by Gwendolyn the Graceful, Brehyres.

Hello, and welcome back to my series of articles about the Bardic Arts in the SCA!

2763217_370Often in these articles, I’ve made reference to whether something “sounds” period or not. The primary quality that signals a piece’s authenticity to our ears is almost always the mode in which the piece is set. The vast majority of “modern” music, even music written in a generic minor key, SCA-folksy style, is said not to sound quite right because it’s set in the modes that have become standard format in music from about the post-Baroque era.

Disclaimer: I am not a musicologist, and I have only taken a handful of music theory lessons. I’m not academically trained in the area of early music, so what you’re getting here is very much a layman’s explanation of modes. However, I have found that it’s something very few people do know, so I wanted to touch on it before moving on to other, less technical, topics. Undoubtedly there are musicians in the SCA who know far more about this than I, and are better qualified to discuss it!

So, this article will only scratch the very surface of understanding what a mode is and what it does to the sound of the music that we hear. I’m also going to grossly over-simplify it, mainly for the purpose of keeping this article short (or as short as possible, anyway). I strongly encourage anyone interested in this topic to take a class from a qualified teacher. Nonetheless, this is probably the most “technical” of all these articles, so bear with it. I promise it’ll pay off later.

Another thing to remember throughout this article is that the modes discussed here are those found in the Western European Church and to some extent in the courts of Western Europe. They are perhaps familiarly referred to as Gregorian modes, because they are the rules that grew up to govern Gregorian chant and plainsong. Plainchant is the all-inclusive proper term for the music that encompasses these rules. Other cultures and locations saw very different development of melodic construction, so their chord structures and modalities accordingly fall outside the rules and strictures of what we loosely think of as “Medieval” music modes.

Okay, so, to start off, let’s talk for a moment about “major” and “minor” keys. Most people are somewhat familiar with this concept, but in case you’re not, a “typical” major scale (in modern musical terms) is an 8-tone progression, each note one step above the previous, with the exception of the intervals between notes 3 and 4, and notes 7 and 8, which are half-steps. (The white keys on a piano keyboard, from C to C.)  Think “Do re mi” from “The Sound of Music.”

There are also five additional half-steps that bridge the gap between those other full steps in the scale (the black keys on a piano). These half-steps are referred to as either a sharp (higher) tone relative to the note below them (symbolized with a ♯), or a flat (lower) tone relative to the tone above (symbolized by ♭). A major scale without any of the “extra” half-steps or half-tones is called a “diatonic” scale; a scale that includes all the “extra” half-tones is called a “chromatic” scale. Here’s what they sound like. (MP3: Major scale ; MP3: Chromatic scale )

Musicians can change the quality of that scale by altering which half-tones are used, and which ones are not. For example, the half-tone interval between E and F could be displaced one half-tone lower, and the half-tone between intervals 7 and 8 can be moved to the space between notes 5 and 6, like this:

C D E♭  F  G  A♭  B♭ C

The intervals in the first scale above could be described thus:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

1  1  ½  1  1   1   ½

And in the second one thus:

C D E♭  F  G  A♭  B♭ C

1  ½   1  1   ½    1    1

Notice that there are still five whole steps and two half-steps, but now instead of being step-step-halfstep, step-step-step-halfstep, they are step-halfstep-step, step-halfstep-step-step. In other words, it’s the same pattern but wrapped around so that the two halfsteps are split, instead of both coming before the first halfstep. (MP3: Major scale e; MP3 Minor scale )

If we wanted to keep all the notes on the white keys, we could simply move the starting note up 6 or down 2, and we’d have an identical set of intervals.

Visually, it looks like this:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

{  1   1  ½  1  1   1  ½ } 1   1  ½  1  1  1  ½

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

1   1  ½  1  1  { 1  ½  1   1  ½  1  1 } 1  ½

See how the area bounded by the brackets is a continuation of the original pattern, just started at a different point in its repetition? That shift changes what we hear as a “major” scale into a “minor” one – the difference in quality being that a minor scale sounds a little more mournful or serious to our modern ears.  (MP3: Major scale ; Amin scale )

You can also move either of these scales up and down in pitch by simply changing the note where you start and finish, and adjusting all the other intervals accordingly. As long as you keep the same relative distance between notes, you will “hear” the same scale. All you’re doing is changing the key to correspond to your starting and ending note (the “tonic” part of diatonic).

With me so far?[1] Great! Now, forget all that.

Because the church in the Medieval period didn’t use Major and Minor keys.

And they (generally) didn’t use “black keys” to fill in the gaps between the white ones, a.k.a., those other five missing half-tones from our chromatic scale. The interval between an E and an F was always a half-tone, and the interval between an A and a B was always a full step[2].

But, they DID move the starting note up and down to create different key signatures.

And that’s how we get Gregorian modes. Clear as mud?

I’ll explain.

