In 1547, Heinrich Glarean published Dodecachordon in which he posited that in addition to the 4 existing pairs of church modes (plagal and authentic versions of modes with finals on D (Dorian), E (Phrygian), F (Lydian), and G (Mixolydian)), there should also be pairs of of modes on A (Aeolian) and C (Ionian). He even claimed that the Ionian mode was one of the most often used modes (since the B's were often flatted in "Lydian" mode). This brought the number of modes from 8 up to 12, and caused quite a stir among music theorists.

In 1571, Gioseffo Zarlino, in Dimonstrationi harmoniche, affirmed these extra modes, and went so far as to renumber all the existing modes, placing C (Ionian) first. Of course, these modes went on to become what we call major and minor keys, but at this point, they were not called this. Furthermore, the "Ionian"/"Aeoliean" terminology seems to have never been widely adopted (outside of the realm of theorists) until very recently, even though the concepts themselves were.

At some point in the Baroque era, even before tonality had been formalized, pieces were being labeled as being "major" or "minor", and almost never by mode (there is a "Dorian" fugue by Bach, but this stands out as an exception). I believe (but I'm not certain) that by the time Jean-Phillipe Rameau published his Treatise on Harmony in 1722 the terms were already in wide circulation. (Of course, in 1725, Fux's more historically conservative Gradus Ad Parnassum was still referring to the six modes.)

My question is specifically about the origin of this terminology. Obviously, 3rds were already being classified as major or minor before this, but at what point do these terms start to be used to describe keys, rather than merely intervals? Who (if anyone) first proposed this system, or what is the earliest attested usage? Or is this a detail lost to time?

If possible, I'm specifically looking for explicit names, dates, and publications of original sources.

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    This is a very interesting question that I hope is thoroughly answered. FWIW, I support your assertion about Rameau. Some earlier composers, such as Vincenzo Galilei, were advocates of what would be come to be known as Equal Temperament. I suspect that the answer may lie in the development of Equal Temperament and the Overtone Series; after all, the notes of a major scale are derived from the overtones of the fundamental, since they occur naturally and thus more often, it would be logical to posit this acoustic phenomenon as being the origin for the term "Major". Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 22:30
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    Since "minor" scales ("natural" ones anyway) involve lowering three tones that are not diatonic to the intended fundamental (though invariably creating another inverted major scale,) and do not naturally occur, thus appearing less often, one could posit that acoustic phenomenon as being the origin for the term "Minor". That all said, my comments are speculation and I only offer them as a means for you to continue your research. Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 22:33
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    I'm so tempted to write an answer based on a certain character in "Catch-22" (who had the same first, middle, and last name which matched his rank ) deciding to go into the subterranean mineral retrieval business. :-) But, maybe this will shed some light: academia.edu/326349/… Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 11:44
  • How about Locrian? I know that it was not part of the modes you are talking about...
    – user53472
    Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 3:17

5 Answers 5


I hope no one minds that I got curious, and did a bit of digging into this on my own. I discovered what appears to be an excellent resource answering this very question. The book is entitled Between Modes and Keys: German Theory, 1592-1802 by Joel Lester (1989). I do not have access to a copy of the book, but I've been able to see several relevant portions online (thank you, Google Books!). Even though it deals primarily with German music theory, it does occasionally touch on the rest of Europe. I'll try to summarize what I've gleaned so far, although I may not not be seeing the whole picture, since I'm not reading through the complete book.

The primary development that necessarily preceded the concept of major and minor keys, was triadic harmony (rather than intervallic harmony). Johannes Lippius (Synopsis musicae novae, 1612) coined the term "triad" to describe the three-part harmonies that had emerged in the late Renaissance, and, being part-theologian, compared the concept to the Trinity. He also recognized all the inversions of intervals (and triads), including the fact that major 3rds inverted to minor 6ths (and vice versa). Any set of consonances could now be reduced to a triad, and placed in root position. He classified the 6 pairs of modes as being constructed around either a major or a minor triad, with an additional interval of a fourth either above or below. This classification didn't take hold right away; indeed, Germany seems to have been especially resistant to abandoning the old concept of modes (this seems to be a major theme of the book). Apparently, as late as Haydn, traditional German musicians were still advocating the use of modes.

