Dorian Mode Explained – Theory, CAGED Positions and Diagrams

The Dorian mode is the 2nd mode of a major scale. If you have read guitar modes explained, you should already have a pretty good idea of how modes work. In this post we are going to go into the specifics of the dorian mode.

Remember, to understand how modes work, you first need to understand major scales. Period.

The dorian mode can be summed up very simply like this:

  1. It has a flat 3 and a flat 7.
  2. It is also the 2nd mode of a major scale.

Parallel and Derivative Dorian Mode

What this basically means is that there are 2 ways of figuring out a mode, parallel and derivative. Using the parallel approach requires altering notes in a major scale to produce a mode (in this case 3rd note and the 7th note).

Using the derivative approach requires playing a major scale but starting on a different note (in this case the 2nd note). It is important to be familiar with both approaches and to realize that they can be used to produce the same results. Again, as you can see, a knowledge of major scales is essential in both approaches.

The dorian mode has a flat 3 and a flat 7. What that really means is that compared to a major scale, the 3rd note is lowered by a semitone and the 7th note is lowered by a semitone.

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Let’s look at some examples.

Using the parallel approach, all we have to do is change the notes of a major scale to produce the desired mode. If we wanted to play a D dorian scale, we would need to play a D major scale, and change the 3rd note by lowering it a semitone and also change the 7th note by lowering it a semitone.

D major has the following notes

D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#

Root = D, 2 = E, 3 = F#, 4 = G, 5 = A, 6 = B, 7 = C#

According to the parallel approach, we need to lower the 3rd note (F#) to F and the 7th note (C#) to C. That would then give us following:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C

It’s important to be aware that the above scale has a flat 3rd and a flat 7th. Even though there are no ‘b’s or ‘#’s, the 3rd and 7th notes are still said to be ‘flattened’ because they have gone from sharps to naturals.

Let’s look at D Dorian from a derivative approach:

The derivative approach says that we must play the desired mode by playing a major scale and starting on a different note. In the case of the dorian mode, we need to start on the 2nd note of a major scale. In this case, you need to know which major scale has D as the 2nd note. It is of course C major.

The key of C major looks like this:

C- D – E – F – G – A – B

Root = C, 2 = D, 3 = E, 4 = F, 5 = G, 6 = A, 7 = B

So if we were to play the dorian mode by starting from the 2nd note of the C major scale (D) we would end up with D dorian, which would look like this:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C

Of course, you can see that the scale that has just been produced is the same as the scale that we got to before by altering the 3rd and 7th notes of a D major scale. We have in fact produced a D dorian scale through 2 different methods – parallel and derivative.

Let’s do another example…

Let’s say we want to play an E flat dorian scale. The parallel approach requires us to lower the 3rd and 7th notes of a major scale, in this case Eb major. The notes in Eb major are:

Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C – D

Therefor, if we ‘flatten’ the 3rd (G) and the 7th (D) we end up with the following scale:

Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db

Let’s make sure this is correct by figuring out an Eb dorian using the derivative approach as well. Of course, to do this we need to know which major scale has Eb as its 2nd note. This is Db major:

Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C

If we start this scale from the 2nd note (Eb), we get the following:

Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db

We have just played an Eb dorian mode (or scale) using the derivative approach.

If you understand this concept you should be able to figure out the dorian mode in every key.

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I have written out each dorian mode in every key and the 5 positions along the neck (plus the open position) for each of these keys. Remember, because modes are derived from major scales, the shapes and positions should seem familiar to you if you have studied and played the major scales along the fretboard.

List of Individual Dorian Mode Keys

Here is a list of all the dorian modes in every key:

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