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Many songwriters look for ways to make their songs sound more captivating, and one of the most popular ways is to create songs that are based on specific modes. 

You may have heard about modes and might have an understanding that it is a scale. However, that is only half the picture, since every scale has chords built from each note (scale degree). 

These chords can be used to create chord progressions within that mode that have a specific mood. 

The mode we are going to talk about today is the Dorian mode, which is a great mode to write songs with that gives a feeling of sadness with a hopeful sound and can also be very dreamy and magical/whimsical sounding. 

To write songs with the Dorian mode, songwriters will use a minor key but change the fourth chord of the key from Minor (iv) to a Major (IV) chord. This highlights the raised sixth scale degree that makes it different from the Natural Minor scale.

The Sound & Moods of the Dorian Mode

When it comes to writing songs, it helps to think of Dorian as a mood with its own unique sound, which many have described as “sad but in a hopeful way”, “nostalgic” and “mysterious”. 

This is because it is a “Minor” mode and therefore has a sound closer to the Minor scale than the Major scale. However, as opposed to the Minor scale, Dorian has a raised 6th interval which gives it its unique sound.  

As you can see, modes allow for expressing a more nuanced mood and emotion in the song beyond just happy or sad. There is a whole spectrum of emotions in between. Many songwriters take advantage of this, and we’re going to talk about how you can do it too. 

What is the Dorian Mode?

The Dorian mode is essentially a scale derived from the Major scale. Every note (scale degree) in a major scale has a mode assigned to it.

The first note in a scale is associated with the Ionian mode, the second with the Dorian mode and so on. 

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian 
  7. Locrian

If we look at the Major scale we can see it has a formula and a series of whole steps and half steps that create it. Let’s use the key of C as an example. 

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

Formula for the Dorian Mode

If we start the C Major scale but instead play it starting on the D note then what we are playing is D Dorian. The Relative Dorian mode of C. 

Relative Dorian of C

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D

W – H – W – W – W – H – W

So just like any scale, Dorian also has its own formula/pattern for constructing it. 

You might be thinking “ok I see that the pattern just started from one note over, but what if I’m trying to play C Dorian, not D Dorian? In this case, just start the Dorian pattern on the C note. You will notice some differences in the notes from C major. The 3rd and 7th note are flattened.

C Major

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

C Dorian

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7

C, D, E♭, F, G, A, B♭, C

W – H – W – W – W – H – W

We also have to make a distinction between Parallel and Relative modes. 

  • D Dorian is the Relative Dorian mode of C.
  • C Dorian is the Parallel Dorian of C.

C Major: 

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

C Dorian: 

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7

C, D, E♭, F, G, A, B♭, C

W – H – W – W – W – H – W

As you can see above, the notes are different between C Major and C Dorian. The C Dorian pattern just started on the second Whole step compared to the Major scale formula. 

Parallel vs Relative Dorian

It’s called Parallel mode because if you put the C Major scale and the Dorian pattern starting on C side by side (meaning parallel to each other) you will notice they sound very different. C Dorian sounds like its own scale.

Since Dorian has its own formula, it’s helpful to think of it as a standalone scale with its own sound. 

When you are playing the Major scale, but start it on the second note (the D note), you are also playing the Dorian pattern but it is within the context of the C Major scale, not C Dorian. This is a Relative Mode because it’s the Dorian pattern as relative to C Major.

I know this might sound a bit confusing, so if you want to learn more about the difference between Parallel and Relative Modes check out this article which explains it further Defining Parallel VS. Relative Modes.

How to Write Dorian Melodies

So now we know that Dorian has its own formula and we can think of it as its own scale, now we can use the Dorian mode to create melodies. 

To create melodies in Dorian it’s important to highlight the notes that make it different from the Major and Minor scales. These two notes are the 3rd of the scale (which makes it different from the Major scale) and the 6th of the scale (which makes it different from the Minor scale).

Let’s look at C. 

C Major: 

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

C Minor: 

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭

C Dorian: 

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, 6, ♭7

C, D, E♭, F, G, A, B♭

As you can see the E♭ will give it the Minor scale quality which makes it different from the Major scale, and the A will give it the Dorian sound that makes it different from a regular Minor scale. Both of these notes (meaning the flat 3rd and raised 6th notes or in this case, E♭ and A) are important to highlight in your melodies. 

If you want to use the Dorian mode over the entire progression make sure the chords underneath are taken from the Dorian key. You can also use Dorian over individual Minor chords and it will sound great because the mode has the same Minor quality but with the raised 6th, making it sound a bit brighter than other Minor scales.

How to Write Dorian Chord Progressions

So let’s focus on getting the Dorian sound in your chord progressions without a melody over it. 

Let’s say you have a C Minor chord progression. Since C Dorian is also a Minor mode this makes it much easier to mingle the two because they are the same scale quality (Minor) so they sound similar already. 

TIP: Borrow chords from modes of the same scale quality. Major modes for Major keys and Minor modes for Minor keys.

Here is our C Minor chord progression:

C Minor Chord Progression

i, v,  iv, i

Cmin, Gmin, Fmin, Cmin

Now, Dorian is a Minor mode, so let’s compare the chords of C Minor with C Dorian.

