So let’s add the Dorian Mode to your aural tool-box!
Reminder: A mode is derived by taking the notes of a scale and changing which note in the scale is used as the root note. You don’t need to know much theory to learn from this article, but if you want to check the theory background, there’s a great lesson available from daveconservatoire.org which specifically introduces the Dorian:
To summarize: the Dorian is a mode of the major scale that is formed by using the same notes as the major scale, but using the second note as the root. This creates a group of notes nearly identical to the natural minor scale, except that the minor sixth note is sharpened to the major sixth. This creates a brighter spot in Dorian when that note is played.
The examples below consist of the minor scale and the Dorian mode for comparison:
Guitarist Usage of the Dorian Mode
The Dorian mode is not as common as the natural minor scale, particularly for guitarists. There are plenty of songs, such as “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles or “Scarborough Faire,” that use it. You can find more examples of Dorian Mode in popular music here:
Most jazz guitarists use it significantly – but then jazz guitarists are typically expected to know and use every major scale mode!
The most common modern usage for it is as a substitute for the minor pentatonic scale rather than the natural minor scale. The minor pentatonic scale is very common in rock, hard rock, and metal music, but there are a significant amount of upbeat songs in all of those genres.
The Dorian mode allows guitarists to use the minor pentatonic riffs, but add in the brighter major sixth note to get a more upbeat feel. This particular mode is common in glam rock and hair metal, which are both guitar driven, but often upbeat, genres. George Lynch, in particular, is well known for using this mode.
The examples below are nearly identical guitar riffs. The first riff consists of some basic minor pentatonic guitar work. The second riff is the same line with the major sixth added in a few places to brighten up the line:
Rhythm Usage of the Dorian Mode
Generally speaking, the major sixth is not used as part of the chord progression in Dorian songs. The chord progressions typically used in minor pentatonic songs, using the I, IV, and V chords, are more common. It is more common for Dorian to be used by the bass as part of the rhythm part. The examples below contain the same guitar rhythm, but the second example uses a Dorian line underneath it:
If the guitar does have a rhythm line in Dorian, it will usually be a single note line. The following example demonstrates a possible Dorian line for guitar:
Listening for the Dorian
Hopefully the examples above have started to tune your ear into the sound of the Dorian Mode. Follow up on some of the example artists and recordings mentioned to continue to build your familiarity with the sound of the Dorian Mode. You should start to hear that major sixth pop out at you!
The Dorian mode can be tough to hear in some situations. After all, it is only one note off from the Aeolian mode (natural minor) and the Mixolydian mode. Any rock or metal song that seems slightly too upbeat is usually a good candidate to be in Dorian. Usually the best place to focus is going to be the bass or the solo if you are unsure if it is Dorian or minor pentatonic. Remember, the major sixth note is the key to recognizing a song is in the Dorian Mode. If it is present, but the rest of the scale sounds overall minor, then it is almost always the Dorian mode.
As you practice transcribing songs, try to look out for this major sixth in a minor musical context to identify songs using the Dorian Mode. As you find more and more examples of it in use, your ear will get more and more reliable at recognising it straight off.
Have you encountered good examples of the Dorian Mode in use? Do you have tips for using it in composition or performance? Any questions about Dorian Mode ear training? Leave a comment below!
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