Let’s go back to our modern major scale (MP3: Major scale ):

C  D  E  F  G  A  B C

1  1  ½  1  1   1  ½

But what if you started on D? No black notes, no adjusting the space between tones 3 and 4:

D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D

1  ½  1  1   1   ½  1

What happened? It almost looks like a minor scale, but it’s not quite. See where the half-steps fall? Between 2 and 3 and also between 6 and 7. This is the Dorian mode. It was the first “Authentic” mode of plainsong, and the building block for everything else. (MP3: Dorian scale )

Just like the minor scale, where the intervals are in the same order but as if it’s been “wrapped around” to shift the placement of the half-tones, the Dorian mode uses the same method to change where the half-tones fall in its bracket:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

{  1   1  ½  1  1   1  ½ } 1   1  ½  1  1  1  ½

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

{ 1  ½  1  1   1  ½  1 }  1  ½  1  1  1  ½

What’s next? Move up one note on the board, and start your bracket there:

E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E

½ 1  1   1   ½ 1   1

That’s the Phrygian mode (MP3: Phrygian mode ). Compare it to our major scale again:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

{  1   1  ½  1  1   1  ½ } 1   1  ½  1  1  1  ½

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

1  1 { ½  1  1   1  ½  1  1}  ½  1  1  1  ½

Sensing a pattern?

Guess what comes next.

Correct!  The Lydian, also known as Ionian, mode, starting on F (MP3: Lydian ).

F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F

1  1   1   ½ 1   1   ½

Compared to the major scale:

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

{  1   1  ½  1  1   1  ½ } 1   1  ½  1  1  1  ½

C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G  A  B  C

1  1 ½ { 1  1   1  ½  1  1  ½ } 1  1  1  ½

And so on, right up the scale. The last is Mixolydian, which starts on G (MP3: Mixolydian ):

G  A  B  C  D  E  F  G

1   1   ½ 1   1   ½  1

These four modes (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian), are collectively called the “Authentic” modes. Why Authentic? Because they came first. No, really. There are four others that make up the “Plagal modes,” each of which adds the prefix “Hypo” to the names of the authentic mode (Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, etc.). The “hypo” part signifies that each of these modes starts one fourth (i.e., three intervals) below the tonic (or “final”) of the authentic mode it follows, and ends on the fifth above the final. In other words, Hypodorian starts on A, but on a piano keyboard, it would be the A below the D of our Dorian scale; Hypophrygian starts on B, Hypolydian starts on C, and Hypomixolydian starts on D.

So if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize that Hypolydian, starting on C and ending on C, is basically a Major scale! Ha, fooled you! It’s not, exactly, because the “final” note (that is, the note on which a chant will resolve, or end), is not C, but F. Nonetheless, for all practical purposes it is basically a Major scale. Well spotted.

But wait! you cry. If Hypomixolydian starts on D, and Dorian starts on D, aren’t they the same?

Well, yes and no. To start, sometimes the B is flatted (lowered) in Dorian, Lydian, Hypodorian, and Hypolydian modes (to avoid a “clash” between B♮and B♭)[3]. Also, the position of the tonic (final) note is different between the two scales. In Dorian, it’s a D. In Hypomixolydian, it’s G. You don’t have to worry too much about all that — and if you’re really intrigued, again, I recommend taking some formal theory classes to help understand it all.

The important thing to take away is that this was the methodology used by clerics for hundreds of years to compose liturgical music. As the four, then eight, and eventually twelve modes of chant evolved, they influenced other Medieval and Renaissance music produced by court composers. The influence of these modes is a large factor in why the music of that era has a particular sound, distinguishing it from more modern pieces.[4]

But I want to stress again here that this is only the case in most of western Europe, in areas where the Church held a great deal of influence. In fact, Early Music scholars sometimes call it “Frankish” or “Carolingian” chant to try to allow for all the other varieties of chant that were evolving during this time. And in other areas, Eastern European, Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Sephardic, Ladino, African, and Native American musical structure were not nearly as influenced by the Gregorian modes for most of period, to name just a few. So they are often markedly different from this Gothic European sound.

Another big factor to remember is that the secular music that followed these rules was basically limited to the music of the high court, composed by learned scholars who had likely been educated by monks or nuns in the proper composition of music using these modes. The Church, and the Courts with their wealthy patrons, had the resources and the power to see to it that these pieces were preserved. They sponsored the compliation of books that collected music in written notation. That is why a preponderance of extant music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance employs these sounds: The music of the court and the church, is, quite simply, what survived intact.

As to what might or might not have survived outside of liturgical and court music, and what rules people used to guide composition–well, that’s for another article!


[1] If you’re still having trouble, think how one might use ROT13 to encrypt a statement like a spoiler on a website. You’re using all the letters in order, but offsetting where you start. So A corresponds to N, B to O, C to P, and so on. It’s the same with the notes on the scale – you can shift the relative starting point and maintain the same spaces in between the notes. The difference is that for modes, you’re not adjusting the intervals for the two places where the relative pitch is not a perfect step up or down. Get it?

[2] Except for when it wasn’t. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

[3] See note #2 — here’s where it catches up with us!

[4] Though they do appear in secular music all the way up to the modern era. See  here for some examples.