From what I understand so far, there were modes first, and they all depended on where the W W H W W W H pattern started. The Ionian mode was the pattern just shown.

Why did this and the dorian mode come to dominate?

And why even before that, were the modes based on a W W H W W W H, why not some other pattern of intervals?


closed as too broad by guidot, Caleb Hines, Richard, user45266, MattPutnam Nov 14 at 14:37

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.


We discovered - and rather liked the possibilities of - Functional Harmony. Which is all about the dominant-tonic relationship. So the modes that supported dominant 7th chords, with a tritone between the 4th and 7th notes of the scale (3rd and 7th of the dominant 7th chord) became overwhelmingly popular. That's major, and minor using the harmonic minor scale.

Yes, plenty of exceptions. But that's what Common Practice music was mostly about.

It's appealing to believe that other systems, other cultures, produced comparable bodies of art music. I'm not entirely convinced.

See also:

What does it mean for a mode to be "tonally effective"?

  • +1 But when the seventh was sharpened - what also could happen - there was a triton in Phrygian and Dorian too. – Albrecht Hügli Nov 9 at 12:41
  • 2
    How and when did "we" discover it, and why didn't "they" discover it? – piiperi Nov 9 at 16:37
  • Dunno. Ask @Mark Cosgrave who posted the original question! – Laurence Payne Nov 9 at 19:15
  • 1
    @piiperi Are "we" not humanity? – Beanluc Nov 9 at 19:28
  • 1
    Well, elite Western humanity! – Laurence Payne Nov 9 at 22:26

And why even before that, were the modes based on a W W H W W W H, why not some other pattern of intervals?

Ultimately, this comes from ancient Greek scales. Ancient Greek scales were built in tetrachords, made up of four notes bounded at the ends by a perfect fourth (4:3) ratio. There were lots of variations in ancient Greece about exactly how to tune the notes in the middle of each tetrachord, but the outer notes were always in a perfect fourth ratio.

Greek scales were tuned starting from the highest note and going down. One system that emerged for tuning began by filling in two whole steps (tuned to a 9:8 ratio) in each tetrachord, and leaving the remaining interval (about a semitone in size) as sort of the "leftover bit." This became known as one standard diatonic tuning.

If you imagine a Greek scale starting at the E above middle C and tuning downward, you'd have a perfect fourth E-B. Filling in two whole steps tuning downward, you get E-D-C-B. Then you can insert a whole step to start your next tetrachord on A below middle C. (These are called disjunct tetrachords, as they don't share an endpoint.) This note, which we now think of as A below middle C, was known to the Greeks as mese, basically the middle note of the scale. Anyhow, now you build another tetrachord going down from the A to the E below. Then you fill in with two whole tones and the remainder to get A-G-F-E.

Put those two tetrachords together, and you have E-D-C-B-A-G-F-E, tuned roughly close to how we tune our scale today, and creating the pattern of whole steps and half steps that would later give us the scale used for the medieval modal system.

The Greeks would then have expanded further by adding tetrachords above and below that central octave. Continuing downward starting on the low E (below middle C) and using a conjunct tetrachord, where the two tetrachords meet on a single note E, you could create another tetrachord below to get E-B, filled in again with E-D-C-B. Below this low tetrachord, the Greeks added one more note, called proslambanomenos, which was considered the lowest note of the scale.

The Greeks didn't use letter notation, instead only names like mese and proslambanomenos. When Boethius translated Greek music theory into Latin, he reordered the scale to be ascending rather than thinking of it as descending. Thus, he called the first note "A," which is why that A is in the lowest space on the bass staff: it is the lowest note of the original scale.

In any case, you now had your system of whole steps and half steps arranged in an octave to create the medieval modes, derived from one prominent Greek scale. (There are other complexities I've skipped over, such as how mese could also have a conjunct tetrachord built above it in Greek theory, thus creating a D-C-B♭-A tetrachord which ultimately introduced the first accidental to medieval musical scales, but that's perhaps a different story.)

As to how Ionian and Aeolian modes came to dominate, I wouldn't say they did. Those are modal names. The major/minor system came out of the modes, but it's also a sort of parallel development. Modal music was still sung in churches and used to understand how chant worked well into the 18th and 19th centuries (and even today in some old-fashioned Catholic communities). The principles of mode have to do with melodic organization of chant and classifications of chant, as well as melodic formulas to sing chant.

Tonality, instead, has to do with harmonic practice and developed along with polyphonic music. Ultimately, the old modal scales sort of collapsed into three primary "supermodes" (which some modern music theorists call "tonalities") by the 16th century or so, one of which was sort of "major-like" and included variants like the Ionian, Mixolydian, and Lydian scales, and another of which was "minor-like" and tended to be like Aeolian or Dorian, though with leading tones for cadences. (The third possible emerging "tonality" was based on Phrygian, with its downward leading tone to tonic, but became increasingly archaic through the 16th century on.)

As to why our particular "major" and "minor" scales came to dominate? That's a really complicated question having to do with the gradual development of systems of keys (and key signatures) in the 17th and early 18th century. But the basic answer is that the old modes never really left. What I mean is that functional harmony in the 18th century at the beginning of modern "tonality" is rarely diatonic. It incorporates chromatic notes all over the place.

