Improvise Piano With the Dorian Scale
Get free weekly lessons, practice tips, and downloadable resources to your inbox!
There’s nothing like having “the perfect fit” for the occasion. It might be a tool in the garage, a dress in the closet, or a simply-stated greeting card. Being able to fit the moment is an important skill. As a pianist, you too often need to come up with “the perfect fit.” In fact, musicians will look to the pianist more than any other instrumentalist to come up with intros, endings, vamps and cues. In today’s Quick Tip, Jonny shares how to create a sense of mystery or wonder at the piano by drawing from the Dorian Scale. You’ll likely recognize this sound frequently used by film composers like Danny Elfman (Edward Scissorhands), John Williams (The Lost World: Jurassic Park) and James Horner (The Pagemaster) to draw audiences in to a magical moment. What you might not have guessed, however, is that you only need:
- 2 Left Hand Chords
- 1 Right Hand Scale
That’s right! Today’s lesson will give you “the perfect fit” for creating that classic mysterious mood without leaving your head spinning. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced pianist, you’ll be able to grasp this material and draw upon it when the moment presents itself.
Cue the music!
Step 1: Mystery Chords
The first step to creating a classic mysterious mood involves two basic chords you may already know. We will be using a C minor triad and an F Major triad in the left hand. Here are the basic chords:
If you are already familiar with these chords, then you are ready for step 2. However, if you are a beginner and need a step-by-step explanation on how to construct basic three-note chords called triads, then our Level 1 Foundations Learning Track is perfect for you.
In the next step, Jonny demonstrates the important skill of arranging—that is, taking basic musical material and setting it for a specific musical context.
Step 2: The Mystery Progression
The difference between a novice and a pro often comes down to what they do with basic materials. In this step, Jonny breaks down how you can create a magical sound by applying two specific arranging techniques for piano—arpeggiation and interval rocking.
What is an arpeggio?
An arpeggio is a chord in which the individual pitches are sounded in succession rather than all at once. In fact, the Italian word for ‘harp’ (It. arpa) shares the same root word as arpeggio. Arpeggiation is a common arranging technique for instruments that decay after being struck or plucked such as the piano, harp, or guitar. A synonym for arpeggio is broken chord.
Left Hand Accompaniment Pattern
To play The Mystery Progression, we will arpeggiate the chords in left hand using the following accompaniment pattern:
By applying this accompaniment pattern to our two chords, we get the following left hand arrangement:
If you are an intermediate or advanced player, you may try spreading the arpeggio over a wider range for a bigger sound like this:
You’re doing great! Now let’s look at the right hand.
Right Hand Accompaniment Pattern
We will eventually be improvising with the right hand, but it is helpful to begin with an accompaniment pattern in the right hand to set-up the mood. At the heart of the effect created by The Mystery Progression is a technique in the right hand called interval rocking.
What is interval rocking?
Interval rocking is an arranging technique that extends a chord over time by alternating between two different intervals found within the chord voicing. In order to use this technique, we first need to expand our chords into four-note voicings for the right hand. Then, to apply interval rocking, we think of each note as a separate voice which we number from 1 to 4 starting from the top.
Next, we simply “rock” voices 1 and 3 against voices 2 and 4 for the length of time that the chord should last. The outline below shows how to rock a four-note voicing over one measure in 4/4 time.
Now, let’s apply interval rocking to our chord progression of C minor to F Major:
Great job! Now you’re ready to put the hands together to play The Mystery Progression.
Excellent! You’re ready to play The Mystery Progression with the backing track that accompanies this lesson. The lesson sheet and backing track are downloadable from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also transpose this lesson into any key with one click using our Smart Sheet Music.
For additional examples of how to apply the interval rocking technique in different genres, check out the following lessons:
- Cocktail Jazz Piano Accompaniment 1–Lesson 3
- Cocktail Jazz Piano Accompaniment 2–Lesson 6
- Endless Epic Chords 2-Lesson 1
- Epic Minor Chords 2-Lesson 2
In step 3, you’ll learn 3 techniques to improvise over The Mystery Progression using a single scale. Are you ready?
