of playing music, yet it's also a very ancient and powerful way of playing.

Music is so fucking cool.

With all of that presented...

I think that about wraps things up. If you've made it this far in the lesson series, you've really come a long way. Almost all of the preceding lessons have lead up to this level of thinking. I'm sorry it took so long to get here, but as you have seen, there are concepts that build on top of each other that need to be covered before we can get to this kind of "higher level" thinking.

Go to the next lesson, Lesson 20, or go back to the main menu.