I've been composing for years but know very little about modes, just stuck to major and minor.

If I took a chord progression from Cmajor, ie I - IV - V - I which would be C,F,G,C and then switched into D Dorian, having the notes D,E,F,G,A,B,C,D and used the same Chord progression, instead I'd be playing Dm, G, Am, Dm. That would sound completely different, but would it be a good idea to use the Dorian mode like this?

3 Answers 3


Sure, that kind of modal shifting using the same root relationships is generally quite effective. In your particular example, you might want to raise the 7th scale degree (C to C#) for V and vii chords (much as you might do in minor) in order to get a stronger drive to the i chord, but then you wouldn't strictly be in D Dorian. Either way works but has a rather different character.

A lot of music in Dorian doesn't use V as often to lead to I as in Major. VII - I (in your D Dorian example, C major to D minor) is quite common and effective.

The only mode in which I - IV - V - I root relationships tend to not "work" quite as well is Locrian. The diminished fifth above the tonic tends to throw things off. For example, in B Locrian (BCDEFGAB), the I chord would be a diminished triad, and that tends to weaken its use as a tonic. Most composers will raise the fifth scale degree so that the I chord is just minor. Also, in both Locrian and Phrygian, the II chord is used very often to lead to I. For example, in E Phrygian (EFGABCDE), F major moving down to E minor.

So to sum up, yes, the same sort of root relationships often do "work" in a similar though complementary fashion in the other church modes, though sometimes a scale degree is altered for some chords. However, new progressions specific to these other modes, such as bVII - I in Mixolydian and Dorian and Aeolian and bII - I in Phrygian and Locrian, also sometimes start getting used in their place (or in addition).

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    Thanks for your comments. What I can't figure out here my subsequent chord progression in Dorian of Dm - G - Am - Dm looks suspiciously like Aeolian Mode. I've read that it is the MELODY given which tells the listener the Dorian mode is at work here. i still find it hard to distinguish between Aeolian and Dorian.
    – user9879
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 14:58
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    @user9879 Well, if it were in D Aeolian, the G chord would be minor instead of major because of the B-flat in that mode. As far as the harmonies are concerned, that will be the only difference between I - IV - V - I in Dorian/Aeolian. But that's a fairly substantial change in the sound which will indeed be heightened by the sound of the melody line. Dorian and Aeolian should sound similar, since they only differ in the sixth scale degree. If you're looking for something more exotic, try Phrygian and use some II chords. Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 15:04
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    +1 The one thing I disagree with - and it's completely subjective - is that I wouldn't raise the 7th note in the scale just to get a leading tone. (In fact, I usually flatten the 7th when I'm writing in major keys because I prefer the sound.)
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 18:58
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    @mey What strategies for you mean? Emphasizing b3–1 is certainly helpful to establish Dorian; of course it could also establish Aeolian, Phrygian or Locrian, so it's not exclusive to Dorian. The combination of Major 6 and minor 3 is unique however. i – I – i can't belong to any mode since no mode contains different quality triads on the same root. That definitely sounds like an interesting way to end a progression, but it's kind of intrinsically anti-modal. But maybe I'm misunderstanding the question? Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 3:05
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    @mey Just to be clear, you absolutely can use non-diatonic chords in Dorian; you can, and should, use whatever harmonic relationships you find interesting and work with your conception of your piece. And again, I think that sounds like an interesting way to end a progression. I just couldn't tell from your comment whether or not you knew that wasn't a purely Dorian progression, so I wanted to clarify. Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 11:11

You can use the dorian mode as you mentioned in your question. But if you analyze modal pieces you will notice that each mode has its preference for certain progressions. In dorian, you will often find the bVII, the IV, and the III chord in addition to the I chord (in D dorian that would be C, G, and F). But of course any chord made up of scale notes can be played. Obviously you can also add other chords by altering one or more scale notes, but then you're not strictly in the dorian mode anymore. Adding chords from other modes is called "modal interchange" and it helps to spice up your composition by adding some flavor from other modes to it.

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    I"ve just listened to "Fêtes" by Debussy who uses THREE modes, switching from one to another, marvellous stuff!
    – user9879
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 12:59
  • I think that comes down to the fact that a mode isn't really a scale; it is more a set of notes defined by a functional (melodic) hierarchy, and formulae that articulate that hierarchy. In some cases, that can mean more than one note for a given melodic degree. In the first tone (the Church equivalent of Dorian mode), for instance, 6 can be flatted depending on the direction of movement, and that is considered fairly normal for the mode. It is probably wiser to look at that as modal mutation rather than substitution.
    – user16935
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 21:00
  • @user9879, look up Respighi's Tre preludi sopra melodie gregoriane on YouTube. I think you may find them both interesting and instructive.
    – user16935
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 21:11

There's a song you should check out: an Irish song called "Star Of The County Down." The prominently featured cadence is Fmaj - Cmaj - Dmin in D Dorian. It's not functional harmony per se, but organic (as in organum) harmony. That is, the 5 chord has no particular relevance to the voice leading. Rather it is the movement (up) from the b7 which forms this particular sound. Irish humor, you know. It happens on the word "Down". Go find the song on YouTube. It's a great example of using the Dorian mode.

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    Indeed, there are a lot of Irish /Celtic folk type songs written in Dorian.
    – Tim
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 12:14
  • Ta, will check it out, me being a Celt.
    – user9879
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 12:55

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