Origins of the church modes

A simplified overview of how the Medieval church modes got Greek names. Variations of this article have appeared on several listservs.

This is an updated version of an older article I had posted on this site. Several errors in the earlier version are corrected in this one. The authoritative version can be found on the author's web site.

The names of the church modes are Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian, and they match geographic or ethnic regions in ancient Greece. The philosophy writings of both Plato and Aristotle (approx 350 BCE) include large sections that describe the effect of different musical modes on mood and on character formation. For example, this quote from Aristotle's "Politics":

"The musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each. Some of them make men sad and grave, like the so called Mixolydian; others enfeeble the mind, like the relaxed modes; another, again, produces a moderate or settled temper, which appears to be the peculiar effect of the Dorian; and the Phrygian inspires enthusiasm."

Both Plato and Aristotle believed that the modes to which a person listened molded the person's character. The modes even made the person more or less fit for certain jobs. The effect of modes on character and mood was called the 'ethos of music.'... So concepts like "Rock 'n roll can rot your mind." aren't really that new after all.

One problem is that, whereas many writings specify how the ancient Greeks thought about scales, and how they constructed some of their scales, nothing exists to identify which modes were called Mixolydian, Dorian, Phrygian, etc. As of about 1997, not one Greek mode had been completely deciphered, let alone associated with a particular name. We simply don't know the specific scales to which Plato and Aristotle were referring.

Moving ahead 400 years to 50 AD, the early Christian Church used music in worship. Their modes (scales) came from Jewish temple songs and from other common modes in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. Different modes were used at different times and for different parts of their services. Each mode started (actually, ended) on a different note and had a unique set of intervals. The modes were simply numbered Mode 1, Mode 2, and so on. Notice that this is *400* years after Plato and Aristotle. And there are no Greek names assigned to the modes at this time.

450 years later, in about 520 AD Manlius Boethius, an Italian philosopher, translated Aristotle's works on logic into Latin. He also wrote articles on music theory. Boethius embraced Aristotle's concept of ethos, and ascribed the ancient Greek views of mood creation and character formation to the church modes. He made assumptions about which of the modes used in church services matched the ancient Greek modes named by Aristotle. Bear in mind that Boethius was writing *850* years after Aristotle. The man couldn't have had a clue as to which church mode matched, e.g., Aristotle's Mixolydian mode. That sort of detail was lost centuries before.

80 years later, in roughly 600 AD, Pope Gregory I (after whom Gregorian Chant was named) classified all the music used in the church. While Gregory certainly knew of Boethius assignment of ancient Greek names to the modes used for church music, the church continued to use the number system. It was not until about 900 AD that authors began to apply Boethius' incorrect ancient Greek names to the Medieval Church Modes.

The next milepost in the misnaming of church modes happened over a 75 to 100 year period ending in roughly 1675 ... when the church modes of Gregory were expressed as permutations of the then new major-minor scale system. That's when the modes became formalized into what we know and use today. The Greek names became convenient labels for particular scales, though there is no certain tie between the notes in any modern church mode and the notes in any ancient Greek mode. Locrian mode was 'invented' to complete a theoretical picture. It is unlikely that *anyone* ever actually sang anything in Locrian mode ... 'cept maybe for some jazzers.

Sometimes the church modes are described in terms of a process whereby the notes may be sounded. E.g., Phrygian mode can sounded by playing the white keys on a piano from E to E. But Phrygian mode is not just a C scale starting on a different note. Phrygian mode *on E* has E as a tonic. The church modes are in no way derived from a major scale. They were used for centuries before the major-minor scale system was developed.

Ancient tho they may be, I personally find modes useful tools for constructing bass lines and useful tools for thinking about interactions between certain chords and scales. And there really *are* songs in the modes ... 'cept maybe for Locrian.

The three main sources for this article were :

  • "A General History of Music From The Earliest Ages to The Present Period (1789) Vol 1 by Charles Burney.
  • "A History of Western Music" by Grout and Palisca (5th ED, 1996), Chapters 1,2,3
  • "Groves New Dictionary of Music and Musicians", the sections on Modes and on Scales