Dorian mode

Essentially creating a minor tonal environment of it's own, the Dorian color is unique in that the sixth degree is the interval of a major sixth above the root while the seventh remains a minor 7th. The following chart compares the pitches of the Dorian group to the natural minor and melodic minor scales. Example 1.

scale degree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
natural minor A B C D E F G A
Dorian minor A B C D E F# G A
melodic minor A B C D E F# G# A

From the above illustration we can see that the Dorian group is a "step" away from the "softer" natural minor and heading perhaps towards the "brighter" melodic minor color, but not quite there. Thus, if we define the "gravitation pull" by the location of the half steps in the intervalic formula, the Dorian sound is perhaps just a bit anxious? Here is a chart of the intervals using A as the root. Example 1a.

Dorian pitches A B C D E F# G A
interval root major 2nd minor 3rd perfect 4th perfect 5th major 6th minor 7th octave

The strength of the B / C half step is reduced by the tritone between C and F#. The F# / G half step is very strong, as the F# in the Dorian color is the leading tone or seventh degree of G major. So, our tonic A is perhaps a bit weakened as a tonal center, adding to the Dorian's potentially anxious, aggressive nature. As with our explorations with other minor colors, the above comparison reveals again that it is the 6th and 7th scale degrees that are generally affected in the various minor color configurations. Here is the Dorian's sound. Example 1b.

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So why is the Dorian color important? Historically, this intervalic configuration and resulting sound has been around at least since the ancient Greeks, so 2 to 3000 years or so, there are written records. Second, that when used as a tonal center, compositions written in the Dorian mode have a unique character, perhaps a certain "boldness" not projected by the other minor groups. Third, that within the harmonic or chordal scheme of things, we find the Dorian color diatonically within the major scale created from the second degree, thus becoming an integral part of the well worn, cool and swinging jazz cadence commonly known as the Two / Five One.

As a jazz compositional environment, the Dorian sound creates some wonderful melodies and has traditionally created a cool and important initial environment from which players have expanded into a more "free improvisation" format, always having the earthy Dorian color to return to. Miles Davis's "So What" and John Coltrane's "Impressions", written during the early 1960's, are both Dorian based and should be examined by the advancing learner.  Both these compositions are simply one 8 bar melodic idea placed into the 32 bar A / A / B / A song form, with the 8 bars of the B section moving up by half step, using the same melodic and harmonic idea transposed.

Other Dorian factors worth noting? In the world of jazz standards, the Two / Five / One chord progression is one of the cadential standards that identifies the art form. There is a "sleekness" about this harmonic motion that is elusive. Not as cumbersome as the perhaps more common Four / Five / One as so often used in earlier periods of jazz music and the other styles of American music, the Two / Five cadential motion is ideally suited for the rapidly modulating key schemes of many great jazz compositions. So where does the Dorian mode figure in? Well, using the initial perspective of the Ionian mode / major scale as the center of one musical universe, the scale and chord built on Two, the second scale degree of the major scale, is the Dorian mode. The pitches of the Dorian group provide an ideal resource for creating melodic ideas over the Two / Five / One cadential motion. The following idea is vanilla Dorian over Two / Five / One in C major. Example 3.

    D min 7   G 7   C maj 7


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If your hip to the Two / Five motion, scour the tunes in your real book and look for "cellular ideas." If not, no worries, we’ll thoroughly examine this harmonic motion’s possibilities in the improvisation section. Click Dorian mode for more ideas on this important color.

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