I was using Cooke's "Mastering Scales" just to get piano fingerings. But, I see that it also contains a history of scales. Is this an accurate history, especially the sections about the old church modes?

My knowledge of medieval/renaissance music is cursory. Cooke's review seems concise, but thorough. Can I rely on it?

  • 2
    Can you quote or summarize the questionable parts of the history here? – Todd Wilcox Jan 27 '16 at 23:44
  • How do you intend to rely on it? He doesn't give much detail on the church modes. I have no idea if his reports about which people are responsible for which developments are correct, but his descriptions of the modes is accurate enough. IIRC, though, a tone is more than a mode, having as it does a dominant note and a final note. This is the main point of differentiation between the authentic and plagal tones. – phoog Jan 28 '16 at 4:50
  • Rely on it for a quick overview which does not contain errors or misleading statements. This isn't my main area of interest, so a concise history is helpful/interesting for general knowledge. – Michael Curtis Jan 28 '16 at 4:56

In regards to any person, be it author or any other, pertaining to the exact history or meaning behind the modes is technically and historically impossible. This is due to the fact the original modes developed by the ancient Greeks goes as far back as 300 or 400 B.C.!!! or the Hellenistic period. Greece was then subsequently through the proceeding ages conquered by the Romans then the Byzantines, which had a great impact on Greek culture. most all of the original works, including those of Aristotle and Plato (whom also played an important role in the development of the original greek modes) were already long lost, destroyed or forgotten. It wasn't until the middle ages, through the crusade that the remains of this part of the Greek culture were accidentally re-discovered (1000 A.D.) and brought back to europe. This info was then given to the Gregorian monks (hence Gregorian or church modes) and translated into the northern euro languages. Only one problem, the information the monks were given was gravely incomplete, the monks ended up either completely mistranslating the greek and even having to try an re-invent this system and ended up having to invent a europeanized version loosely based on the little information they had on the original modes. The modern modes, that we know as the "church modes" actually have very little in common with the original. Even the tribal Greek names that represent the modes are not correctly assigned to the appropriate mode type in our western church modal system. The actual origins, meanings, functions-etc., of the original Greek-Modes can only be speculated and or theorized upon.

  • 1
    Although this question could very well be a good one the formatting problems let it down. Just the introduction of a few paragraphs will make this answer much better. – Neil Meyer Jan 28 '16 at 8:44
  • yes, I agree with you to a point, but if we look at your recommendation- "...Cambridge History of Western Music" this work concentrates 99.5% on the history of western music theory. There is only 1 chapter devoted to Greek music theory, I wouldn't go so far as to call this a in depth study in ancient Greek music/culture or say that there are any new ground breaking revolutions revealed here in regards to ancient Greek music or theory. – TheFernseher09 Jan 28 '16 at 15:16
  • I can not see that this answer provides any opinion on the Cooke overview. It seems to paraphrase some of Cooke's discussion - with a particular concern for the Greek aspects. – Michael Curtis Jan 29 '16 at 3:07
  • the answer concentrates on the "old church modes" section of the relationship between these modes and the accurate history question which would also have to include the Greek origins. Yes, true the answer is not meant to give an opinion on the accuracy or overview in general in regards to Cooke's overall work or to what degree it is absolutely historically correct or not- this would only be a mix of mostly subjective interpretation that would have no effect on the validity of the musical study contained therein, which would be my complete answer to the complete question. – TheFernseher09 Jan 29 '16 at 12:58
  • in the 1st answer I meant "revelations" not revolutions. – TheFernseher09 Jan 29 '16 at 16:23

Without knowing more than a little bit about the history of Western harmony and its scales, I am comfortable saying you should not look to this author for history lessons.

The reason I write that is because he wrote the words "white" and "Aryan" as synonyms in 1913 which highly suggests his history is racist. There are other aspects of the history he wrote that could be at the very least culturally insensitive, but the use of "Aryan" in this way is too highly suggestive of outright racism and white superiority.

Yes, 1913 is before the Nazis came to power or even prominence, but the history of the word "Aryan" is telling in this case. Originally, it was a "self-designation by ancient Indo-Iranian peoples" (ironically). The word was only adopted as a racial category in the 19th century by an author who believed that "blonde northern European 'Aryans' ... had migrated across the world and founded all major civilizations, before being degraded through racial mixture with local populations". The author, Arthur de Gobineau, did influence the Nazis with his thinking and theories of white superiority.

That's not to say that racists cannot be good historians at the same time, but it's clear that this particular history is laden with racism and therefore cannot be trusted on its face to be accurate or complete. How could anyone feel confident that important details of the history of scales have not been changed or left out because they do not support a worldview of white, "Aryan" supremacy?


  • 2
    It is not terribly surprising that a 1913 work on an element of culture discusses it in the context of prevailing racial theories. That doesn't make the technical content suspect. In fact, it is pretty sound. The only really odd thing he says it's the bit about whites/Aryans, in fact, which roughly means "it's surprising that Europeans invented the European scales." Discount or ignore the racial bits; the technical information about scales does not depend on it. – phoog Jan 28 '16 at 4:38
  • 3
    Terms like "aryan", "savage people" and "colored races" definitely offend the modern reader. But he also wrote "wonderful peoples." I didn't get the sense that Cooke was claiming cultural superiority. I won't say more than that, because I don't anything else about what his worldview was. – Michael Curtis Jan 28 '16 at 4:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.