Thursday, March 16, 2017

All About Church Modes

How has music changed over time and where does the Western music we know today have its roots? We’re walking through Medieval music history this month on Clef Notes and are glad to have you along! Today’s post is all about church modes.

Have you ever heard someone refer to music as being in the Dorain mode? Or perhaps Phyrgian, Lydian, or Mixolydian? Then you have heard a reference to a church mode. There are eight of these modes and their names were adapted from Greek scale names during the 9th century. But what are they?

Think of church modes like you would a scale – only not quite! In a mode, pitch is relative, not absolute. Each mode is determined based on intervallic relationships rather than on a certain pitch. Make sense? Good! Let’s continue…

The intervallic relationships revolve around a significant note in the mode called the “final.” This note is typically the last melody note. There’s also a second significant note in each mode known as the “reciting tone.” This note is normally the most prominent note, occurring most often in a chant. There are four total finals – two modes per final, resulting in eight total church modes. If two modes have the same final, their range will differ. Modes known as “authentic” have a range extending from one step below the final to an octave above, while modes known as “plagal” extend from a fourth or fifth below the final to a fifth or sixth above.

Church Modes
Courtesy of A History of Western Music, 8th Edition, Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, pg. 42

I know this is getting a bit technical but it’s key to the development of music! Each chant in Medieval times was assigned a mode in order to help people learn them. The system was fully developed by the 10th century.


Now that we have a grasp on what exactly chant is along with notation and modes, next week we’ll start to look at how it was used in both sacred and secular settings. 

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