In fact, throughout the Baroque, there seems to have been widespread confusion, even among musicians, over the exact definition of a mode. Were modes defined by the octave range in which they sat? Were they defined by their final tone? Or by their "reciting tone"? Or by the mood they evoked? Or by the melodic and harmonic phrases and patterns that they accommodated (especially around cadences)? Or the patterns of tones and semitones they formed? What about transpositions? And what of the chromatic alterations that were becoming popular in theatric music? Are we better off sticking to the older traditional 4 pairs of "time-tested" church modes?

The practical solution, oftentimes, was to avoid the question altogether and just list out a handful of permissible "keys" (as in, on a keyboard) that could be used as the final, along with their corresponding signature (initially either blank, or containing one flat). The key of G, for example, could be used with either no signature, or a single flat. As additional keys were added to these key lists, they were classified, not by the quality of their third, but by whether they included flats, sharps, or neither in their root triads. Thus what we call "G-minor" would have been classed along with what we call "B-flat major" as a "flat key", while our "C major" and "D minor" would be examples of "natural keys", and so on.

Andreas Werckmeister, a church organist and theorist, whose works (and well temperament) were well-known to Bach, had a solid understanding of modes, and describes them as being important to understand (for which he would later be dismissed by proponents of keys). But he also acknowledged that, outside of chorales, only two were in popular use in his time. In Musicae mathematicae, (1687) he gives us this description of the system then in use, along with his own proposed nomenclature (which was not adopted):

Today's music is entirely different... and only some four modes are in use: Ionian mixed with Mixolydian, and Dorian mixed with Aeolian... [which each differ only in the upper fourth of their octaves]. Thus no more than two modes can now be established. And that is not so unnatural... If we take Lydian, on account of the tritone... there is such an unnatural progression in it that even the ancients themselves never or hardly ever used it. Who uses Phrygian in today's music? Nobody. Who Mixolydian? Hardly any. Therefore... according to today's style of composition, we want to maintain only two modes. But because these can take their names neither from the Dorians, the Ionians, nor from any other nations (because they did not have our present style of music), therefore we want to name them according to their nature and character, so that they can be differentiated. The first can be named the natural mode, because it always maintains the major third in the beginning over the fundamental note... the second can be named the less natural mode, because the root numbers in its natural progression are further removed from perfection, and therefore do not establish such a happy harmony as the preceding... We can also name one mode perfect, and the other less perfect. Some performers name them dur and moll; e.g., C E G is C dur, C E-flat G is C moll... We are not happy with these names... nevertheless, because these terms are now used so commonly, they will probably persist.

Lester claims this may be the first published usage in German of the terms dur [hard] and moll [soft] to refer to major and minor keys, but the process was already said to be widely used by performers. Also mentioned is that Werckmeister originally envisioned the minor as being derived from Dorian rather than Aeolian.

Lester also shows that "By the late seventeenth century, French works routinely differentiated keys solely on the basis of major and minor." One reference refers to the distinction of "major" and "minor" keys as being according to the "French opinion". The first published recognition of all 24 major and minor keys is from a French mathematician named Jacques Ozanam, who in his Dictionaire mathematique (1691) explains:

There are twice as many modes as there are notes in an octave: each of these notes gives its name to two modes, of which one proceeds by the major third and the other by the minor. Since the octave contains twelve notes, there are twenty-four modes.

Note here that each key is called its own mode, rather than transpositions of two basic modes. An earlier French quote, from a 1689 basso continuo manual, refers to two types of modes: a "sharp" type that "reduced to C," and a "flat" type that "reduced to D," (here again is the Ionian/Dorian distinction).

As noted by Robert Fink's answer, in Germany it is not until 1711 and 1713 that Johann Heinichen and Johann Mattheson enumerate a full list of all 24 possible major and minor keys along with their proper key signatures (using Aeolian as the relative minor). Heinichen connects them into a circle of major and minor keys, a formalization of a "well-known" device he learned from his organ teacher. There is also a series of letters between Mattheson and Fux, in which Fux complains that Mattheson's 24 keys are all just transpositions of two modes. Mattheson argues that each key is still distinct, due to differences in its temperament.

