Dorian Scales on Saxophone. explained. The complete guide to playing dorian mode on saxophone.

Dorian Scale on Saxophone – Dorian Mode

Written by Greger Hillman, Saxophone teacher and music educator

The Dorian Scale on Saxophone, also referred to as “the Dorian Mode” or the second scale degree.

This is part of music theory and modal music. Think of it this way:

The words and emojis you choose in a text message set the tone of your conversation. Similarly, the Dorian Scale sets a unique tone for your saxophone music.

Scales in music are like the alphabets of a language, and for saxophone players, they're the building blocks of your solos and melodies.

You're probably familiar with the Major Scale on your saxophone, which often sounds happy and upbeat. The Dorian Scale is another “alphabet” with its own distinct feel, often described as jazzy, bluesy, or even mysterious.

Construct the Dorian Scale on Saxophone

Here's how you can construct the Dorian Scale on the saxophone:

  1. Start with a major scale: Pick a key (like C, D, etc.) that you're comfortable with on the saxophone.
  2. Lower the 3rd note: Make this note one half-step lower. On the sax, if you're starting with a C major scale, you'll bring down the E to an E♭.
  3. Lower the 7th note: Also lower this note by a half-step. Continuing with the C example, the B would become a B♭.
The intervals of the Dorian Scale on Saxophone displayed in sheet music with illustration of the whole and half steps.

So as a reference, the C major scale on saxophone use these notes:

  • C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

The C Dorian Scale for saxophone looks like this:

  • C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭ – C
C dorian Scale on Saxophone explained step-by-step with note names and notes in sheet music.

When you play a piece using this scale on your saxophone, you're said to be playing “in the Dorian Mode.”

The Dorian Scale follows a specific pattern of whole and half steps.

For this example with the C Dorian Scale it looks like this:

  • Start on C (the root)
  • Whole step to D
  • Half step to E♭ (minor third)
  • Whole step to F
  • Whole step to G
  • Whole step to A
  • Half step to B♭ (minor seventh)
  • Whole step back to C

The Dorian Mode is great for Jazz improvisation over minor seventh chords like Dm7, Gm7, Cm7 and so on. The minro seven chord is often paired with the seven chord (Dm7 – G7) which is also referred to as the II – V intervall (two – five).

Now, this is a concept of it's own but the key takeaway is that learning the Dorian Scales on Saxophone will help you with several areas of your playing.

Learn The Dorian Scale on Saxophone

There's a total of 12 keys in music and you practice the Dorian Mode on Sax the same way as you would with your major scales.

Keeping in mind that there's a flat 3rd and a flat 7th in the scale you are basically playing the Major scale from the second note to the ninth note.

Taking the example with the C major scale, you have D dorian (2nd note of C major) which is based on the same notes as the C major.

So, looking at the C major scale on saxophone, which goes like this:

  • C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C

The D Dorian Scale on saxophone looks like this:

  • D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

Still the same notes as in C Major, but starting on the second note of the C major scale. Looking closer at the D Dorian Scale you'll see that it also has that flat 3rd and flat 7th note in it.

Practice The Dorian Scale on Saxophone

The first thing to focus on when practicing the Dorian Scale on Saxophone is to pick a Major scale and key signature that you are comfortable with.

When I teach saxophone beginners we start with the G major and F major scales. Those are good starting points for learning the Dorian Scale on your sax too.

Based on that, I recommend that you start practicing the Dorian Scale with these melodic patterns:

Play the G major Scale, which have these notes:

  • G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G

Listen to the sound of the Major Scale as you play it from the root to the octave and then back down again, like this:

  • G – A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – F# – E – D – C – B – A – G

Play the G Major Scale like this 3 times to “lock on” to that Major Scale sound on your sax.

Next, Play the A Dorian Scale using these notes:

  • A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A

Notice that the A Dorian Scale use the exact same notes as the G Major Scale. The main difference is that you star from the 2nd note of the Major Scale (G Major) which translates to the A Dorian Scale.

Continue by playing the A Dorian Scale from the root to the octave and back down again, like this:

  • A – B – C – D – E – F# – G – A – G – F# – E – D – C – B – A

Do this slowly three times to “lock on” to that Dorian sound on your saxophone.

