Instructor
John Proulx
Quick Tip
Intermediate
12:50

Learning Focus
  • Scales
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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Many music students often find the topic of minor scales to be rather confusing. This is not surprising given that there is not just one version of the minor scale. Rather, professional musicians must learn how to navigate a number of unique minor scale variations that are each suited for different harmonic situations. For jazz musicians, the Dorian Scale is often the “go to” minor scale in many playing contexts. In today’s Quick Tip, Dorian Scale: The Complete Guide, you’ll discover how to build this unique scale, when to use it and how to solo with it on piano like a pro!

Here is an outline of what you’ll learn in this lesson:

Intro to the Dorian Scale

The Dorian Scale has a unique, dualistic sound that modern composer Matt Keynon rightly describes as “darkness, with a hint of light.”¹ That’s because the Dorian Scale, which certainly belongs within the collection of minor scales, is not nearly as dark and shadowy as some of the other scales that are also among the company it keeps. For example, the Phrygian Scale and the Locrian Scale both sound much more ominous and foreboding than the Dorian Scale. Even the familiar natural minor scale has a darker melodic character than the Dorian Scale. In fact, the rare and simultaneous combination of darkness and light that the Dorian Scale evokes makes it a favorite sound color among composers and songwriters from vastly different musical genres.

Whether you realize it or not, you probably already know plenty of songs that are composed entirely or at least in part with the Dorian Scale. Here’s just a short list:

The Dorian Scale and Modal Jazz

Today’s lesson focuses in particular on the usage of the Dorian Scale in modal jazz, a subgenre of jazz that emerged in the late 1950s. Modal jazz developed in stark contrast to the harmonic complexity of bebop music from the previous decade, which featured rapid chord changes and fast tempos. Modal jazz, on the other hand, is characterized by minimal chord changes and subdued tempos. Even though modal jazz is not atonal, its prolonged harmonic stasis frees the improviser from preoccupation with conventional tonic and dominant underpinnings.

For jazz musicians, the most well-known composition that uses the Dorian Scale is Miles Davis’ “So What.” The song opens Davis’ iconic 1959 album Kind of Blue, which features several compositions that pioneered a new, minimalistic approach to jazz harmony. For example, “So What” contains just two chords. Throughout the 32-bar AABA form, each A section sits on a static Dm7 chord. Upon the B section, there is a subtle shift up a ½ step to E♭m7 for 8 measures. Throughout the tune, the all-star lineup improvises exclusively with the D Dorian and E♭ Dorian scales.

Miles Davis

“So What” (1959)

Now that you have some musical examples in mind for the kinds of interesting tone colors that the Dorian Scale produces, let’s examine this unique scale more closely by way of a formal definition.

What is the Dorian Scale or Mode?

The Dorian Scale (aka Dorian Mode) is a 7-note scale that contains a minor 3rd and 7th, a major 2nd and 6th and a perfect 4th and 5th. In ascending order then, the scale is played as R, M2, m3, P4, P5, M6, m7. For example, the notes of the C Dorian Scale are C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭. Since the Dorian Scale contains a minor 3rd, it is considered a type of minor scale. In jazz music, the Dorian Scale the most commonly used scale for improvising over minor 7th chords and minor 6th chords. While some of its scale tones are more dissonant than others, the Dorian Scale does not contain any “weak tones” or “avoid notes” from an improvisational perspective.

C Dorian Scale

What notes are in the C Dorian Scale?

[Tap or click on the keyboard to hear the scale.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Even though the Dorian Scale has a unique sound and structure, it is not arbitrary. Rather, it is derived from the 2nd mode of the Major Scale. In other words, the unique intervallic pattern of the Dorian Scale can be obtained by beginning a Major Scale from its 2nd tone. Consequently, the Dorian intervallic pattern is W–H–W–W–W–H–W. Look again the example above. Notice that the C Dorian Scale contains the exact same set of notes and the B♭ Major Scale.

Scales Comparison: Natural Minor vs. Dorian Minor

Students who have learned music theory in the tradition of European classical music are often unfamiliar or less familiar with the Dorian Scale. Instead, classically trained musicians generally think of the natural minor scale as the “default” minor scale. Therefore, it is helpful to compare and contrast these two minor scales. The following examples will help you hear and visualize the similarities and differences between the C Natural Minor Scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭) and the C Dorian Scale (C–D–E♭–F–G–A–B♭). In fact, these scales only differ by one note—the 6th tone.

