Below is a piece I played recently. The tonic is E, the key signature is two sharps with C# being the Dorian aspect of the key signature. In the score C natural contradicts the key signature in nearly every occurance of C. The first beat of bar 7 stood out to me as an exception where it quickly plays an E minor chord and incomplete B minor chord and uses the C#. That seems to my ear clearly E minor with a C#, in other words E Dorian.

Also, I noticed that the fugue answer uses C# and so a Dorian key signature sort of accommodates the answer. I'm not sure if that is the modal aspect of this particular piece, but the same question comes up in non-fugal music.

I have had this same question before when looking at examples from Fux's Gradus. When he gives examples of counterpoint in the various modes, what I think of as the characteristic tone of the mode (like #4 of Lydian) will be changed with an accidental. In Fux it seems the final was the only identifier of the mode, ex. for Lydian the final is F, but the B will get lowered. In Fux Phrygian seems a special case because the Phrygian cadence makes clear the mode from other minor modes.

enter image description here

An example from Fux.

For arguments sake, if the music was transposed to a final of C where there was no need for accidentals, wouldn't the music be considered in Ionian? If not, why?

enter image description here

  • I found some existing SE answers, search Fux instead of mode. But I can't delete my question. Jan 15, 2020 at 17:52
  • Isn’t this the same as if we would apply the church mode categories on the Greek modes? So this is simply a “historical” question. You can interpret or name a piece ionan if it fulfills the row of w and h- steps to be named ionian, but as at that time this mode didn’t exist it wouldn’t be correct in a historical sense. Feb 14, 2020 at 7:08

3 Answers 3


While the guest answer makes some useful points about the edition, it doesn't really address the broader question (or Fux).

The basic answer to this is that the modern set of scales taught as "modes" are somewhat fictional, having little basis in historical use, particularly in polyphony. The 8-mode system of church modes was primarily employed as a classification system for monophonic chant, never intended for polyphony. Basically, the system was originally developed so people could know which chant formula to use to recite formulaic elements of the liturgy (like psalm tones) which would correspond to the other chants surrounding it in the liturgy (e.g., antiphons). That's really the main reason the 8-mode system was invented in the first place -- you hear a chant with certain cadences that are called mode X, and then you recite the psalm using this formula Y.

Polyphony developed pretty much without regard to any notion of mode as a foundational scale that a piece was "composed in." At most, one might be concerned about the mode of the chant tune that was often used as the basis of a piece of polyphony, but the other voices certainly didn't need to conform to any particular "modal scale." It was only in the mid-1500s that some composers and theorists tried to graft the old church mode names onto polyphonic pieces, and that was only done sort of haphazardly, and with due respect to the pre-existing practices of the 8-mode system.

You see, the 12-mode system was really unnecessary when it was introduced. The medieval gamut had one true accidental: B-natural and B-flat. That meant that a chant starting on D could have a B-natural (what we now think of as "Dorian") or it could use a B-flat (what we now think of as "Aeolian" or "natural minor"). But, in medieval theory, both of these would just be various uses of "Dorian." And some chants used both versions of B. Similarly, a chant with a final on F could have a B-natural or B-flat or both. All of it was called "Lydian." No dire need for Ionian and Aeolian at all.

If you spend a lot of time looking at Gregorian chants, you'll find a LOT of chants with a D final that have a lot of B-flats in them. And you'll find a LOT of chants with a F final that have a lot of B-flats in them. That was just fine and dandy. No one worried about it, until some systematizing efforts of theorists decided maybe they should add C and A as "legitimate" finals. (Note that there were also plenty of examples of medieval chants with C and A as finals too. But they were considered "transposed" versions of Lydian and Dorian respectively.)

All of this is background to say that "Dorian" mode as understood for both monophonic and polyphonic practice historically could very well include both versions of scale degree 6. And "Lydian" could include both versions of scale degree 4. That's how those modes worked, and those names still stuck around for such uses long after the introduction of the (somewhat unnecessary) 12-mode system with its Ionian and Aeolian.

Now, fast-forward to around 1700 and your particular pieces. At that time, as guest remarks, key signatures were not yet standardized. In fact, there was a trend for a while where the "Dorian" key signature seemed like it might become the default "minor" key signature, along with or even instead of the "Aeolian" that was ultimately settled on. Around 1700, one frequently sees these "Dorian" key signatures, even in pieces where an Aeolian/natural minor signature seems like it would make more sense.

And as for Fux, his treatise is ultimately a mish-mash of overlapping old modal practices thrust into a somewhat tonal context, and a hardy helping of stuff that he likely just made up (which had nothing to do with Palestrina or modes). It's really important not to read Fux as representing anything close to the actual practice of Palestrina. Fux was trying to teach people how to write something like 18th-century music while also paying homage to the "strict style" of "modal" music that wasn't really current practice anymore.

