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    The Dorian Mode : Soloing and Composition Part 1

    by Joseph Alexander

    What is a Mode?

    A mode is a scale which has been generated or derived from a parent scale. In this lesson, the first in a series of five, we focus on the Dorian mode that is derived from the major scale.

    To derive a mode from the major scale, you start on any note that is not the root of the major scale, and make that the root of a new scale. You then play through the notes of the parent scale beginning and ending on the new root.

    For example, if we take the scale of C major:

    C D E F G A B C

    But begin on the note D:

    D E F G A B C D

    We have created a new scale. In this case, we have created the Dorian mode.

    E F G A B C D E is named the Phrygian mode.

    F to F is the Lydian mode.

    G to G is the Mixolydian mode.

    A to A is the Aeolian mode.

    B to B is the Locrian mode.

    C to C is the parent scale and is known as the Ionian mode.

    An extremely important fact to remember is that most music for the past 800 years has been written around the major scale and its harmony. Western ears have been conditioned since birth to hear melodies in relation to this major scale. Because the modes we are now studying are built from this major scale, playing them in isolation will tend to make you hear them as wanting to resolve to the root of the parent major scale. This destroys the modal characteristics and the end result is that you simply hear the major scale starting from a different note.

    For example, try playing the notation below. It is one octave of the D Dorian mode. When you get to the bottom of the scale, do your ears want to carry on one more note to the C, the root of the parent scale?

    d dorian scale  

    Click to hear the audio for this example

    Now try the next example whereby we play exactly the same thing. However this time there is a chordal backing track built from strong chords of the Dorian mode. Because your ears have framed the notes around these chords they will allow you to hear the notes in the context of the D root.

    d dorian scale  

    Click to hear the audio for this example

    It is not always necessary to build a complex chord progression from a mode to accurately hear its unique tonality: Often in rock music, power chords or simple riffs are used to outline a key centre with little more harmonic information than the root and 5th of each chord. However, in these lessons I will give you some specifically modal chord progressions which highlight the character of each mode.

    Why do Modes Sound Different to the Major Scale?

    If we think of an analogy of a scale being a ladder with rungs set in a specific pattern, a mode is simply a different spacing of these rungs. Because the rungs are spaced differently, the mode has a different sound, especially when you consider that the chords built from harmonising the mode will be different. For example, chord I in the major scale was a major 7th, but when we harmonise the Dorian mode, chord I is now a minor 7. Instantly we have created a different mood. By carefully selecting chords we can bring out the unique character of each modal sound.

    Let us look at the scale pattern of tones and semitones formed by the D Dorian mode, and then compare it to the D Major scale. Remember, the equivalent major scale is always our point of comparison to describe any musical sound.

    The notes of the D Dorian are:

    D E F G A B C D

    d dorian scale  

    Click to hear the audio for this example

    Whereas the notes of D major are:

    D E F# G A B C# D

    d major scale  

    Click to hear the audio for this example

    It can be seen that instead of the F# note in the D major scale, D Dorian has an F Natural. In other words the 3rd note, F# has been flattened. This is written as b3.

    It can also be seen that instead of the C# note in the D major scale, D Dorian has a C Natural. In other words, the 7th note, C# has been flattened. This is written as b7.

    Remembering the simple formula for the major scale:

    1 2 3 4 5 6 7

    This means that the formula for the Dorian mode is:

    1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7.

    If you remember that a minor chord has a b3, you will already begin to realise that D Dorian will sound very different from D major. The first arpeggio, 1 b3 5 b7 outlines a minor 7 chord so this mode will have a fairly sad sounding quality.

    To reiterate: This new pattern of tones and semitones in a mode creates a different mood from the original major scale.

    This mood is emphasised by playing the modal scale over chord progressions or riffs that strongly outline chords that are derived from the harmonised mode.

    It is very important at first to allow the harmony (chord progression) to set up the sound of the mode. The ear needs to accept the that fact the mode does not resolve to the root of the parent major scale. By framing the modal context of the scale with chords, the listener will accept and hear the new interval structure of the mode you are using.

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