Natural Minor Scale vs Dorian Scale

[Tap or click on the keyboard to hear the scale.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Natural Minor vs Dorian

[Tap or click on the keyboard to hear the scale.👆🖱🎹🔊]

Different Ways to Form a Dorian Scale

So far, we have seen that the Dorian Scale has similarities and differences with familiar scales such as the Major Scale and the Natural Minor Scale. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that musicians often resort to different means for how construct the Dorian Scale. Common approaches include the following:

  1. Altering the Major Scale: Think♭3 & ♭7
  2. Altering the Natural Minor Scale: Think ↑6
  3. Relationship to Parent Scale: Think Major Key Signature ↓ Whole Step

Altering the Major Scale

For many students, the easiest way to form a Dorian Scale is to simply start with a familiar scale and then alter a few notes. Since the Major Scale is generally the most familiar scale, it is helpful to know that a Dorian Scale can be achieved by lowering (“flatting”) the 3rd and 7th tones. From this perspective, we would represent the Dorian Scale formula as 1–2–♭3–4–5–6–♭7.

Altering the Natural Minor Scale

Students who are already familiar with their Natural Minor Scales sometimes prefer to construct the Dorian Scale by simply raising the 6th tone of the Natural Minor Scale by a ½ step.

Relationship to Parent Scale

Yet another approach for constructing a Dorian Scale is to consider the parent scale from which it is derived. Remember, a Dorian Scale comes from the 2nd mode of a Major Scale. Therefore, if you want to form a D Dorian scale for example, you can think of the major scale that is a whole step below D, which is C major. How about E♭ Dorian? In that case, think of D♭ major.

For the sake of today’s lesson, all of our examples will be demonstrated with the D Dorian Scale. The D Dorian Scale uses all white keys on the piano. In addition, D Dorian is the predominant Dorian Scale used in “So What.” Can you think through how to form a D Dorian Scale using each of the methods described above?

D Dorian Piano Scale

The following example demonstrates how to play the D Dorian Scale in two octaves on the piano with a swing feel. In this case, we have placed the D Dorian scale over a Dm6 chord to help familiarize your ear with the unique sonic character of a minor 3rd combined with a major 6th. In addition, try playing this scale over Dm7 since the Dorian Scale works with both minor 6th chords and minor 7th chords.

D Dorian Scale Piano

The D Dorian scale shares the same piano fingering as D major and D natural minor.

Once you are comfortable playing these examples on D Dorian, try taking them up a ½ step to E♭ Dorian, which is the scale for the B section of “So What.”

Chords Related to the Dorian Scale

In the previous section, we learned that both Dm6 and Dm7 are compatible with the D Dorian Scale. Therefore, you might be wondering, “What other chords come from this scale?” The following example shows 6 different chord symbols that are compatible with the D Dorian Scale. These chords include Dm, Dm7, Dm6, Dm6/9, Dm9 and Dm11.

D Dorian Minor Chord Symbols

D Dorian Minor Chord Symbols

Of all the chords listed above, Dm6 and Dm6/9 express the Dorian sound most specifically. That’s because these chords contain both the ♭3 and the ♮6. It’s important to note that while Dm, Dm7, Dm9 and Dm11 can be used in conjunction with the D Dorian Scale, that does not mean that such chord symbols always prescribe the D Dorian Scale. For example, Dm and Dm7 are also contained within both the D Natural Minor Scale and the D Phrygian Scale. Therefore, each musical context requires some harmonic analysis to determine the best-fit minor scale.

Next, let’s look at the hip chord voicing that Bill Evans uses to play Dm7 on “So What.”

The “So What” Chord Voicing

From time to time, you may hear professional jazz musicians speak of a particular chord voicing called the “So What” voicing. That’s because on Miles Davis’ recording of “So What,” Bill Evans played Dm7 with a unique voicing structure that has come to be associated with this legendary recording.

The “So What ” voicing is considered an example of a quartal voicing because it is formed primarily from perfect 4th intervals. Indeed, the bottom three intervals are all perfect 4ths. However, the interval on top is a major 3rd. Built from the bottom up, this voicing uses the following tones of the Dorian Scale: 1–4–7–3–5. Technically, this voicing is considered a Dm11 voicing, because it includes the 11th, which is the same note as the 4th.

