Are tetrachords used in medieval/renaissance music the same way as modern chords are used in modern music (as a base for the melody)? And if so... how are the applied?

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    What do you mean by "modern chord"? Modern music is based on tetrachords. The Major scale is two tetrachords separated by a whole step. Your question seems a bit confusing to me. – ggcg Apr 15 '19 at 22:01
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    Please don't confuse tetrachord with chord: it is not a simultaneous set of sounds, but a theoretical construct for a successive set of sounds. I'm not sure this can be backed up, but I think of tetrachords as four notes that you could play with four fingers on one string, and the different species of tetrachords are composed of different sized steps. – Nick G Apr 16 '19 at 14:27
  • Thanks for your answers, people. I thought tetrachords were some kind of chords. Now I know better... Thanks again, really appreciate it! – Caballero Apr 17 '19 at 5:10
  • I think anyone with an interest in this question will find this resource called "early music sources" interesting and useful. It has in-depth explanations of the music theory of early music, but with really clear examples, audio samples, and graphics and scores where necessary, aimed at people not already steeped in mediaeval/renaissance music theory. Cannot recommend the guy enough, here's one about hexachords (different but very similar to the question) youtu.be/IRDDT1uSrd0 and here's a completely different one, just for interest and fantastic music. youtu.be/OObAfpmUods – Some_Guy May 11 '19 at 14:02

Since no one actually answered I'll give it a try.

A tetrachord is a specific melodic sequence of steps, specifically

Whole - Whole - Half

As an example, Do, Re, Mi, Fa, the first 4 notes of the major scale. The next 4 notes are also a tetrachord, Sol, La, Ti, Do. The Major scale is built from 2 tetrachords separated by a whole step.

Chords, on the other hand, are a group of notes typically played together to harmonize a melody. They are built from consecutive thirds in the major scale. Example the major chord is built from the 1, 3, and 5, in C that would be C, E, G.

This simple sequence is the foundation of Western Music, everything else follows from it. Melodies are based on the diatonic scale (built from tetrachords) and chords are made from the same sequence, but from a different formula. In a sense the tetrachord could be seen as a source for all western melody and harmony.

Yes, you will find it in medieval music in both contexts. A follow up question to yours might be Did Medieval musicians use the same formulae as modern musicians for composing melodies and harmonies? The formalism of modern music theory didn't really solidify until later in history.

Keep in mind that one can make up melodies and chords without knowledge of these specific sequences or formulas, and with accidentals (chromatic scale). It appears that what is called "theory" today is a list of best practices that have evolved over hundreds or thousands of years. There is no denying that we as a culture prefer to build up melodies and harmonies relative to the major scale (and its derivatives). Even when we "play out" this is a relationship between what is typical vs. atypical (relative to major).

From a theoretical point of view one could say


And these are used to build melodies and progressions. There is a formulaic way to choose how a melody should be harmonized which has roots in multi voice choiral church music. But again, these are agreed upon best practices. Relative to modern music theory some Renaissance music does not follow modern rules and sound a little unusual. Specifically I refer to cadences. Many older lute pieces arranged for classical guitar do not have well defined endings, the chords circulate in a pattern and stop. There is no 7-->8 and 4-->3, and no adherence to the principles of resolution. They still sound nice.

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  • Thank you very much for the extensive answer. I had no idea... I got confused by the "chords" in the word. Now I know better :) – Caballero May 11 '19 at 11:40
  • Oh, I agree. When I first heard the term I made the same conclusion. – ggcg May 11 '19 at 12:09

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