All of that said, his use of B-flat in a "Lydian" context is far from unusual, when compared to the use of B-flat in Lydian chants and in polyphonic works labeled Lydian in the rare 16th-century collections that actually labeled pieces in modes.

As to the last question -- if this were transposed into C, wouldn't it be "Ionian"? Sure. Except, as I said, "Ionian" was never really necessary as a mode to begin with. Look at real examples of polyphony that end on an F final from the 1400s and 1500s. Pretty much all of it has B-flats all over the place, even before anyone called anything "Ionian." (In fact, one might argue that one impetus for making "Ionian" into a mode in the first place was the fact that so much polyphony was already being written in that scale before anyone had a unique name for it.) I'll give Fux credit here in that his examples do reflect some realistic elements of historical practice, one of them being that F-based pieces frequently made use of more B-flats than B-naturals.

  • This answer, plus this from another SE question books.google.com/books?id=7IP0Jo9Dr9QC&lpg=PP1&pg=PA10, I think are helping to clear up my confusion. Jan 15, 2020 at 22:28
  • 3
    @MichaelCurtis: Happy to help. The ultimate problem is that things changed a lot from century to century and decade to decade. Textbooks try to sum up centuries of varying historical practice with a few terms and table of modes, but that only scratches the surface.
    – Athanasius
    Jan 15, 2020 at 22:35
  • 1
    When reading the google book page, I thought variable ^6 plus raised leading tone in Dorian, basically amounts to modern minor, and variable ^4 in Lydian amounts to modern major, that leaves Phrygian as unique and easy to identify with lowered ^2. I don't want to over simplify, but if this is more or less correct, it explains why classifying polyphony into modes doesn't really make sense. Jan 15, 2020 at 22:48
  • 1
    @MichaelCurtis: Yes, I'd agree with that analogy. I'd also note that the original 8-mode system was imposed on a pre-existing oral tradition of chant melodies, which likely had more chromatic inflections that couldn't be represented in the scale inherited from the Greeks (and used for the first notation systems). "Lydian" is a distillation of what was originally thought of as the "tritus" (third) tone, which collected chants having a semitone below the final and a couple whole steps above the final.
    – Athanasius
    Jan 15, 2020 at 22:48
  • 3
    @MichaelCurtis: You've just happened upon what theorist Cristle Collins Judd calls the "ut-re-mi" tonalities, which she says are a way of thinking about how "mode" actually worked in polyphony in the late renaissance. The "ut" tonalities are sort of majorish, the "re" tonalities are sort of minorish, and the "mi" is Phrygian, which gradually died out.
    – Athanasius
    Jan 15, 2020 at 22:50

Find the editor of your edition, and ask him (if he is still alive).

If you look at this collection on IMSLP, the two early editions say nothing about modes. In fact Forkel's MS has a key signature of 1 sharp, i.e. plain E minor.

Leopold's edition has the same key signature as your image but uses the now-obsolete convention for accidentals (i.e. flats and sharps change the pitch by one semitone, rather than being absolute indications of pitch, and with a few exceptions only apply to one note, not the whole bar).

At a cursory glance, the collection seems to be working chromatically through all the "practical" keys available in unequal temperament. At the time of composition (c.1700) key signatures were not so standardized as they are today.

Judging by the rather pointless repetition of the instrument name on every system, I guess your image is a modern computer-produced publication, and probably not made by a professional.

  • Thanks. I completely overlooked that edition has added titles even though I have both of those editions form IMSLP. Jan 15, 2020 at 17:54

There seems to have been a time where the different minor modes (those with minor 3 rd) became convergent and indistinguishable: dorian with accidental minor 6th, aeolian with accidental major 6 th, and the same development or process analog in the major modes:

Maybe we find more light in Zarlino’s on the modes

or here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/cambridge-companion-to-the-organ/appendix-the-modes-toni-and-their-attributes-according-to-zarlino/FB457FC735D9CF732AA17AFAB0FA1B18


The following summary may serve as an introduction to the modes, the basis of all organ music through to the seventeenth century. The voice-ranges of the twelve modes are given, the white note being the key-note. All are in their untransposed state with the exception of modes II and XI, which have been transposed respectively up a fourth and down a fifth, reflecting common usage. All pairs of modes function regularly:in the odd-numbered modes Tenor (and Soprano) use the authentic scale, Alto and Bass the plagal scale. In the even-numbered modes the roles are reversed except in the case of mode IV,which is often almost indistinguishable from mode III, having sometimes a smaller range, sometimes a larger one, especially at the upper end of the Soprano. In all cases it is quite normal to extend the voice-range occasionally by one or possibly two notes. For further reading see Meier 1992 and the present writer’s introduction to his edition of Giovanni de Macque’s Ricercari sui Dodici Toni.Unless otherwise stated, the descriptions represent a précis of the widely-known account of the modes given by Gioseffo Zarlino in his Le istitutioni harmoniche of 1558.

Unfortunately I don’t have access to this.

But I’ve found another article:


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.