The final step is to alternative between the G Major Scale and the A Dorian Scale. This is for two reasons:

  1. Fingering and technique: Practicing both scales will help you improve your overall technique on your saxophone which will make you a better sax player.
  2. Listening to how the scale sounds: When you know the scales you can focus more on actually listening to how they sound on your saxophone. That's an important skill as you develop as a saxophone player and musician.

12 Dorian Scales on Saxophone

By learning the Dorian Scales in all 12 keys on your saxophone you extend your musical vocabulary. This is useful when soloing on saxophone and learning music theory is overall good to develop as a musician.

C Dorian Scale on Saxophone

C♯ Dorian and D♭ Dorian Scale on Saxophone

D Dorian Scale on Saxophone

E♭ Dorian (D♯ Dorian) Scale on Saxophone

E Dorian Scale on Saxophone

F Dorian Scale on Saxophone

F♯ Dorian and G♭ Dorian Scale on Saxophone

G Dorian Scale on Saxophone

A♭ Dorian (G♯ Dorian) Scale on Saxophone:

A Dorian Scale on Saxophone

A♯ Dorian and B♭ Dorian Scale on Saxophone

B Dorian Scale on Saxophone

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Major Scale

The Dorian Scale and the Major Scale (Ionian Mode) have different arrangements of whole and half steps between their notes, which creates distinct moods or vibes when used in music. Here's a quick comparison, especially relevant for saxophone players or any musician:

  1. Major Scale: This scale is the one many people learn first, and it has a happy, bright sound. The pattern of whole and half steps for a major scale is:

    Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, HalfFor example, the C Major Scale is:

    C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C
  2. Dorian Scale: This scale has a jazzier, bluesier feel. The pattern of whole and half steps for a Dorian scale is:

    Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, WholeFor example, the C Dorian Scale is:

    C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭ – C

Key Differences:

  • The 3rd note in the Dorian Scale is a half-step lower than in the Major Scale. In our example, E becomes E♭.
  • The 7th note in the Dorian Scale is also a half-step lower than in the Major Scale. In our example, B becomes B♭.

These subtle changes in note positions give the Dorian Scale its unique character compared to the Major Scale.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Minor Scale

The Dorian Scale and the Minor Scale (specifically the Natural Minor Scale) are both used to create a “darker” or “sadder” mood compared to the Major Scale, but they do have key differences that give each its unique character. These distinctions are highly relevant for musicians, including saxophone players.

Natural Minor Scale:

The Natural Minor Scale has the following pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole

For example, the A Natural Minor Scale is:

A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale has this pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:

A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Key Differences:

  • The 6th note in the Dorian Scale is a half-step higher than in the Natural Minor Scale. In our example of A Dorian and A Natural Minor, F becomes F♯ in the Dorian.

This single note change gives the Dorian Scale a slightly “jazzier” or “bluesier” feel compared to the Natural Minor Scale.

So, when you're playing on the saxophone, choosing between the Dorian and Natural Minor Scales can give your piece a subtle but impactful difference in mood and color.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Blues Scale

The Dorian Scale and the Blues Scale serve different musical purposes and create distinct moods or feelings. Both scales are popular in jazz and blues music, and understanding their differences can enrich your experience, especially if you're a saxophone player.

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale is a seven-note scale with the following pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:

A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Blues Scale:

The Blues Scale is a six-note scale that is essentially a modified Minor Pentatonic Scale with an added “blue” note, usually the ♭5. The scale doesn't follow a conventional pattern of whole and half steps like other scales.

For example, the A Blues Scale is:

A – C – D – D♯(E♭) – E – G – A

Key Differences:

  1. Number of Notes: The Dorian Scale has seven distinct notes, while the Blues Scale has six.
  2. The ‘Blue' Note: The Blues Scale includes a “blue note,” which is usually the ♭5 of the scale. This note gives the Blues Scale its characteristic ‘twang' or ‘bite,' which is absent in the Dorian Scale.
  3. Mood: The Dorian Scale has a jazzy, somewhat mysterious quality, while the Blues Scale has a raw, emotive character often associated with traditional blues music.
  4. Versatility: While both scales are versatile, the Dorian Scale is often used in a wider range of genres including jazz, rock, and classical music. The Blues Scale is more specialized and is mainly used in blues and rock.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Phrygian Scale

The Dorian Scale and the Phrygian Scale (Phrygian Mode) are both modes of the diatonic scale, which means they're constructed using the same set of notes but start on different root notes. Despite their similarities, they offer distinct flavors or moods in music, a consideration that can be especially impactful for saxophone players.