It's interesting to note that, as late as 1722, J. S. Bach's title for the Well-Tempered Clavier refers to the 24 keys rather obliquely: "preludes and fugues through all the tones and semitones both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi, and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa." (Re Mi Fa could even be seen as indicating that the minor third is still rooted in the Dorian mode).

In conclusion: If it could be said that there was one single thing that changed, which slowly but inevitably pushed music towards a natural distinction of major and minor keys, and made the modes obsolete, it was the recognition of triadic harmony, and the understanding that those triads could be inverted into various positions. Once that was recognized, early in the 17th century, it was only a matter of time before the concept of modal finals was replaced with that of a tonic triad, of which there could only be two types. Much of this process took place intuitively over the course of a century, with theoreticians describing the system after the fact, and traditionalists often regretting the loss of modes in the modern style of music.

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    There's absolutely nothing wrong with answering your own question (in fact, I think there's a badge for that...) I'm really liking where your research is going - is this for a paper or book? Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 6:23
  • Neither; mostly just my own curiosity. I've been around Renaissance and Baroque music for so long, and had heard the statement that tonality was still evolving through the Baroque, but had never seen any specific details of how or why. Hopefully, understanding the reasoning behind its origin will also make it easier to explain to others (if not to this level of depth). Commented Jun 7, 2014 at 6:44
  • "Re Mi Fa could even be seen as indicating that the minor third is still rooted in the Dorian mode": I suspect rather that Bach is using the Guidonian hexachord (as does Fux), so re-mi-fa doesn't tell you whether it's d-e-f or a-b-c (or g-a-b♭ for that matter). In this system, as you are probably aware, mi can denote E, A, or B (and, through musica ficta, any raised leading tone). I always took this as a recognition that the lower fifth of the minor scale is responsible for its identity, since the upper fourth is mutable.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 8, 2021 at 8:45

From the Grove Online article on Mode by the late, noted musicologist Harold Powers:

"[Johan Mattheson's Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre listed] the 24 major and minor keys, [which had been] first set out as a whole in 1711, only two years earlier, in Heinichen’s Neu erfundene und gründliche Anweisung … des General-Basses." Powers quotes Mattheson specifically talking about the quality of thirds: "'There are just the 12 semitones of the chromatic octave, each of which can be differentiated once, through the major or through the minor 3rds; thus the aforementioned 24 arise, and so it remains'." (Mattheson, 1713, p.63).


Along with the German theorists like Lippius cited in other answers, English musicians and theorists from quite an early date also divided the keys or 'tones' into two categories based on the major or minor quality of the third above the final. At least in the seventeenth century, however, they did not use the terms 'major' and 'minor', but rather 'sharp' and 'flat'. This terminology is taken over from the terminology for intervals, which were likewise sometimes described as a 'sharp third' or a 'flat third'. (Of course, the German sources mentioned by other answers do not use 'major' and 'minor' either, but Dur and Moll, which are even older terms taken over from the theory of hexachords).

Christopher Simpson was quite unambiguous about the division of all tonalities into two types in his Compendium of Practical Musick of 1667:

Every Composition in Musick, be it long or short, is (or ought to be) designed to some one Key or Tone, in which the Bass doth alwayes conclude. This Key is said to be, either Flat, or Sharp: not in respect of its Self; but in relation to the flat or sharp 3d. which is joyned to it.

To distinguish this, you are first to consider its 5th. which consists alwayes of a Lesser and a Greater 3d. [...] If the lesser 3d. be in the lower place next to the Key, then is the Musick said to be set in a flat Key. But if the Greater 3d. stand next to the Key, [...] then the Key is called sharp. (Part II., §5, p. 43).

