I watched a video about playing a lead/melody over the chord progression of A minor -> D major. In the video it was stated that these chords are from the key of G major, but since the "tonic" of the progression is A the scale used to improvise is A Dorian.

This lead me wondering - does this mean the music played is in the key of A Dorian? Or is it in the key of G Major, but in this case the tonic (G) is not being played?

Can you have modal keys?

I understand the relationship between the scales of A Dorian and G Major, but I don't know whether a piece of music just consisting of the aforementioned chord progressions would be described being in the key of A Dorian (since A minor "feels" like the tonic here) or in the key of G Major.

4 Answers 4


First thing to note is that, if the pitch centre is A, you would never refer to it as being in G major (even though it shares the same notes) or E minor.

The second thing, modes are strict "scales", if you are describing something as being "in a mode" then it means it literally only has those notes. While this is common for, for example, celtic music, or music for instruments with a limited number of notes, or for a lot of medieval music, with modern music it's very rare for music to be literally restricted exactly to 1 particular 7 note scale (and that's true for most classical music too).

Talking about something as being "major" or "minor" though, is much more broad. For example you're probably aware of harmonic minor, melodic minor, and natural minor. These are all slightly different ( A B C D E F(#) G(#) ), so even without "breaking the rules" at all (a bad term), a song in "A minor" might contain A, B, C, D, E, F, F#, G and G#.

And, in reality these rules aren't "rules" at all (and never have been), so music in "A minor" is very likely to include other chromatic notes too, for example: chromatic passing notes (notes out of key used to fill space in melodies) are very common, as are "out of key" harmonies included for "colour" (like a G minor chord in an A minor song for example). Take a song like "little wing" by jimi hendrix for example: to call it "aeolian" would be completely wrong, because it uses other chromatic notes, but to say "it's in E minor" is perfectly correct.

***So what's the answer***?? You can say something is "in A dorian" if it very strictly only uses notes in the dorian scale. However, what's more common, is a dorian "feel", that is to say, a piece that is minor in nature but has a harmonic progression such as Am D7, Em7 G A : (i.e. G natural but F#)

In these circumstances, it's common (with jazz and pop musicians for example) to say something like it's in "A minor, with a dorian flavour" or "it's a dorian-y A minor" or "A minor with a dorian vibe" or something like that: it's not super technical, but it's a helpful way to describe something without being so restrictive as to say "A dorian" but being more descriptive than simply "A minor"

If you wanted to super technically correct, instead of saying "dorian flavoured A minor" you would say "The piece's tonality is minor, the pitch centre is A, and its melody and harmony are heavily based around the Dorian scale".

  • To reiterate, sometimes even modal pieces are even written in their "home key" and then with accidentals (for example something in G dorian being written with a B and E flat in the key signature and then e natural accidentals in the melody, even though writing it with no accidentals would be more efficient.) This is a way of saying "this piece is in G". This is relatively common for pure modal pieces, but universal for "mostly modal" pieces. For example, you would usually write down "norwegian wood" with 3 sharps not 2.
    – Some_Guy
    Jun 21, 2018 at 22:40
  • To simplify your answer (maybe), just as we say a piece is in a minor key (even though it may have non-diatonic notes), is o.k., and, to say a piece is in x Dorian is o.k. when it's basically a minor, but will always have a maj IV sonority, as long as x is the basic tonality (home).
    – Tim
    Jun 22, 2018 at 7:58

It probably wouldn't be most common, but I have heard someone refer to a song as being in the key of [note name] [mode type]. This was referencing a jazz song.

Edit: Cursory Google search brings up this Reddit site that has a bunch of popular tunes in modal keys.

