A Deep Dive On Dorian Mode

Weekly Newsletter #76

January 20, 2023

Do you write songs and/or improvise? 

Do you know when to use the dorian mode instead of the minor scale? 

There’s a good chance you might have used the dorian mode without even knowing it. 

But knowing when to avoid the minor scale and use the dorian mode can save you from some really bad sounding notes. 

Just because the root chord is minor, doesn’t mean you should use the minor scale! 

Now, plenty of you are already familiar with modes, especially the dorian mode, but for those who aren’t or who need a refresher on how to use it…this one is for you. 

What Is Dorian Mode Exactly? 

Dorian mode is the second of the major modes. 

This means that if you take any major scale and start on the 2nd scale degree you’ll basically be playing a dorian mode. 

If you start a C major scale on D, you’re playing dorian. 

Start a G major scale on A…dorian. 

Bb major scale starting on C…yep, also dorian. 

It seems simple, but it actually changes quite a few things about the harmony of the scale and the corresponding chords. 

To understand this better, you need to analyze what is different about dorian from any other set of notes. 

What Makes Dorian Different? 

To start, let’s use C major as an example. 

The C major scale is C-D-E-F-G-A-B 

D dorian is the same scale but starting on D: 


This automatically makes dorian a minor mode because it has a minor third (F)…D major would have an F#. 

Knowing that D dorian is a minor mode, how does it differ from the D minor scale? 

Let’s compare them:  

Right away you should notice that the difference is the 6th note. 

In D minor it’s a Bb, and in D dorian it’s a B. 

In dorian you have a “raised 6th”. 

Compare the Dm scale to the D dorian scale with a raised 6th. 

You can also easily convert your regular D minor pentatonic scale into a dorian type scale by adding the raised 6th. 

Using this Dm pentatonic with a raised 6th is incredibly common, especially among rock, blues, pop, and country guitarists. 

That’s because of the chords these types of music tend to use. 

Dorian Chords & Harmony 

The raised 6th in D dorian completely changes the harmony of any chord in the scale that has a B/Bb in it. 

If you map out the 7th chords for D minor you’ll get: 

With D dorian you get: 

This should be incredibly important to you. 

How many times have you played a song where Dm was the “home chord” and there was an Em or a G7? 

This happens all the time, and it’s a perfect example of a song being in dorian, not a minor key. 

In D minor there is no Em chord…its an Em7b5 or an Edim. 

There’s also no G7. It would be Gm. 

Every chord that has the 6th scale degree in it (Bb) will be changed to have the raised 6th. 

Take a look at some chords progressions for popular songs that use dorian mode: 

  • Get Lucky - Daft Punk 

| Bm7 | D | F#m7 | E | 

Bm is clearly the home chord which means we’re probably using the Bm scale: B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A-B. 

Or are we? 

All the other chords are diatonic to the key of Bm…except the E. Normally it’s an Em. 

This E major chord is spelled E - G# - B! 

The G# is the raised 6th of B…meaning that we’re in B dorian. 

So soloing or riffing on this song means you should be playing a B dorian scale, not B minor! 


  • Oye Como Va - Santana 

| Am | D7 | 

The chord progression is a minor I chord and a dominant IV chord (i - IV7). 

In a minor scale the IV chord isn’t dominant…but it is in dorian! 

The natural 6th of Am is F, but in a D7 chord there is an F#. 

That raised 6th within the dominant IV chord is how we know its in dorian. 


  • Thriller - Michael Jackson 

| C#m7 | F#7 | G#m | 

C#m7 is the home chord and the next chord, F#7 is a dominant IV chord. 

Once again, this tells us almost instantly that it’s in C# dorian. 

But the fact that the V chord (G#m) is a minor also reassures us that it’s dorian because the IV and V chords of a dorian mode are always dominant and minor. 


This all goes to say that understanding the harmony of a chord progression is incredibly important, especially if you want to write melodies, solos or improvise. 

Playing a minor scale when you should be playing a dorian mode means that any chord that has the 6th scale degree will clash with what you’re playing. 

It’ll make you sound like there are some notes you’re just getting wrong. 

Avoid that by looking for the tell-tale signs of dorian: 

-the raised 6th 

-dominant IV chord 

-m7 ii chord. 

You’ll be a much better sounding player and a much more sophisticated song writer if you can quickly analyze progressions and adjust the scale you’re using to match them. 

Begin with dorian and as you get more comfortable, branch out into the other modes. 

But don’t worry, I’ll be covering each mode in upcoming newsletters so stay tuned! 

For more info on all the modes check out Newsletter #45. 

As always, please reach out to me with any questions. I’m happy to help. 

-Max Rich