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale follows this pattern of whole and half steps:
Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:
A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Phrygian Scale:

The Phrygian Scale has a different pattern of whole and half steps:
Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole

For example, the A Phrygian Scale is:
A – B♭ – C – D – E – F – G – A

Key Differences:

  1. Starting Interval: The Dorian Scale starts with a whole step, whereas the Phrygian Scale starts with a half step.
  2. 2nd Note: In the Dorian Scale, the second note is a whole step from the root, but in the Phrygian Scale, it's only a half step away, making it a minor 2nd interval. This gives the Phrygian Scale a more “exotic” or “Eastern” feel.
  3. 6th Note: The Dorian has a natural 6th, while the Phrygian has a lowered or minor 6th.
  4. Mood: Dorian is often described as bluesy, jazzy, or sophisticated. Phrygian tends to be described as exotic, mystical, or tense.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Lydian Scale

The Dorian and Lydian Scales (Lydian Mode) are both modes derived from the diatonic scale, but they create significantly different sonic landscapes. This is especially relevant for musicians, including those who play the saxophone.

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale follows this pattern of whole and half steps:
Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:
A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Lydian Scale:

The Lydian Scale has its unique pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half

For example, the A Lydian Scale is:

A – B – C♯ – D♯ – E – F♯ – G♯ – A

Key Differences:

  1. Starting Intervals: Both scales start with a whole step, but the Lydian continues with two more whole steps, creating a distinctive augmented fourth interval from the root to the 4th note.
  2. 4th Note: In the Dorian Scale, the 4th note is a perfect 4th from the root. In the Lydian Scale, it's an augmented 4th, giving the Lydian Scale its characteristic “dreamy” or “ethereal” quality.
  3. 3rd Note: Dorian has a minor 3rd, making it a minor scale, while Lydian has a major 3rd, making it a major scale.
  4. Mood: Dorian often sounds bluesy, jazzy, or even mysterious. Lydian is generally considered to sound more dreamy, uplifting, and optimistic.
  5. Note Differences: In terms of actual notes, compared to the Dorian, the Lydian has a raised 3rd, raised 4th, and raised 7th.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Mixolydian Scale

The Dorian and Mixolydian Scales (Mixolydian Mode) are both modes derived from the diatonic scale, but they evoke different feelings and are often used in different musical contexts. These differences are particularly relevant for musicians, including saxophone players.

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale has the following pattern of whole and half steps:
Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:
A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Mixolydian Scale:

The Mixolydian Scale follows this pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Mixolydian Scale is:

A – B – C♯ – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Key Differences:

  1. 3rd Note: The Dorian Scale has a minor 3rd, whereas the Mixolydian Scale has a major 3rd.
  2. 7th Note: The Mixolydian Scale has a lowered 7th compared to a regular major scale, whereas the Dorian Scale also has a lowered 7th but in relation to a minor scale context.
  3. Mood: The Dorian Scale often gives off a bluesy, jazzy, or even mysterious vibe. The Mixolydian Scale tends to sound more “open” or “resolved,” often used in rock and blues to create a groovy or relaxed feeling.
  4. Chords: Dorian is generally used over minor chords, whereas Mixolydian is used over dominant 7th chords.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Aeolian Scale

The Dorian and Aeolian Scales (Aeolian Mode) are both minor modes of the diatonic scale, meaning they share certain characteristics. However, they differ in ways that give them unique musical flavors, something especially important for saxophone players.

