Let's say I'm playing Dorian D mode. Is my tonic:

C, because Dorian mode is derived from the diatonic scale of C?

Or D, because my tonal center is in D?

4 Answers 4


The tonic of Dorian D is D.

In fact this is more or less what makes the difference between the modes. Altough they can have exactly the same notes, the function of those notes, how they are used, is different.

In dorian D, D is used as the tonic: i.e. the piece ends with D, the main phrases end in D, the D minor chord is the most important chord...

  • 4
    This is mixing up the original definition of the mode with the modern terminology of tonal harmony. Modes don't have a "tonic". The do have a "final" (which is approximately the same as the "tonic") and a "dominant", but the final is not necessarily the "lowest note" of the mode, and the dominant is not necessarily a 5th higher than the final!
    – user19146
    Jul 15, 2016 at 16:29

A tonic is a tonal concept, so it doesn't transfer 100% when you talk about modes as they are not tonal ideas.

The simple answer is yes to be in D Dorian you need to make it sound like you have D as your "tonic" or else you are not in D Dorian. If your tonic is C then you are in C major, not D Dorian.

  • that's nicely worded. I suppose the answer was in my question 'tonal center'. However, i was a little confused the way people talk about thi. Thanks @Dom Jul 15, 2016 at 14:02
  • -1 "Modes ... are not tonal ideas." Yes, they are. They give structure to how we interpret different pitches.
    – Kevin
    Jul 15, 2016 at 19:55
  • 2
    @Kevin nope. Modes don't imply functional harmony which is a big part of tonality. Structure alone does not equal tonal. There's a reason we use major and minor to denote keys and key signatures rather than Ionian and Aeolian. This has been discussed a lot on the site already.
    – Dom
    Jul 15, 2016 at 20:03
  • @Kevin Modes are a pitch-based concept, but not a tonal one. "Tonal" refers to the system of Major/Minor keys: i.e., "Tonality". Modes and pitch-centered, but they're non-tonal.
    – Aaron
    Sep 24 at 6:18

The tonic is D (d-minor as a chord). The cadence in d-dorian would be

X: 1
M: C
K: Cmaj
L: 1/2
[Gdgb] [A^cea] | [Ddfa]2

Though I daresay you'll find rather more often the relative dominant C-major used, rather than the actual dominant A-major.

X: 1
M: C
K: Cmaj
L: 1/2
[Gdgb] [Cegc'] | [Ddfa]2
  • Would it HAVE to have a C#, as it's not in the key.
    – Tim
    Jul 15, 2016 at 13:59
  • i haven't seen 'cadence' before. how is the cadence derived or is it a loose idea? Jul 15, 2016 at 13:59
  • @Tim classically, if the A-chord is supposed to be a dominant, it has to have the C♯, yes. But pieces in Dorian will quite often not use that dominant. Jul 15, 2016 at 14:00
  • 1
    @JohnandLynHenry you can ask that as a separate question as it will be more beneficial to everyone then posting an answer here in the comments.
    – Dom
    Jul 15, 2016 at 14:01
  • @JohnandLynHenry: in a nutshell, the cadence is a sequence of harmonies that necessarily leads up to the tonic, thereby clearly defining it. Jul 15, 2016 at 14:02

A good question! I'd say technically in D Dorian, D is the tonic, as that's the 'key' it's in, and the start point. However, musically, it could feel like it wants to 'come home', and depending on how it's sounding, it could come to rest, sounding good, back at C. So then, one could say the tonic is C.

  • 2
    If it sounds/feels like C is the resting point then the piece would not really be in Dorian mode, IMO. Jul 15, 2016 at 14:06
  • Once again, an unexplained dv! Please come back and tell why you think this answer deserves a dv. That way, we're all just a little wiser. Thanks.
    – Tim
    Sep 25 at 12:38
  • I'm not the one that downvoted this, but to quote my comment to a downvoted answer below, "[In modal music, with the mode being D dorian], one could not really consider C as a 'tonic' under any meaning of that term; as one can plainly see in typical examples of modal Dorian music (for ex. the gregorian chants 'Victimae paschali laudes' or 'Dies irae')". Of course, it's possible to have a temporary "tonal center" which deviates from the "tonic" (just the same as in common practice period music), but that wouldn't make it into a "tonic".
    – AlexJ
    Sep 25 at 18:29

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