  • I have heard that description (D Dorian?) about So What or Impressions frequently, but maybe never about any other song/mode. Jun 21, 2018 at 19:27
  • I can't think of another particular specific example, but I'm fairly certain that I have heard it. Perhaps it was in the context of a specific chord or chord progression during a solo section.
    – John Doe
    Jun 21, 2018 at 19:36
  • I'm sure they're out there, but it just struck me as odd that I've only ever heard it about those songs (which have essentially identical harmonies) Jun 21, 2018 at 21:04

They both contain the same notes - G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. So the key sig., if one would be written, is that of Gmaj., 1# (F#). However, since A Dorian is mentioned, the 'home' of the piece is expected to be A, not G, as it would have been in key G.

The 'tonic', G, which actually is not the tonic now, will be played, as a sort of leading note (but not strictly) to A, the root of A Dorian. It's one of the features that puts Dorian apart from other keys/modes, in that there isn't a proper leading note/tone one semitone under the root.

  • Ignoring the key sig. for now, would you expect someone playing it to say "this piece is in the key of A Dorian" or would it be referred to as "G major"? Jun 21, 2018 at 14:40
  • G is not a leading to to A, it will not serve the function of "leading", you would need to add the G# to produce that effect.
    – user50691
    Jun 21, 2018 at 14:41
  • 1
    @MattJones - since it's not in G maj., it would be in A Dorian, as I hinted.
    – Tim
    Jun 21, 2018 at 21:31
  • 1
    @ggcg - I understand that proper leading notes in A would have to be G#, hence the wording in my answer.
    – Tim
    Jun 21, 2018 at 21:32

There is s relationship between "keys" and modes.

The degrees of a key have multiple references, numbers, names, etc.

In any key these are defined in reference to the Major scale or Ionian mode.

Do = 1, or I = Tonic

Re = 2, or ii = Supertonic

Mi = 3, or iii = mediant

Fa = 4, or IV = Subdominant

Sol = 5, or V = Dominant

La = 6, or vi = Submediant

Ti = 7, or vii = Leading tone

Do = one again or octave, the pattern repeats.

The modes can be built from the Major scale by playing the same notes in order but starting on a different note of the Major scale. For example, we define the major scale as (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) (which seems redundant in this notation), then Dorian is made from Major by the following sequence (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (or 1), 9 (or 2)), etc. relative to the degrees of the major scale the modes are as follows.

I = Ionian

ii = Dorian

iii = Phrygian

IV = Lydian

V = Mixolydian

vi = Aeolian (Natural minor)

vii = Locrian

You can also figure out the pattern of whole and half steps from this formula. Major is W-W-H-W-W-W-H, and Dorian is W-H-W-W-W-H-W, etc.

There is a similar set of modes relative the Melodic Minor scale built with the same logic.

  • 1
    I understand how the dorian scale relates to the major scale - what I'm asking is whether a piece of music would ever be referred to as being "in the key of A Dorian", or whether it would just be thought of as being in G major. Jun 21, 2018 at 14:41
  • 1
    Fine, I misunderstood your question. I have never heard of modal keys. So What, for example, is in the key of C with a modulation in the B section to the key of (Db, or C#). I've never heard a musician call it as being in the key of D Dorian (but I haven't heard everything). In fact many player solo over the D-7 using C major and it sounds cool, focusing on the 7th, 9th, and 11th and 13th of D-7.
    – user50691
    Jun 21, 2018 at 14:52
  • Thanks, I've only just started learning about music theory and haven't seen modal keys mentioned, so wondered whether they were actually a thing! Jun 21, 2018 at 14:53
  • Like I said, I haven't heard it all but I would also caution you on jargon vs. proper notation/vocabulary. Sometimes groups of musicians will start defining/adopting terminology in a way that differs from traditional use. That usually stays within the group but after decades of use may become accepted. I wouldn't surprised to hear someone call out a tune in "dorian" at an open jam. One example is blues in A (it's not A major but A7, D7, E7 etc) and usually the A minor pentatonic is used. I have heard guitarists say "Let's play blues in the key of A" and everyone knows what that means.
    – user50691
    Jun 21, 2018 at 15:21

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