Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Modes

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

Musical Modes: Part 1, Church Modes

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This is the first 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.

A mode is a kind of “do-re-me” experience, like a modern musical scale. Modern scales are based on what are called church modes (because they were used in church music). Before there were pianos and organs, a note’s relationship to any other note was somewhat changeable. There were stringed instruments (like the harp, psaltery, and lyre) whose tuning could be changed in a matter of moments or even accidentally, and flutes, whose tuning was entirely dependent upon hole placement and the length of the instrument, and was super easy to get wrong.

Before the 10th century, music was learned by memory because there wasn’t notation, and presumably, melodies changed and mutated with each individual who tried to learn and with every skilled performer who messed with it a little for the pleasure of it. Patterns emerged. Then, as now, people enjoyed recognizing familiar elements and the patterns began to be expected. In modern music, this is still true, with cadences and a certain pattern of chords that indicate that the end is approaching. Ever notice that people sing along when it’s familiar? That’s exactly what I mean.

You might think of modes like punctuation. Certain sounds, just like at the end of a sentence or question, indicate something specific to the listener. This is also true with melodies. As music evolved, certain patterns were thought of as pleasing and were re-used and re-formulated; these patterns and their elements became the modes.

The specific modes were not really a concept until the 10th century when exact pitch notation and the Guidonian system (you can read more about this on my blog entry The Guido’s Hand Seminar ) came into being in Europe. This meant that a song started on the same pitch every time it was sung rather than adapting it whatever pitch suited the singer’s comfort. But once modes were invented as they tried to document the existing chants, they found that the majority of the chants fit into the new theoretical system of modes. How wonderfully convenient!

In the end, modes are easy enough to define in modern terms: modes are a species of notes in an octave series distinguished by the placement of half and whole steps—in other words, if you moved do-re-mi around on the piano, always playing eight notes in a row, and only playing the white notes, you could play each of the eight modes.

Just for contrast, later music, such as that from the Classical or Romantic eras, uses only two modes, major and minor. One modern scale is formed the same way as another, with the half steps (the black keys on the piano) in identical places, no matter which note it starts on. Depending on how you look at it, modern scales are way simpler (because there are only two of them) and way more complicated (because you have to memorize which notes are part of which scale or where the half-steps are). Each mode has a distinctive sound to it, unlike modern scales where, unless you have perfect pitch, one major scale sounds much like any other.

There are two forms of modes: authentic and plagal. These names come from the four original modes Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian and a near relative of each, beginning a fourth lower and using the same series of notes called Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, and Hypomixolydian. In the middle of the 16th century, mode placement and transposition created four new modes: Ionian and Hyperionian (ending on C), and Aeolian and Hyperaeolian (ending on A). Ionian sounds just like a C major scale, in case you were wondering, which is the usual do-re-me arrangement.

Modes were not regarded as repeatable from octave to octave, like a modern scale is. A single octave of the mode represents the normal range for a melody in that mode. Stretching beyond the octave was simply not done. Authentic modes seldom have melodies that drop below the starting note (or the final note) by more than a single step; plagal modes can wander further below and a step above the octave.

In the 10th century, as theorists tried to formulate a strategy, they found that they could relate their discoveries into the Greek system of modes as described by Boethius and later Latin writers. That’s why the modes have Greek names, although nothing else about them is Greek. (It is humorous to note that the names were misapplied, but that’s a subject for another day.)

In the first half of the 12th century, the Cistercians amended some of the chants to make them fit into the new modal system. The Cistercians, a particularly severe and fundamentalist order of Catholicism (Bernard of Clairvaux was a member), took a biblical passage literally and deigned that no music should extend beyond the ten strings of a psaltery. To do this, they had to transpose some chants or parts of chants.

As scholars tried to fit existing chant into the parameters of the nascent notation system, they struggled with getting the notes and intervals to sound the same. This was because they hadn’t invented all those black keys on the piano—the sharps and flats. Music was written without accidentals other than the occasional B-flat. Even well past Bach’s time in the 18th century, B-flat was considered the ”devil’s note” and its use was restricted in the extreme. For instance, you could only have a B-flat on the way up a scale. B had to return to its natural state on the way back down. At any rate, the only accidental in Medieval times was a B-flat, so they had to move some chants around, squeeze them by force, in order to get them into the modes once they’d established what those were.

Before the invention of the staff, identifying the mode didn’t matter. The correct intervals were applied wherever they were sung within a singer’s range—the starting note as you and I know it simply didn’t matter. Once the lines of the staff forced the invention of absolute pitches (where a C is always a C), elements like a singer’s range, the placement of accidentals, and whether a chant was joyful or sad became relevant.

Establishing the modes freed composers from centonization, which just means using an existing melody to create a new song. Prior to music notation, melodic themes made it possible to learn a wide variety of chants by rote memorization. You only had to learn the new words and stick them into the familiar melody. After the staff’s invention, there were more options and new melodies were created with wild abandon. Okay, maybe not wild abandon, but with the full freedom that having an outline provides.

After notation was invented and the modes put into common practice, chants were constructed so that the third and fifth notes were emphasized in addition to the first note of the mode. Phrases begin and end on these notes more than on any others. This is foreshadowing for the more modern chord.

Okay, so that’s church modes in a nutshell. Next up, rhythmic modes.

Early Medieval Music Up to 1300, edited by Dom Anselm Hughes, Oxford University Press, London, 1954
A History of Western Music (8th edition), J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010
Medieval Music, Richard H. Hoppin, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1978

Written by Melanie Spiller

August 9, 2011 at 11:46 am