I'm seeking opinions about whether to capitalize mode names in educational materials I'm preparing. In ordinary references (not in titles) should I use Dorian or dorian, Locrian or locrian? Here's a summary of what I've found so far:

Pro capitalization:
1. Wikipedia capitalizes mode names. Powerful trend setter, Wikipedia.
2. Irvine's Writing about Music has this to say: "In classic modal theory, four of the eight modes are called authentic modes and four are called plagal modes. The four authentic modes take their names from regions in ancient Greece; hence, the names are proper nouns and they must be capitalized: Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian...Note that the plagal modes too are capitalized: Hypodorian, Hypophrygian, Hypolydian, Hypomixolydian.
3. Most posts here, and almost all of the carefully written ones, capitalize mode names.

The case for lower case:
1. Journalistic/academic practice. Duke's Journal of Music Theory: "Names of modes ('major,' 'minor,' 'dorian,' 'phrygian,' etc.) are not normally capitalized" (https://www.dukeupress.edu/Assets/Downloads/JMT_sg.pdf, p 3); Crane School of Music: "Use lower case for ... [t]onalities: modes, pentatonic, major and minor, except when they are part of a title" (https://www.potsdam.edu/academics/crane-school-music/departments-programs/music-theory-history-composition/using-musical).
2. Common English practice when it comes to "toponyms" (ie words derived from place names): ref. agate, bedlam, balkanization, bikini, byzantine, ottoman, what not. A couch is to the Ottoman Empire as a sequence of intervals is to the Kingdom of Phrygia?
3. Related to #2, the modern modes have lost their connection with the modes used by the Greeks (ie modern and ancient mode names refer to different intervallic sequences), so why dignify the modern names with initial caps?
4. Capitalizing the mode names, especially when you don't capitalize "major" or "minor," lends them excessive visual weight.

Having considered these points, I'm leaning towards lower case, but I'm interested in what you all have to say. Should Wikipedia change its practice? Or should I, um, capitulate?

2020-06-06 edit: Appreciating, enjoying, and mulling the responses so far, and am allowing a bit more time for more. Is it bad form here not to pick an "answer" to a request for opinions? Based on the input so far there doesn't seem to be a settled correct practice.

  • I've been wondering this myself. Although I keep major and minor lowercase, I follow the logic of #2 in the "pro capitalizaion" section. I just looked through D. Kern Holoman's Writing About Music, the style sheet for the journal 19th-Century Music, and I didn't find any reference to modal names.
    – Richard
    Jun 5, 2020 at 14:37
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    @Dekkadeci - that's different in that we do capitalise title initials.
    – Tim
    Jun 5, 2020 at 15:58
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    I'm happy with capitals, probably my strict upbringing... but aren't major and minor adjectives, and Dorian etc. related to places. We wouldn't write 'an english man' - would we? And since Dorian, Phrygian are only used to describe modes, we tend to drop the word 'mode'.
    – Tim
    Jun 5, 2020 at 15:59
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    @Joan In response to your edit: you are in no way forced to accept any answers. Feel free to continue mulling it over, and if you don't feel comfortable accepting any answers, then you don't have to.
    – Richard
    Jun 8, 2020 at 17:35
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    Whichever way you choose, the vast majority or readers won't care, and a small minority will say you've done it the 'wrong way'.
    – PiedPiper
    Jun 9, 2020 at 13:37

4 Answers 4


I think your example of toponyms makes the best case.

If the adjective really refers to the place or culture, then it's capitalized. If the word has taken on a meaning with no real connection to the place, don't capitalize. Mosaics are an important part of Byzantine art. The path to tenure is byzantine and slow.

From my understanding of music history no Phrygian musician ever played in the... phrygian mode.

Maybe it shouldn't be capitalized, because the mode has no real connection to Phrygia.

Compare that with Dixieland jazz. Dixie is a place, a region, and the musical style actually did originate there.

Personally, I've followed the convention of capitalizing mode names, but this question nagged at me too, because clearly the adjective isn't referring to a proper name, not really.


I've looked at a few books, only in the text, not lists, and found a few things. One problem is that mode names often occur in lists where every label is capitalized. Likewise, mode names are not consistent through history. The terms protus, deuterus, tritus, and tetradus are not capitalized in the "Cambridge History of Western Music Theory." In the same book, the re-numbered modes, Dorian, Phrygian,... are capitalized. Mann capitalized the mode names in his translation of Fux.

Much of the "original" (in translation) literature uses the triple hexachord system rather than modes. This was popular until the 19th century at least. It doesn't fit the modal system. The names are not capitalized: hard, soft, natural.

LLaoyd Ultan, "Music theory, Renaissance, Middle Ages," capitalized the mode names, Dorian, Hypodorian, ....

Personally I'd use the following principles:

  1. Do whatever your publisher wants
  2. Be consistent throughout your writing.
  3. Capitalize the modes derived from Greek Regions.
  • What do you mean by "Greek Regions"? Is it a word particular to music? Or do you mean "Greek regions"? Can you elaborate? Musical system of ancient Greece Jun 6, 2020 at 10:30
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    Hoisted by their own petard!
    – Richard
    Jun 6, 2020 at 14:00
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    re Greek regions: all or none - i.e if you go with Phrygian, then do them all in caps, not just some of them
    – Eric O
    Jun 11, 2020 at 22:49

I agree with the toponym argument: since these are named after regions/tribes in Greece, they are proper nouns and should be capitalized.

As further logic in support of this argument, consider the Neapolitan chord. I have never seen "neapolitan" written lowercase in serious scholarly work, but instead I have only ever seen it capitalized. As such, if we use this rule for "Neapolitan," it seems we should use it for the modes, as well. Perhaps "Neapolitan" is more obviously connected to Naples than the modes are to their regions, which is why so many don't capitalize it.

But it is interesting to note how different and unclear other major journals are:

  • Music Theory Online says that mode should be lowercase, but it only uses "major" as an example, not the church modes
  • I have not found the church modes mentioned in Writing About Music, the style guide for 19th-Century Music

I know this an old question, but I stumbled on it looking for the answer myself.

For what it's worth, in A Style and Usage Guide to Writing about Music, Thomas Donahue says to capitalize the names of modes. This may be taken from Irvine that you noted, as that work is cited in the bibliography.

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