Songwriting basics and tips 15: Modes – Learn to Adore Dorian – the Cool Mode

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

 

Composing à la mode …

We’ve looked at the relationship between major and minor keys, and seen how the former tends to be used for more cheerful upbeat themes, and the latter for a more melancholic approach. We’ve also noted how substituting one for the other beneath a melody can make the tune sound very different, putting more variety on your musical palette.art.gif

Well, just as an artist’s palette has colours other than black or white, so does the musical palette have more “colours” than just major and minor. Those “colours” are called modes, and, over the next few posts, we’re going to look at what they are, and how to use them.

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Upscale developments …

Modes are scales. We’ve already seen that scales have 7 notes and major ones are based on Doh, minor ones on Lah. Logically, it follows that there can be scales based on other notes in the Sol-Fah pattern.

Lets just look closely at one of those – by the way, for various historical reasons, the modes all have names based on Ancient Greek, next week I’ll show you a mnemonic phrase to help you memorise them. In fact, the major key itself is a type of mode called the Ionian Mode.

The one I’ll examine and explain today is the Dorian Mode. It’s based on a scale that starts on Re.

So, if we take Doh as being the note C, and we write down a scale using the notes of the key of C, but starting on Re instead of Doh, we get the following:

D E F G A B C D

where note 1 is D, note 2 is E, note 3 is F, etc. 

That scale is D Dorian – and it has a sound that can only be described as “kinda cool”.miles.gif

Miles Davis exemplified the cool side of it by setting the structure of his groundbreaking track So What as 16 bars of D Dorian, followed by eight bars of Eb Dorian and another eight of D Dorian – or,  if you play piano, “all the white keys, then all the black keys, then all the white keys again”

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Find those lost chords …

The most basic way of covering all the notes in a major scale is, as we have seen, to use the 1, 4, and 5 notes as the basis of our chords. So, for example, in the key of C, that would give us the chords C majorF major, and G major. In the key of G, that would give G major, C major, and D major. And so on …

If we do the same for D Dorian, we get the notes 

lost.gif

 

D F A – which is Dm

G B D – which is G major

A C E – which is Am

 

So the three base chords of D Dorian  are DmG major, and Am.

Many rock and folk players tend to avoid the 7th note chord in major keys because it’s a diminished chord, and sounds kinda jazzy.

However, the 7th note chord in D Dorian is C major  – which blends in very well with those styles of playing – in fact, it’s used almost as often as the three base chords.

So, effectively, your songwriting palette in a Dorian scale has 4 most commonly used chords instead of three.

In D Dorian those would be

Dm   G major    Am   and C major

Just try playing around with those and get into the feel of it. Here are the remaining chords in that mode, just in case you need more variety:

Em   F major    Bdim

It’s important to remember, when you’re working out the chords in Dorian, that the notes used come from the major key one tone (that’s 2 frets on the guitar) below.

So A Dorian uses the same notes as G majorE Dorian uses the same notes as D major.

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Mix it up …

Just as I suggested mixing major and minor in previous posts, you also have the option of mixing Dorian lines with those of majorminor, or other modal forms. Try playing/singing the same lines over those different forms – you may have to change the odd note to make them fit, but I guarantee it’ll add variety to your musical palette.

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Whodunnit? …

lot of songs use Dorian in a very minimalist, stripped-down sort of way – sometimes just a couple of chords are used to establish the mode. horse.gif

America’s Horse with No Name is in E Dorian and uses just two chords – the root chord Em and a form of the 7th note chord D major (to be exact, it’s D6add9).

moon.gif

Van Morrison uses A Dorian for the verse of Moondance then changes to Am for the chorus.boulevard.gif

 

Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams goes a little further – it’s pure F Dorian on the verses, but moves to Ab major then Fm on the chorus  before modulating back to F Dorian via a C7 chord.

fair.gif

 

And, in a slightly folkier vein, Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of Scarborough Fair is pure E Dorian throughout.

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Next time, we’ll look at Phrygian – yes, it’s more than just a funny hat!

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

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