Dorian Mode in Jazz Improvisation

One Chord Jazz and Funk Grooves

These are usually tunes or sections of tunes based on a one or two chord repeated pattern. A one-chord pattern in a minor key can imply an Aeolian, Dorian or Phrygian mode. As soon as a second chord is added the mode is usually more clearly defined.

For example:

Dm7 – G7 Implies Dorian as the G7 contains B (major 6 of D)
Dm7 – Gm7 Implies Aeolian as the Gm7 contains Bb (minor 6 of D)
Dm7 – Eb ma7 Implies Phrygian as the Eb contains Eb (minor 2 of D) and Bb (minor 6 of D)

The Dorian mode is probably most common mode. It is also a very useful mode to practice as the two chords in the example above also form part of a typical IIm7- V7 – I chord sequence.

It is very important to be aware that the chords Dm7 – G7 in a Dorian mode are chords I and IV, but in the key of C they are chords II and V and usually imply a perfect cadence to chord I.

Scales and modes useful for dorian improvisation

NB scales in improvisation should always be used as a starting point for inventing melodic patterns, and not used exclusively as scales.

Dorian mode

This is often thought of as the scale built on the second degree of a major scale. In the context of modal music it is much better to think of each mode as a scale in its own right, not relative to a major scale. It can however be useful to equate a mode to its parallel major or minor, ie the one with the same root note. Each mode has defining scale degrees; eg a Dorian in D differs from a major scale of D in that the third and seventh degree of the scale are minor. It differs from D harmonic minor in that the sixth degree is major and the seventh degree is minor. So the defining notes of a Dorian are the minor third, major sixth and minor seventh.

Dorian mode: 7 note scale
Dorian bebop scale:Dorian mode with added chromatic passing note to create 8 note scale
Minor pentatonic 5 note scale
Minor blues scale minor pentatonic with added chromatic passing note

Download Dorian Backing Tracks

For tracks & info see bottom of page

Dorian bebop

Bebop scales are not true scales in their own right, but scales that have had a chromatic passing note added to create an 8 note scale. This can be useful when improvising on 8th notes so that a scale passage resolves to a chord note, or so that chord tones fall on a strong beat.

NB. The main essence of modal jazz is melodic invention rather than the harmonic expertise used in changes based jazz. In a Dorian sequence that consists of the two chords Im7 and IV7, improvisers often interchange patterns and scales so that a Dm7 pattern can be used over the G7, or a G7 pattern can be used over the Dm7. This works well provided that the improviser is aware of the tension created by this kind of interchange and uses it appropriately. This is a stylistic issue, it is something that comes with experience and is often impossible to define. Note that the same passing note is used for the Dorian and relative Mixolydian mode, so that they usually blur into one scale over the chord changes, whether a Dorian Im7 – V7 or a standard IIm7 – V7.


Minor pentatonic

This is the same as the Dorian but without the second and sixth degrees of the scale. Used frequently by Sonny Rollins in his post bebop period. A common scale in many forms of blues.

Minor blues scale

Often referred to as The Blues Scale. This is incorrect as there is more than one so-called blues scale – see Blues Riffs. In the same way that the bebop scale was invented by adding a passing note to an existing scale, the minor blues scale is just a minor pentatonic with a chromatic passing note added between the fourth and fifth degrees. The passing note is a contrivance that is intended to emulate the intonation of a blues singer using blue notes, or intonation that defies the 12 note system. Rarely used as such by early blues musicians this scale has now fallen into the mainstream, thanks to 60s R&B and soundtrack music. It can be useful when used sparingly on a Dorian mode, major or minor blues sequence and is best when used to form licks rather than played as an entire scale. The same minor blues scale is used over an entire sequence, ie it does not change root with the changes of chord roots.

Modal key signatures

Although it is arguably correct to use the key signature that gives the correct number of sharps or flats, it is often less confusing to notate a Dorian as an Aeolian with the sixth degree raised as an accidental where it occurs, as you would with a melodic minor. Using this method a Dorian mode whose root note is G has 2 two flats not one, and the E naturals that occur are notated with a natural sign.

Patterns for Dorian improvisation

The following patterns are all tried and tested clichés. As such they are useful for practising technique but should be used sparingly when improvising. Strive to create your own patterns for practising and while actually improvising. As it is impossible for most players to be 100% original all the time, patterns, scales (and rests) are used fill in between original melodic motifs. The examples are all based on a D Dorian (Dm7-G7) but should be practised in all keys.

Ex 1: (Beware this is very clichéd)
Ex 2: sequence in 3rds
Ex 3: Extending Ex 2 up to the 9th
Ex 4: Useful triplet pattern. This one can also be extended beyond the 9th.
Ex 5: Dorian bebop. This is a cliché, but can be used in many combinations.
Ex 6: Extending Ex 5
Ex 7: Dorian with chromatic leading note
Ex 8: Combining Ex 7 with Ex 5
Ex 9: Dorian with chromatic leading note
Ex 10: Combining Ex 9 with Ex 1

Note that as soon as Ex 1 is combined with another pattern, it becomes less of a cliché.

Ex 11: Combining Ex 9 with Ex 5


Ex 12: Combining Ex 9 with Ex 3 and Ex 5


Ex 13: Pentatonic

The dorian mode is a great mode for learning to improvise. These tracks have only one or two chords. You can either improvise using the chords or else just use the scales and your ears to work out what notes sound good. Try using a few minor pentatonics and blues scales or more “out” notes for interest. (The major 7 can sound cool if you use it either for tension or to resolve up into to root.

Smoothdaddy – jazz dorian mode in Bbm


Instrument Chords
Concert pitch (Bbm7 – Eb7)
Eb instrument (Gm7 – C7)
Bb Instruments) (Cm7 – F7)

The Love Groove

Dorian in Cm. The bass stays around the C, but the chords are Cm7 – F7 but you can think of it as just Cm7


Instrument Chords
Concert pitch (Cm7 – F7)
Eb instruments (Am7 – D7)
Bb Instruments (Dm7 – G7)

Dorian G – Smoothfunk dorian in G

Dorian in G

Instrument Chords
Concert pitch (Gm7 – C7)
Eb instruments (Em7 – A7)
Bb Instruments (Am7 – D7)


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