Christopher Whitt - Origins of the church modes

The next milepost in the misnaming of church modes happened over a 75 to 100 year period ending in roughly 1675 ... when the church modes of Gregory were expressed as permutations of the then new major-minor scale system. That's when the modes became formalized into what we know and use today. The Greek names became convenient labels for particular scales, though there is no certain tie between the notes in any modern church mode and the notes in any ancient Greek mode. Locrian mode was 'invented' to complete a theoretical picture. It is unlikely that anyone ever actually sang anything in Locrian mode ... 'cept maybe for some jazzers.

Sometimes the church modes are described in terms of a process whereby the notes may be sounded. E.g., Phrygian mode can sounded by playing the white keys on a piano from E to E. But Phrygian mode is not just a C scale starting on a different note. Phrygian mode on E has E as a tonic. The church modes are in no way derived from a major scale. They were used for centuries before the major-minor scale system was developed.

I do tend to think of the modes as 'the major scale starting from a different point'; this is how they are often explained. So I'm intrigued by this piece - Is it true to say that the modes were thought of differently before some point when major-minor can be said to have become popular?

  • Agree with the last para - but maybe that's due to the way we get modes taught, and also our present day standpoint, where the default is the major scale.
    – Tim
    Dec 11, 2016 at 9:47
  • c.f. music.stackexchange.com/a/51016/2639
    – Dave
    Dec 11, 2016 at 15:59
  • 1
    "The major scale starting from a different note" might be a convenient 21st-century shortcut for teaching, but only if you consider "music notation" as something to be looked at , not heard. As your quote implies, that "definition" ignores the notions of "final," "co-final" and "mediant" (which are structurally analogous to the tonal tonic, dominant, and mediant, but not necessarily on the 1st, 5th, and 3rd notes of the mode) - i.e. what it sounds like. Of course 21st century jazz and folk musicians are free to make up whatever terminology they like, and ignore history!
    – user19146
    Dec 11, 2016 at 22:21

1 Answer 1


Being strict with language, the church modes relate to the organizational principles of early European music. In this music the primary consideration is horizontal -- constructing melodic content that has a clear tonic (and for the most part that tonic did not move). If you want to be most precise about describing things, saying something is "modal" conveys more than just the set of notes involved, it also conveys the melodic conventions used to melodically define the tonic.

You loose a bit of this detail if you just interpret modes as "different permutations of the diatonic scale". In some contexts, e.g. to describe the scale you might use for a guitar solo in a particular jazz piece, this may not matter much. In other contexts, e.g. describing a rock piece as being in mixolydian due to the flattened sevenths, it might.

In the end the answer is in Tim's comment: it is not until you examine old (pre-tonal) music you will get exposed to, or need to think about, the fact that "modal music" implies something more than the ensemble of notes used.

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