How to Write a Chord Progression
in the Dorian Mode
The video above is from our Songwriting & Producing Course. If you wanna make Dorian music, this course is for you. In 12 step-by-step videos, you'll learn our essential hacks for Dorian melodies, harmonies, chords, bass & more!
The Dorian mode is our sad but hopeful sounding mode. Using the white note hack, Dorian is what you get when you play all the white notes, starting from D. And remember, after you’ve used the white note hack to write your chord progression, you can just select all the MIDI and move it up or down to wherever you need.
We want to start by building a chord from each of the seven white notes. The way we do that is by playing a note, skipping the next note up, playing the next note note, skipping the next note up, and then playing the next note. That gives us a chord. As the first chord in a mode is built on the first note, AKA the root note, we refer to the first chord as the root chord. And that’s D F A here, which gives us a Dm. Remember, minors (m) are sad, and majors (maj) are happy. Moving on, the 2nd chord is E G B, which is Em. The 3rd chord is F A C, which is Fmaj. The 4th chord is G B D, which is Gmaj. The 5th chord is A C E, which is Am. The 6th chord is B D F, which is Bdim, that weird chord. And the 7th chord is C E G, which is Cmaj. Now, that weird 6th chord, Bdim, while that diminished chord is a favourite for horror movie soundtracks, it’s definitely not a favourite for popular music because it’s way too dissonant, so it’s not really used. Let’s just get rid of that chord for now.
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Starting your chord progression on the root chord is the easiest way to anchor it into the mode. You don’t have to start on the root chord, but it is the easiest, and you obviously do have to play it somewhere in the progression. The other chord that you do have to play in Dorian, is the 4th chord. Let me explain that to you now, so I’ll just delete all the other chords and keep the root chord, Dm, and the 4th chord, Gmaj.
Most popular music is written using the Aeolian mode (AKA the natural minor scale). In that mode/scale, the 4th chord is always minor, so we are really used to hearing the 4th chord as a minor. However, as you know, in Dorian the 4th chord is a major. So as soon as you hear that 4th chord as a major, immediately your ear is like: “Oooh hello! That’s not what I was expecting.” It sounds much more uplifting than we’re used to from a minor mode. The 4th chord in Dorian is precisely what gives the mode its hopeful sound; that 4th chord is the silver lining to our cloud. We can play the 4th chord towards the beginning of our chord progression, in the middle, or at the end. Playing it at the end is going to feel like the light at the end of our tunnel. Let’s put it there.
Now we have a gap in the middle, between our root chord Dm at the beginning of our progression and the Gmaj at the end. We have two minor chords and two major chords left (that we haven’t yet used), and you can choose them however you want. Chord progressions can have as few as two chords, but that’s boring, and they can have as many as all seven chords. We’ll go with four here, which is usually the average. Remember, tell the musical story you want to tell by what chords you choose, and by what order you put them in. I’m thinking here that I’ll go with Am (A C E) and then Em (E G B), because I really want the listeners to work through three minor chords in a row before they get the reward of that really, really uplifting major chord at the end, which is not merely a major chord, it’s that special major chord that makes Dorian sound hopeful. So in my chord progression I’ve got 75% minor, and 25% major. You can do your major to minor ratio however you want, but do think about it.
Figure 1: Chord progression in the D Dorian mode: Dm → Am → Em → Gmaj
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Wanna learn how to write chord progressions in all the other modes? Download Songwriting & Producing PDF. Until next time, happy music making!