A Short History of Musical Modes according to A. Ross

“What is a church mode?”

A great question!  One that I received on Thursday and has now inspired a blog.  A church mode is, first and foremost, one of the hidden gems of western musical tradition.  What a mode is is simple enough to explain: it is an ancient musical scale.  (If you don’t know what a musical scale is then perhaps the rest of this blog will be dull.  Go buy a piano and a Teach Yourself Piano, and, after you discover the scales, come back).

Modes were originally adapted into western music during the 4th century from Greek musical thought.  You may recall from college history classes that the 4th century was a time when Rome had officially become Christian and the Christianity they adapted was heavily influenced by “Greek Think.”  Naturally, when the church was looking around for some musical theory upon which to base their Chant they borrowed heavily from the Greeks who had, of course, worked out the ideal mathematical formulas for music and melodic intervals.  Now the Greeks had worked out 7 different scales.  To make music history slightly confusing, the Greeks counted downwards while the Church (and subsequently all western music) counted upwards.  So while the names of the scales/modes are the same, Greek modes vs. Church modes sound quite different.  Apparently–I have never actually heard an Ancient Greek Mode.

At first the Church adopted only 4 modes, which are referred to as “Authentic.”  After a hundred years or so Pope Gregory (you’ll never guess were we got the term Gregorian Chant…) added another 4, called “Plagal.”  Later, an uppity monk, Henricus, added 4 more, and as far as I can see from my Oxford Dictionary of Music, these last four do not have a classification of Authentic vs. Plagal.

Modes, authentic, plagal and otherwise, are often referred to as “Church Modes” or “Eccesiastical Modes” because they were collected and codified in the Catholic Church.  This can be a misleading tittle as, later on, when the church was loosing its grip on creative control, these modes became widely used in secular compositions.  (oh horror).

What does a modal scale sound like?

Modes are very simple to play if you have access to a piano: simply play the white keys for each modal octave.  Here are the 12 “Church” Modes:

I        Dorian               D-D
II       HypoDorian
III      Phrygian            E-E
IV       HypoPhrygian
V        Lydian             F-F
VI       HypoLydian
VII      Mixolydian        G-G
VIII     HypoMixolydian
IX       Aeolian             A-A
X        HypoAeolian
XI       Ionian               C-C
XII      HypoIonian

There is also the “Locrian” which on the piano is B-B.  This is the black sheep of the mode family.  This is because it has a diminished tonic triad (again, should you be wondering what that means, go back to your newly purchased piano, and, with a copy of Music Theory 101 in hand, discover Tonic Triads.)  Henricus, the uppity monk, did not approve the Locrian as one of the 12 Official Modes.  Spell check doesn’t even approve of it.  Nevertheless, it is a favorite mode for those singer/songwriters who enjoy playing with dissonance.  Take for example, Bjork’s Army of Me, which is apparently written in the Locrian mode (according to Wikipedia… it doesn’t sound dissonant enough to me to merit the title of Locrian.)

Note that while these are written for our convince in as different pitches (D-D, A-A, C-C etc.) it is not the pitch that makes the essential difference and unique qualities of each mode.  It is, rather, the placement of the intervals between each note that give a different feel, or as I like to see it, a different story in each scale, with each it’s own ending and resolution (or not).

Here I will play you examples of 4 modes, you will notice that each of the modes has their own unique feel.  Unfortunately it is too early on a Saturday morning for me to record my piano, so GarageBand’s piano will have to suffice.  Because our ears are trained to our “major/minor” scales, only the Ionian and Aeolian modes will sound “right.”  More about that in a later blog.  The order which I will play these is:

Ionian   C-C     This will sound like our normal major scale.
Aeolian  A-A     This will sound like our normal minor scale.
Dorian   D-D     Arguably the most beautiful of the 12 modes.
Mixolidian      G-G      Will sound almost right.  Many folk tunes written in this.

Now I encourage you to find a piano, or dulcimer or anything really, and enjoy playing with some modes.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s