I am curious about the following. If you look at the Melodic Minor scale (ascending) it is really just Dorian with a major 7th.

In Jazz we do not alter this mode when descending. In classical music this mode is used in minor keys, e.g. A melodic minor in the key of A minor (to create leading tones when needed and the sharp 6th to turn the jump of a -3rd to a step). In rhythm changes the vi chord is often changed to a dominant 7th, acting as a secondary dominant to the ii, e.g. I --> VI7 --> ii-7 --> V7, etc. The major third of the VI7 created the "melodic minor" out of the Dorian on the ii chord. So in soloing if one wanted to create a resolution from VI7 to ii-7 it would seem natural to augment the 7th degree of Dorian. I do this to all the modes when I see a need or opportunity to do so but never really thought of a connection to other modes.

Over Rhythm changes I would improvise ii-Melodic minor over (VI7, ii-7) and I-Ionian over (V7, I).

My question is whether or not there is any historical connection between the "Jazz Melodic Minor" and this device. Has anyone ever written about the Dorian sharp 7th?

Keep in mind that the corresponding altered Dorian mode based on the relative melodic minor in any key would NOT be this mode. For example in the key of C, A melodic minor does not correspond to Dorian sharp 7th.

  • Related: music.stackexchange.com/questions/16248/…
    – Dom
    Dec 20, 2018 at 0:34
  • @Dom, thanks but I just read that post and it doesn't really address the specific device I am mentioning.
    – user50691
    Dec 20, 2018 at 0:36
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    Just a comment to help my understanding. First of all, for me it's much more natural to use harmonic minor (of II) over the VI7 chord because it has the b9 of the VI7 chord, which for my ears is a much more common and pleasing tension in that context than the (unaltered) 9. Second, over the ii-7 chord, with melodic minor you would miss out on the b7 of the chord, but you replace it with the natural 7 (which is not a chord tone and which kinda clashes with the b7 in the chord). So is it just that I hear things differently, or did I misunderstand your question?
    – Matt L.
    Dec 20, 2018 at 8:26
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    Has anyone ever written about the Dorian sharp 7th - not really the correct term. The Melodic Minor is Aeolian with raised a 6th and 7th - that is its derivation. No reason to refer to it anything as Dorian sharp 7th .
    – Stinkfoot
    Dec 21, 2018 at 22:27
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    Could also regard the melodic minor (jazz) as simple major but with a m3 instead of the M3.
    – Tim
    Jan 20, 2019 at 10:27

3 Answers 3


A few historical tidbits on European music, since that seems to be partly what the question is after.

First, there's a lot of misunderstanding about modes and how they were used in medieval music. Prior to the 16th century, the modes we call Dorian, Hypodorian, Phrygian, etc. were almost exclusively used to classify chant melodies which were monophonic, not polyphonic pieces of music that involved harmony.

It's a separate question to ask about the use of leading tones in polyphonic works. And leading tones started to be used as accidentals (then called musica ficta) somewhere around the 12th century. That is, when cadencing to D, one would often modify the voice that went C-D to instead be C♯-D. When cadencing to G, one would use F♯-G. When cadencing to A, one would use G♯-A. These early experiments in two-voice counterpoint thus expanded the minor sixth to a major sixth near a cadence, thereby creating a stronger resolution outward to an octave. (Cadences to C and F already had the built-in semitone motion.)

Phrygian was not modified in this way, as it would create an augmented sixth. Instead, F was viewed as an upper leading tone of sorts, so Phrygian already had a built-in leading tone that resolved down F-E.

So, when the question asks whether Dorian mode historically exists with a sharp seventh -- well, yes, I suppose one could say it was used frequently in polyphonic music. Any pieces that were based around a D center and did not make frequent use of the B♭ option (the only legitimate accidental in the scale at that time) could be seen as a sort of "Dorian #7," employing a C♯ at appropriate cadence points.

Note that these polyphonic works were not necessarily thought of as "in Dorian mode." Until the mid-1500s the only reference to mode in polyphonic works was generally in classifying the mode of a chant melody that may have been used as the basis for the piece (often appearing in the tenor voice).

Some of that changed with the revival of interest in Greek theory and terminology in the 1500s. Some composers began to try to write cycles of polyphonic works that were actually in various modes, including "Dorian." And that's probably the place where one can find the closest approximation to the use of the "Dorian #7" scale, at least in its structure around cadences where the leading tone was necessary. However, it's important to note that polyphonic works of the time assumed accidentals would be added as needed, including appropriate leading tones at cadences, so it was rare that one would encounter a piece only using the notes of the "Dorian #7" scale, even though that might have been the central note collection.

Furthermore, while the B♭ option since the earliest chant notations allowed the ♭6 we now associate with minor keys (and much later named "Aeolian mode"), the usage of the sixth scale degree was rather inconsistent well into the 18th century when our modern key system was finally standardized. One can find plenty of examples of "Dorian" pieces with "Dorian" key signatures that employed the leading tone where appropriate. In fact, it might be more accurate to think of the ♭6 until the early 18th century as an optional chromatic tone, added when appropriate to create a strong resolution down to scale degree 5, just as the leading tone was added as an accidental and raised to create a strong resolution upward. The concept of the "minor mode" being centered around an Aeolian-type scale with the matching key signature was a rather late development. So something like "Dorian #7" was a common historical option (if not almost a default) until key signature standardization settled the question another way.