Step 3: Dorian Scale Piano Improvisation
Are you ready to enhance the sense of wonder with some mysterious improv lines? The C Dorian Scale creates the perfect atmosphere for soloing over The Mystery Progression.
What is a Dorian Scale?
A Dorian Scale is constructed by playing a major scale beginning from the 2nd tone. That’s it! This is also called the Dorian mode. For this lesson we are looking at C Dorian. One easy way to construct the C Dorian scale is to think of it as a B♭ Major scale beginning from C (the 2nd tone).
Another way piano players often think of a Dorian Scale is in comparison to a Major Scale beginning on the same note. For example, a C Dorian Scale can be built by modifying a C Major Scale as follows: 1-2-♭3-4-5-6-♭7.
You’ll want to get comfortable with playing the C Dorian Scale in two octaves to play mysterious lines freely. For a longer video explanation from Jonny on the two methods to find C Dorian, check out Scales for Improv on 7th Chords-Lesson 3.
Now, there are three simple techniques to jumpstart your piano improv lines with the C Dorian Scale.
Technique 1: 8th Notes
A great way to get started improvising Dorian lines is from a fixed hand position using only the first five notes: C-D-E♭-F-G. Explore different possibilities by starting from different pitches and by entering on difference beats. Be sure to leave some gaps in your improv to let the music breathe. In your left hand, use the accompaniment pattern from Step 2 above. As you get more comfortable, you can expand your improv to include a full octave or more in the right hand. Here is an example from the lesson sheet of an 8th note based improvisation:
Nice work! If you enjoy improvising in contemporary pop styles like this, then you will love our Pop Piano Improv Happy Monday course.
Now, let’s try adding some harmony to the right hand.
Technique 2: 6th Harmonies
You can add some really lush harmonic color to your right hand using 6th intervals.
What is an interval?
An interval is a musical term that describes how far apart two note are from each other. The larger the span on the piano, the greater the interval.
In this section, we’ll be focusing on the interval of a 6th. This means that at any time while we are improving, we may play two notes together from the C Dorian scale that span 6 letters apart:
If you are beginner, you will be best-served by limiting your improv to the first three intervals shown above until you feel comfortable with this technique. Here is an example from the lesson sheet that uses stepwise motion to create a beautiful downline in 6ths.
Very nice! You’re ready for the final improv technique for today’s lesson.
Technique 3: Turns
A really exciting way to make your lines sparkle are with melodic ornaments called turns.
What is a turn?
A turn ornaments a target note by means of a quick, melodic flourish from the upper and lower neighbors of the target note. For example, if the target note is D, then you would play the D with your index finger. Next, turn off this note by going to the note above with your third finger (E♭), return to the target note (D), and then play the lower neighbor (C) with your thumb.
Here is an example from the lesson sheet on how to integrate turns within your 8th note lines:
Well done! With these three techniques under your belt you are well on your way to improvising “the perfect fit” mysterious piano texture using the dorian scale!
If you enjoyed today’s Quick Tip, you will also love these full-length courses:
- Film Improvisation
- Pop & Contemporary Piano Accompaniment: Popstinatos
- Pop Accompaniment Patterns (Level 2, Level 3)
Thanks for learning with us today—we’ll see you next time!
Blog written by Michael LaDisa / Quick Tip by Jonny May
More Free Lessons
All levels can play and improvise serene piano soundscapes on the most beautiful minor chord progression with immersive, guided learning.
Learn 3 steps to transform an ordinary turnaround chord progression into a bluesy piano accompaniment groove.
The ultimate 2-5-1 jazz scale exercise will unlock your potential as an improvisor and help overcome choppy, directionless improv lines.
Looking for downloads?
Subscribe to a membership plan for full access to this Quick Tip's sheet music and backing tracks!
The Piano With Jonny Membership
Guided Learning Tracks
View guided learning tracks for all music styles and skill levels
Complete lessons and courses as you track your learning progress
Download Sheet Music and Backing Tracks
Engage with other PWJ members in our member-only community forums
Become a better piano player today. Try us out with the 14-day free trial!