Arguably, the division of tonalities by English musicians into only two types, rather than eight or twelve, goes back further, at least to Thomas Campion's A New Way of Making Counterpoint of c. 1610. Campion's classification is less clearly expressed than Simpson's, but like Simpson's, it emphasises the division of the fifth between the final and fifth degrees of the scale into a major and minor third, and described keys in terms of the quality of the third note of the scale. In the following excerpt, 'close' refers to a cadence. Like many other theorists, Campion took the notes on which cadences were made to be a defining feature of the key or mode. In somewhat convoluted language, he states that keys with a minor ('flat') third should have cadences on the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale, while keys with the major ('sharpe') third should have cadences on the second and fourth notes of the scale in preference to the third:

... looke to your fift above, and the lowest Note of that fift assume for your key, [...] then divide that fift into his two thirds, and so you shall finde out all the closes that belong to that key.

The maine and fundamentall close is in the key it selfe, the second is in the vpper Note of the fift, the third is in the vpper Note of the lowest third, if it be the lesser third, as for example, if the key be in G. with B. flat, you may close in these three places.

(example of cadences in G, D and B♭)

But if the key should be in G. with B. sharpe, then the last close being to be made in the greater or sharpe third is vnproper, & therfore for variety sometime the next key aboue is joyned with it, which is A. and sometimes the fourth key, which is C.

Unlike Simpson, Campion hints that 'minor' or 'flat' keys can be further divided into two subtypes, depending on whether the second note of the scale is naturally a whole tone or a half tone above the final. The latter case corresponds roughly to what is sometimes called a 'Phrygian' mode; Campion's example of it has the final on A and a B♭ in the signature.

[...] wheresoeuer your key shall stand, either in G. or C. or F. or elsewhere, the same rule of the fift is perpetuall, being diuided into thirds, which can be but two waies, that is, eyther when the upper third is lesse by halfe a Note then the lower, or when the lower third containes the halfe Note, which is Mi Fa, or La Fa.

If the lower third containes the halfe Note it hath it eyther above [...] or else when the halfe Note is vnderneath [...] but whether the halfe Note be uppermost or lowermost, if the lowest third of the fift be the lesser third, that key yeelds familiarly three closes; example of the halfe Note, standing in the uper place was shewed before, now I will set downe the other.

(examples of cadences on A, C and E with a B♭ signature)

However, Campion notes that both types of 'flat' keys have the same proper cadences, on the first, third and fifth degrees of the scale, so the point of distinguishing them may be somewhat theoretical. There are certainly not many examples of compositions in such 'Phrygian' or mi tonalities from early seventeenth-century England.


Well, we have an answer about German (with a mention of French) theory, and an answer about English theory, so I figured I'd round it out with what seems to be a good reference for Italian theory, which I just came across today (I haven't had a chance to read any of it yet): Tonal Space in the Music of Antonio Vivaldi

According to the synopsis (emphasis mine):

Tonal Space in the Music of Antonio Vivaldi incorporates an analytical study of Vivaldi's style into a more general exploration of harmonic and tonal organization in the music of the late Italian Baroque. The harmonic and tonal language of Vivaldi and his contemporaries, full of curious links between traditional modal thinking and what would later be considered common-practice major-minor tonality, directly reflects the historical circumstances of the shifting attitude toward the conceptualization of tonal space so crucial to Western art music. Vivaldi is examined in a completely new context, allowing both his prosaic and idiosyncratic sides to emerge clearly. This book contributes to a better understanding of Vivaldi's individual style, while illuminating wider processes of stylistic development and the diffusion of artistic ideas in the 18th century.

Glancing at the table of contents, Part Two (chapters 3-6) is entitled "Key and Mode".

  • Does the book indicate whether Vivaldi used the terms "major" and "minor" to identify keys? If not, it won't help us identify when these labels began to be used.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 7:13

I have never tested my theory that the Ionian mode lends itself to pleasing polyphony more readily than the other modes with the exception of the Aeoliean. I have tried rendering a popular hymn tune in all seven modes and the results are striking. Only the Ionian (the original) and Aeoliean modes are acceptable to my ear. But that may simply be because of my Western musical conditioning. The search goes on.

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    Or it may simply be because the hymn was written in a major key and therefore exploits the shape of the major-key intervals to good effect. That effect would be lost when adapting the melody to some other mode.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 20, 2020 at 7:16

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