Modes all live within the major scale, but each one has a distinct character. In this article, we’ll talk about Dorian, also known as the cheerful minor mode.

You’ll walk away with the scale pattern, knowledge of what chords go well with Dorian, and a couple of backing tracks so you put it all into practice.

Why it’s worth learning Dorian

Dorian is a fun and jazzy minor-sounding mode. It follows the same whole-step/half-step pattern as the major scale, but we start on the second scale degree.

  • It can capture many different musical moods.
  • The inclusion of the major 6th is uplifting and jazzy.
  • The natural 9th is a valuable asset.
  • Minor chords with a major 6th are hip in funk music and perfect for Dorian.

The theory behind Dorian

Here’s the genetic makeup of Dorian:

  • It’s one of the more popular minor modes due to its near-dominant sound, penchant for twanging tonalities, and cool jazz sensibilities.
  • Its construction is similar to Mixolydian – a major mode that also sports a b7, but Dorian is a minor mode because it includes a b3.
  • Fun fact: The minor pentatonic scale is included in this mode, free of charge 😉

This chord outlines the scale beautifully:

Learn the Dorian scale pattern

There are four steps to learning a scale pattern.

  1. Memorize one octave by playing it a few times.
  2. Play one octave while saying each scale degree out loud (1, 2, b3, etc.).
  3. Sing each note before playing it.
  4. Learn the full pattern spanning all six strings.

Here’s one octave for steps 1-3:

Here’s the full scale pattern for step 4 – it looks dangerously close to the minor pentatonic shape🧐

Apply the Dorian mode in a musical context

The first thing to do when you learn a mode is

  • Internalize what it sounds like
  • Figure out which notes are the money notes

The backing track below is a perfect backdrop to try out the C Dorian scale.

Start off by simply playing the scale pattern you just learned over the track. Pay attention to how each interval sounds over the tonic.

Solo using Dorian over this backing track

Now it’s time to make some music. Use the backing track below to take D Dorian for a spin.

  • Try incorporating some slides, hammer ons/pull offs, or vibrato.
  • Play some three or four-note sequences.
  • Sing a line first, then play it.

If you need help developing your soloing chops, check out this article – 5 levels of guitar soloing: From beginner to advanced.

Two chord progressions for your Dorian exploration

If you have a looper pedal or a way to record yourself, make a quick backing track using the following progressions.

Chord progression #1

These are the chords:

The 6th/13th present in the A minor chord makes for a great opportunity to explore A Dorian on this static vamp.

Chord progression #2

Here’s a more complex example:

Now, let’s analyze the progression to see how Dorian might come into play.

  • By finding the I chord, we know where home is, in this case – C major.
  • The Dm9 (ii chord) is functioning as the subdominant – you can think of this as a “pre” dominant chord, approaching the V7.
  • It has less of a gravitational pull to the I chord but is still important for tension and release in the progression.
  • You don’t always have to play Dorian over a ii chord – the minor pentatonic will suffice, especially with an added 9th.

Key parting advice

We’ll leave you with some nuggets of modal wisdom:

  • Sometimes the minor pentatonic with a color note is all you need to achieve a Dorian flavor!
  • You can always start a solo using a minor pentatonic scale and then expand slowly into Dorian by sprinkling in the 9th and 13th.
  • Dorian is a great choice for the ii chord of a jazzy ii-V-I progression in any key.
  • Try using three or four-note patterns instead of simply climbing scales & arpeggios.

Author: Julia Mahncke