And what are those chromatic notes? Well, think of major key pieces by Bach. Assume we're in C major. Aside from the typical notes of the major scale C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, what are the most common accidentals? First, there's F♯, which is used to make a strong cadence to dominant all over the place. The other most common accidental is B♭, which is used to lead toward the subdominant key and is frequently used toward the end of a piece by Bach as he's wrapping up. Now realize for a moment that these two accidentals are precisely the inflections that would be contained within the old "major modes," i.e., Lydian and Mixolydian. It's not that the old modes ever died out; their inflections remained as a quintessential part of common-practice tonal harmony. The Ionian scale is a sort of happy medium between the various possible chromatic inflections and thus came to dominate a lot of "major-ish" polyphonic music even in the late 16th century.

Meanwhile, for "minor-ish" modes, the choice was between Aeolian and Dorian, though neither scale worked well for polyphony with its frequent raised leading tones. And the distinction took a longer time to die off there. "Dorian" key signatures which lack a flatted 6th scale degree were common even up until the mid-1700s, well into what we think of as "tonal music" taking over. And anyone with even a passing familiarity with minor mode as practiced by baroque composers knows that the sixth scale degree is very unstable: it is flattened when it goes down to scale degree five, but it's raised in a lot of other circumstances. The "minor" key that finally became standard in tonality really had more to do with consistent key signatures than any significant choice between "Dorian" vs. "Aeolian." However, composers of the baroque really did love using the flattened scale degree 6 to 5 motion to give a poignant quality, as in lament bass lines, so ultimately the version with the flat sixth came to be the "standard" minor, at least for key signature purposes.


If you consider notes only as half-tones, then the three simplest triad scales, repeating each octave, have these patterns ("4" means move up 4 semi-tones):

  • … 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 4 …
  • … 4 3 5 4 3 5 4 3 5 4 3 5 …
  • … 3 4 5 3 4 5 3 4 5 3 4 5 …

The first one has all steps the same, and so is really boring. That really leaves only the other two simple divisions worth considering.

The second is called "Major" (543 543 543), the third is called "Minor" (345 345 345), with the key being named by the note after the 5-step.

There are obviously many other ways of dividing up the 12 steps of each octave (e.g.more irregular ("129"), or more divisions ("1236")), but none are as simple or sound as natural.

Some more complicated but regular patterns are interesting though, but when cycling up and down rather than continuing up the scale. E.g. this five note pattern (4321 -1-2-3-4 4321 -1-2-3-4).

Generally, the simpler the arithmetic pattern, the more we tend to like it.


The Greek modes have been traded by Boethius about 526:


"New in Glareans music theory is the extension of the eight church tones to twelve, which he not only formulated theoretically, but also with many examples. The newlyintroduced sounds are: Name of the basic tone Scope Ionian c C-c Hypoionic c G-g Aeolian A A-a Hypoaeolic A E-e We can easily recognize the major and minor scale. Ionisch corresponds to our C-major, Aeolian to our "natural" a-minor. It would be presumptuous to deduce from this fact Glarean had ingeniously anticipated the later major minor harmonics. But surely he added important basic scales to the next style change, of course, without intending to. The music was interspersed with chordal elements, which quite possibly as a result of again and again required text intelligibility and the usual transmission of vocal works to instruments, in particular to lute or harpsichord, must be considered. The traditional ones Church tones are in the direction of Ionian and Aeolian changed. The harmonies gain in importance, a sense of harmony begins, the church sounds finally repressed. It forms a tactual sensation that at least partially on the growing importance of the dance movements and the Folk music is due. A simple, simple, still polyphonic sentence is asked. So the floor is a change of style which the Italian composers reordered 1600 final and the one in Claudio Monteverdi finds his first great designer. The "Dodecachordon" is also a collection of mono- and polyphonic works. The majority of unison melodies are ecclesiastical Chants. Furthermore, there are unanimous ones settings of odes (melody and harmony), which Glarean himself composed on texts by Horace."

(translated from a German article) http://www.rkv.ch/files/zeitschrift/065_aschmann.pdf

Of course the change happend not from one day to the other. As we know even 200 years later J-S.Bach was writing chorals in Dorian and Phrygian modes ... for example.

And why even before that, were the modes based on a W W H W W W H, why not some other pattern of intervals?

Let me quote the wiki link above (Greek modes): "In contrast to the medieval modal system, these scales and their related tonoi and harmoniai appear to have had no hierarchical relationships amongst the notes that could establish contrasting points of tension and rest, although the mese ("middle note") may have had some sort of gravitational function (Palisca 2006, 77)."

It's said that there existed actually different scales - also with semitones and quarter tones etc. ... s. the picture: Harmoniai of the School of Eratocles (enharmonic genus) ... but:

Ptolemy, in his Harmonics, ii.3–11, construed the tonoi differently, presenting all seven octave species within a fixed octave, through chromatic inflection of the scale degrees (comparable to the modern conception of building all seven modal scales on a single tonic). In Ptolemy's system, therefore there are only seven tonoi (Mathiesen 2001a, 6(iii)(e); Mathiesen 2001c). Pythagoras also construed the intervals arithmetically (if somewhat more rigorously, initially allowing for 1:1 = Unison, 2:1 = Octave, 3:2 = Fifth, 4:3 = Fourth and 5:4 = Major Third within the octave). In their diatonic genus, these tonoi and corresponding harmoniai correspond with the intervals of the familiar modern major and minor scales. See Pythagorean tuning and Pythagorean interval.

This might explain that the scales of 5 whole and 2 half tone steps as we know them today must have been developed from the series of the Pythagorean:

"The study of the mathematics of musical instruments dates back at least to the Pythagoreans, who discovered that certain combinations of pitches that they considered pleasing corresponded to simple ratios of frequencies such as 2:1 and 3:2."


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