In this article, we shine a spotlight on the Dorian scale, a minor mode that was common in jazz music during the 1950s 1960s. This is part of our series on the different scales and modes used in jazz.
The Dorian scale is one of the most common and easily recognisable modes in jazz. You can hear it in many of the great modal jazz compositions of the mid-20th Century.
Musicians like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans used the Dorian scale, amongst other modes, to create a freer approach to improvisation that was based on scales rather than complex chord progressions found in jazz styles like be-bop. Read on to learn the basics of the Dorian scale and how you can apply it in your improvisations.
What is the Dorian Scale?
The Dorian scale is very similar to the natural minor scale, It contains a minor third and a minor seventh but contains a major sixth instead of a minor sixth. This major sixth is the crux of the Dorian sound.
How to Play the Dorian Scale
You can find the Dorian mode in two ways, there is no hard and fast rule so use whichever makes the most sense to you.
Method 1 is simply to play a major scale, but with a flattened third and seventh.
For example, have a look at this G major scale:
G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G
Now if we flatten the third and seventh notes, we get this:
G – A -Bb – C – D – E – F – G
Method 2 is to take the second note of any major scale and count up in a whole-step, whole-step, half-step pattern. Essentially, you play the major scale but start from the second note of the scale – a major second interval above the root. So, if the key is C major, the associated Dorian mode is D Dorian.
Take a look at this F major scale:
F – G – A – Bb – C – D- E – F
To find the Dorian mode, we would start on the second scale degree (G). This would give us:
G – A -Bb – C – D – E – F
It’s exactly the same!
Examples of Use
Some examples of songs using the Dorian mode are Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight and Wes Montgomery’s ‘West Coast Blues‘. It can be found in countless other jazz tunes as well, but these two should give you an idea nonetheless.
A few artists to seek out who use this sound are Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. A great place to start is Miles Davis’ So What, one of the most famous jazz compositions of all time.
The whole chord progression is built around the Dorian mode. It starts with sixteen bars of the D Dorian mode, eight bars of Eb Dorian and then back to D Dorian for another eight bars.
How Do You Use the Dorian Scale in Jazz?
In jazz improvisation, the Dorian scale is the most popular minor scale. It is versatile, being able to work with both major and minor keys. Although it is a minor mode, the major sixth that it contains adds a certain brightness to the minor scale.
Play the Dorian scale over the second or first chord for a more classic sound, or use it over the third or sixth chord for a slightly more dissonant sound. Dorian can also be combined and alternated with the minor pentatonic scale for a unique sound.
Which chord progressions can you use the Dorian scale with?
Primarily major and minor triads. It can also be used over dominant seventh chords, but only the ones that have a major third or a perfect fifth in it. You should avoid playing the Dorian scale over diminished harmony.
The Dorian scale is often played over ii-V-I progressions. For example, Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” almost exclusively features chromatic II-V progressions before the turnaround.
How can you improvise with the Dorian scale?
The Dorian scale is a great scale to improvise with because it has a lot of character and sounds great over minor chords.
As always, one of the best ways to learn is to listen to the solos of legendary jazz musicians and try your best at transcribing them.
Just by doing this, you will gain a natural understanding of what you’re learning in relation to your instrument, whilst simultaneously training your ears (an important skill!).
All the Dorian Scales
C dorian | C – D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C
C# dorian | C# – D# – E – F# – G# – A# – B – C#
Db dorian | Db – Eb – E – Gb – Ab – Bb – B – Db
D dorian | D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D
D# dorian sale | D# – F – F# – G# – A# – B# – C# – D#
E dorian | E – F# – G – A – B – C# – D – E
F dorian | F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb – F
F# dorian | F# – G# – A – B – C# – D# – E – F#
Gb dorian | Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb – Fb – Gb
G dorian | G – A – Bb – C – D – E – F – G
G# dorian | G# – A# – B – C# – D# – E# – F# – G#
Ab dorian| Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab
A dorian | A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A
Bb dorian | Bb – C – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb
B dorian | B – C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B
Experiment with the Dorian scale in your own music and see how you can add a unique flavour to your solos and chord progressions. Happy playing!
Looking to learn more about the different modes in jazz music?
Head over to our guide to the Mixolydian scale to get to grips with the fifth mode.
Or, if you want to learn more about the different modes being used in action, check out our article on the best modal jazz albums and artists in history.
Harry Sprinks is a gigging musician and writer from the Isle of Wight (UK) who recently graduated with a first-class degree in Commercial Music. He has been playing guitar and singing in various projects for the last five years, taking inspiration mainly from rock and blues greats including BB King, Marc Ribot and Mark Knopfler.