C Minor 

i – iio – ♭III – iv – v – ♭VI – ♭VII

Cmin, Ddim, E♭maj, Fmin, Gmin, A♭maj, Bbmaj

C Dorian 

i – ii – ♭III – IV – v – vio – ♭VII 

Cmin, Dmin, E♭maj, Fmaj, Gmin, Adim, B♭maj

As you can see there are some key differences in C Dorian from C Minor. 

  • Ddim is a Dmin in Dorian
  • Fmin is actually an Fmaj in Dorian 
  • A♭maj is an Adim in Dorian. 

So the Dmin (ii) chord in Dorian has an A note which is the important note of Dorian. However it uses it as the 5th of the chord so it doesn’t really stick out to add the sad but hopeful sound of Dorian to the progression. 

For the Adim (vio) in Dorian, most modern songs don’t really use diminished chords much because they are quite dissonant so that discards the Adim chord.

So our best option for getting a Dorian sound in our chord progression is by using that F Major (IV chord). because it uses the A note as its 3rd which really sticks out and defines the chord, so it dramatically highlights the 6th scale degree which gives Dorian its unique sound. 

In the key of Dorian, the IV chord played in Major (as opposed to Minor) is what adds the feeling of hope to the sad sound of Dorian. This is because since the IV chord is Major, the Major 3rd note of that chord highlights the 6th scale degree that makes Dorian different from Minor. 

TIP: If you have a minor chord progression and want to add a Dorian sound, use a Major IV chord instead of the expected Minor iv chord of the key.

So to give it a Dorian sound, our progression changes from this:

i, v,  iv, i

Cmin, Gmin, Fmin, Cmin

To this:

i, v, IV, i

Cmin, Gmin, Fmaj, Cmin

Songs with Dorian Mode and their Sound

The best way to hear the sound of Dorian is to listen to songs that use it heavily. To that end, we’ll look at the chord progressions of 3 songs below which are commonly used as great examples of the Dorian sound.

Some words to describe the sound may be “sad in a hopeful way”, “mysterious”, “feeling of longing”. This sound is coming from having changed the Minor iv chord of the Minor key it’s in, to a Major IV chord. 

**NOTE**: If the chord charts look weird on your smartphone just turn it sideways so the chords line up with the words properly.

“Breathe” by Pink Floyd

You’ll notice in the chords below that the chord progression is in E Minor, yet there is an A7. In a regular E Minor key that A would be Minor, yet it was changed to a 7 chord which has the major 3rd interval, so it has the Dorian sound as if it was a Major chord. 

This song is a perfect example of how Dorian can sound nostalgic, which is a combination of sadness with a positive, longing reminiscence of the past. 

[Verse 1] – Key: E Dorian

  i                                       IV

Em                                    A7

   Breathe, breathe in the air

  i                              IV

Em                           A7

   Don’t be afraid to care

  i                               IV

Em                            A7

   Leave, don’t leave me

  i                                                         IV

Em                                                      A7

Look around and choose your own ground

“Mad World” by Tears for Fears

Although this song may sound very upbeat 80s vibe, the chords used carry a sad undertone to them. It almost feels like being at a party while being depressed. 

As you can see in the chords below, this song is in F# Minor (i), but there is a Major IV chord (the Bmaj). The B chord should be minor (iv) but isn’t (IV) which is giving a Dorian sound.

By having the Bmaj at the end of the progression of Mad World, it gives a sad feeling with a ray of hope at the end. 

[Verse 1] – Key: F# Minor with a Dorian IV chord

   i                                    III

F#m                                 A

   All around me are familiar faces

VII                          IV

E                            B

Worn out places, worn out faces

   i                                         III

F#m                                      A

   Bright and early for their daily races

VII                         IV

E                           B

Going nowhere, going nowhere

   i                                 III

F#m                              A

   Their tears are filling up their glasses

VII                     IV

E                       B

No expression, no expression

   i                                         III

F#m                                      A

   Hide my head, I want to drown my sorrow

VII                   IV

E                     B

No tomorrow, no tomorrow

“Scarborough Fair” by Simon & Garfunkel

I’ve always loved this song and one of the reasons is because it sounds so magical, whimsical and dreamy. This ambience also comes from Dorian, which goes to show you how versatile it can be. 

As you can see there is an A in this E Dorian chord progression. The A chord should be Minor (iv) if it was a Minor key but is instead Major (IV) making it Dorian. 

Another thing is this song also sounds very folk-like. As if we were in the medieval ages in Europe. There’s a reason for that aside from the instrumentation and the choir sounding voices. 

Much of that music and also Celtic music makes heavy use of Dorian, so if you want to make a traditional medieval folk sounding song, you should use Dorian. 

[Verse 1] – Key: E Dorian

  i                                 ♭VII           i 

Em                                D           Em

   Are you going to Scarborough Fair

III                 i        III  IV             i

G               Em      G  A            Em

  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

  I           III                III  ♭VII/ii  i    ♭VII

Em         G                G   D/F Em    D

  Remember me to one who lives there

  i                ♭VII                          i 

Em               D                         Em

  She once was a true love of mine

Wrapping it up

Writing songs in modes is a great tool for any songwriter but it is important to know what mode will give what sound. 

As we saw, Dorian is excellent for giving a nostalgic “sad but hopeful” sound. It is best used when adding it to a song that is in a Minor key to give it that extra spicy sound. 

We went over not just the concept of Dorian, but also how to apply the sound in practice into an actual song, and saw how other songs use it. So this will help you do the same to your own songs. 

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