Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Musical Modes: Part 3A, Non-European Modes

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This is the third of three blogs on musical modes. Part 1 is about “church” modes, Part 2 is about rhythmic modes, and Part 3 is about Non-European modes.

In an odd assembly of too much information and nearly none, I’ve decided to split this Part Three into at least three pieces: the first is on Israel and Jewish modes, the second on the Arab lands and Islamic modes along with Asia, and the third on everything else (India, Australia, Africa, and the New World with a possible nip into Greenland).  I’ve found some good information about India, but the data on the other places is a bit sparse as yet.

It’s interesting to note that “mode” means different things in different cultures. For the most part, a sense of which notes or rhythms are relevant is implied by the word “mode,” and in some cases, both rhythm and notes are prescribed.

In this blog, I’ll start to look at non-European modes. I found that there was plenty of research on Jewish music, some on Muslim or Arab modes and on Asia, and then less and less on India, Africa, Australia, and the New World.

Israel and Jewish Chant

When you think of Israeli music, your ear already pops into a mode, a major scale with a lowered second on the way back down. There are European scales that do this as well, known as melodic minor and harmonic minor, where the intervals are either different on the way back down the scale or the half-steps are not in expected places. If you have access to an instrument, play these and see how they sound.

But the real thing is much more complex. Jewish chant has five modes, each prescribing a series of notes. The modes are further refined by presenting in a trope—both rhythm and a sequence of notes in a pattern. The trope pattern is replicable in any of the modes, and there are 14 tropes. (I hope to write a blog on these at some later date.)

Have a look at the melodic modes. Notice that they don’t all have eight notes in them, and that the sharps and flats are not where you’d expect. (The different length of the notes is only to make a pleasantly similar-sized line and has no musical significance.)

Each mode is used for certain specific celebrations, such as Friday night services, High Holy Days (Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), biblical cantillation, prayers for funerals, and so forth. It’s thought that the modes were created as an aid to memory before the advent of notation.

It’s important to note that the chants are often still written without musical notation, but instead have the mode marked at the right edge of the lyrical lines (remember, Hebrew is read from right to left), and marks are made above certain letters to help the cantor know where to make certain changes in the tropes (a theme or predictable section of music). Music meant to be sung by the congregation looks like white note mensuration (see Part 1 for a brief explanation of this), but read from left to right, with the clef and key signature at the left edge, just like European music, but the chant meant for the cantor is not spelled out so literally. This probably allows for a little creative license, especially regarding the pitch. (Cantors undergo significant training both in music and in religion. They know what they’re doing.)

Just as European music is based on that of earlier cultures, so is Israeli music based on what came before. Around the 5th century BC, Israeli music separated from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian music; in general, it was around this time that it became hard to discern Greek influences anymore. There was a general hostility toward Greeks and Hellenistic spirit in Judaism particularly and efforts were likely made to make the music and religious services distinct and separate. (Remember, the Greeks and Egyptians were fond of several gods, and Judaism marks the switch to a single central god. They would have wanted their music to reflect this major change.)

A lot of music was vocal, as the human voice is the one instrument most people can play. But there would have been some instruments too, used as accompaniment rather than featured as solo or orchestral instruments. We can be pretty sure that they used the instruments named in the Bible (in Psalms 33:2, 92:4, 144:9), and there were 10 strings (on the lyre, ‘asor) or 12 strings (on the harp. There is also some evidence of 8-stringed harps. In Africa, there are one-stringed harps and a more common four-stringed instrument, so it’s probable that these 8-, 10-, and 12-stringed instruments evolved from those simpler ones before being documented in the Bible).

There is some speculation that songs would have been played or sung in octaves, with one voice high and another low, as there is a proliferation of stringed instruments around then. Stringed instruments make octaves obvious and unavoidable. This parallel-octave element remains to the present day in Greek and Russian Orthodox (Catholic) music, but it isn’t really known how it would have been done back in the beginning, or when and where it diverged.

In the Orient, there were (and still are) some smaller intervals than what we think of as half steps—a half step is the distance between a white note and a black note on the piano—called microtones. There’s some evidence that these seeped into Israeli music, but it was otherwise largely pentatonic (also like music in the Orient), meaning that each mode had only five notes.

As part of the separation from Greek music, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 BC) cautioned against chromatic and theatrical melodies of the heathens (meaning the Greeks). So they were deliberately NOT using all of the available notes, but made scales up from a select few. That’s kind of interesting, don’t you think? To me, it seems to imply that they understood the Pythagorean theoy, even if they didn’t call it that yet, and could divide a string into the same eight or twelve notes that we still use today.

As part of creating specific music (or types of music) for specific events, they assigned modes to occasions. For instance, Doric (including the notes EGABCDE, and which is a Greek name) and Spondic, (including the notes EFGABDE, and is another Greek name) modes were for libation songs. Drinking was important enough to warrant a mode series. 

Modern theorists say that most Jewish chant is Dorian (like a C-major scale—all the white notes, only starting on a D) except Lamentations, which were Phrygian (again only on the white notes starting on E), and Jubilations, which were Lydian (white notes starting on F). Remember, though, the mode is not limited to those exact notes but can be moved to accommodate a voice, so long as the half-steps are in the right place (see Part 1 about Church Modes, if you’ve forgotten how this works).

You’ll notice that Mixolydian and all the plagal modes are missing. There are just three modes.

Like many other religions, Judaism imbues certain numbers with mystical qualities. The number three comes up a lot. Music sung in the synagogue takes three forms: prayer modes, orientalization/orientation (“Arabization” of melody), and crystallization of prayer recitations. (Cantillation or Biblical modes are used for Scripture readings and prayer modes are used for everything else.)

Ten also comes up a lot. For instance, ten is the number of strings on a psaltery, harp, or lyre, there are ten famous psalm singers, and there are ten modes in psalm melodies.

Of course, there is more than one Jewish tradition so there is more than one kind of Jewish song. Pentateuch cantillation is still chanted by Persian and Yemenite Jews, for instance.  Although the original Sephardic tradition ended with the Spanish expulsion in 1492, it was revived in Jewish settlements in the Netherlands. The Netherlands became quite a haven for Jews until the middle of the 20th century.

Although there are many traditions, all ancient, there’s a theory that monody and monophonic music came from a socio-political effort of the Jewish monistic conception aiming at unity in all things, perhaps as a backlash from the multi-god Greeks and Egyptians. The Catholic Church must have had the same thought when they borrowed the idea.


Discovering Jewish Music, Marsha Bryan Edelman, The Jewish Publication Society, 2003

Music in Ancient Greece & Rome, John G. Landels, Routledge, 1999

Music of the Jews in the Diaspora, Alfred Sendry, A.S. Barnes and Company, 1970

Music in Ancient Israel, Alfred Sendrey, Philosophical Library, New York, 1969

Perspectives in Music Theory: An Historical-Analytical Approach, Paul Cooper, Dodd, Mead, & Company, New York 1973

The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West, Curt Sachs, Dover Publications, 1943

Many thanks to Cantor Pamela Rothman Sawyer for her expertise.


Written by Melanie Spiller

February 9, 2012 at 11:52 am

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