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale has this pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:

A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Aeolian Scale (Natural Minor):

The Aeolian Scale, also known as the Natural Minor Scale, follows this pattern:

Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole

For example, the A Aeolian Scale is:

A – B – C – D – E – F – G – A

Key Differences:

  1. 6th Note: The primary difference is in the 6th note. In Dorian, the 6th is natural, while in Aeolian, the 6th is flattened. In our example, the 6th note F becomes F♯ in the Dorian Scale.
  2. Mood: The Dorian Scale is often described as being jazzy, bluesy, or soulful, whereas the Aeolian Scale is usually seen as more straightforwardly ‘sad' or ‘melancholic.'
  3. Harmonic Context: In Dorian, the presence of a natural 6th often makes it suitable for minor 7th chords with an added 6th. Aeolian is generally more versatile in a minor harmonic context without added color tones.
  4. Genres: Dorian is frequently found in jazz, blues, funk, and even rock. Aeolian is common across multiple genres, including classical, rock, pop, and metal.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Locrian Scale

The Dorian and Locrian Scales (Locrian Mode) are both modes of the diatonic scale, but they're quite different in tonal qualities and functional uses. These differences are particularly impactful for musicians, such as saxophone players, who are looking to create specific moods or atmospheres.

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale follows this pattern of whole and half steps:

Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the A Dorian Scale is:

A – B – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A

Locrian Scale:

The Locrian Scale has the following pattern of whole and half steps:

Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole

For example, the A Locrian Scale is:

A – B♭ – C – D – E♭ – F – G – A

Key Differences:

  1. Starting Interval: Dorian starts with a whole step, while Locrian begins with a half step.
  2. 2nd and 5th Notes: Locrian has a lowered 2nd and a lowered 5th, making it the only diatonic mode to have a diminished 5th (or tritone) between the root and the 5th note. This gives it an unstable, tense quality.
  3. Mood: Dorian has a more jazzy, bluesy, and soulful vibe. Locrian, on the other hand, has a dissonant, unstable character that's often described as dark or ominous.
  4. Harmonic Context: Dorian is commonly used in various harmonic contexts and is quite versatile. Locrian is rarely used for long melodic or harmonic passages due to its instability but may be used for tension or dissonance.
  5. Functionality: Dorian is often used for improvisation and melodic development. Locrian is typically used more for brief coloration or to create tension that resolves to another, more stable scale.
  6. Genres: While Dorian is widely used in jazz, blues, and rock, Locrian is seldom found outside of experimental, metal, or some forms of jazz.

Differences between the Dorian Scale and the Chromatic Scale

The Dorian and Chromatic Scales are very different from each other. Here's what you need to know:

Dorian Scale:

The Dorian Scale is a seven-note scale, adhering to a specific pattern of whole and half steps:
Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole

For example, the C Dorian Scale is:
C – D – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭ – C

Chromatic Scale:

The Chromatic Scale includes all twelve distinct pitches within an octave, proceeding by half steps. There's no specific pattern beyond this.

For example, a C Chromatic Scale would start on C and include all notes up to the next C:
C – C♯/D♭ – D – D♯/E♭ – E – F – F♯/G♭ – G – G♯/A♭ – A – A♯/B♭ – B – C

Key Differences:

  1. Note Count: The Dorian Scale has 7 unique notes, while the Chromatic Scale has 12.
  2. Interval Structure: Dorian has a fixed pattern of whole and half steps, whereas the Chromatic Scale moves entirely in half steps.
  3. Harmonic Function: The Dorian Scale has a specific harmonic and melodic function, making it suitable for creating certain moods or fitting within specific chord progressions. The Chromatic Scale is generally not used for extended harmonic or melodic content but serves more as a tool for connecting other scales or embellishing melodies.
  4. Mood: The Dorian Scale offers a particular emotional color, often considered bluesy, jazzy, or soulful. The Chromatic Scale doesn't establish a mood in the way that diatonic scales do, due to its lack of a tonal center.
  5. Genres: Dorian is common in jazz, blues, rock, and some folk music. The Chromatic Scale appears across multiple genres, often for effect rather than as a basis for a composition.
  6. Ease of Use: For saxophone players, the Dorian Scale can be easier to work into improvisational or compositional contexts due to its fixed pattern. The Chromatic Scale may require more finesse to incorporate naturally into a musical piece.
Saxophone teacher online Greger Hillman

Written by Greger Hillman

Greger Hillman is a saxophone teacher with +36 years of experience playing saxophone. 

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