Music Theory

Dorian mode in Led Zeppelin songs

Led Zeppelin DVD cover
Led Zeppelin DVD cover
Diatonic scales, as postulated by the classical tonal theory, are among the most convenient devices for composing polyphonic and homophonic textures. The latter is widely utilized by popular songwriters as it allows them to create chord progressions that harmoniously complement the melodic line. This aspect distinguishes diatonic scales from similar compositional tools found in the music traditions of many world cultures such as the Turkish makam and Indian Melakarta systems that work around a sole melodic line at a time.
It is no secret that an accurate application of classical theory in songwriting contributes to easy song memorization as well as their long-term popularity, a fact confirmed by the musical output of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin who wrote more than half of their tracks using six diatonic modes, namely Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian.
Of the three minor musical modes formed on the corresponding diatonic scales, the Aeolian is common in both classical and pop music, while Dorian and Phrygian have the status of modal modes. Such prevalence of the Aeolian can be observed in Led Zeppelin's output: five of their songs use the Aeolian mode, four tracks contain Dorian chords, and only one features elements of the Phrygian mode.
A typical example of the Dorian mode is seen in Tangerine in which the verses feature two chord progressions in G♯ Dorian:
  • G♯m–F♯–C♯ or i–VII–IV;
  • G♯m–F♯–C♯–B or i–VII–IV–III.
In addition to the G♯m tonic chord, all three major Dorian-mode chords rooted in the third, fourth, and seventh scale degrees are involved here. The G♯m–F♯–C three-chord acoustic guitar riff is undoubtedly the most recognizable part of the arrangement which gives the song its high memorability factor.
In composition, musical modes are often varied within a single track to create contrast between different song sections. In Tangerine choruses, the musical scale is switched to Ionian, while the tonal center is shifted to F♯ which can be classified as the tonicization of the seventh scale degree. Here are the chord progressions accompanying each line of the chorus:
  1. F♯–C♯–B–F♯–C♯ or I–V–IV–I–V;
  2. F♯–C♯–B–C♯ or I–V–IV–V;
  3. F♯–C♯–B–C♯ or I–V–IV–V;
  4. F♯–B–C♯ or I–IV–V.
Each line ends with the C♯ dominant chord rooted in the fifth scale degree representing a half authentic cadence which generates an expectation of the F♯ tonic chord at the beginning of the upcoming line. The last line reveals the powerful I–IV–V cadence often used by classical composers to close an antecedent phrase.
Listen to Tangerine (Remaster) by Led Zeppelin:
Dorian chord chains also occasionally appear in Trampled Under Foot. Here the verses are accompanied by a musical figure limited to just the Gm tonic chord. The Dorian three-chord progression is seen in the choruses: Gm–B♭7–C7 or i–III7–IV7. Note that the progression is closed by a half plagal cadence with the Csubdominant seventh chord rooted in the fourth degree of the Dorian scale.
Some choruses expand the harmony to the five-chord chain: Gm–B♭7–C7E♭–F or  i–III7–IV7VI–VII. Marked in red, the E♭ major chord built on the sixth scale degree does not belong to the Dorian mode thus preventing the entire chord chain from being classified as any diatonic mode since such modes can contain only three major chords.
Another Dorian chord progression is seen in the instrumental bridges: Gm7–C–Dm–C–Gm or i7–IV–v–IV–i.
Listen to Trampled Under Foot (Remaster) by Led Zeppelin:
The Battle of Evermore shows a similar approach to the use of the Dorian mode when the minor tonic chord appears in combination with three major chords rooted in the third, fourth, and seventh scale degrees. The song's verses are mostly accompanied by the A Dorian chord progression Am–G–Am–C or i–VII–i–III. The only exception is the line "in the dark of night, sing to the morning light" performed entirely with the D major subdominant chord built on the fourth scale degree. The said progression also loops in the intro.
The song's choruses deliver a distinct major mood thanks to the Dorian progression containing mostly major chords: Am7–D–Am7–D–G7–C–G7–C or i7–IV–i7–IV–VII7–III–VII7–III. Note how the section helps understand the concept of the harmonic sequence—a musical turnaround repeated in a modified form involving different scale degrees. Here the segment of the sequence is formed by two chords i7–IV whose roots are spaced from each other by a perfect fourth. This segment is repeated starting from the seventh scale degree (VII7–III) and involves two major chords of the Dorian mode.
Listen to Led Zeppelin's The Battle of Evermore:
The Dorian minor mode appears once more in No Quarter. A more detailed harmonic analysis is outlined in our article about the song's two minor modal modes. The track's harmony cleverly juxtaposes Dorian-mode choruses with verses accompanied by the Phrygian mode progressions.
A more in-depth analysis of the Dorian mode, as well as examples of its application in songwriting, can be found in our article covering 5 songs featuring Dorian mode.
Explore how Led Zeppelin uses other musical modes in our articles:
Discover more songs composed in Dorian minor mode and check out their harmonic analysis in the following articles:
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