The Ancient Musical Modes: What Were They?
Ed Friedlander MD
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I play keyboard and tend to notice scales when I hear music.

I have an idea about the original Greek Modes.

I think that when Plato and Aristotle refer to the various modes, they are referring to various possible ways of tuning a seven-stringed lyre. The names for different tunings were later applied to the various musical scales.

Consider the distance between two pitches, one with twice the frequency of the other. If you subdivide this into twelve equal intervals, you get the equal-tempered chromatic scale. This series of tones includes tones that almost match Pythagoras's diatonic scale and the scales used in most folk music around the world. The equal-tempering allows key shifts. (Mathematics is amazing.)

C ScaleFrequencyPythagorean
  ("Well Tempered")  ("Just Intonation")
D1.12231 1/8
E1.25991 1/4
F1.33481 1/3
G1.49831 1/2
A1.68181 2/3
B1.88771 7/8

Perhaps Pythagoras would have placed the "blue notes" at 1 1/5, 1 3/5, and 1 4/5.

The church modes of medieval and early modern music supposely derive from modes named by the ancient Greeks and described by their writers.

According to the nomenclature of medieval music theorists, who were dealing largely with unchorded plainsong, our natural major is the church "Ionian Mode" (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C), and our natural minor is the church "Aeolian mode" (C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb-C).

I became curious about modes when I learned that "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and "Scarborough Fair" use the old balladic scale which matches the church "Dorian Mode" (C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C); I think "Age of Aquarius" does the same, the sea-song "Whay, Hay and Up She Rises", and "Dreadful Wind and Rain" does also.

I used the eerie church "Mixolydian mode" (C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C) for my intranet version of "The Pathology Blues", on our quizbank. You can also hear the church "Mixolydian mode" in "The Beat Goes On", "Ritual Fire Dance", "Luck Be a Lady Tonight", the "Star Trek" theme, "Norwegian Wood", "Day Tripper", "Sundown" (Gordon Lightfoot), "Cats in the Cradle", "City of New Orleans" (verse but not chorus), and the theme to "Star Wars". Caedmon recordings used it for the tune for the mystical first song in Yeats's play "The Only Jealousy of Emer".

The other church modes are novelties at best. Some of the old Gregorian chant "Sing my tongue..." seems to be Phrygian mode. There is some of the church "Phrygian mode" in "Fiddler on the Roof", and if the song is fully transposed into the church Phygian mode, it still sounds okay. My own attempt to write a song using the church Phrygian mode was dismal. I wrote a little song in an unabashed church "Lydian mode". The mode itself suggested the subject. Unless you only use the subdominant as a leading tone for the dominant, any melody you write in this "mode" will be unnerving -- the subdominant is equidistant from the lower and upper tonics. A correspondent pointed out that the "Lydian" mode makes up some of the "Jetsons" and "Simpsons" theme. Bartok wrote a short piece called "Lydia" in the Lydian mode to demonstrate. Click here for a here to hear this. Another correspondent ("Piano Pete" from Glasgow, Scotland) tells me that the song Lydia by Faure is written in the Lydian mode; "Hebe" is Phrygian. Yet another of my cyberfriends (Rasa, of Starseed Music) is a musician with a special interest in the emotive power of the modes as we know them today. The group's performance of a piece in the Lydian mode is, I found myself agreeing, "hauntingly beautiful" rather than unnerving.

In the Locrian mode, the dead-center position of the dominant makes this even more unmusical. A music professional told me once that no ethnomusicologist has ever documented a folk tune in what medieval theorists called the "Locrian mode".

I browsed a little in Plato, Aristotle, pseudo-Plutarch's "De Musica", and of course the Oxford History of Music, and came away wondering if the medieval music theorists (Boethius, Gregory the Great, their successors) really meant the same thing as did the Greeks who named the modes.

Today most people (following a scholar named Westphal) tell us that the Greek modes were indeed used as "scales" with the tonic notes being the low-pitched one, just as the church mode theorists say. This seems to be based on statements in Plato and Aristotle that the modes had distinct emotive qualities, as our major and minor scales do.

Another school of thought (that of Munro) claims that for the ancients, the modes were actually keys, i.e., you could play any melody in any mode. If this is true, then the ancient Greeks had either perfect pitch or a standard pitchpipe.

I think people have probably liked similar tunes in different eras. I tried to figure out how the ancient Greeks would have played some of our favorites. Ancient Greek lyres typically had seven strings. (Some Hebrew lyres must have had ten strings -- see Psalm 33.) The system of modes is also called "harmoniae", which meant "fitting" or "tuning". Greek writers on music talk about the normal tuning comprising two tetrachords, i.e., a series of four notes with the lowest and highest separated by a major fourth and sharing the center string. Pythagoras and Terpander are both credited with the idea of having the highest string be an octave of the lowest string.