As to whether there's any connection to the modern "jazz melodic minor" scale, I'd say only in the basic sense that the instability of the sixth scale degree stuck around even as minor mode practice developed in the classical and romantic periods. Certainly plenty of classical pieces will also employ sequences such as those mentioned in the question (i.e., V7/ii-ii-V7-I). Both the melodic and harmonic vocabulary were well-integrated into common practice style, so it's unsurprising that jazz developed its own variants of it.

  • thanks for the very thorough answer and connecting the idea to something historic in Western music. I wasn't after a concrete connection with the Jazz melodic minor, but that scale was the inspiration for the question. I frequently use "leading tone" principles in improv, almost to the exclusion of all other ideas. Despite having some classical education I admit I am not aware of the historical points you make. Sometimes we rediscover old ideas from a different point of view.
    – user50691
    Dec 27, 2019 at 16:05
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    There's a lot of incomplete and misleading information in introductory textbooks regarding historical modes and their use, so it's not surprising that people haven't happened upon this kind of thing. It's only if you spend a lot of time with renaissance and medieval music (and its theory) that you tend to get a sense of how it all really worked.
    – Athanasius
    Dec 27, 2019 at 16:59
  • For me, I started building melodies with leading tones both ascending and descending into scale tones, you sort of rediscover the bebop scale, blues, etc. But I was not aware if such things were standard in the past. This really is useful info. I had only delved into Indian scales as an alternate approach. I think it would help jazz students learn better than matching a diatonic mode to each chord. Just my opinion.
    – user50691
    Dec 27, 2019 at 17:58
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    @ggcg: I agree with you. This sort of stuff used to be taught more in counterpoint classes, but that's fallen away in favor of the chordal approach. A lot of mysteries of classical harmony can also be better understood just with a little thought about leading tones. For example, what's the strongest note in the scale after the tonic? Dominant (5). What's the most common secondary dominant? V/V, because it adds #4, the leading tone to 5. What's the most common modal mixture? Chords with b6, leading to 5. What's an augmented sixth chord? A chord with both upper and lower leading tones to 5.
    – Athanasius
    Dec 27, 2019 at 18:08

As Stinkfoot mentioned, I've never seen in a music theory textbook or heard in my own listening a reference to the Dorian mode with a raised 7th. Seems like it would self-evidently (since the major third is already in the chord) be useful in a solo as a leading tone, but in the Mark Levine books and in my general listening the altered chord with a #9 is more prominent.

Seems like it could be a cool groove though, messing with the listener by mixing in the raised 7th for a leading tone or the b7 for an altered funk sound.

  • I know it has not appeared in theory books, I am curious if it anything like it has an historical context.
    – user50691
    Jan 20, 2019 at 13:13

Here is my 2 cents on this topic after some research (serendipitous research in a sense). Perhaps nowhere in Western music is there such a thing as Dorian #7. However, in Carnatic music there are modes that are equivalent to the Western modes with raised 7ths (more correctly, major 7ths). To understand this better would require a deep excursion into Carnatic music which I will not go into except to state that Carnatic scales are built from a 12 tone chromatic scale by choosing 7 intervals between an octave with a few simple rules. The unaltered scales must have a P5 in them but the choice of 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7 are open (as long as there are no repeats, e.g. #2 and b3). That is to say you can have a scale with (1, b2, b3, #4, 5, b6, 7, 8) etc. This leads to something like 72 distinct scales. Modified scales have the P5 altered.

So, the scale I'm referring to does exist in some historical context other than melodic minor in the Western tradition. However, it does not seem that the corresponding relation among modes the exists in the Western tradition is preserved in the Carnatic tradition. There may be some relation as the scales are grouped together but for example Ionian and Dorian are both Carnatic scales but one would not refer to C Ionian and D Dorian as being related in the same key.

Leading tones do have meaning in Indian music but perhaps for different reasons. Indian music is highly improvisational with melodic phrases from scales being used as motifs. It is quite common for musicians to move up or down into a desired focus note by half steps. That doesn't mean that large jumps are avoided at times but there seems to be a feeling of completeness that a leading tone provides that is not present using other intervals. I state this from years of listening to Ragas and Carnatic music but could not cite a text as teaching this. This style of music is not learnt the same way as Western music theory. One thing that is NOT present in Indian music, at least not to the extent as Western music, is multi voice harmony. Ragas are usually played against the background of a drone note or two (1 and 5). There are no "changes". There is no 7-->8 and 4-->3 like there is in Western music. In some sense modern Carnatic music can seem a little more Western as guitar accompaniment is popular and there may be some progression or movement between a few chords, but there doesn't seem to be a strong tendency to focus on cadences as a main feature of the accompaniment.

So leading tones are used in melodic phrases to accentuate focus notes, but not in multi-voice harmony. In the former sense a Dorian #7 or and Phygian #7 (also a Carnatic scale) has definite meaning.

Afterward: Some of what I surmised here was derived from a few texts on Indian music I recently picked up in India.

Classical Music of India, a Practical Guide by Subramaniam and Subramanium

The Raga-ness of Ragas by Raja

It is by no means a substitute for a proper music education and I'm inferring a lot based on my Western education. My view of what a leading tone means to Indian music is definitely ethnocentric but an honest attempt to explain the Dorian #7 and other such scales.

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