We all have in mind the image of a medieval mode as a scale with a pattern of tones and semitones with a finalis, a specific range, etc.

However, it seems that medieval chants were classified according to their modes before the IX century. The first adiastematic neumatic notation appeared by that time. What's even worse, probably by then (VIII-IX centuries) names for musical pitches wouldn't even exist in the monks' vocabulary.

But when Hucbald (ca. X century) finally managed to map the medieval pitch space to the greek greater system... The previous classification turned consistent!

How could this possibly happened?

  • 2
    Written notation is not needed to be able to distinguish between the modes; their sounds are distinctive. Unless your classification scheme is based on notation rather than sound, I see no need for notation here. Of course, notation can be an aid in classification, that is one reason we use notations. Further, there is no reason that the classification of various melodies and modes can't be passed as oral tradition just as easily as the melodies themselves.
    – user39614
    Sep 17, 2018 at 12:46
  • I am very interested in questions like this and have already purchase a lot of writings by Boethius, Hucbald, Glarean ... I'm sorry that the WWW is too young and I am too old to read all this stuff and also learn the Latin language. Oct 23, 2019 at 16:51

3 Answers 3


It is not necessary to notate pitches or to have names for the notes to observe that melodies have different characteristics and can be grouped by these characteristics.

Neither is it necessary to notate or name pitches to understand that some notes in the scale are closer together and others farther apart. Anyone who played a stringed instrument or built or tuned an organ would be well familiar with that fact.

Music theory is often, if not usually, devised to explain musical practice. For example, the Roman-numeral chord analysis that we learn and apply to Bach chorales did not exist in Bach's day.

Almost anyone can identify, for example, the difference between a melody in a major key and one in a minor key, even without being able to name the difference or to explain what determines the difference, let alone to discuss pitch names or distances between the pitches.

As people sought analytical tools and terminology to communicate about and explain music, they developed understanding that allowed them to explain why these groups of similar melodies were similar.

Thus it is not particularly surprising that the modern theory and practice of notation followed, rather than preceded, the recognition of different classes of melodic organization.

  • 1
    I'm noy very sure if "anyone" can classify melodies in major and minor... It took hundreds of years to develop that idea even when triads where routinely used in music. In any case, what strikes me most is that a classification done without help of any notation turned out "correct" when the modes where finally described in terms of tones and semitones, finalis, etc.
    – Pablo
    Sep 17, 2018 at 6:32
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    @Pablo, the method of oral history, the passing down of information by word of mouth, is extremely strong. The knowledge was known, just not written down. That is true in all sorts of areas, from farming skills to herbal medicine to the great epics. I think we actually lose more when the info is not passed down person to person and we then must rely on the written material only. Many cultures of the world have preserved their musical heritage through the centuries by word of mouth only. It is not surprising that they passed on correct information.
    – Heather S.
    Sep 17, 2018 at 10:53
  • @Heather, I'm not talking about a passing down of any tradition by word of mouth. I'm talking about doing a scientific job (inventing new classes in order to classify chants which had never been classified before) without analytical tools like notation or pitch naming
    – Pablo
    Sep 17, 2018 at 11:49
  • 1
    @Pablo, yes but you acted surprised that they were all "correct" when a formal notation came into being. That indicates that the information was classified previously. Things can be classified before being written down.
    – Heather S.
    Sep 17, 2018 at 12:36
  • @Pablo yet my musically untrained wife could tell the difference from before we met. She could not name the difference, but she recognized that there was one. My point is that the classifications were "correct" because there is a real difference between, for example, Dorian-mode melodies and Mixolydian-mode melodies. It's possible to recognize the differences and categorize the melodies without being able to explain them. As an analogy, there were centuries of effective theories of color in the visual arts before the development of physical theories of light.
    – phoog
    Sep 17, 2018 at 13:39

There were earlier notations: https://www.mfiles.co.uk/scores/seikilos-epitaph.htm

Boethius did use letters from A to O to notate pitches around 500.

There were lots of methods around. Guido advanced notation by using a staff system though there were probably earlier staff attempts.

  • Of course, but both of them were lost by that time. St. Isidore of Seville in the Etimologias (s. VII) in which he summarized the knowledge of the world, states that melodies could not be written down.
    – Pablo
    Sep 16, 2018 at 22:55
  • St. Isidore summarized the knowledge of the world. How can we be sure that he knew everything? Was he quoting Plato, Aristoteles, Aristoxenos? Boethius? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementa_harmonica Oct 23, 2019 at 16:36
  • @ Albrecht Hügli, (From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymologiae) "Etymologiae was the most used textbook throughout the Middle Ages. It was so popular that it was read in place of many of the original classical texts that it summarized, so these ceased to be copied and were lost." Probably St. Isidore knew even more classical treatises than those that are known to us nowadays
    – Pablo
    Oct 23, 2019 at 18:51

When already Plato (360 b.C) was discussing in his Republic about the Dorian and Phrygian modes we can conclude that the Greek and the Roman and also the monks in the Christian church have handed down their Psalms with the name of the modes: It was sufficient to say in G or D or E, as these tones were already known as roots of modes.

The Greeks modes had their specific "characteristics" and were notated in letters:


  • When were letter names first invented? Did the Greeks have them? Don't forget that it's well established that the Greek modes were different from the medieval modes with the same names, presumably because of some break in the tradition.
    – phoog
    Oct 23, 2019 at 15:50
  • Yes, they had the letters and G (Gamma) was the lowest. and yes, of course I know that the tetrachords of the Greeks had been exchanged in the time of the christian church. Why is a good question! But I assume before Hucbald the role and function of the tetrachords was konsistent. The critical point was that in a handed choral the half steps have been konsistent. (But even about the intervals of the neumes we can't be absolutely certain But they could tell the modes and could assign the lowest note or the lowest tetrachord. What about the Psalms of David? never thought about it before ... Oct 23, 2019 at 16:28
  • @AlbrechtHügli - do you have a reference that the Greeks used letters? As far as I know, the first Latin letter notation known is in Boethius. The lowest note of the Greek scale was called proslambanomenos, which was the added note put below the tetrachord system (below hypate hypaton) to represent the entire string for tuning. Boethius gave the name A to proslambanomenos, and later writers followed him. Gamma was only added through a misunderstanding in Italian treatises around the year 1000, when they added Gamma to be the whole string, not realizing A already was supposed to do that.
    – Athanasius
    Oct 23, 2019 at 23:55

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