The So What Chord Voicing

Dm11 quartal voicing played by Bill Evans on “So What” from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (1959). Jazz pianists call this the “So What” Voicing.

Interestingly, this unique “So What” piano voicing with three perfect 4ths with a major 3rd on top can also be built up from two other scale tones of the Dorian Scale. For example, we can construct the exact same intervallic relationship on the 2nd tone of the D Dorian Scale (E–A–D–G–B) and the 5th tone (A–D–G–C–E). In fact, Bill Evans uses two of these quartal voicings in parallel motion during the head of “So What.” After each melodic statement by Paul Chamber on bass, Evans plays the two “So What” Voicings shown below, which are a whole step apart. You can think of these chords as Em11 and Dm11 in 1–4–7–3–5 format. Just remember, both voicings come from D Dorian so we’re not really changing chords here. Rather, it’s more like choosing to highlight different colors within the Dorian mode.

So What Voicings in Parallel Motion

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“So What” Voicings a whole step apart played in parallel motion over D Dorian.

In the next section, we’ll help you understand different harmonic contexts in which jazz musicians frequently use the Dorian Scale.

When to Use the Dorian Scale

Up to this point, much of our discussion about the Dorian Scale has been in relation to modal jazz in particular. However, jazz musicians use the Dorian Scale in many playing situations. In this section, we’ll consider 5 different contexts:

#1: Major 2-5-1 Chord Progressions
#2: Modal Jazz Compositions
#3: Minor Blues
#4: Minor Tonic Chords
#5: Melodic Clues

#1: Major 2-5-1 Chord Progressions

The most frequent harmonic context in which jazz musicians use of the Dorian Scale is when improvising over a major 2-5-1 progression. For example, a 2-5-1 progression in C major contains the chords Dm7→G7→C▵7. On the Dm7 chord, the primary “go to” scale is D Dorian. To practice soloing with the Dorian Scale in this context, check out the following courses:

🔎 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets
🔎 2-5-1 Soloing with Diatonic Triads (Int)

#2: Modal Jazz Compositions

Another common context in which jazz musicians improvise with the Dorian Scale is on modal jazz compositions. Modal Jazz standards that feature long stretches for Dorian Scale improv include “Milestones” (1958) and  “So What” (1959) by Miles Davis,  “Impressions” (1964) by John Coltrane and “Little Sunflower” (1967) by Freddie Hubbard.

You can master Dorian Scale improv techniques for modal jazz in the following course:

🔎 How to Improvise a Solo with the Dorian Mode (Int, Adv).

#3: Minor Blues

Another harmonic context in which jazz musicians frequently improvise with the Dorian Scale is on songs that use a minor blues form. Standards that are based on this form include “Mr. P.C.” (1959) and  “Equinox” (1960) by John Coltrane, “Stolen Moments” (1961) by Oliver Nelson and “Footprints” (1966) by Wayne Shorter.

For a deep dive on the minor blues form, check out the following courses:

🔎 Traditional Minor Blues (Beg, Int, Adv)

#4: Minor Tonic Chords

Another harmonic context in which jazz musicians may choose to improvise with the sound of the Dorian Scale is on jazz standards that are written in a minor key. For example, if the tonic chord appears in the lead sheet as a minor triad or a minor 7th chord, the Dorian Scale is frequently one of your options. Admittedly, it is not always the only option, and sometimes there is a more fitting option. Nonetheless, jazz musicians will often improvise with the Dorian Scale over a minor 1-chord. This includes progressions like the minor 2-5-1 progression and the minor turnaround progression. Examples of such jazz standards in minor keys include “Autumn Leaves,” (1945) by Joseph Kosma, “Yesterdays,” (1933) by Jerome Kern,  “Caravan,” (1936) by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington, “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” (1928) by Sigmund Romberg and “Beautiful Love” (1931) by Victor Young.