Here are examples of how to tune a seven-string lyre to play some popular melodies, with the lowest string arbitrarily set a "C" with the tonic underlined.

Aeolian mode?

These are my best guesses about which was which, based on this information:

Obviously I'm speculating about what Plato and Aristotle were actually talking about. But I think (until somebody shows me I'm wrong) that the "modes" were originally neither keys nor scales. They were originally just different ways of tuning a lyre to play different melodies.

Can any real musicologist help me?

Links to ancient writers:

Some conventional lessions about modes:

More Scales

Whatever you decide about my idea on the modes... If you like scales, I would enjoy hearing from you.

The standard bugle calls are tritonic (C-E-G-C), since this scale plays easily and naturally on a bugle and these simple sequences are easy to distinguish. The familiar boot camp cadences are major pentatonic (C-D-E-G-A-C) or minor pentatonic (C-D#-F-G-A#-C), as are some intended-to-be-simple tunes like "Old McDonald had a Farm", "Amazing Grace", "Jesus Loves me", "There's a Hole in the Bucket", "The Camptown Races", "Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley", "Best Day of My Life", and most rock licks and riffs.

Some very old songs ("Pat-A-Pan", "God Rest Ye Merry"), and occasional new ones written to sound elemental ("Neutron Dance" from "Beverly Hills Cop"; "Popcorn"; "Washington Square", "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" theme) or simple ("Gilligan's Island" theme) are in the church "Aeolian" natural minor.

Here are some other unconventional octave scales I have noticed, with the tonic at "C":

I think I've got these right.

Noted composer John Carbon and I played keyboard together in high school.

Follow-Up: April 2005. I had no idea people felt this strongly, or could get so ugly, about the subject of what exactly Plato and Aristotle were thinking about when they described "the modes." Several conservatory types have written, accusing me of the basest stupidity and ignorance. However, none of my detractors has explained to me why I'm wrong, or had disagreed with my little study of what popular tunes go with what tunings. Combined with the level of anger directed against me, this makes me think I'm probably right. After all, if you only have seven notes on your instrument, what reason do you have to talk about scales?

My cyberfriend Walt Lysack writes from Manitoba:

If you have not yet explored "old timey" music from the Appalachians, you should listen to Jean Ritchie play the Appalachian dulcimer tuned to each of the 7 modes. The interesting thing is that chords can be created only with a couple of the modal tunings on the dulcimer. The dulcimer fingerb oard is like a guitar fingerboard with somemissing frets. The other modes were not novelties in Appalachian tunes. I have stuck to the "autral" traditional since 1974. Everything I play is "by ear" and requires "memorizing" 100s of tunes.... I like your explanation of modes the best of all I have read. The "lyre tunings" idea is reinforced by dulcimer tunings.

My cyberfriend Rom Harre (Distinguished Research Professor, sychology Department, Georgetown University) write:

I am writing a textbook for introductory psychology of music... Of course you are quite right that the modes must have ben tunings.... I would like to use your choice of illustrative tunes for the chapter on Greek and Medieval music.... The sound tracks you added are charming and may sound like the lyre, except for harmonies!! No Greek.

Appreciated. Thanks.

My cyberfriend Merrill Humberg explained the difference between equal tempering and well-tempering in January 2006. (I'd always believed they were the same.) Scott Crothers reminded me in July 2008 that "all the notes in [a] Mode need to be represented by a letter name only once in order."

"Well-temperament" is a mode that was used before "equal temperament" took hold in the last century. Well temperament was a few different compromise tunings (between meantone and equal temperaments) that allowed free modulation throughout all of the keys but still attempted to keep the "character" of the keys which is completely lost with equal temperament. Key character used to be a tool that composers used in varying "well-tempered" tunings to create different moods by writing in "uncommon" (usually unusuable due to the meantone or pythagorean tunings used in the past) keys that most would now consider as "out of tune".

July 2006: An internet friend, Andrew Re, who clearly has a good ear, wrote me to say that Pink Floyd's "Set the controls for the heart of the sun" on the album "saucerful secrets" is in what is traditionally called the locrian mode. "They do a fade out ending because it is really tough / impossible to resolve the locrian mode without changing to a different mode." I eventually heard the song and he is correct. Thanks.

Divisions of the Tetrachord -- real music scholarship from Dartmouth

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