#5: Melodic Clues

Earlier we mentioned that the minor triad and the minor 7th chord are shared by several different minor scales. These scales include the Dorian Scale, the Natural Minor (Aeolian) Scale, the Phrygian Scale and the Ascending Melodic Minor Scale (not to mention the Minor Bebop Scale, the Minor Blues Scale and the Minor Pentatonic Scale). Therefore, finding best-fit minor improv scale may require some detective work. Oftentimes, a careful examination of a tune’s melody can uncover melodic clues that signal which minor scale the composer had in mind during the composition process. For instance, if you see a minor 7th chord symbol and the melody contains the major 6th, then the Dorian Scale is clearly implied.

A great example of a jazz standard with strong melodic clues that suggest the Dorian Scale is Joe Henderson’s “Recorda Me” (1963). The tune is written in A minor and the first 4 bars of the form sit on an Am7 chord. Since the note F♯ is prominently featured in the melody, it is clear that Henderson was thinking of the A Dorian Scale (A–B–C–D–E–F♯–G).

Now that you know what the Dorian Scale is and when to use it, let’s practice some essential Dorian Scale exercises for piano.

Essential Dorian Scale Patterns

Today’s lesson sheet PDF contains 5 essential piano practice exercises for the Dorian Scale. Developing fluency with these exercises will help you get these improv patterns and chord voicings into your ears and under your fingers. In fact, PWJ members can download the lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with their membership. In addition, members can also easily transpose the lesson sheet to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.

Our first Dorian Scale exercise features an improv pattern that uses ascending and descending melodic 3rds. The left hand features quartal voicings based on the rhythmic pattern from “So What.” For a simpler left-hand accompaniment, you could instead play whole notes on a Dm7 or Dm6 chord.

Exercise 1: 3rds

Dorian Scale Exercise 1 - 3rds

Next, let’s practice a similar Dorian Scale pattern that uses melodic 4ths.

Exercise 2: 4ths

Dorian Scale Exercise 2 - 4ths

Exercise 3 below features 8th-note triplets over the diatonic triads from the D Dorian Scale. The left-hand voicing here contains the notes F–B–E for a Dm6/9 sound.

Exercise 3: Diatonic Triads

Dorian Scale Exercise 3 - Diatonic Triads

Our next exercise features ascending and descending diatonic 7th chords from the D Dorian Scale with 16th notes.

Exercise 4: Diatonic 7th Chords

Dorian Scale Exercise 4 - Diatonic 7th Chords

Our final exercise will help you master the sound of parallel “So What” voicings which are commonly used in small fragments when comping over prolonged minor 7th chords. Remember, when built on the 1st, 2nd and 5th scale tones, this voicing contains three perfect 4ths with a major 3rd on top. Moving this voicing to the other scale tones alters the intervals slightly and introduces an augmented 4th (aka “tritone”). Consequently, playing this voicing on the 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th scale tones results in more tension, which should be resolved.

Exercise 5: “So What” Voicings

Dorian Scale Exercise 5 - So What Voicings

Well done! The next step is to integrate some of these melodic patterns, rhythms and shapes while improvising with the D Dorian Scale. In fact, you could even practice improvising over one of the backing tracks that are included with this lesson. Just remember, the backing tracks follow the AABA form of “So What.” Therefore, each chorus contains 16 measures of D Dorian, followed by 8 measures of E♭ Dorian, followed by another 8 measures of D Dorian.

All 12 Dorian Scales on Piano

Here is a helpful reference chart containing all 12 Dorian Scales on piano. This chart includes the notes and piano fingerings for all 12 Dorian Scales along with piano scale diagrams for quick, at-a-glance visual reference.

C Dorian Scale

C Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

C# Dorian Scale

C# Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

D Dorian Scale

D Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

E♭ Dorian Scale

Eb Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

E Dorian Scale

E Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

F Dorian Scale

F Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

F# Dorian Scale

F# Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

G Dorian Scale

G Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

A♭ Dorian Scale

Ab Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

A Dorian Scale

A Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

B♭ Dorian Scale

Bb Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

B Dorian Scale

B Dorian Scale for Piano - Notation, Fingerings & Keyboard Diagram

Conclusion

Congratulations, you have completed today’s piano lesson on Dorian Scale: The Complete Guide. From now on, the unique and paradoxical sound colors of the Dorian Scale will never pose a mystery for you!

If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:

Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.

 

 

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¹ Kenyon, Matt. “The Dorian Mode: Darkness with a Hint of Light.” ComposerCode.com, 11 Nov. 2022.


Writer
Michael LaDisa

Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...

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